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Shetland Showcase: Vivian Ross-Smith

My lovely friend, Vivian Ross-Smith, is the next person to feature in the Shetland Showcase.
A visual artist from Shetland, Vivian recently graduated from Grays School of Art in Aberdeen. She uses traditional methods and skills within her work and creates these truly evocative and mesmerising artworks which are related to remote places and Island life. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work and influences, being a young creative person from Shetland and what qualities contribute to Shetland products:

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Describe the main focus of your work….

The predominant focus in my work is our natural world; especially relating to extreme and remote locations.  Within my work traditional methods of craftsmanship and preservation techniques have become central to my practice.  I use these skills and processes as a means of exploring relationships between material and surface; and between man made and natural.  It is important for me to tie together both painting and traditional craft methods in the work. This has meant that the collection and use of natural materials, from source, along with an honest handmade means of producing the work has become extremely important in the production of the end result. My work becomes a visual patchwork of personal experience importing the extreme nature of remote living into the studio and gallery context.  Exploring how ancestrally collected skills that would have aided the struggles of everyday life can now be observed from a different perspective.

You’re from Shetland, but you studied away while at University, do you think this has influenced your work in a certain way? 

Yes definitely.  When I was about to leave for art school I was really unsure what I was going to make work about, I was scared that my inspirations would fade away and I would feel lost at what form my art would take.  But I found that when I settled into art school life in a city, I had to make work about Shetland.  I can far more clearly interpret Shetland as a place and an inspiration when I am not actually there.  I enjoy scavenging materials, gathering research and information then leaving to a completely different environment to dissect that information.  If I permanently lived in Shetland I would be constantly distracted with so many inspirations but when you don’t have them at your doorstep you decide what is important and what you are really interested in to then take forward to make work.  I make work about Shetland to tell a story about a place, its history, and its people.  Within Shetland everyone already knows that story so I like to tell it further afield.

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Would you say you’re a Shetlander? Scottish? British?

That’s a very tough one for me personally!  I was born in Edinburgh and my whole family is Scottish but we moved to Fair Isle, Shetland when I was 3.  So technically I would class myself as a Shetlander.  I love to travel though and its something I find great enjoyment in.  I like to think that someone can say they are from many places rather than restricting yourself to just one place.  Shetland is my home and always will be; I feel a great sense of content only when I am in Shetland.  Living on remote islands has formed a lot of my artistic practice and me as a person; so more than anything I would say I am an islander.

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As part of your Degree at Grays, you studied away in Finland for a semester. Finland is sometimes considered as one of the regions which make up Scandinavia. Do you think Shetland has Scandinavian influences in it’s Identity?

Absolutely.  I think Shetland should be really proud of its Norse roots and I feel that there should be a lot more connections between Scandinavia and Shetland than there already is.  I feel very drawn to Scandinavia.  I loved living in Finland, it taught me so much and was the most amazing experience.  The city of Turku, on the south west coast of Finland where I lived and studied, sits on the same latitude as Shetland does. It was really interesting to live in a place, which shares a geographical link to my home, and notice all of the similarities and differences between the two places, aesthetically, in the community, way of life and people’s mentality. I have traveled in Norway, Sweden and Denmark and hope to live more permanently in Scandinavia one day.  The knitwear is a strong connection between Scandinavia and Shetland but I would love for all forms of artists and designers from the northern countries to work together more.

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How important to you being from Shetland is it to use Shetland as an influence in your work? 

It is very important to me.  I scavenge for a lot of my materials around Shetland and try to use naturally sourced materials as much as possible. “It is important for me that my work stays true to the genuine skills and methods used in the place I am making work about.  For instance when I was living in Finland I taught myself to make gillnets which were the traditional nets used for ice fishing and I use that process within my work.  All the knitting I make for my work is hand knitted myself; I would feel like a cheat if I used a machine!  To do everything by hand is absolutely essential to me; it allows me to devote a large portion of my time to my art allowing for a better understanding of traditional methods and way of life.  It is so interesting to me that nearly every Shetland artist I know makes work about Shetland.  We come from such an amazing place, rich in heritage and history it seems natural to make work about the place we inhabit. 

Do you think Shetland products have a particular style?  What are the qualities that make a Shetland product typically Shetland?

Ultimately I feel Shetland products are for the most part full of skill.  The use of natural material is predominant and the way they are produced really shows great craftsmanship by the artists and maker.  Traditionally Shetland products were made to serve a purpose, for example the Fair Isle pattern is aesthetically very beautiful but also functional due to the way it is knitted.  The way the pattern is formed requires a lot of excess wool to be pulled across the back of the knitted pattern, which means it is incredibly warm.  I think it is important to remember these traditional useful qualities, to Shetland knitwear especially.   I really appreciate that modern Shetland designers still show their appreciation for traditional design.  For example Burra Bears maker Wendy Inkster uses Shetland knitwear as a material to form her beautifully hand crafted bears.  That reuse of something traditional is a lovely way of passing on a product to a new generation and giving it a new life, making it something to be cherished.
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Vivian was recently commissioned to create a piece for Knight Property Group and it now hangs in their new offices in Aberdeen.
You can follow Vivian and her creative adventures here on her blog and on twitter @vrosssmith.

Thanks Vivian,x

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‘Industrial North’ Capsule Collection

Nearing the end of the first semester of my last year at Heriot Watt, we have been working extremely hard. Long days and dark nights spent in the High Mill, somehow we have almost made it to the end of week 12!
The time has passed so quickly, I have hardly realised how long I have been away for and now….it is December!
I cannot wait to go back up North to Shetland for the festive season….I have missed it so much – time away makes me realise what a special place Shetland is.

I have been busy weaving fabrics for my ‘Industrial North’ capsule collection which will be developed into my final collection next semester…and as much as I want a break for a few weeks over Christmas, I’d also be quite happy to continue weaving…..Definitely obsessed.

Here are a quick few pictures from my sketchbook and my loom showing the progress of the collection so far…….but trying not to give too much away!

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Taking my inspiration from my hometown in Lerwick, I took photographs over the summer of the things that make Lerwick, Lerwick to me. I love the cross of industrial and natural. And also the millions of geometric shapes and lines which are almost everywhere, and we take for granted. I love lines and geometric shapes……and have used them to develop my own style for years now.

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I have also been using Shetland wool in my collection and a combination of some other worsted wool’s all from the UK. It is really important to me to use Shetland wool, and also wool that is from the Britain, because ideally I want to support the ‘Made in Britain’ or ‘Made in Scotland’ social trend.
These social trends we have been hearing a lot about recently, are actually a really exciting time for people like myself, and also the textile industry. Localised products have a story attached and are somehow more personal because they are made on the land we live on and not somewhere over sea’s. By buying local, we are supporting small independent business’s and the making of products and goods in our country. This can be applied to ‘Made in Scotland’ too and taking localisation one step further, ‘Made in Shetland’.
To me, by using Shetland wool in my collection is it making a true Shetland fabric, supporting the local wool industry in Shetland and promoting wool as a sustainable fiber.

I had some warp left over after I had finished sampling – and managed to weave a larger length, so keep an eye out for my post with my fabrics which I’m hoping to photograph when I’m back in Lerwick!

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Shetland Showcase: Ella Gordon Designs

The first creative person to feature in my Shetland Showcase is my lovely friend Ella Gordon.
Ella, a true home-bird, lives, works and breathes knitting and creativity. Her life is very much part of the 21st century knit and creative scene in Shetland.  We studied together at Shetland College and she decided to stay on in Shetland to set up her own business after we completed a BA in Contemporary Textiles. She spends her days working at Jamieson and Smith – the wool brokers in Lerwick.

I asked her a few questions surrounding being a creative person on a small island and about our ‘Northern Identity’ which I am exploring at the moment.

IMG_0226Sum up your design work/style in a few words:

Handmade knitted items inspired by the Shetland heritage and culture.

Is Shetland your main inspiration? What other things inspire you? How do you find living, working and creating in Shetland? Are you customers mainly local?

I would say Shetland is my main inspiration, but I also get a lot of inspiration from books, films, the internet….usual trapped islander things.

I think though because Shetland is a strong influence it’s not necessarily modern Shetland that inspires me. Some aspects of our culture definitely still inform and come into my work but it’s more the Shetland of the past that inspires me. To me the type of person living in Shetland has changed quite a lot in recent history and I use photos and personal memory to get inspiration from that.

IMG_0238I love living, working and creating in Shetland, if I wasn’t here, I don’t think I would be inspired by it though. I think it’s very important to be honest in craft making and unfortunately there are a lot of people who rightly or wrongly use Shetland without any connection to here.

Its important that young people in Shetland are proud to be from here and get into crafts and skills that at one time would be seen as old fashioned. Yes I would say that most of my customers are local. I mostly work with word of mouth. If I was able to work part time and spend more time on my business I would definitely push my online presence and have an online shop etc.

Would you say your a Shetlander/Scottish/British?

I see myself as a Shetlander.  I don’t feel a huge connection to England but I also don’t feel much of a connection to Scotland either. We are so far away from the Mainland that it’s quite difficult for me to feel part of anything. 
I only have a handful of close relations that are not in Shetland and I only have one grandparent that wasn’t from Shetland so most of my life is here. I am quite worried by the referendum though and I really don’t think Scotland is strong enough to be an independent country.

IMG_1760Do you think we, in Shetland, have our own sort of ‘Northern Identity’? – We used to belong to Norway, now we belong to Scotland, but many people say ‘Im a Shetlander’. Following on from that, Do you think we still share similarities with Scandinavia?

I think so, I love Scandinavian knitting and feel quite a strong connection to it which I think must be something ingrained in me because I don’t really know much about it!
I really like the ‘Scandi’ way of living and style and I think just being so far north gives us a connection that others can’t really understand.

You create knitted Items using Shetland Wool….how important to you is it that local designers use local materials like Shetland wool?

Very important, I don’t see the point in living here, working here and being inspired by here and not using local products. I work in a Shetland Wool shop which means I am surrounded and inspired by Shetland wool all the time, but I really think the two go hand in hand.
Depending on what your making and the thought processes behind it, the materials play a big role, especially for me.

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I am very inspired by the Shetland landscape, greens, browns, oranges, all colours from the land. Going to my Grandads in Ollaberry, the long drive gives me lots of time to look at the colours and think of combinations.
It’s quite easy to say your inspired by the outside in Shetland but really I am.
I don’t drive so I walk a lot and although some of Lerwick isn’t the nicest to look at I still see things I like. I am also very inspired by eras and the 60’s and 70’s come into my colour choices a lot.  I have been having a bit of a colour slump and the moment and I am trying to get my self back inspired by colour in my knitting.

 Recently there has been a big push on ‘Made in Britain’ products – especially those linked to the fashion industry  after the Tazreen and Rana Plaza garment factory disasters in Bangladesh. Do you think this could have a positive impact on Shetland in creating a unique sense of place through products to people not from here? In other words if people are becoming interested in ‘Made in Britain’ goods, they could then become interested by ‘Made in scotland’ heritage and consequently ‘Made in Shetland’?

I think so, but in some ways I worry about the drain on the resources. Some places thrive on that kind of pressure but I don’t know if that would be the same in Shetland. I know in-relation to knitting in Shetland, the skills are definitely dying out and although it has come back into fashion there still aren’t enough people willing to take up a skill that just doesn’t pay enough. I think people, especially tourists are very interested in products which are made in Shetland and I think anything that benefits Shetland and brings money in our economy is a good thing.

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 Also, Ella, I feel a sort of ‘duty’ to promote Shetland now through my work and this inspires me. Its taken a short while for me to realise how important Shetland is to us and that is because of my move down to the Scottish Borders, do you feel the same as a young Shetlander and now, a designer in Shetland?

 Definitely!! I think me and you spurred each other on when we were at college together and we are both carrying on our feelings at other ends of the country!
Originally as you know I started with Machine Knitting but I am gradually building up my skills in hand knitting, it just wasn’t fashionable in the 90’s and although some bairns loved it at school I had no interest.

My realisation that I was a crafty person came to me *quite* late in my teenage years and I have spent the time since then spreading the word! haha!
At some points I was embarassed that I stayed home and didn’t go to Uni on the mainland but now I am glad I stayed and did what I had to do so that I could be honest in my making….and lets be honest…I couldn’t handle not seeing the sea! 

You can follow Ella on Twitter at: @ow123
and follow her blog over at: Ella Gordon Designs

Thanks Ella! x

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Lerwick, Skerries, and Kensington – Ghosts

Last week Shetland had another bout of exposure when Dutch band Kensington released their current single ‘Ghosts’. Or I should say, it has been released for a while, but the video just went a bit viral around the islands.
The music video was filmed here in Shetland on Outer Skerries, an small island off the East of Shetland, with a population of only 64.
With the ‘Three’ Shetland pony advert kick starting this earlier in the year in March, and the hit BBC tv series ‘Shetland’ which followed, it’s nice to hear people asking questions about our small island up North.

You can watch the video here: Kensington – Ghosts

A truly evocative video and a great way of showcasing the islands, it also gives people local to Shetland a taster of how life is on some of these outer islands and equally as important, it suggests to me that lots of people, allover the world also find our islands fascinating.

I find the lyrics of the song particularly thought provoking especially as it is these small communities in Shetland that struggle the most. They want to hold on to their traditions and community spirit as a small place within Shetland but this can be hard especially in the current economic climate.
An article from ‘The Shetland Times’ recites the woman, Alice Arthur, who talks at the beginning of the song, ” Everyone, right down through the generations, has been working so hard to keep this place. We’re going to fight the death. We’re not leaving here.”

Linking this to my recent thoughts about how we have our own northern identity, it has shown me that every island in Shetland, and there are over 100, has something unique and special about them, and it is this which makes Shetland as a whole unique.
I think it is really great that Kensington have used Skerries as part of their video, and I’m sure when you watch it, you will realise how well the scenery and shots of the community vibe, links into the lyrics and the feel of the music.
I for one, cant stop watching it. I notice something different every time.

This has again got me thinking about what it is I want to promote through my textile label and while out for a walk in Lerwick I took some shots on my camera which I am hoping will inspire me through fourth year.
The sea is something which surrounds us here in Shetland and when I am away, I go on and on about how much I miss it. I went about 8 weeks without seeing the shoreline last semester and it’s weird how much you can feel unsettled by not breathing in the sea air. The sea is definitely something I took for granted when I used to live here permanently.

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I love this old part of the town where the buildings are built into the water.
‘The Lodberries’ here in Shetland are in a unique setting and I have realised that it is quite an important part of Lerwick, as it these buildings which were once used for the fishing industry and throughout Lerwick there are themes of the natural and Industrial working together, this is something I really want to keep in mind.

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After doing some research into the ‘i Vesterveg’ project that I spoke about in my last post I have definitely become a little obsessed about this whole Northern Identity thing…infact I think my friends are getting a little bored about me talking about it, and anything which I come across which might be slightly related goes into my journal. A great way of keep track of idea’s as well as keeping a blog.

So as my days left on Shetland are coming to a close, it is really important that I document everything before I leave. But finding videos and research such as Ghosts by Kensington, makes for a slightly different post!

Northerly Obsessed.

Connecting to my previous post about an ‘Northern Identity’ which we have here in Shetland, I seem to have started an obsession in my head.

Having a few days to think since I’ve finished my placement, I am trying to get my idea’s together for going back to Uni and I thought back to August, when I attended the ‘In the Loop 3.5′ conference. This time the conference had the theme of ‘Making Connections’ but also had a Nordic element focusing on the way that textile cultures may develop in the 21st century. The conference was held as part of an International textile festival by Shetland Arts.

I attended the ‘In the Loop 2′ back in 2010 and I was in the early years of the BA Contemporary Textiles course at the Shetland College – time flies! – So I knew that I was going to be inspired by the key note speakers, designers, students and textile people who would be there, like the last time.
There was also a ‘Fair Isle Festival’ which was part of the Textile festival. Living Lerwick ltd. organised bunting to decorate the street during the festival which was made by school children throughout Shetland – which is still up and looks great!

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(Photo: Living Lerwick ltd – Fair Isle Festival bunting in Commercial Street which was part of the textile festival held in August)

During the conference it was great to see all the people who had traveled to Shetland to either speak or attend the conference. Many were here for the first time, and many people had returned to the Island, but what I thought was the most interesting was that we all had one thing in common. Textiles.

The conference had too many interesting talks and topics for me to write about but one which really interested me was Barbara Ridland – a Shetland based contemporary artist – who spoke about her experience in a project called ‘i Vesterveg’.
After doing some more research into the project, I can actually remember when it was in ‘Da Gadderie’ at the Shetland Museum, although I don’t really remember knowing that much about it at the time, which is a shame now that I think back.

‘i Vesterveg’ was a collaborative project between artists and museums on Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Faroe and Shetland and was focussed on the spreading of information between these countries of the Nordic cultural similarities and differences which these places have. After reading the in-depth catalogue, which can be found here (http://www.malfridur.no/files/iVesterveg_finalkatalog.pdf) and is definitely worth a read if you are interested in the project and the Northern regions which we belong to, I became so much more informed about the importance of the project.

Artists from each place visited each-others homeland where the hosts informed and inspired the visitors of their traditions, history and cultural inheritance. I think this must have been a great way to see the real cultural similarities between all these places, their differences and also a chance to explore somewhere new but so close to us on the map.
Barbara Ridland
Focussing back to Barbara Ridland, She created these evocative pieces for the project which used a straw weaving technique.

She said “I work mainly as a freelance designer in knitwear, and have an interest in traditional basket-making as a sculptural art form. With no commercial constraints my work becomes an expression of identity, fresh space and light, flight of birds, fish and flora, theatrical folklore, myths and legends. The people of the North Atlantic countries thought that the hills and the sea were full of mysterious persons who could metamorphose themselves into the likeness of beast, bird or fish; fishermen saw sea monsters that were perhaps sharks or whales. My art pieces for ‘i Vesterveg’ are based on these mythical creatures.
At the same time I want to say that we are similar people, who have developed in different ways. I also try show the beauty of these Northern places and to let the real experiences I took part in shine through.”

(Photos and quote: Barbara Ridland –  ‘Finns’ – Mythical creatures, Courtesy of ‘i Vesterveg’ Catalogue, Pg 41 – http://www.malfridur.no/files/iVesterveg_finalkatalog.pdf)

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Another piece made by Barbara which has been photographed on the Shetland coastline. I think this is a great way in showing the scale of the pieces but also illustrates that the Shetland coastline has a mixture of textures and a variety of land across Shetland, yet it is all these differences which makes our island unique and an interesting place to live and be from.
Placing these pieces next to the sea also links well to the thoughts that the project manager, Malfridur Adalsteinsdottir, had about the sea once connecting the North Atlantic countries together in the past but now in the present it is what separates them as to travel by sea takes to long in these fast paced modern times.

I have only briefly touched on this project, but I find it so interesting to read about the Northern regions which surround us up here in Shetland and to read that people from further North still feel the connection to us even though we have been part of Scotland for some time.
This brings me back to how we have our own ‘Northern Identity’ which I have spoken about before. Because of where we are on the map, we have connections above us to the Nordic regions which we once belonged to and now we are also connected to Scotland and UK. We have a very special island here!

Barbara Ridland can be found at: http://www.troak.co.uk/

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A northern Identity….

As my time in Shetland for the summer comes to an end, the dark nights are starting to draw in and I am approaching the last week of my placement at the Ann Sutton Foundation in Yell.
My thoughts have been split between the weaving which needs to be finished for my placement and my next project for the last year of my degree at Heriot Watt. It is an exciting time!

While working in Yell it has given me the time to concentrate on what I want to do for my personal projects which will entail this year. I have practically been given a second chance at this because while at Shetland College, although at the time I was pleased with my work, and it was right for me at the time, I feel as though I have developed as a person too, and my work has almost gone full circle in the other direction. Perhaps it is maturing as a person, but I think the reason is linked to being away from Shetland for a year as it has opened my eyes to the unique setting which we live in here, and this is what I want to promote through my own textile label – Browns Road.

At the beginning of August I attended the ‘In the Loop 3.5′ conference which was part of an International Textile Festival arranged by Shetland Arts.
The conference was a fascinating experience where we listened to speakers, artists, designers and people generally interested in textiles share their stories linked to textiles.
The conference this time was linked to making connections and had a nordic theme throughout.
It became clear to me while attending the conference that as Shetlanders we are unique because of where we are set on the map. We, as Shetland, are where Scandinavia meets Scotland, almost….and although some may say that we are not part of these Nordic regions, we are in a sense, but I would say we have our own Northern Identity.

I had a conversation with Andy one day about the colours which I had used in my work for him. Although some may think that they were rather dull and grey, I was trying to evoke a feeling through the textile which would be linked to Shetland rather than an exact colour representation. Which led us on to another question.
He asked me “What does Shetland mean to you?”
I had to stop and think, because it was a really difficult question to answer.
But has sort of started a thought process in my head and I have started to collect idea’s for my last year at Heriot Watt based around theconversations we had.

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( One of the chosen samples which I designed based around – ‘A contemporary Shetland Tweed’ for ASF Shetland – more on this project is available on my other blog – http://www.amygair.wordpress.com )

I think that the way I see Shetland, or people local to here, may see Shetland differently to people who are here visiting. Yes we see the beauty that our island has, we are aware of how lucky we are to live in an unique and safe place, but we are also aware of the darkness and the dull feelings that can come across us in the middle of winter. And also, visiting a place and living somewhere can be completely different.
These thoughts have led me to concentrate my idea’s on the everyday things that I pass in Lerwick – it is the grey stone buildings and the blue and purple slate paving stones which appear on your way down Hangcliff Lane which I think are a true representation of Shetland. But of course this is how I see Shetland, but for someone else who lives away from the Town, they will have their own way of what Shetland means to them.

With this in mind I set out one night for a walk around the area I live. Not on a night of any particular nice or horrible weather, just on a fair day. My Mam and I walked down to ‘The Sletts’ and I thought about how even though we are in the middle of town, you can still seem like you are far away from anything when you look out to the sea. Also the way that there are juxtaposing influences of Natural ‘V’ Industrial and manmade, soft ‘V’ hard and Geometric ‘V’ Organic everywhere. And this is what I love about Shetland.

My pictures from our walk:
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I am looking forward to going back down to the Scottish Borders in a few weeks and how my work will unfold and develop!

But before you leave, if you live in Shetland or have visited…How do you see Shetland? and what does Shetland mean to you?

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Photo’s in the Garden….

I decided to get some business cards made up, and I wanted to make my own design on the front….I ordered some large cardboard letters and went out into the garden to experiment. I love the stone walls in Shetland, and the dry stone dykes which are almost an art themselves the way they are constructed…and because they are everywhere here, what would be a better background to depict my textile label?!
I am really pleased with the way they have turned out and they arrived today too – here are some of the final contenders…

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