For the final interview in Series 3 of Between the Art, I talked to artist and jeweller Amy Dunnachie.
Amy grew up, and is still based, on the Isle of Jura on the west coast of Scotland. It was during a portfolio development course at Glasgow School of Art that Amy realised silversmithing was what she wanted to pursue. She continued on to study Jewellery and Silversmithing at Glasgow School of Art, graduating in 2015. Amy is now studying for her MA in Art and Social Practice at the University of Highlands and Islands, and this has allowed her to further understand that her practice is heavily socially based and place-based. She works with the people around her in a very collaborative way, which is an important part of the ethos behind her work. Story-telling is also a prominent part of Amy’s practice, salvaging old objects for new treasures.
Amy has such a rich practice that incorporates social engagement, collaboration with people and her environment, along with her beautiful jewellery. This article is a fun one, giving a small taste of what it’s like to be an artist working on the tiny island that Amy calls home. Read through to the end for a great book list!
Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?
On this island that I call home, the Isle of Jura, it’s a way of life. When you live in a place like this, you are very close to your neighbours and family; and to be a part of this community, you have to work from a place of mutual respect. You rub shoulders with people from all sorts of different backgrounds, and therefore there are a lot of different opinions and ideas. It can be challenging but it opens you up to other perspectives. Working in the context of a smaller island community gives you a collaborative practice that is very people-based.
My jewellery is made from found objects and it comes from a place of story-telling. There is a materiality to it where I consider why I’m using the materials that I’m working with. I find these on the beach so there is also the wider conversation of looking after the environment. It’s very beautiful and wild here so I feel very connected to the natural environment. I’m connected to the people and the nature, which people are a part of as well.
"When you live in a place like this, you are very close to your neighbours and family; and to be a part of this community, you have to work from a place of mutual respect. It can be challenging but it opens you up to other perspectives."
How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?
It starts with the people and their circumstances. Living here, you have to be able to do a lot of different things to make sure that your work is feasible. You have to be resourceful because you don’t have access to a lot of things! Therefore, I am resourceful with the materials I’m using, which is the seed of how I start my creative process. I collect materials such as driftwood or plastic; or it can be collecting less tangible things such as people’s ideas about certain things or observations. For example: if I picked up material from the beach, the manifestation of this might be a broach to help people consider marine litter and how we can tackle it, or considering the fishing industry, or island life…
I also work collaboratively with a couple of other creatives and we organise creative workshops. Recently, we did a film festival for the islanders here as a way of facilitating a conversation around the changes that have happened since the pandemic, but in a fun way.
What is the main subject of your inspiration?
I would say resourcefulness and using what you have in your surroundings to build something new. This comes from a personal value of not wanting to waste anything or consume too much, environmentally but also in terms of holding onto your values and understanding who you are. There is always talk about resilience, but you don’t want to be knocked down just to try and get back up all the time! What islanders are really good at is being resourceful and using what they have to good effect. This really speaks to me and my practice, but also in what ideas I want to promote to other people.
Curiosity is a source of inspiration as well, questioning why things are the way they are, and whether you want them to be that way. It also has to be fun! I tend to use bright colours along with my story-telling narrative and almost children’s story aesthetics. There needs to be fun and humour in art too!
What are you working on at the moment?
Alongside creating more community activities with SO:AR, such as film screenings and coffee mornings, I'm also in the planning stages of my final MA project with the University of Highlands and Islands. I haven't ironed out all the details of this yet, but I want to capture and document some of the more nuanced elements of what 'island life' teaches you through activities such as storytelling evenings, walks and cycles, and workshops in my island community. It is important to me that the process contributes to feelings of connection and is a positive experience for all participants. I have run several workshops on tool and jewellery making, encouraging people to use them as a metaphor for staying true to their personal values, and I can see this being a useful way of developing ideas around our contemporary islander identities. I would love to work in other communities too, which might be possible through this process - we'll see!
What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?
I think sense of place comes with a sense of belonging: do you feel that you want to be a part of something? Have you got space to be a part of that something? Do you feel safe and secure as part of your community? I think it is very people-orientated.
As a visual practitioner, people hear that I’m from an island and say, “Oh, you must be so inspired by the wildlife and the landscape!” Of course I am, but that is a very small part of my work. It has more to do with the connections that you make with the community. For me, sense of place is these connections that you are able to make with the people around you, whether or not they are meaningful to you and your values.
Sense of place is very personal and definitely a massive part of my work. I remember that someone once asked me if I would still make the same work if I lived somewhere else: I think I would because it would be based on the experiences that I’ve had here; as when you are from a place that means a lot to you, you can’t ignore it. This is largely because I feel as though I belong with the people around me.
I also have a deep family heritage here which is a sense of connection in itself. I’m connected to people who I don’t know. There is almost this generational knowledge.
"I remember that someone once asked me if I would still make the same work if I lived somewhere else: I think I would because it would be based on the experiences that I’ve had here; as when you are from a place that means a lot to you, you can’t ignore it."
Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?
In my jewellery, I love mixing natural materials with man-made materials. It gives a holistic view of the environment that we are currently in because it’s not all natural and there are man-made elements, which we are all part of. With the materials I collect, I think about how it ended up where it did and challenge the ideas around it.
In terms of social art work, nature is a big part of it as well in the sense of using the environment that we are in. It informs where we are doing the work and what work we are doing. Again, it considers the relationships people have with each other, or the relationships they have with the place. In the collective that I’m part of, we always encourage people to cycle to the events. This helps to address the very obvious carbon issue, but also it makes you feel good when you cycle! You observe the environment more. When you are more connected to this, you give out your best self – I certainly feel as though I do.
Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?
Yes, hugely! I love swimming and so I swim in the sea as much as I can. I also walk and cycle every day. I fish and I’m trying to grow vegetables, although I’m not a professional in any sense! But, I like being connected to these self-sufficient practices. I just love being outdoors!
Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?
There are so many I could choose!
There is an American artist, Hunter Franks, who does a lot of socially engaged art work. He hosts community meals on a huge scale with the concept of bringing people together in deprived areas. There is also an element of reconnecting people to places. I really love his work and quite often return to it.
Aesthetically, I like the work of jeweller and silversmith Stuart Cairns, who is from Ireland. On social media I’m obsessed with following him as he swims outside every day! He also has a very methodical practice and a lovely way of sharing it with others.
What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?
It might sound cliché to say “Be yourself,” but really work on this and understand what your values are. Question how you want to practice, where your passions are, and what makes you really excited; it’s that feeling that you can just keep making or doing. Harness this and figure out what it is that makes you feel like this.
Stick to your guns. Especially if you are just starting out as an artist, you might be presented with opportunities that maybe don’t quite align with your values and way of working. You might feel as though you need to take these opportunities in order to make a living, but always question them. Go back to whoever has offered this to you and say, “Can we tweak this so that it works more for me?” If they have come to you then they like what you do, so own it!
Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?
Always be curious, and find the fun and magic in everything that you do. Use what is around you but in a respectful and sensitive way to the environment. And, have fun whilst doing it!
Amy's Book List:
1. On Connection by Kae Tempest
This is an amazing little book all about craft and connection, and finding this.
2. Slug, and other things I've been told to hate by Hollie McNish
Hollie is a poet and writer who questions our everyday actions and beliefs in humorous and clear cut ways. I love a bit of poetry and this book really captures what it means to be a woman in today's ever changing world, and what respect can look like. Read it if you haven't already!
3. A Restless Art by François Matarasso
This is a text that looks into participatory, community art: what it means, what it means to people all over the world, and why it's important. It looks to history, to the future, to theory and to practice. It's an encyclopaedia of ‘people work' in the arts!
All Images: Artist's Own