From the Art Hut – in it for the long haul

By Karen Wallis

As this is my last blog for the virtual dig diary, I’m going to take a look back over the whole of my residency to date.

The picture above was my first watercolour on site, painted sitting in a car while it rained on my first day in 2016. It had been a favourite wish to be an artist on the Ness, so I was delighted when the director, Nick Card, responded to my application and invited me join the dig.

With little or no previous knowledge of archaeology, I spent four happy weeks getting to know the everyday process on site, filling two sketchbooks, making several more watercolours – including many colour notes, drew some portraits and recorded conversations and ambient sound. 

My objective was to collect as much material as possible so that I could produce something afterwards back in my studio. But my secret aim was somehow to be useful to the archaeology, although I had no idea how that was to be achieved. It did occur to me that perhaps drawing the human activity on site might be a way recording an aspect that sometimes gets overlooked.

After three weeks I gave a talk at the Pier Arts Centre, which was very well attended and I think gave people some idea of what I was trying to do. Something seemed to be working because on my last day Nick asked me to continue as an Artist in Residence for the foreseeable future – and I was thrilled to be able to make my residency into a long-term project.  From previous experience I know that my best work comes from being able to spend time gradually getting immersed into a subject. It is a form of artist’s research that can lead to unexpected outcomes. 

Back home I began making a film combining the drawings, watercolours and sound recordings. The first edit, eight minutes long, opened and closed with hands scraping the earth. My work was shown in a couple of venues in my home town of Bath and I gave another talk to generate interest (and funds) for the next year. I also produced a small book about my first season on the Ness, which is currently on sale at the OAS online shop.

In 2017, I returned to Orkney and first of all set up an exhibition in the Kirkwall Museum, making an installation of all the elements of my work to date.

Back on site we now had an Art Hut to work in and I was joined by fellow artist Elizabeth Holder, who was concentrating on the stone structures in the trenches. It was good to have company and to raise the profile of art on site as we welcomed visitors into our hut. I also gave talks to the Orkney Archaeology Society, and later in September to Stromness Academy, Kirkwall Grammar School, and to both Archaeology and Art students at UHI.

The new venture for my second season was to add painting in oils. At first I did landscapes, but as the archaeologists’ confidence in me grew it was possible to get into the trenches. Painting people at work requires very fast work, which is a challenge I enjoy. This painting was done in less than half an hour – but for me it clearly records what I saw.  

Before returning in 2018, I gave more talks in Bath, including two to archaeology societies, and had the privilege of giving a couple of papers at conference, including the Art, Materiality and Representation conference for the Royal Anthropological Institute. It was becoming apparent to me that my study of human activity on site is more closely linked to anthropology rather than archaeology – but I still do not give up the idea of being of use to the Ness excavations.

During the 2018 dig, I concentrated on gathering material needed to fill gaps in my film, including removing the tyres and tarpaulins at the beginning of the dig and covering everything up at the end. My work with pigments expanded and it was suggested that I should start collecting context and finds numbers associated with my drawings. By this time, the archaeologists really appreciated my ‘research’ and it was developing into a fruitful partnership. In addition the Art Hut had become an integral part of the site, with a large portacabin and more artists, including Jeanne Bouza Rose and Diane Eagles.

This was the Art Hut in 2019, smaller but just as much part of the site as before. Work in progress was put up daily on the walls and the vast collection of pigments continued. 

For my fourth season on site, I stayed the whole eight weeks and made some significant decisions about my overall project. The film was now about half an hour long, with a new beginning and end view of the covered site. 

We had a showing of the latest edit projected on to the back wall of the barn. It can be seen on Vimeo at

The film is not a documentary, but aims at giving an impression of being on the Ness dig. It is therefore not adequate to be the sole end product, and so it will be one outcome among others. There is now a real possibility that my drawings can be integrated at some future date into the site record, adding another layer of documentation about the human involvement in the archaeological process.

Finally there needs to be a book.  When I wrote the first short account of my 2016 residency, the idea was to produce one every year like a diary. Instead my sketchbooks have been put online as journals and my aim is to write a more substantial book, reflecting on the whole project. Part of that book will look at the potential for sketchbook drawing to contribute to the research in another discipline – like archaeology. 

So there is lots more work to be done and I will be back as soon as the site re-opens. Meanwhile, thank you Jo Bourne for my best publicity photo.

Prints of Karen’s art are now available to purchase, with £5 from every sale donated to the Ness of Brodgar excavation fund.

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