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Louise Barrington: Sensing the Invisible to Make Things Visible

This week’s article is with Louise Barrington, who is the 20th artist to be featured on Between the Art!

Originally from the Orkney Islands in Scotland, Louise moved to London to study at Central Saint Martins specialising in Textile Design, and then went on to the Slade School of Fine Art to study Sculpture. Although she loved London with the many galleries and museums, Louise frequently visited Orkney and made the leap six years ago to return and begin her work teaching at Orkney College, which is part of the University of Highlands and Islands. She teaches on the degree programme Art and Contemporary Practices. Louise’s previous studio was in Stromness but has since moved back to Kirkwall.

This article paints a picture of what it’s like to be an artist living and working on the beautiful island of Orkney. Louise speaks of living with the landscape, noticing the invisible alongside the visible, and the importance of changing our “everyday dance” to reside in harmony with our environment.

Where do you work? What makes this place important for your creative process?

Even when I was living in London, my work was about Orkney, memories and place, but returning back to Orkney as an islander enlightened everything. I felt much clearer in the direction I wanted my work to take. The importance of being in Orkney has a very big impact on my creative practice.

My current studio overlooks Scapa Flow, a huge bay, which is a constant moving image. There is always something happening. I’m living within this environment because I’m directly affected by the place. This can be for a many number of reasons, such as the weather patterns; it’s my everyday existence.

How would you describe your creative process? Do you use certain mediums/techniques to develop your creative ideas?

After returning from London, I was really lucky to get a solo exhibition at the Piers Art Centre in 2017. It was a great experience to push myself in what I could actually do. I was really interested in the idea of reimagining the landscape that I experience, and how I could communicate this within a space and with the people walking through the space. The work also responded to the changing light, so the shadows were part of the work itself. As with any part of the world, Orkney has a rich history and cultural heritage, and our presence within the landscape is very fleeting, reflected with the idea of light and shadows changing.

There is energy that vibrates within open spaces, which links me to the Japanese aesthetic called “Ma”: a space between two markers. For example: it could be the space around individual flowers that are part of the dialogue of the work; or it could be spaces within music, or in conversations. Orkney is very lush and green, with a lot of open space and rolling hills. This exposed environment made me think of renewable energy and how we use renewable energy within the landscape. These innervated places are using the invisible to make things visible.

"I’m interested in those times of day, dusk, dawn, evening or twilight, that are these in between spaces where there is a lot of possibility within the time frame."

What is the main subject of your inspiration?

I’m very influenced by Japanese aesthetics, which runs throughout my thinking and work when linking it to the landscape in Orkney. Seasonal patterns also have an effect as the Japanese follow and are influenced by the seasons. Going back to “Ma” and the spaces in between, I’m interested in those times of day, dusk, dawn, evening or twilight, that are like these in between spaces where there is a lot of possibility within the time frame.

The colour scheme is also important. I used commercial textiles for my work for the Piers Art Centre. I wasn’t happy with this because they didn’t feel like they were of the land. So I started to do natural dyeing, looking for things from the landscape and in my everyday life that I could use. This helps to create a certain time and place, captured within the textiles of my work.

Sustainability is very prevalent now as of the climate crisis we are in. We are in between two markers where we have to change our everyday patterns to support our local environments. The more I thought about my studio practice, and wanting to support the landscape because it has such a huge impact on my work, I wanted to say something about this. It’s very subtle and I’m still trying to figure out how to approach this.

What are you working on at the moment?

At the beginning of last year, I put in a big application to Creative Scotland, but because of the pandemic, I had to withdraw it. I reshaped it and resubmitted it, deciding to approach the project in stages. At the moment, I have support for a year-long project of research and development. It’s called Four Seasons: Making the Invisible Visible. It’s looking at different aesthetical and environmental aspects of the landscape. There is an Orcadian writer called Edwin Muir who talks about his childhood in Orkney, during which there was no distinction between the ordinary and the fabulous. I feel that this is an important part of our everyday dance that we do; really looking at the landscape you are in, noticing a sunset or the changing light, which can apply to everyone, even those who live in cities.

I’m also working with a dancer and choreographer, Stephanie Hellewell, and a sound artist, Amy Beeston, to help build up this body of work. One example is using sculpture as part of the landscape but also as dance and in film. It’s a big project which I’m just starting to get to grips with and get clarity on. I have been doing a lot of editing with the dancer and the next stage is to focus on the light of the landscape and to use this in the filming.

Engaging with the community is also a big part of this project, particularly engaging with a younger audience. I have been doing workshops at a local school, working with the idea of the everyday fabulous and applying it to our reimagining and rethinking of our patterns.

What does “sense of place” mean to you? Is this concept present in your work?

I think there is this feeling of belonging to a place. As an islander, I had this sense that was in my DNA to keep returning to Orkney. This comes through in my work with the idea of using my every day: what I experience on walks, or even in the kitchen! These experiences all hold a sense of time and place.

I think time is an important factor. The more time you spend in a place, the more you start to have your own patterns, every day dances, you start to meet people and have conversations… Everyone has their own experiences of a particular place, through the feelings that are brought up. It could also be a scent or a sound that reminds you of a place and throws you back physically to a certain time. With my current work, I’m looking at these sensory, invisible things that we experience and have a huge impact within us so that they take us back to a memory of a certain time and place.

"The more time you spend in a place, the more you start to have your own patterns, every day dances, you start to meet people and have conversations… Everyone has their own experiences of a particular place, through the feelings that are brought up."

Are there elements of your work that connect with or are inspired by the natural world?

The seasons, and watching the seasons change, are an important element of my work. An Orcadian filmmaker, writer and poet who has really influenced my work is Margaret Tait. Seeing her films and realising she was from Orkney, I thought, “Wow! Someone from Orkney can do this, there’s hope for me yet!” She mentioned the idea of stalking the image, or observing something for it to speak its true nature. I think this relates to time and our time within a landscape, our shadows within the landscape. We are all here for a certain amount of time, in flux, passing through this landscape. The seasons are closely linked with this and have this rolling circle, which is a huge part of my work.

I tend to use the words “landscape” or “environment,” rather than the natural world. I think we have got used to this idea of certain things being invisible, and this has strong links to climate change where things that we cannot see are changing and are having a major impact. There have been patterns, our footprints, that have caused climate change, and now we need to change our everyday dance to support our environment. We all have such a heavy footprint within the natural world that now it is not really “natural.”

Does the natural world have a part to play in your everyday life?

My view is this constant moving image of the seasons, and I often stop and look at things I notice. The natural world also dictates what I wear, what shoes I wear, all those everyday things…

Also, in the winter, because it’s very exposed where I live, it can be quite sublime where you think, “I hope the house is still here tomorrow morning!” We have had 100mph gales hitting the house, which is pretty scary! I’ve had my car windows smashed because of the wind. So you have to play along with whatever the weather throws, for both your own safety and enjoyment.

Do you have a favourite artist or creative individual? Someone who has artistically inspired your work?

The Piers Art Centre has an amazing collection of art works, such as Barbara Hepworth, and Sarah Barker. It supports local artists as well. This has always been inspiring as it was the first art gallery I ever visited.

I’m also part of a collective in Orkney with great artists. We have a show opening soon on the island Papa Westray. And, going to the Slade School of Art allowed me to meet some great people. It is hard to say a favourite person as there is so much interesting work out there!

There are a lot of Japanese textile artists who have influenced my practice. I had the chance to go to Kyoto University a few years ago and I met one of the artists who taught there, which was an amazing experience!

What would your top piece of advice be for creatives navigating their way in the arts industry today?

After experiencing the past year, I think taking care of yourself is really important. Being self-employed can be quite hard, especially when it comes to taking days off.

There is a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and I always recommend this to students I teach on the Professional Practice degree programme at the college here. It mentions the idea of taking yourself on an artist’s date and doing something just for you. I always advise students to take a day off and step away from everything, although I’m not very good at following this advice myself!

Do you have a message that you hope to give to the world?

Looking at our everyday ordinary fabulous, but also changing our everyday patterns to support the environment around us, and to support each other.

Climate change is affecting everyone. In Orkney, you can find yourself in a little bit of a bubble but I’ve had discussions with people and climate change can be such an overwhelming thing to tackle. You can sit and think about it over and over, but I think there is something we can all do to help through changing our everyday approaches. Spend time really looking at what is around you to see the ordinary fabulous.

Louise's Book List:

1. Margaret Tait: Poems, Stories and Writings, edited by Sarah Neely

This book has had a really big impact on me. I was lucky enough to meet Sarah who is a filmmaker and lecturer at Glasgow University.

2. An Autobiography by Edwin Muir

I really enjoyed reading this book about Muir’s time in Orkney. He moved to industrial Glasgow when he was fourteen, which would have been a complete shock! It’s a lovely book.

3. Personae by Margaret Tait

I’m slowly chipping away at this one!

4. Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn

The author has been to many amazing places, such as Cyprus in the war zone, and she describes how nature has reclaimed spaces that were once occupied by man. It’s a very interesting book.

To find out more about Louise's work, visit her website and see her Instagram @louise_barrington

All Images: Artist's Own


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