It’s my son’s nineteenth birthday today. We sat on the sofa last night as he opened presents, one of which was a book of routes up Scottish mountains, and he said he’d recently stood in Glasgow bus station and felt the west coast wind rush at him, willing him to get on the waiting bus to Oban rather than home to Edinburgh, and then to walk, walk, walk….
I get it. I get it so much.
I think if you have the highlands in your heart but your feet are standing elsewhere there’s no time the signal pulling you back is stronger than in autumn. The light gets so full and so calm each morning is its own arresting wonder.
The flat my son moved into with his friend in summer has stunning high ceilings. Looking up in a new space made me reappreciate the walls in our lounge when I got home. Picture rails. Picture rails. I’d never really seen them as anything but dividing points on the wall, till then. I blame dado rails for that oversight. Dado rails seemed to be suddenly everywhere in the 80s and 90s, offering endless possibilities for combining wallpapers, paint colours, wood stains and accents. Bloody hell, when I think back on it, it was a fabulous time for B&Q and the evolution of excited domestic self-expression. How I longed for my mum to announce we too were going to get Austrian blinds and go for a pink, black and grey rag-rolled bathroom.
Anyway, back to picture rails which, thanks to hooks and gravity, come with the offer of never having to assault the walls beneath them with a hammer again.
Since we moved in here eight years ago I’ve hung so many things on walls then changed my mind, never quite getting it right, leaving scarred plaster and discontented sighs in my wake. I’ve lead a futile, ironic battle in failing to win the effortless vibe of creating little vignettes that tell our stories, as well as fitting with the flow of the house. So, working with the wisdom of Marie Kondo once more, I decided a few months ago to take every god-damn thing on a wall in the house off the wall, bringing them all together on the kitchen table to really decide what we had that sparked joy and what we had that needed to move on or change.
The answers were different for different people, of course, but we got there. We all love the prints below, the Danish one came from a charity shop in Banchory and the Picasso one was a birthday present from husband when I was thirty-one, I think. Till recently, they both had frames which had changed colour to a tense woody orange from pale pine over the years, so they got a lick of paint each and my forehead relaxed. I had no picture-hanging wire to match my new picture hooks, so I used ribbon instead, of which I have enough to wrap around the planet.
While all the pictures were off the walls and assembled in The Kondo Joy Assessment Zone, I took the opportunity to go on a healing mission and fill in every single hole I’d created on my crazed hanging spree with Polyfilla and then to go the full hog and touch up paint where I’d cocked that up too. It’s odd but that work shifted something big inside me. Fixing shit that’s been wrong for years feels good, as does looking after what’s in my care. It’s as simple as that, so that’s becoming a guiding focus in my thoughts too.
Giant Achillea blooms from the garden have been the outdoors/indoors stars this year. The water dried out in their vase and I didn’t notice till it was apparently too late but still, they’re perfect. A shot of mustard that brings everything else to life and sends me down a conduit of memories; lichens on Raasay rocks and Tyninghame beach tree trunks, the colour of the second walls I painted in my flat (complete with dado rail) when I was twenty-one, back in Aberdeen; the jacket I wore to my cousin’s wedding on Camusdarroch beach. A tiny velour babygro with popper buttons on the shoulders.
Nineteen years and seven hours since I kissed his forehead – warm, soft velvet – and met my son. Tea, toast and a baby swaddled in a blue cellular blanket in the lamplight of a pink delivery room. Then, a morning as clear and freshly-laundered as they come; after my first terrified post-birth venture to the toilet, I stood on tiptoes, birth day fingertips gripping layers upon layers of brittle paint on the windowsill and peered out at Banff to glimpse the beach. I felt like the world looked back and acknowledged the sweet, shrouded shift of new life beyond the pane and thick, granite walls that was ours to hold, protect and bring.
I am hooked on yellow, hooked on my kids and their dad and the friends and places that have become home, the times together and apart that got woven into stories. Hooked on change. And October light.
When I was on Raasay in October I had a couple of close-ish encounters with a sea eagle. We passed each other crossing the island a few times and I was able to stop right on the road, get out and watch her flight with an entire island lying at my feet and no traffic jam to beep me on or throw exasperated arms in the air wondering what the hell I was doing. As I left Arnish in Raasay’s North for the last time, I turned a corner and there she was, this time perched just metres off the road, watching me then watching Skye and the sea, letting me stop, get out to lean on the car and admire the scale of her so much better with less air between us. I had breathed in deeply through my nose so my chest filled and puffed. I chucked my camera back in the car. All the better to see her with. Then I realised her chest was the way of mine too but she was staying and I was leaving.
I’ve been thinking a lot about territory recently, from various vantage points of my own. Maybe my experiences with the eagle were the real start of it – the consideration of what it is to move into a space and share it, without asking permission of the other inhabitants. The knowing what it is to be at the top of the food chain and the beginnings of an appreciation for the fact that I can choose to respect or exploit that. The overlap in all of that with human experience; what it is to live with someone you don’t normally live with, what it is to live alone, what the formulas are for positivity and co-operation as a group while still ensuring enough space for everyone to test their wings regularly too.
My husband and son became vegan last year and their decisions have brought awareness of animal welfare closer to my streams of thought. Husband made the change to reduce his cholesterol – he’s naturally on the high side of those readings so self-help is prudent. My son, on the other hand, choose veganism because the more he reads about philosophy and psychology the less he can reconcile eating animals. And of course when one person in a habitat makes a change, everyone else in the same space kinda does too; a human choice eco-system at work; one which, in this case, has had me considering what I eat and, in even greater quantities of airtime, before we changed an animal’s name to meat or poultry, what was its story on the way to my hands? The words territory, autonomy, captivity, economy and empathy keep bobbing around in my thought soup. Part of me wants to push a stick-blender in with them and make it all something that’s easier to swallow while the other part doesn’t trust that that act wouldn’t be a murder of it’s own kind. So I’m letting it be for now, knowing my brain is working on it while I dream of bizarre things in the nights.
The starting thoughts on territory were backed up by dealings with stags on the same Raasay trip – and quieter hinds – the latter seen only briefly here and there, darting eyes a jangle of nerves at every footfall, their opportunities to eat in peace apparently never without a readiness to bolt, fast. Such was the season.
When I arrived at Arnish back in October there were just one and a half hours of usable daylight left in front for a wander into the unknown. Joining the blissful audio feeds of bird song and seashore were the inelegant, part-beligerent and part-desperate calls of rutting stags.
‘How nearby?’, I’d asked the owners of the Airbnb cottage I was renting.
‘Difficult to say’, they’d said, looking at the trees and rock on the other side of their deer fence. ‘One’s definitely just up there and the other’s probably within half a K’.
My deaf dog sniffed at the air then checked my bearings and in the moment we agreed an adventure. We’d leave the unpacking to a job with the head torch later on. We’d walk outside the fence before dark and take our chances on what we might find and what might find us while we could do it without me stumbling. The drive had been long and beautiful and I had just five nights to wring everything out of the experience that I could. So we set off and didn’t come eye to eye with anything other than our own reflections in the glass of old croft house windows. But the trepidation of every grunt and testosterone laden throat gargle belonging to the antlered ushers around us quickened my heart and dropped lines from my face like no wrinkle cream has ever managed.
There is nothing better for kickstarting the soul than survivinga shared adventure and having the iPhone photos to prove it.
Yesterday I went to the zoo. The thought to go and see animals arrived in the night and beckoned for exploration, memories of the stags and the eagle calling me back to a limitless place inside myself, probably triggered by spring sunlight pushing its way around everyday spaces, making me smile without thinking. But of course you don’t find limitlessness at zoos. At zoos you find talk of research and preservation and squirrels who’ve worked out how to break in to enclosures to pinch food from animals whose instincts for handling vast territories have been forced to recalibrate to restriction, concrete under earth and discreet electric fencing as ever present, non-communicative company.
I thought about my territory yesterday too. It’s mainly Edinburgh with frequent stretches across to Glasgow and down to East Lothian. Less frequently I venture up to Aberdeen and Deeside and, at least once a year, if I was fitted with a tracking device, you’d see me on a screen heading north-west and stopping on an island to meander there for a week or so before winging back across Perthshire and the Forth. Maybe once every 18 months I go to another country altogether, taking wing in a steel tube and marvelling at real time maps through tiny windows. My territory, over my lifetime, is pretty enormous, especially compared to some of the chimps who’ve been at Edinburgh Zoo longer than the 42 years I’ve been alive.
I thought about how if I shrunk my territory in the same way as a Zoo meerkat’s is shrunk, I’d be allowed a range that just about allowed me to peek at Linlithgow, I reckon, or Eddieston to the south. Not enough. Not enough for me by far.
So the sea eagle and I have something else in common, apart from our sometimes puffed chests. We have relative freedom – but me much more so than her. Sea Eagles were reintroduced to Scotland in 1975 after being hunted to death in 1916. I’m not sure it’s fair to say they’re thriving yet – perhaps tentative optimism is brave enough for now. Secrecy is, after all, unbelievably still required about the bird’s nesting sites in order to protect them from humans who wish them harm through their own pursuits for trophies.
The bird I met on Raasay has family with datelines that intersect with my own life. One of her relatives was around the skies over west Scotland that same hot summer of 1976 I arrived in a nearby part of the world. We’re connected, albeit tenuously. I find that comforting. And while I’m absolutely still pondering territory, I’m definitely done with zoos.
I first met Norman Gilbert’s work in Edinburgh’s Sutton Gallery in July 2016. Knowing my enthusiasm for accessible Scottish art, Norman’s son Danny, a fellow writer and Twitter friend, had put me onto the event. I’d hoped to meet the artist at the exhibition, but I guess I hadn’t quite understood at that point that Norman was almost ninety and a care-giver in his sixty fifth year of marriage to his beloved Pat, as well as a practicing artist.
Before the exhibition, Danny sent me a photo of one of his Dad’s pieces. It was woman-centered; an exercise in control, repetition and mastery revealed through pattern as both negative space and focus. Most satisfying for me, however, was the indulgent use of colour. In essence, the intro to Norman’s work was a new combination of everything I look for as someone who doesn’t ‘know’ art and has come to it by accident, discovering it a useful expressway, sometimes, to a better understanding of life.
I went to the exhibition a day after it opened. The gallery was buoyant with freshly graduated artists, their energy and the pictures creating a laidback buzz. Then, discovering the artist wasn’t in the gallery past the opening night, I allowed myself to look more closely, less inhibited about being seen to say or notice the right things. In the melee, ideas about Norman fell away and the work came forward. Face to face with huge framed boards, I took in shapes and palettes; in every case, Norman’s pieces tied together by a pared back figurative emotion, clever omissions of detail and flatness in the paint accelerating the collection’s impact.
I left feeling uplifted, promising myself if I ever had a disposable income comfort zone I’d save up and treat myself to a Norman Gilbert; a huge painting for the rest of my days, a home fixture to affirm lightness and roots in the west that can be difficult to hold close, post-childhood. Afterwards too, I contacted Danny to say if his Dad would be interested, I’d love to meet him and write about his work. ‘Great!’, Danny answered, and got right onto arranging it.
What none of the Gilbert family knew would follow so soon after, however, was Pat’s health deteriorating quickly after the show closed. When I meet Norman, just fourteen months after the loss of Pat to talk about his upcoming exhibition, he’s teary, still heartrendingly fresh in grief. We talk almost immediately about the sometimes surreal nature of death, Norman likening some of the period since Pat’s passing to driving a car alone for the first time after successfully sitting his test. ‘Suddenly you’re on your own, making all the decisions with no one to ask what to do and someone has been there, all the time, till then’. As much as someone with less than half of Norman or Pat’s life experience can, I get it and it hurts badly. Among other things, grief is brave.
Standing in Norman’s studio, I flashback to how his work was somehow familiar to me the first time I saw it in Edinburgh. Maybe it was the Glasgow light in it. Maybe it was a palette often dominated by pinks; I like the shock and awe of pink used in anyway other than Barbie-esque; as a woman and mother of a daughter, it’s a relief to meet the colour in a more expansive state. Thinking of that, I tell Norman his work seems different to the view we’re told is a stereotypical male lens and this surprises him. It’s at this point I realise I’ve no objectivity; I always over identify with work centering women, because that’s what the bulk of my work’s about. Norman goes on, regarding his work with less visible emotion than I’d presumed would be at the fore, ‘all I did was simply paint scenes from my life spanning a fifty-year period’. The truth of it resonates; Norman and Pat’s sons feature hugely and Pat’s a near constant. Pat’s friends are there too, Norman explains, as are women that his and Pat’s four sons had close relationships with and brought into the fold. Norman has painted neutral fact, as he tells it, portraying a family and a home. And yet, for the outsider, there’s so much more.
As we talk, images of Pat grace the walls and lean four deep on the fireplace and the corners of three enormous window recesses. Meticulously prepared boards, never canvases, all complete, are stacked and variously wrapped on a rack about three metres wide and two metres tall, swathed in dust sheets. I feel honoured to be invited to sit in the armchair Pat and so many others have been captured in over the years. There, in a perfectly lit nest of lifetime achievement with good coffee and a biscuit in hand, I can’t not smile; I say it to Norman as I bask. ‘Don’t think I’m smug’, he replies, shifting slightly defensively in his sparse, paint-splattered wooden chair, ‘I’ve huge self-doubt, you know. Glasgow School of Art kicked me out for being unteachable, Edinburgh rejected me because they thought I’d be a dangerous influence and it was only after a lot of resistance that I finally got my diploma in 1963. Some people there wouldn’t even look at me in the corridors, they were that angry I was there.’
Norman is, I think, familiar with telling this story of an often tortuous route to success but, understandably, not entirely reconciled to peace with it and, when I ask, he says there are no lessons for anyone else in his story, that he can only tell what happened to him. Vulnerability hangs in the air until Norman moves on to saying a nicer thing was having till he was twenty-one to decide what he wanted to do, thanks to three and a half years in the navy after school. Then, two years in as a single man studying art alongside classmate Pat, Norman listened to Pat tell mutual friends the story of how she’d hitchhiked with her younger brother down through France then onwards to Rome over the summer before third year. The impression of daring and the heart-quickening the tale inspired endures and reaches out still from Norman to me in 2017. Then, Norman explains, ‘we paid a lot more attention to each other, from there’.
Before and after we speak about her, Pat’s absence is palpable in the occasional misfiring in Norman and I chatting. He’s eager to let his work speak for itself and, having met it previously and imbued it with meanings of my own, I’m eager for Norman to speak for the art and tell me where I’m right and wrong. I think, even though Pat and I were always destined to be strangers, both Norman and I miss her interjections as we attempt to bridge the gaps.
On the easel as we talk is a work in early progress called The Chair. Norman explains his process, his words and movements around the room quicker and more fluid as he directs my attention to things I should notice to understand his meaning. First, he explains, he sketches out the subject, then the sketches become full size. Then, a clean sheet of paper goes up and he does the whole thing again, finer this time, starting to process which areas will be coloured in light tones and which in dark. The next stage is to transfer the image to a prepped white painted board, then colouring the dark areas with Indian ink, creating an arresting high contrast version of what’s been and what’s to come. Finally, the image is charcoal traced onto a final board and the work of line and colour begins, then ends.
After my time with Norman I get in the car and know I must speak to his youngest son, Mark, to get the missing pieces of jigsaw about the artist I couldn’t find in his studio and home. Norman had told me proudly Mark’s an artist and an academic at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada. This information’s particularly relevant because in the last week of Pat’s life, as Norman kept hospital-beside vigil, he also sketched Pat to ‘keep himself sane’ and create a record to share events with those who couldn’t be there, like Mark. In creating the sketches, Mark reflects this poignant work was the first in which his Dad assigned a clear narrative purpose in his art.
Much of Mark’s own career has been dedicated to, ‘bringing the seeable to the unsayable’. In one of several remarkable iterations of this, working with Barts and the London NHS Trust, Mark documented patient’s journeys with portraiture before, during and after serious facial reconstruction surgeries. The records created enlightened colleagues in art and medicine about the existence of an intersection where significant therapeutic benefit to patients and care-givers occurs.
Since Pat’s death, in gentle collaboration, Norman’s sketches of Pat’s last week have since been presented by Mark to several professional, academic and lay audiences in Canada, the USA and Glasgow, facilitating and adding depth to discussions around art and medicine in complement. It’s clear for father and son that marking the end of Norman drawing Pat with a beginning of Norman’s work going into the world in a new way has been affirming in loss and comforting in possibilities of making critical care more empathic.
When I arrive home in Edinburgh after my time with Norman, my teenagers want to know where I’ve been. I show them my photos of Norman’s work and studio and they all love them. ‘How old is he?’, my daughter asks, hands beckoning impatiently at the boys for her turn to scroll through the images again. I clock she’s asking how old Norman is because what they’re seeing of his work in my photos doesn’t tally with what she remembers I’ve mentioned about the artist before today. ‘He’s 91’, I answer and they all look up, surprised. ’19?’, my daughter asks, dissonance growing. ‘No. 91.’ ‘I actually really like this though’, my son chips in, frowning. The relevance of Norman’s style has made a connection over several generations and done that thing perhaps only art or photography can; it’s offered a glimmer of someone else’s reality in a world we know to be our own.
‘Do you mind when a painting gets sold?’, I’d asked Norman not long before I left, thinking I’d be devastated to let work like this go. ‘Not at all’, says Norman. ‘I think the house looks better without it standing around. Let’s the light in’. ‘You’ve created so much though’, I think out loud. ‘I think the biggest thing I’ve created is a problem for my sons’, Norman answers, nodding at the enormous rack, looking wholly perplexed then wondering, ‘I mean, what will they do with it all? It’ll take a few skips.’ I tell him I don’t think his sons will have a problem or need skips but his answering shrug says he’s unconvinced.
When asked what Pat would make of his last drawings of her, Norman gives a little laugh and says she’d probably just say, ‘there he goes again’.
Norman’s work goes again at The Tatha Gallery in Newport on Tay in Fife, from the 12th of January to the 17th of February, where twenty-four extraordinary pieces will be featured in a retrospective exhibition. You’ll probably find me smiling obsessively at a huge painting of three women. Back in the 60s, Norman saw two of the women in the Glasgow subway and stored the detail of them in his head until he got home and could start recording them on paper. There’s the protective knock of knees around a shopping bag between feet, the tightness of a headscarf over hair, fastenings on jackets, hemlines and a dog on the knee of one of the women that became a bag. Norman nods at it, remembering; ‘if I’d kept it as a dog it would’ve looked like a bad piece of taxidermy’. I’d asked who the other woman was and he’d answered, ‘I made her up. I needed her for balance and I put all three of them in this house.’ There we were, regarding three women in what was once the grand drawing room of Pats’ three Aunts, two of whom were teachers while the third kept house. Between them all, they brought Pat up while her Mum lived and worked in London. Then, as time moved on, Norman, Pat and the boys made the house their family home. We’re in a house of stories, many of them belonging to women. Pat, the kids and the plants around Norman – every living thing he saw at different ages – they and the house are the muse combined.
Then, today, there’s the maker, standing alongside and invisibly inside stories of a marriage, family and home, the meaning of it all evolving fast because, at 91, Norman’s at the wheel alone for the first time again. The privilege of experiencing those layered insights within the lifetime of an artist is, without doubt, extraordinary.
My nephew moved in with us a few months ago, all the way from a Pyrenean idyll in the south of France. It’s really interesting seeing someone discover Edinburgh, it reminds me of all the compromises we’ve made along the way as well as the rewards of the move. It’s also interesting living with a ‘new’ person full-time. It holds a mirror up to everyone’s personalities and quirks and asks whether you’ll each change or grow the things about yourself that are suddenly more visible. Mostly, it feels like an excellent challenge.
My daughter tells me she learned at school there hasn’t been a May as dry as this in Scotland since before I was born in 1976.
It seems we picked a lucky time for digging a new border in the garden and moving plants around to fill it up. It’s become habit, to go out between writing and running about and be amongst plants growing right before my eyes, echoing the kids growing and changing too. This time of the teenager seems the busiest of family life yet – and possibly the most rewarding.
A proper road trip – a long time in the car, sweets, music, stops for the dog to wee, chats about memories. Maniacs in white vans, eye-spy and the name game.
Does it all sound perfect?
It wasn’t. We fought, too. There were hideous tensions as well as laughs and Kodak moments. Families trying to keep growing together at the same time as letting kids grow up are like that, I reckon. The wood of the construction makes different noises in different weather.
Roots and wings.
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