Saturday, 22 November 2014

ABSENT VOICES: SUGAR ARCHIVE McLean Museum & Art Gallery, 15 Kelly St, Greenock PA16 8JX 01475 715624 22nd November – 20th December, 2014 Monday – Saturday, 10am-5pm

Absent Voices

A west of Scotland community is set to receive an unusual gift from a group of artists, musicians and filmmakers.

Greenock is to be given a ‘living archive’ of songs, visual art, music, poetry and glasswork from the artists’ group Absent Voices. The project was set up by glass artist Alec Galloway to explore the town’s  300-year-old sugar industry, which closed in the late 1990s. Galloway’s family has deep connections with the town’s sugar industry, long associated with brand Tate & Lyle.

Absent Voices brings together a number of creative workers including the film-maker Alastair Cook, singer-songwriter Yvonne Lyon and painter Anne McKay.

The archive will be donated to the town’s McLean Museum and Art Gallery, following an exhibition there next month.

Sugar and shipbuilding dominated the industrial landscape of Inverclyde for centuries but in recent decades these traditional industries have been in decline. Absent Voices has attracted funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and signals a major shift toward creative and cultural investment in the area.

Inverclyde Council are backing the initiative Inverclyde Place Partnership which is tasked with attracting inward investment through creative industries. The George Wyllie Foundation, set up in 2012 after the death of the popular artist, who lived in Gourock, aims to set up a permanent museum in the area. Creative Scotland, the publicly–funded body that supports the arts in Scotland, has also invested in the area.

Absent Voices has focussed on the Sugar Sheds at Greenock’s James Watt dock. The vast complex of A-listed Victorian refineries and warehouses, sited near the Titan crane, has not been used for sugar manufacturing since the 1960s.

The artists, many of whom live in the area, have worked in different ways but with a focus on community engagement and the creation of long-term social benefits.

Yvonne Lyon and Anne McKay worked with pupils at Whinhill Primary where they led classes in song-writing and painting. Both artists used the physical presence of the sheds as a starting point for exploring history and heritage through creativity.

“The pupils, who initially viewed the sheds as an eyesore, had little recognition of their own human creative potential,” says Lyon. “ We worked with the children over a period of weeks creating a series of fictional characters. The characters then appeared in song and paint. This was truly inspiring for the children and for us.”

Lyon also led adult song writing classes in the town, with similarly inspiring results. “The project has in a very real sense helped to give the children and adults of Greenock a voice that has been unheard until now,” she adds.

Alastair Cook combines photographic imagery, spoken verse and music in an experimental medium he calls Filmpoem. Cook invited the poets  John Glenday, Jane McKie, Brian Johnstone, Sheree Mack, Gérard Rudolf and Vicki Feaver to compose work relating to the sugar sheds. Cook provided them with archival photographs and documents and encouraged them to visit the area.

McKie’s poem, Revenant, has been combined with blurred, semi-abstract photography and evocative clarsach music. The poem has resonances from the past and present

Here come the guisers / looking for sweeties/ None to be found/ Save the eye of sugar/ Oozing dark rum/ The fingers of sugar/ Dusting ankle and legs/ The spent heart of sugar/ Syrupy in warehouse drains…”

Sheree Mack’s ‘Every Memory’ links sugar to its  Caribbean origins and the slave trade. “Here I stand on cobbles running into dark sheds/ sheds once alive with raw energy/ I wonder what it looked like to the white man/ leaning over the ship’s rail with a silence in his eyes /and a canker upon his tongue/ after the taste of black skin.”

Alec Galloway’s glass and collage explores his familial connections to the industry as well as wider historical perspectives.

He says, “Absent Voices has been an incredibly emotional experience as well as a hugely rewarding one creatively and the group are already planning phase two into next year.”


McLean Museum & Art Gallery, 15 Kelly St, Greenock PA16 8JX
01475 715624
22nd November – 20th December, 2014
Monday – Saturday, 10am-5pm

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


1-10 MAY, 1989

The Jewish Cemetery, Kazimierz, Krakow 1989 Photograph by Giles Sutherland

Any understanding of Post-war Europe would be impossible without a knowledge of the recent history of Poland. To understand this history not only intellectually but also emotionally it is necessary to come to Poland and to experience the legacy of this history at first hand, and above all, through art. These are points which Richard Demarco continually stresses and why, since 1968, he has made twenty-eight visits to Poland.

This year the May Day celebrations in Poland differed markedly from previous years in that their organisation lay in the hands of Polish citizens rather than the State. The new mood in Poland under Gorbachev's reforms comprises a mixture of defiance and deep mistrust towards any far-reaching changes in the economic and political structure of the country - perhaps the inevitable result of Polish history. May Day celebration tu
rned to demonstration: in Wroclaw, the arrival of the police was greeted by stone-throwing youths; the police in turn responded by donning riot-gear and using water-cannon. For the Poles it was a familiar and predictable scenario.

It was against this background that Richard Demarco visited this country with a miscellaneous group of thirty-five people, most of whom were involved in the arts. In Wroclaw's National Museum whose Modern Collection has been compared favourably to that of the Tate Gallery in London some of the essential differences between Polish and British art began to emerge. Briefly put, the former can be said to possess a greater historical awareness, a more acute response to suffering and to be almost lacking in the purely decorative.

From Wroclaw the group travelled to Auschwitz. At first sight it appeared as any other tourist attraction, surrounded by ice-cream stalls and coaches, as well as a cafe and restaurant. The trees were green; birds sang: little seemed amiss. An initial shock was seeing the main gateway to the camp above which was written "Arbeit macht frei" (work creates freedom) - the Nazi motto. It was the first written German encountered in three months of my living in Poland - perhaps surprising considering the whole western part of the country had been German for centuries until 1945.
Perhaps it was the scale and volume of the "exhibits11 which ultimately drove home the depravity of events there: a room of human hair turned green by cyanide gas; rolls of cloth made from this hair; other rooms full of shoes, brushes, suitcases - each of the last bearing the name of its owner. Our "tour" lasted three hours leaving the group emotionally and physically drained. 

In Cracow we visited the Cricot 2 Theatre, base of the internationally celebrated artist Tadeusz Kantor. Typically, Demarco had invited Kantor to the Edinburgh Festival as early as 1972 when he was still relatively unknown outside Poland. It was here that we were able to see some of the many links between the Polish experience embodied by Auschwitz and the national art, revealed in a documentary film. Kantor lived through the wartime occupation of Poland, mainly in Cracow, and operated his theatre, quite literally, underground as he moved from one basement venue to another to avoid discovery by the Nazis. Kantor's Dead Class directly reflects his experience of the death of most of his classmates in the concentration camps. In Let the Artists Die Kantor remembers Wit Stwosz whose magnificent medieval alterpiece is found in St. Mary's Cathedral in Cracow. Because Stwosz was unable to repay a small debt he was punished by having a nail driven through his cheeks by the city authorities. It is not difficult to see why Kantor found this such an enduring symbol for the treatment of artists throughout the ages.

Another member of Kantor's wartime theatre was Tadeusz Brzozowski whose recent death represented the loss of one of Poland's best artists. Demarco met Brzozowski on his first visit here and as recently as December 1988 exhibited his work in Edinburgh. Brzozowski's art is the inevitable result of his experience of a country destroyed by war: images of cruxifiction, coffins, hangings and insects are common in his paintings which are found in major art collections throughout the world.
Leaving Cracow we passed the giant Lenin Steel Works at Nowa Huta which has recently aroused great concern over its environmental effects. Cracow, a city rich in architectural treasures, is dissolving faster than it can be restored. A recent Greenpeace report described Upper Silesia as holding the "uncontested world record for all kinds of pollution" with about 30% of the population of Poland living in officially recognised "ecological disaster areas". Only recently have these immense problems begun to be recognised and addressed. In 1980 PKE (Polski Klub Ekologiczny) was founded in Cracow; it is hoped that the present political reforms will allow for a more concerted and effective response to a major ecological crisis.

It is one of the hallmarks of any event involving Richard Demarco that anything can, and probably will, happen. So it was that an impromptu poetry evening was organised in the lobby of an anonymous state-run hotel in Zakopane. The resonances of the Polish experience which the group were so briefly encountering were heard in the words of Wislawa Szymborska whose poem 'Children of this Age' adopted an even greater poignancy: "You need not even be a human being/ to acquire political importance./ It is enough just to be oil/ fodder or recyclable material.

It is debatable how balanced an impression of Poland can be gained in ten days, especially when one is living in comparatively luxurious hotels and travelling by express coach. What was not in question was the diversity and quality of art that was seen, the unfailing enthusiasm and vision of Demarco himself and the richness of the experience which was gained by all those who participated.


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Chagall Before the Fall

Chagall Before the Fall

(for C.J.B.)

The artist half-floats on dreamt air,
holding aloft a three-prong candelabrum;
an autumnal ash, lit from within, points heaven-ward.

The bride and her groom soar, too, as in dreams,
her white train like a comet's tail -
a long cloud anchoring her to firm earth.

A peacock-fiddler and cockerel silhouette the blue sky;
below, a domed-and-crossed-church;
the tree holds a red carpet, high in its branches.

Did Chagall dream such a scene, or is this serene
structure for us to live his visions, through painted life?
The artist lives in dreams of couples, marriage, trees;

the animals of field and farm, his spirit heirs; soaring -
love and colour, his palette bright, soft, clear...
Vitebsk, from far-off Paris, painted with such vision...

Yet, for all its softness, its delicacy, its lightness of touch,
a threnodic note sounds like a bell through distant woods.
His wife, dead these four years, mourned, floats skyward,

slipping through his fingers as surely as any comet around the sun.
What melancholy could he not express, if he painted parody,
no longer aspiring to prayer, or the highs and lows of loss?

Chagall, bereft, outlived Bella by forty summers;  each year
her wraith spins aloft like mist burning in the sun.
No revolutions left, only memory - the thick padding of painted oil.

November 2014

Marc Chagall - The Tree of Life, 1948.

The author is indebted to Kay Larsen's review in The New York Magazine, 27 May 1985, for the title of this poem.

The images below are of All Saints Church, Tudeley, in Kent. Chagall designed all 12 windows, which were installed between 1967 and 1985.

Photographs by Giles Sutherland, September, 2014

Friday, 5 September 2014

Kate Downie – Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries


Kate Downie – Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries
Hopetoun House
South Queensferry
Until Sept 13

Artist Kate Downie is no stranger to depicting large structures. In the past, she has worked on a visual record of the Forth Rail Bridge; in 2011 a project in China involved her in making images of the Yangtze River Bridge. Here, she turns her attention to the Forth Road Bridge in a series of drawings, prints, paintings – and a sound installation – celebrating the famous crossing’s first half-century.

Downie has worked from a small temporary studio situated under the bridge’s north tower. But her adventurous nature and enquiring spirit have meant that she has looked at the structure from all angles and viewpoints, including its highest point, and from below, by boat. Like most of us, Downie has traversed the bridge by car but she has also cycled and walked across it, as well as spending time below, looking and listening.

Some of the statistics surrounding the road bridge are mind-boggling. The span is more 2.5 km and, at its highest point, is 150 metres above the river. At the time of its construction it was the largest structure of its kind outside the United States.  The main supporting cables contain almost 50,000 kilometres  of high tensile wire, while the total weight of steel in the bridge is around 40,000 tonnes. In 2013, the bridge carried around 23 million vehicles. 

Such statistics obscure many of the human elements around the bridge’s construction and use. Downie, in characteristic fashion has managed to capture both the technological and personal sides of this justifiably celebrated structure.  

Painting the Clarsach shows workers, suspended like flies, as they labour on the complex task of coating the vertical cables. A series of eight photographically-derived monoprints, entitled The Winter Commute, creates varying mood and atmosphere. As the sun sets,  traffic, dwarfed by the enormous edifice, is silhouetted against a series of changing skies. 

Downie has used more traditional methods to create a commemorative limited edition etching. The Art of Crossing shows the enormous span of the road bridge, with the rail bridge in the background.  The view is that seen from the south shore of the river, to the west  of the existing bridges. It is from this point that the new, third crossing, already well underway, will span the Forth.

Manoeuvres with Concrete, a big, bold, exciting work in charcoal and pastel, captures the intense activity around the construction of one of the new towers. This is echoed by the smaller ink study, A View into the Future, which reveals the new road bridge as it grows daily, framed by the structure of the old.

Downie’s work owes a debt of gratitude to others, such as the Scottish artist Muirhead Bone, as well as Monet, Turner, Whistler and Edward Burra.  But her approach might be summed best up by the words of the American writer, Hart Crane, in his evocative poem To Brooklyn Bridge, published in 1933: “Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift/Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,/Beading thy path—condense eternity:/And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.”


Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dunbar Pottery

Ceramic Review
Feature Article on Dunbar Pottery & Anagama Kiln
January 2014
Main Article: 1209 Words

Philip Revell is a man of multiple talents. As a research student of engineering (a profession that he went on to work in for a number of years ) at Warwick University in the ‘80s, he met David Jones.  Jones,  who now lectures at Wolverhampton University and is author a number of works on raku and firing techniques, had set up a pottery studio on a farm on the edge of the Warwick campus. It was here that Revell got his first taste of potting:  I found working with my hands and with clay to be an intensely therapeutic antidote to academic research and became hooked,” he says.

Philip came to engineering through an interest in the ‘Small is Beautiful’ philosophy as espoused by E.F. Schumacher. After returning from working with peasant farmers in Zimbabwe, Philip worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales. It was here that he set up his first pottery workshop.

Since 1990 Philip has operated his pottery from the basement of an elegant Georgian townhouse in Dunbar, near Edinburgh. The flagstone floor, range, pantries and other original fittings somehow seem an appropriate place for such a venture. The sprays of elemental clay, the kick-wheels and kiln, chime with the simplicity, harmony and solidity of the surroundings.

Near the beginning of the new millennium, Philip began organising a number of projects at Pishwanton Wood , an experimental bio-dynamic land management centre based on Goethean principles - that nature is a seamless whole, that our inner life is part of the outer world -  in the Lammermuir Hills.  These included the building of a wood-fired, two-chamber, noborigama stepclimbing  kiln, so-called because they are traditionally built on slopes with each chamber higher than the one before.  After leaving Pishwanton to set up the environmental organisation Sustaining Dunbar, Philip began to develop the idea of building a kiln nearer to his pottery. Eventually he found a site at the wonderfully-named Phantassie, an organic farm, ideally placed only a few miles away  -  and with a ready supply of firewood from the farm.

Philip used the recycled materials from his Pishwanton kiln to construct a simpler anagama kiln. The term comes from the Japanese “” meaning ‘cave kiln’ and probably alludes to how the first types of the structure were created.  In this instance, because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate, Philip began by building a simple, open wooden shelter under which the anagama kiln was assembled. Starting with cement slabs on a hard-core base, Philip used high alumina firebrick, HTI (insulating brick) and a mixture of locally dug clay, sand and sawdust for insulation to complete the elongated, curving structure.

Philip’s kiln, which he built in his spare time in the evenings and at weekends, took about a year to complete. It was built to his own design with a firebox in the front, and extra stoke holes along its 3-metre length, which allow for the creation of additional fly-ash.  Inspiration for the design came from photographs and drawings of other kilns, especially those of potters John Butler, Svend Bayer and the late Patrick Sargent.  Philip explains, “I was getting a little bored …. and was keen to build a new kiln with the potential for more 'extreme' wood-fire effects on the fired pots, i.e. a design that encouraged more ash to fly through the kiln during firing.”

To date the kiln has yielded some impressive results. Philip’s pots have clean lines and a no-nonsense, functional aesthetic. His mugs often curve inward from the base and then outward towards the rim. The handles are broad and roomy, allowing the thumb to rest comfortably and afford easy tipping while drinking.  These are complemented by capacious, but elegant teapots, which are balanced and pour well with the aid of handles that have space for three fingers while allowing the thumb to sit on top.  Philip’s plates have a similar, well-made solidity with broad bases and a shallow lip.  He also makes jugs, bowls, pitchers and larger garden pottery, such as plant-holders.

“As a largely self-taught potter, I find the attempt to master the many facets of this exacting and technical craft to be an ongoing challenge, which is what keeps me at it. Apart from the physical challenge of throwing and manipulating clay, there is also the need to develop an appreciation of form, to understand the raw materials that can make up a clay body or create a glaze, to experience how these materials interact and are transformed by fire,” he comments.

The process of loading the kiln is, in itself, a time-consuming and skillful business. Space is at premium and care must be taken to allow the flames to seek out all areas of the kiln, unimpeded. Philip uses a series of spyholes through which he can check on a series of cones which indicate appropriate temperatures. The optimum firing temperature for the kiln, stoked with softwood, is around 1340°c.  The entire process of loading, firing, cooling and unloading takes several days and the potter must be present for much of this.

Philip fires his kiln based on the reduction principle. This means that the oxygen supply is restricted, by blocking up the intakes with bricks resulting in a saturation of ‘free carbons’ in the atmosphere, mostly in the form of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Because the fire needs oxygen to burn, the flames seek oxygen within the clay and glaze. Reduction firing can bring out some wonderful colours - ‘shino’ and ‘copper red’ are typical of high-fire glazes.

The fire-box is situated at the front end of the kiln with the chimney at the far end. The forced draught from the chimney  creates a current, of hot gases which move between the pots, carrying a quantity of fly ash from the wood-fire with them.   It is the current of burning gases and fly ash, heated to full temperature and settling on the pots, which forms the patterning on the pottery.

Philip uses glazes on the areas that are least likely to be affected by fly-ash and ‘flashing’ or flare-ups. He uses ‘celadon’ and ‘nuka’ wood-ash glazes -  the former comprises wood-ash, felspar and clay in a 4:2:1 ratio. The 'nuka' mimics a straw-ash glaze by adding quartz to a wood-ash/felspar glaze, with clay, in a 3:3:3:1 ratio. The ‘nuka’ gives a glossy white glaze - with a tinge of blue where it works well. Philip also uses a simple 'shino' glaze, made up of ten parts nepheline syenite to four parts clay.

Perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of any potter’s business is the process of opening and unloading the kiln. With Philip’s anagama kiln, the anticipation is augmented by the experimental nature of the undertaking.  As the bricks are removed to reveal the firebox, the first pieces are removed, still very hot and with the use of gloves. On one of the first pots removed from the front of the kiln there is clearly a line of blue-ish glaze along the rim of the bowl. On the left area there are clear signs of 'burning' caused by the current of flame, smoke and gases - one of the effects of reduction. The bowl is therefore a witness not only to the potter’s hand and eye, but also to the complex chemistry and physics within the kiln itself.  Flames and gases have created patterning and tonality, dictated by their passage around the contours of the vessel.  An ancient technology is still able to provide unpredictable, beautiful and unexpected results while still keeping some of its secrets intact.

Firing schedule for the Phantassie Anagama Kiln:
· pre-heat, 10 hours or so, to get the front of the kiln up to about 300 °c and ensure everything thoroughly dry.
· gently raise the temperature to about 900°c at the front over the next 12 hours, then start side-stoking to raise the temperature at the back of the kiln
· gradually raise the temperature to about 1000°c over the next 3 to 4 hours
· start stoking more frequently and restrict the air inlets as necessary to ensure heavy reduction as the temperature is gradually raised to 1340°c over the next 12 hours, side-stoking at intervals to bring the back of the kiln up to temperature (in practice the kiln will move in and out of reduction continuously each time wood is stoked and the pyrometer readings are not a particularly accurate indication of actual temperature)
· continue stoking and side-stoking to maintain the kiln at this temperature for 14 hours or so, maintaining a light reduction for as much of the time as possible and aiming for cone 11 to be completely over at all five spy holes top, bottom, front and back.
· start reduction cooling  - close the chimney damper and air inlets completely and occasionally stoke with very green wood and spray water into the firebox as necessary to maintain reduction as the kiln cools to about 1050°c. This takes about four hours. (The water reacts with the charcoal in the firebox in the water gas reaction to create carbon monoxide and hydrogen, creating a strongly reducing atmosphere).
· open the chimney damper slightly and crash cool in oxidation to about 900°c
· close damper and all air inlets and leave to cool naturally