There are two main towns on the mainland of Orkney: Kirkwall, lies in the East while Stromness is found in the West. Stromness is home to the Pier Arts Centre, a diving shop and a museum mostly containing objects found in the surrounding ocean floor. Its cobbled streets are so narrow that buildings have large arcs and triangles removed from the ends, so that cars and people can travel through. Each building sits facing the next - instead of side-by-side – in order to provide shelter from the strong sea winds. Doors painted faded green and powder grey are speckled along the street and roofs overlap with crow-step gable ends adding to the complexity of the irregularly geometric town.
Fine Artist, Louise Barrington, travels every morning from East to West turning down her music as she drives through villages to avoid waking up those deep in slumber. Her studio can be found by following the cobbled road right to the end, in the old Stromness library, which has been repurposed by Wasps Studios, to provide affordable workspaces. Her room is sparsely decorated, with current artworks hung up and curious plywood shapes resting against the walls, waiting to become part of one of Louise’s latest abstract forms, often made up of wires bending and interacting with each other, bound together by coloured thread.
After studying in Stromness Academy, Louise studied Art in Edinburgh then went on to learn Fashion Design at London College of Fashion, and then Textiles at Central Saint Martins. With a lifelong love of fashion, she worked in the fashion industry in London as well as working as a model. She then continued with her studies to achieve a post-graduate in Fine Art and Sculpture, emphasising that she retained her textiles focus throughout.
Louise described her return to Orkney as something she always knew she would do eventually, so when a teaching position arose at the Orkney College UHI, she took the opportunity and following that moved into Wasps studios last October. When asked if her work had changed since returning to island life, she did not believe so but felt it was in a good position:
‘The work I had in the Pier Arts Centre, I am like ‘I wish I had done something like this in the degree show’ but I didn’t - but that’s the thing, the show is just the beginning. I am kind of moving forward, it’s not just ‘oh, what am I doing?’’
Looking ahead, Louise has two shows planned – a solo show in the Pier Arts Centre, which she describes as a chance to do something unusual and test herself, and another in the Old Library with Norna Sinclair, a fellow student at Orkney College UHI with whom she feels she has an interesting dialogue with. As the exhibition space in the Old Library is so large, Louise wants to explore working in an increased scale ‘because the room gives one big piece a chance to breathe.’
Her work focusses on the negative spaces found within her work, rather than the construct itself. This concept comes from Mu, a term used in Japanese flower arranging:
‘We have this open landscape within Orkney and it can be interpreted as you want. It has different energies or moods and I think the weather affects that. Within Mu there are the spaces between the flowers. There is an old story of a Samurai, who told a Buddhist monk he wanted an arrangement, so he chopped off all the flowers from the plants and just left one. The idea is that you focus on that one and the spaces in-between have the energy. ‘The philosophy is the known and the unknown. People talk about the landscape and they see it. But the unknown is that there’s a dramatic effect on us as islanders. That’s what I’d like to go forward and look at. The sea is kind of this undiscovered. The emotions we have of weathers. It’s a mirror to how we feel sometimes.’
Each piece appears spontaneous and organic, but Louise takes time to consider each one and is ‘very conscious about the placements of things’. Unlike her very loud commute, Louise tends to work in silence. She also practices Pilates in her studio, complimenting her mindful art practice. Her desk and shelves are scattered with books on Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and an array of Japanese textile artists. Many of the artists that inspire Louise most, such as Rebecca Ward, are those she has come across during her time working at the White Cube gallery in London. She describes being ‘drawn to things that are quite subtle, pastel colour palettes, shapes and fragile textures.’
The MÓTI collective evolved out of the Recent Graduates show at the Pier Arts Centre in 2015, as many of those showing, including Louise, wished to be part of a small community of artists who could support each other and help each other to continue to grow. As an artist, Louise said it could be easy to feel alone or isolated, so these links could help lessen these feelings, which she said was especially important for the artists in the group that lived in the outermost isles of Orkney. MÓTI’s first exhibition was held in the Tankerness House Museum and had the overarching theme of time. ‘The feeling was that after graduating there’s all this time and where does time go? That word is quite loaded.’
Louise has also created a new mini collection of digitally printed silk scarves with the aim of combining her love of both fine art and textiles. She looks to her studio practice to inspire the scarves, along with the landscape, space and Mu. She laughed that as she is also a full-time student, she felt like she should be spending her evenings at home hand-rolling the scarves.
A postgraduate in Island Studies is taking up most of Louise’s free time currently, with subjects such as ‘Atlantis to Utopia’, ‘Selling ‘cold’ islands’ and creative writing. Her decision to pursue Island Studies came from being back in Orkney and ‘what that meant.’ Orcadian filmmaker Margaret Tait, seasonal change and the Japanese filmmaker Yasuijirō Ozu, who made the film ‘A Story of Floating Weeds’, were her main stimuli to study the topic:
‘I really like the idea of seeing things in the everyday and how magical they can be. Going back to the idea of Mu, something so simple has a lot of energy and the spaces in between are what make it. With Island Studies, I guess thinking about spaces. I was in London for years and always came back to Orkney. It made sense to move back and now I can go to see other part of the world rather than always coming back to Orkney. There was always this magnetic pull drawing you back to Orkney. It’s funny because the work that was in the ØY festival, the theme was the magnetic north.’
Balancing a degree, teaching position, selling scarves and practicing as a fine artist sounds as though it would be a lot to handle, however Louise felt that each element influenced the other: ‘If you are in the creative industries, you are used to spinning plates and doing different things. I quite like it in a sense that every day is different.’ It helps to have the support of the creative community in Orkney and Louise is in discussion with knitwear designer, Hilary Grant about setting up events on the islands that are in equal standing to those happening on the UK Mainland.
With improved broadband connection on the isles and the recent introduction of 3 and 4G, people living in Orkney feel closer to the rest of the world than ever before. Louise described this as one of the biggest changes for artist likes herself within the last decade, as she doesn’t feel she would have been able to return to Orkney in the past without becoming cut off from her life in London.
She described the accomplishments of the International St Magnus Festival, Up Helly Aa and the Pier Arts Centre as hope for the future, in terms of large scale events, exhibitions and festivals in the Northern Isles having great success and becoming highly respected across the UK. Working in Orkney, Louise felt part of a creative community in that if you asked somebody for help they would always try their best to help and that the main obstacle was getting islanders to overcome their shyness about their work:
‘In a big city like London, you can get a bit lost. You have to have those connections. You have to be part of a tribe. It can be quite overwhelming but when you are here, this is it. You need to connect with people and make those connections happen. I don’t see any reason why there can’t be things happening here that people want to contribute to or be curious about. And people are curious.’