Dig Diary – Thursday, August 24, 2017
From the Art Hut — an artist-in-residence special
This was my second year as an Artist in Residence on the Ness of Brodgar.
Last year everything was new to me and, by the end of my four weeks, I was only just beginning to understand what I could contribute to the dig.
So I was delighted to be able to return; to pick up where I left off and continue my own version of excavating the site.
My aim is to see if perceptual observations can be useful to the archaeological research, by bearing witness to the everyday process of the dig rather than documenting finds or re-enacting Neolithic life.
I have been collecting material in the form of drawings, paintings and sound recordings of human activity on site, which I am developing into a film.
The work made last year is currently in an exhibition in the downstairs gallery of the Orkney Museum, until the end of September.
The current version of the film is also on Vimeo and the Ness of Brodgar Sketchbook 2016 is a small publication telling the story of last year’s residency.
The knowledge that this is a long-term project is somewhat daunting and I have been overwhelmed at times by the potential scale and complexity of the task.
The best remedy for this has been to get on with making pictures, to continue my conversations with the archaeologists, and to wait and see what emerges.
There have been many new developments on site which, together with my growing understanding of archaeological processes, means there is a lot to draw, paint and talk about.
Another sketchbook has been filled and some more portraits drawn while having conversations with people on site.
This year I also brought oil paints (good for working in the rain) (Fig2.jpg) and continued with watercolour (which has interesting effects in the rain).
My only regret is that I have just begun to enjoy high-speed figure painting in oil as the dig is coming to an end — something to be continued next year.
Alongside bearing witness to the work of the archaeologists, I have a second interest in the relationship between human activity in the present and those moments which provide a visible link to human activity in the past.
As a painter, I am drawn to the evidence of colour being used on the walls of the structures. So another strand of this year’s work has been collecting bits of rock that make colours, with the help and encouragement of Martha, the “Rock Lady”.
In a very non-scientific way, I am gathering small bags of ground stones. Each one is numbered and each is used to make marks on paper and stone.
The marks are made first as a dry chalk, then mixed with water, then combined with beef dripping (a potential Neolithic oil paint).
Naturally, the marks directly on to stone are the best.
It is not yet clear what part this small archive will play in the development of the long-term project, however my known interest in colour led to an exciting moment of connection with the past.
A small find from Structure Eight has all the appearances of being a “crayon”.
It fits my hand perfectly as an ergonomic drawing implement. What is more, there is an indent for the thumb of my right hand and a different indent beside that for my left thumb.
There is clearly a working end where the stone is softer and makes a darker mark than the non-business end, which is harder and scratchier.
To hold this “worked stone” and think that a Neolithic hand may have been “drawing” with it, 5,000 years ago, creates a vivid link between that hand and my work as an artist now.
To try and understand the thrill of this connection (historians call it the “rapture of the archive”) I have begun to write a few sentences each day about being present on the Ness site.
These notes together with my drawings and paintings are posted each day on my own blog.
Eventually, a book may emerge — with lots of pictures of course.
When I go home, there will be time to think this through, while I integrate this year’s images and sounds into another edit of my film.
All in all this residency is what a friend at home described as “the best gig in the world” and my thanks go to everyone on site for their wonderful support and interest in my project.
I can’t wait to come back next year.
My name is Helen Walding.
I am an artist and art therapist, based in Wiltshire, and have recently returned home after spending the most wonderful week (all too brief!) working as one of the artists on the Ness.
I am a regular visitor to Orkney, and to the Ness, and it is a landscape I love. To me it is elemental, utterly compelling, and inspires many of my paintings.
The opportunity, therefore, to come and paint at the Ness was an irresistible one; a unique opportunity to exist within that very landscape and within its ancient past, in a way I had never done before.
Initially it was daunting — how can one possibly paint the Ness?
I try to approach my art making with a certain irreverence. I try to be spontaneous and intuitive, free to respond to the environment I am within.
It amused me, therefore, to discover that, very quickly, I was making images which demanded adding layers and layers of paint to paper, then scraping away at the surface with a palette knife, to reveal sections of the layers beneath — akin, of course, to the constant activity of the diggers and their trowels.
I soon felt at home, and settled into my own rhythm.
My aim at the Ness was to try to create images which had the potential to be representative, without being literal; less about the figurative and tangible, more about the felt, visceral experience; of creating some resonant sense of . . . a fleeting glimpse of . . .
I have taken these “fleeting glimpses” away with me, along with all my experiences of being within such an amazing place.
My hope now is that I can use all of this to create further images — more reflective, distilled paintings of the Ness, perhaps.
A busy and exciting year in the studio awaits!
And finally, I must just send a huge thank-you to Nick and all the team for such a lovely week.
Everyone was so very welcoming, generous, and supportive, and it was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to spend time with you all.