On the 3rd March, I had the opportunity to share my creative journey with a group of fellow artists, art enthusiasts and curious minds at An Lanntair’s monthly Artist Gathering.

I was invited to share how my personal experiences, interest in cultural movements and the work of other artists inspire and influence my work, in particular, the recent work on the Collective Memory Project.

Below is the transcript referred to throughout the talk. It explores my connection to the country of my birth and the aspects of it that have travelled with me and remain an enduring inspiration.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the Collective Memory project and my creative practice as a visual artist. For as long as I can remember I have been drawing and painting. I studied art throughout high school, but Art College was a pipe dream that I didn’t follow through on, until many years later when I applied for a place on an Edinburgh College of Art degree course. After 6 years of part-time study, I emerged with a practice working in mixed-media painting, mono-printing and moving image, mediums I still work in today.

Mono-print series completed in my last year of study. The series can be seen here.

I have been fortunate to travel widely throughout my life, and I am in no doubt the places and cultures I’ve experienced influence me creatively. Though perhaps most of all, the country and culture of my formative years lay the foundation stones for a lot of what was to come.

Stornoway is over 11 and a half thousand miles away from Dunedin, the city of my birth in New Zealand. Dunedin is Gaelic for Edinburgh, a city I later had the privilege of living in for over a decade before moving north to Stornoway. However, we only need to travel north about 200 miles from that original starting point to a small town called Pleasant Point in South Canterbury.

It was here that my experience throughout childhood into my mid-teens, would set a high bar for what it meant to be part of a community, living a life outdoors and in sync with the seasons, and experiencing the stunning natural beauty of those surroundings. Only after many years and places later did I appreciate just how privileged growing up there had been.

Pleasant Point is one of many small towns dotted across the fertile farming region of South Canterbury. On a clear day, the Southern Alps and New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mt Cook are visible. The town is notable for its steam locomotive, taxidermy, and delicious custard squares.

The township lies at the junction of two rivers. Each year, the swimming holes would shift after the snow melt passed through on its way to the coast. Wide riverbeds of smooth stones provided a playground of discovery every summer.

From the South Canterbury Museum Archive. A scene from the Tengawai River in 1979 showing the stoney river bed.

Stones have been a recurring theme appearing in my work for as long as I can remember. Around 2 years ago, the process of painting stones in the abstract reawakened a desire to create more generally and set me on the path I’m on now. That, and a ‘Covid lockdown epiphany’, had me asking the question why I didn’t make time to do something that brought me so much joy. This painting was to be the first of a series of rock paintings from visits to the stone beach at Barvas on the west (Atlantic) facing side of the Island.

However, those same riverbeds from my youth, also brought with them a devastating event that was to make a lasting impact.

In the early hours of March 13, 1986, over 200mm of water fell in the foothills. The sheer volume broke the banks of the river and flooded the town. Our family waded through a swollen creek to higher ground where we watched in shock as buildings and livestock were washed away. In the hours that followed, the 1200 residents were evacuated to the nearby town of Timaru. I remember not taking anything with us. I remember standing in a hall filled with donated clothing and being encouraged to take what I needed. I remember the kindness of strangers who took our family in for the next week while the water subsided and we were finally allowed to return home, fortunately to a relatively unscathed house, but some nearby were not so lucky.

Environment Canterbury – Historic Flood Events in Canterbury

Our house is visible in the top left hand corner of the image.

I was only a teenager, but the experience cemented the power of community, and I learned the comfort of being supported and lifted by strangers. I appreciate it now in this Island community too. There is a general acceptance, sometimes wariness, but usually caring and supportiveness, that is commonplace across small communities and here is no exception.

I am interested to how the role of the local community translates and influences my creative practice. Community Art as an art movement snuck past me during my years of study. Defined as an artistic activity that is based in a community setting, and characterised by interaction or dialogue with the community. I find myself drawn to the possibilities of co-creation and facilitation in the creative process.

Taking part in the Scotland-wide Culture Collective project has provided the opportunity to work with people in a way that is inclusive and brings a creative element, even if only for a short while, to the day for those taking part.

My Community Art project is titled Collective Memory. I bring images from Photographer TB Macaulay’s Archive out into the community to inspire and trigger stories and memories. TB Macaulay was a prolific photographer working from the 1910s through to the 1970s. He worked from his darkroom above a shop until his sight began to fail, at which point, he began painting in oils in an impressionist style. The archive is largely unpublished and contains a mix of day-to-day life in the Islands, newsworthy events, and records of his travels throughout Europe. Work is underway for the archive of photos to be made available publicly, but in the meantime, this project helps to share it with the community.

Through conversations with individuals and groups, the aim is to use the photos to stimulate memories and recall the senses evoked from the images such as sound and smell. The community’s participation in the process is captured in audio and emerging ideas will be incorporated into new works.

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