The Pap of Glencoe, Gold-Ringed Dragonfly ovipositing in Glencoe Lochan within the nurturing reflection of the Pap
Ard Neakie, Field-sketch of the limestone quarry with views down the mighty Moine Thrust
Reflections from fine artist Anna Kirk-Smith
In 2021 we announced our second Claire Frances Peasnall Memorial Award recipient - here Anna Kirk-Smith talks about her Award project and 28 days of wild camping in the remote western Highlands.
I applied for the Claire Frances Peasnall Memorial Fund to explore my approaches to landscape painting through a month spent camping and working in the Highlands of Scotland. My underlying wish was to “save me from my structured self”. I have in the past mostly produced imagery for an array of specific purposes, or briefs, and when released from these strictures, I found myself initially lost. Working in the field, that which is created in the spirit of exploration, in a quick and dirty manner whilst not end in itself possesses the essence of the experience and can bear more informed fruit at a later date. So I thought, maybe that’s the way forward. “Just make it, Kirk-Smith.” became a mantra. “Stop bloody critiquing yourself”.
I concentrated on visiting areas of low population and maximum wildness in Sutherland, Assynt and Coigach, Glencoe, Ardnamurchan and Skye. Prior to travelling I learned from online discussion groups with wild campers, climbers and bothy groups where to discover the remoter areas of Highland landscape and the practicalities of accessing them safely, respectfully and how to leave no trace.
With the Covid19 effects of ‘staycation’ in full flow, certain single-track rat-runs we full of dodgily-driven, first-time motorhomers, but as soon as you left the main routes and trekked into the hills or to far-flung beaches then it was quiet, save for the omnipresent wildlife into whose landscape I had blundered. Here I encountered remotely soaring eagles, night-grunting red deer and over-friendly pine martens. Perhaps more intriguing to me this time was the most glorious array of invertebrates and flora: the short-lived burst of Scotch Argus butterflies, the strange ovipositing behaviour of certain dragonflies and the quixotic delight of encountering in a upland bog a saxifrage nourishing plentiful flies, alongside sticky, gleaming sundew traps digesting them.
This trip was tough, I sank in bogs, inadvertently descended slopes rather more quickly than I had intended and spent much time munching antihistamines (horseflies love my face), but perhaps even more challenging was the painting itself. I have (through tantrums and dizzy highs) come to understand much more about my approaches to creating work, and I have also learned some much-needed field skills en route too, thanks to my pocket SAS Survival Handbook.
The weather was a complete personality in this experience, upon whom I relied, against whom I railed and, at times, I blessed for its small mercies. Rarely have I been so thoroughly lashed, sodden and baked, and often within the same day. All these lived experiences found their way not only into my paintings and exploratory drawings, but also into written prose and audio discussions that I developed throughout the journey with people I met and chatted to about their personal relationships with their ‘habitat’.
I also wanted to explore the possibilities of storytelling through art works. The experience of living within the landscape for an extended period completely altered my sense of time and narratives, understanding for once what it feels like to exist as ‘just another species’. I learned the importance of the give and take of tides, the formidable face of weather fronts and the reading of plant and algal species to understand whether solid ground lay underneath my path, or concealed water systems that could lead to me becoming the next Tollund Man. Alongside all this grew a healthy sense of fear or wariness to keep not just safe, but alive.
Within these Highland landscapes, it is easy to get absorbed completely by the ‘epic’. I tried to moderate the overwhelming aspects of this by studying the small details too, this is sometimes not as easy as it sounds and much of my fieldwork mirrored this easy trap I fell into. We are naturally drawn to awe, the history of the landscape genre almost demands it. However, place is defined on an array of scales and levels, and this is how I should be investigating it. I aimed also to explore new materials in the field, which I did, perhaps not as skillfully as I may have hoped, but my learning and mastering of new craft skills are certainly growing, and can continue to be developed.
I have gathered enough material during this one trip to fuel investigative artworks for at least three years. Experiments undertaken in the field, which are rough and improvisatory by dint of physical carrying and making limitation, I am now developing into more resolved pieces/interventions with which I will return with to the Highlands and reintroduce them in a range of ways to the place of their conception as temporary, documentable pieces.
It has been a tough, emotional, productive, life-changing journey, and the aim of complete personal and artistic deconstruction has been achieved. After many years where teaching art took priority over practicing, it has brought into sharp focus my current artistic limitations and the realisation that I need to keep pushing through new experimentations and the accompanying frustrations to regain the visual traction that is core to my life. I now in the process of rebuilding myself and my work again in a more considered, but funnily enough, a much freer manner.
The visual experimentation, time of quiet reflection and personal space I have had the luxury of on this trip has also greatly inspired new and more exploratory approaches to a book I am writing and illustrating. The experimental interplay of narrative and imagery/audio/video I played with over this past month will also help to take me in a completely new career trajectory.
For giving me the space and time to discover this, I cannot thank St Hugh’s and Claire Peasnall’s family enough. As I lay in the tent at night, listening to fizzing rain on canvas, and the scratching of creatures unknown outside, I often thought of Claire and her exuberant, painterly, fire-working of flora and fauna. Her mantra of “letting go” and courting chance were embraced also as the mainstays of my journey. I am still working on this premise, so thank you Claire for this.
Read Anna's full report here: