Monday, May 12, 2008

Day 8 South Ronaldsay and Main Island, Orkney

On the short drive from St. Margaret's Hope to Hoxa, Scapa Flow and the distant Martello Tower commands one's attention. 3 such towers were built in Scotland towards the end of the Napoleanic wars.

It’s easy to see why the blues in Leila Thomson’s tapestries are so stunning. Out the window of her Hoxa studio and gallery the water flashes a brilliant blue in this day of yes, sunshine After graduating from art school in Edinburgh in 1980, Leila came back home and has been designing and weaving ever since. 12 years ago she opened her gallery and now visitors from around the world view her stunning work.
Leila weaves private commissions, working from her own charcoal sketches and full size cartoons. Working full scale from the initial sketch, she feels her woven work comes out more like a drawing. She interprets and chooses all the colors as she weaves blending a variety of fibers. This really gives the tapestries an energy and vitality often lacking in other pictorial textiles. Words and pile texture are also trademarks in her designs. Leila always weaves to music ranging from Metallic to the London Philharmonic, she likes the volume loud. As Leila readily admits “I work in a state of splendid isolation.” After the tourist season ends in September that is.

Orkney abounds in artists. One can pick up maps of the Orkney Craft Trail and visit many studios open from after Easter until the early autumn. When I asked one of the Orcadian artists we visited today why the islands are such magnets for creativity, she suggested that it was the influx of artists who came up here from England that got the movement started in the 60’s.

Driving from South Ronaldsay, you cross several of the Churchill Barriers. The British fleet was stationed here in WWII and the barriers were build using labor of POWs to protect the fleet from the Germans U boats. Before the large concrete barriers, salvage ships were lined up end to end and sunk to create the barriers. One German U-boat managed to penetrate those original barriers and sunk a the HMS Royal Oak, with the cost of over 800 lives. Today the area around the seven remaining WWI German sunken ships is one of the top dive sites in the world.

The Italian Chapel stands on the Island of Lamb Holm just over the fourth barrier. Italian prisoners of war who built the barriers and worked in agriculture, were given a Nissen hut to turn into a chapel. Domenico Chichetti designed the chapel and the prisoners worked to decorate and furnish it over a period of 3 years with materials they could scrounge. When the prisoners were released at the end of the war, Chichetti stayed onto finish the work on the chapel. The detailed painting and metal work is a testament to what can be created from nearly nothing when you have dedication and vision.
Kirkwall, the largest town in the islands is our home base for exploring the main island. All this fresh air and glorious vistas makes one hungry. We satisfied our hunger at The Reel Cafe. The cafe, music center, and music shop is run by Hazel and Jennifer Wrigley. After being on the road playing concerts since their teens, the sisters now stay close to home and foster the music tradition on the island by teaching lessons and providing a site for weekly sessions for area and visiting musicians alike. At the start of each day on the coach, I play a recording appropriate to the area we are visiting. Today it was Jennifer and Hazel's compositions, The North and the South Ron Reels.

You can't be in Orkney without spying old or new Orkney chairs. Locals made these chairs for hundreds of years with materials they had at hand. The chairs combine wood (originally driftwood) for the frame and oat straw coiled and stitched with sisal for the chair backs. We saw the chairs being made first hand at Fraser Anderson's workshop, Orkney Hand-Crafted Furniture, in Kirkwall. Just 23 years old, he is already a master at making Orkney chairs and employees his cousin who fashions the chair backs and several aprrentices who prepare the oatstraw and help in the wood shop. It takes up to 3 weeks to complete each chair. Fraser is honoring the tradition while designing new shapes and styles of chairs, rockers and stools.

Sheila Fleet, is the sister of Leila Thompson, the tapestry weaver we visited this morning. There is no shortage of artistic talent and vision in that family. In 15 years Sheila’s business has grown to 42 employees. Sheila is the chief designer, creating 3 new collections each year. She has done a total of 150 collections so far. She and her son took us on a tour of the workshop while explaining the lost wax method used to produce her jewelry. I found two of the steps extremely interesting. The skill of the master pattern maker who takes each design and hand cuts the metal master has to be exacting. The enamelists also have a painstakingly detailed job, applying the enamel mixture (ground up glass and distilled water) to the jewelry, then curing each piece, one at a time in a tiny kiln on their worktable.
Sheila enthusiasticly answered all our questions and shared her philosophy. “ A measure of success is how you feel about what you are doing. I’m still enjoying myself. You have to look at keeping the balance. Find something you really like doing and you’ll never work again.” If you can't come to Orkney to meet Sheila, she now also has own gallery/store in Edinburgh. Many of the group left Sheila's wearing a peice of jewelry to remind them of the pristine landscape that inspires Sheila's fabulous desigsn.
A local friend, Mina Flett, is a wonderful advertisement for the jewelry. Her husband, Arnie has purchased many a gift from the shop. 11 years ago I met the Fletts as I walked off the ferry with a large pack on my back. Arnie drove me around to visit artist studios in exchange for me helping him warp a loom he was given. A retired pipe major, Arnie still teaches piping to dedicated students, and he and Mina entertained us with tunes and poems after dinner tonight. Sitting just a few feet from Arnie as he played tunes he has composed on his chanter, I discovered that he has the unique ability to circular breath as he is playing, a rare gift for a piper.Arnie shared copies of his notated music with one of our group who plays small pipes. Blue skies, incredible art, generous artists, history at our feet, good food and conversation and sharing of music, was this not the perfect day?

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