Celebration of college art well worth visit

TIME to celebrate – and I don’t just mean Christmas.

The Shetland College is currently celebrating 10 years of its National Certificate (NC) course in art and design and Da Gadderie in the Shetland Museum is hosting an exhibition that is both reflective and speculative, looking back and looking ahead. The show’s title, On Course, is well chosen, both pun and statement of current practice.

In what are essentially exciting times for the arts in Shetland, the college plays a crucial role in fostering home-grown talent in the visual arts. Many students have journeyed through the NC course in those 10 years and I’ve had the opportunity to see the blossoming of those artists and designers, some of them as past pupils. Inevitably there is a pulling together of disparate elements in organising a show like this, but I think it works.

Past students rub shoulders with tutors and present students in this well laid out exhibition. Angela Hunt, the new course programme leader, has encouraged students in a practical and professional approach to display, one of the crucial skills in the visual arts. However, some of the past pupils needed to be reminded of this as a few let the side down in that respect.

Names from past end of year shows at the college make me recall their development. Val Saether’s mixed media panels, Sowing Seeds, could be another sub-title for this exhibition. There are fine expressive drawings by Gemma Balfour, Rebecca Sinclair and Melanie Davidson. Shona Anderson’s still life in pastel is a lovely tonal study in rich greens and purples. There are the results of experiment and exploration such as Susan Pearson’s heavy textural thistle in paint and collage.

These and other work by past pupils demonstrates some of the over-riding elements at the heart of this course. Alongside the emphasis on experiment there is the concentration on drawing and solid grounding in the visual elements. Giving students a taste of different disciplines is important in helping them choose the medium they are most responsive to.

There is also an increasing number of students using the NC course as a foundation course, building a portfolio before transferring to art college. Others continue on to the college’s own BA in contemporary textiles.

Textiles feature heavily. I loved Carol Wishart’s felted jacket, Wear a Cuddle, not only for its neck adornment but also the unexpected detail on the back. Jo Jack’s delicate embroidered weaving incorporates local motifs, building and boats, in a glittering filigree.

Andrea Williamson’s felt dress is lovely to look at displayed flat on the wall. But the same garment on a model in the accompanying photograph adds that extra dimension that shows how important it is to have a practical approach as well as a creative imagination.

Photographs by Chloe Garrick also held my attention, particularly her sensitive imagery combining clarsach and figure, emphasising the beauty of form in both.

A course like the NC doesn’t just happen. It relies on the staff and a good tuition system. The college is lucky to have had access to some of Shetland’s finest contemporary artists who still lead activities within the course structure and there are works by some of them in this show.

Paul Bloomer puts his emphasis on drawing, painting and print­making. A large, bold woodcut of the tall ships reminds us of the amount of expression which can be wrought from the most basic of materials. Stephanie Tristam’s mixed media painting has rich reds and blues, part of that strong tradition of still life.

Lesley Burr’s screenprint becomes a fine treatise on the use of complementary colours within a landscape. Roxane Permar plays with visual ambiguity in her small but challenging mixed media pieces using tin, text, acrylic or glass. And there’s a riot of colour in Amy Fisher’s fantasy painting.

Crossing over between traditional and new has always been a feature, particularly in the contemporary textiles activities in Shetland. The problem of saying something new, original and innovative with traditional crafts has always challenged students. Here we see some of their responses and those by tutors.

Lace features heavily in work by Angela Irvine, Frances Wilson and Pauline Walsh. I loved the way that Frances has incorporated lace into the texture of her handbuilt porcelain vases and Pauline Walsh’s sculptural lace balls help to explode the myth that lace is old fashioned craft.

Even more so with Angela Irvine’s contemporary take on lace. Her work and that of Helen Robertson is exceptionally well designed and beautifully crafted, interweaving tradition and contemporary practice. Hilary Seatter does the same, but her work combines those textile cultural icons, the tartan and denim, in exploratory work that looks quite exciting.

And what of the present and future? Well the current students also have representative work here showing a cross-section of their activities. Experiment and study are always present and seen in the work of Amy Gair, exploring possibilities in design, and Lyndsey Cheyne in the ubiquitous fruit and veg sections, stalwart objects for analytical observation.

There is also very strong figure drawing and some exceptional work by Lauren Bulter choosing the most difficult fore-shortened view with an exemplary skill and technique. Rebecca Paton also shows great skill in using negative shape around a figure. Ella Gordon’s printmaking demonstrates the possibilities available in focusing on technique as opposed to subject.

The examples of the work from the contemporary textiles course is also proof of a healthy department. Shona Bright, Vivienne Ratter, Diane Garrick, Jennifer Tait and Joanna Forsythe all demonstrate strong technique in formulating responses to design briefs.

There are several responses to the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure. I liked Sarah Bright’s concept for Sanctuary, addressing a social issue in visual design; and Julie Williamson incorporates embroidery and paint in her colourful and textural considerations of a stamp design.

So all in all the college has very good reason to celebrate its first 10 years of this exciting course. There are names I’ve not been able to mention and also work by students who have progressed to the point at which they are working in a professional capacity. And that, essentially, is the point of such a course; to develop individual creative talents and career prospects. Get along to the Shetland Museum to catch it before it closes at Christmas.

Peter Davis


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