From the Art Hut – How and why the Ness and the Neolithic are in my paintings

By Jeanne Bouza Rose

Watchstone and Brig o’ Brodgar. (Jeanne Bouza Rose)

I was leaving the heat of New York State and coming to Orkney for my summer holidays sometime in the early 2000s, having been drawn into the landscape after my initial visit over 30 years ago, and I stumbled upon the Ness excavation. 

The late Anne Brundle, then the archaeology curator of the Orkney Museum, held out a tray of strange objects. I asked the obvious question to which she answered: “Well, your idea is as good as any because we haven’t a clue!” 

With that open-ended response and her bright smile, I was hooked into dirt holes, stones, and the Ness.

In 2011, I had the chance to dig at the Ness.

I was quick to find Nick standing in the middle of it all donning his rather “Indiana Jones” looking hat.  He generously offered me the use of his “lucky trowel” and off I was sent to a flattened brown area that we all now know as Structure Twelve.  There the wonderful Jan Blatchford guided me through the principles of trowelling, filling up the buckets and carting one in each hand up the thin plank out of the growing brown hole and up onto the spoil heap. Phew!

Somewhere around lunch time, I found myself thinking how great that last chiropractor had been to have set my serious back pain straight.  He was so good that he had made me ever so able to carry these heavy buckets up that plank and I was oh so agile getting up and down off my knees!  But on the last pass before the lunch break, my gave a tweak that led to an epiphany. 

Walking up to Nick, with his lucky trowel in hand, I said: “Indiana Nick, the 25-year-old on the inside has met the 56-year-old on the outside and exclaimed ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?’ Errr, is there something else that I might do to help this summer?”

Smooth as silk, Nick replied: “Go see Anne in the small finds.” 

Luckily, I didn’t think Nick was referring to my short stature and I found that I didn’t need the thrill of the digging for I LOVED seeing and sorting and drying and recording ALL the wonderful items that were being unearthed at a high rate in 2011. These shapes, colours and wonder was beginning to creep into my creative soul that has just kept growing with each year of my volunteering.

I was a teacher and a painter in New York, but have been living here steady for ten years. In 2018, my annual volunteering swapped into being one of the artists in residence and I could be free to do expose what had been brewing, but more about that to come.

It seems I have the rare opportunity of prior experience and being in the right place at the right time. With this year’s dig cancelled, with Nick’s special permission, I went to Brodgar to honour the first July in a long time without digging at the Ness . 

I thought I might capture some of the feel of the site on July 3 and 4 in its quiet summer 2020 mode to share in paint. 

It is all surrounded by tall grasses. It is hibernating.  The blackness of the tyres and the plastic is not visible from the roadway. There is a clear view across to the spoil heap without the viewing platform and the portacabins. One can clearly see the hills of Hoy without the Dig Shop in place.  Grass has certainly overcome the scars from last year’s dig.

I have begun painting smaller and faster in this lockdown and, with lots of time to choose the days of best weather, I have been painting “plein aire”. Orkney has a long history with notable locals like Stanley Cursiter and presently, with the work of Diana Leslie.  It is a phrase coined by the French impressionists meaning simply, completing a painting “in the fresh air” and capturing landscapes and views in natural light.

So, for the first week, I chose two points of view from the outer edges of the site. 

At the Ness, the Diggers Rest 2020 (Jeanne Rose)

The vertical painting (right) is looking from the road upwards and across to the spoil heap and the shed.  You can barely make out the logs that make the square of seating for the diggers at lunch.  Through the wire and stone fencing along the road, you can see the straight poles of the bespoke seat for fellow American volunteer Martha who, like so many volunteers, is finding other things to do this summer in her home countries.

On July 4, the grey sky and the wet day really said it all. It is sombre. It was empty, but for the birds, rabbits, and voles and the wind.  It is the entitled At the Ness, the Diggers Rest 2020.

The horizontal painting is the view familiar to all of us who have worked or visited the site as it is the view just across from the Watchstone at the bridge across the Harray and Stenness lochs.  This one is a bit brighter for at the end of Sunday, July 5, the rain stopped, the wind picked up and the clouds exposed some light and blue.

It seemed appropriate to just make out the spoil heap from Trench T, surrounded by overgrown grass and find no cars parked in the field next to Lochview. The buildings, small in the distance, show no sign of humanity.

These two plein air original oil paintings are for sale.  The proceeds will help support the work at the Ness.

Because of the unique situation this year, these are the only pieces of artwork being made on or near the site this dig season that will be for sale. They both measure 5 x 7 inches /13 x 18 cm.  To purchase them contact the artist directly, Jeanne Bouza Rose at Thank you for your support.

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