Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Grammar of Wavelength Exhibition & Waypoints

A Review by Jon Miller


Grammar of Wavelength Exhibition - Stephen|Morrison
An Talla Solais Art Centre, Ullapool.

Waypoints
Ian Stephen
Adlard Coles Nautical/Bloomsbury


A South Coast One Design (Charles Nicholson). Artwork by: Christine Morrison
A South Coast One Design (Charles Nicholson). Artwork by: Christine Morrison

The fused artist personage of Ian Stephen and Christine Morrison - Stephen|Morrison - presented the latest of their sea-faring collaborations in their recent Grammar of Wave-length exhibition at the impressive gallery An Talla Solais in Ullapool and at An Lanntair in Stornoway. Many of the works are based on sailing their sloop El Vigo from their home port of Stornoway to islands around the Scottish north-west coast - from nearby Shiants and Hirta or further afield to Orkney and Shetland - and also include projects in Canada and Tasmania. The exhibition is accompanied by Waypoints, Stephen’s memoir of his growth and maturity as a coastguard and sailor, and Maritime, the new collection of Stephen’s poetry.

The exhibition contains works ranging from Christine Morrison’s paintings and pen and ink illustrations to Stephen’s writing, poetry, traditional tales and artefacts associ-ated with navigation. There is a great deal about fixing your position in a constantly moving world - whether at sea, on land or in history. For instance, an old lead depth gauge and set of compasses lie on a chart of Lochs Erisort, Leurbost and Grimshader; in the next exhibit along are a range of navigation devices - a Decca navigator, a hand-held compass and radio direction finder among others - now supplanted by GPS devic-es. This isn’t merely nautical history - it details a shift in how we read nature, how we use technology to mediate between it and ourselves - we now navigate by the false stars of satellites rather than the constellations. As a counterpoint, a pair of glasses are casu-ally left on the old chart as if having just plotted a course - the human and personal en-tering into the abstract world of mathematical and astronomical calculation.

As a contrast to all this aqueousness, Christine Morrison’s paintings emerged from the Stephen|Morrison residency in Tasmania. Containing hand-ground earth pigment, these, in their rough ochres and reds, evoke the blood running in the earth and the bru-talities visited on the Aboriginal people, further echoed in Stephen’s accompanying po-em Ash in the figure of the spiny anteater, the echidna.

There are images of grain silos in Saskatchewan taken whilst driving: huge structures acting as landmarks that become lighthouses or waypoints by which someone might navigate across the flat immensities of the Canadian prairie landscape. Others – grainy, washed-out, photogravure images of Sule Skerry, Fair Isle, Boreray, Sula Sgeir, all tak-en at sea level - give the landforms an eerie otherworldliness, like mythical lands, ultima Thule or those encountered by wandering Celtic monks in The Voyage of St Brendan and are accompanied by a traditional tale particular to that island.

Something of an artistic aesthetic appears in Waypoints as Stephen describes how boats go through their various incarnations and restorations, often individualised by the tastes of their different owners) and how the essential shape (which will also have mi-nor variations depending on location and function) is reformed and refashioned, just as tales are with their localised variations, thus becoming a ‘living thing’. In this constant reforming and retelling, individuals and communities become bound together, a com-mon culture to be handed on to yet more change. So larch boards intended for a boat become a three-dimensional poem which later becomes a tiller when the art work is no longer viable and this tiller guides Stephen and his crew, in perhaps the most dramatic chapter in Waypoints, to Orkney for an art exhibition at the Pier Art Gallery in Stromness.

This kind of flow is achieved in both Waypoints and Grammar of Wavelength, each time being overlaid with a history that lends them additional significance and - a com-mon habit of Stephen’s -  the chance for more stories - ‘yarns’ - over tea or whisky. The works negotiate the space between the practical and the poetic, the maritime and the metaphysical in that while there have to be the life-preserving practicalities of sailing techniques and skills, poems and stories take us into the ‘other world’ of dream or vi-sion, a shared sense of memory and culture contained in the tales in Waypoints -  tales of revenge, lost sons, ghostly returns, murders - and provide the deep background to Stephen’s contemporary accounts of island communities.   

In Waypoints, along with Christine Morrison’s pen and ink illustrations of the various craft Ian Stephen refers to, there is a host of detail about sailing, boat construction and technology which will intrigue and engross the sailing community and also demon-strates Stephen’s and Morrison’s considerable skill and knowledge. However, I kept feeling there was another more expansive book lurking in the shadows.

The title Waypoints, suggesting a particular navigation point on a journey, provides an opportunity for a ruminative and reflective examination of its subject. Stephen cites Gavin Francis and Adam Nicolson as influences and their approach of referencing a wide range of historical, philosophical and literary sources to extend their subject into unfamiliar areas and make unexpected connections would have made for an invigorat-ing read. There are elements of that approach, and it was not Stephen’s full intention here, but there is surely a place for a book that uses the islands and sea routes of the West Coast of Scotland to examine the huge and important cultural and historical lega-cy of our islands. If Nicolson can do it for Homer and Francis for the human body, I’m sure someone (Stephen|Morrison?) could produce a similar epic for Scotland.