Doctor’s work the genuine article

MORE than 20 years ago a group of amateur art students in Yell produced some remarkable forgeries, on the principle that the best way to learn to paint Old Masters was to copy them.

One of the most talented forgers in this distant learning class was the local doctor and beachcomber, Mike McDonnell. So convincing were his fake Braques, Picassos, Miros and Gauguins that, when he retired after 25 years as the island’s GP, it was no surprise to his many fans that he became a full-time artist.

For many years he’d been producing extraordinary works – part sculptures, part paintings – from what the North Sea cast upon the beaches and what his neighbours cast into the refuse skips. He did locums for a while after retiring but soon decided to cut himself off from medicine for good.

“After all,” he confided, “people might not wish to seek a medical opinion from a man in a filthy boiler suit whom they’d just seen climbing out of the Mid Yell skip, clutching a broken guitar and a bag of piano keys.”

No doubt because Yell is such a musical island, McDonnell finds remarkable quantities of discarded instruments in its skips. Resuscitated, some of them feature in his second show at the Creel Inn in Catterline, just south of Stonehaven, the 10th exhibition by this prolific artist since he “gave up the day job” in 2000.

Unstrung Instrument with Many Different Keys and Musical Matrioshka – a Fiddle within a Fiddle within a Fiddle are entertaining examples of an imagination running riot with a palette rich in puns, witticisms and innuendo.

Two cracked 78s from the same skip appear in his latest work, Baron Reith of Stonehaven, completed shortly before the exhibition opened this week.

The great moralist grimly waves his BBC charter: “Inform; Educate; Entertain; INTIMIDATE!” In a footnote, the artist writes: “Lord Reith was not a very appealing individual: no bundle of fun, he. But his role of Big Brother was preferable to the present travesty.”

Politics, history, music and feminism (Le Refuge des Femmes de Picasso) all emerge in this new collection. McDonnell’s influences range from the poetry of W. S. Graham to Aboriginal Australian art (Malice Springs) and the sculpture of the Solomon Islands, where he was once a young medical officer (The Perpetrator: Self Portrait in Driftwood).

But his greatest influence is undoubtedly the sea. The centrepiece of Back in Catterline is The Sinking of the Bella off the Catterline Coast, 1916. Here, in a work reminiscent of Alfred Wallis of St Ives, is a memorial to the ordeal of five fishermen captured by a U-boat and forced to spend two years in a German prison camp.

Blank, black eyes stare out from fishermen and beachcombers, sad and critical but wryly so. There’s an ingenuity with shapes: a broken oar becomes the Minister of Fisheries – where the minister is clearly from the kirk rather than Whitehall; in The Fisherman’s Share a sculpted wooden fish is sliced into chunks labelled “Bank”, “Merchants”, “Repairs” and a tiny tailpiece for “Crew”; and a wooden fish box (a rare find on the beach these days) becomes a canvas for two hand-carved cod in Love and Money – Two Good Reasons for Following the Fishing.

This is a thought-provoking, hilarious display of ingenious, playful artistry from an original mind and a brilliant talent. It runs until 31st October. Don’t miss it, or the next McDonnell exhibition at the Shetland Museum later this year.

Jonathan Wills


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