NORTH FROM SUTHERLAND  



North from Sutherland

I come from a Highland family and grew up in Tongue and Helmsdale, Sutherland. I was born in 1950.

Lying at the northern end of mainland Britain, Sutherland is so named because the Vikings called the north coast of Scotland the Southern Land.

I have entitled my current body of work North from Sutherland because it concerns Sutherland and an investigation of what is to the north of it.

The Sutherland of the post-war years seems to me like another world; it was and felt truly remote. Indeed, all but one of the roads of this sparsely populated and vast county were single track. Bridges now spanning arms of the sea had not been built. It felt like a great, pristine, undiscovered land. And, by and large, it was.

When I went to art school, in London, I started to depict Sutherland because I wanted to show everyone what it was like. I was studying textile design and I put, onto fabric, renderings of Sutherland mountains, including the inselberg Suilven. This, the Sugar Loaf Mountain, enthralled me and I drew it a hundred times. I wrote my thesis on life in Sutherland as it was then, and I soon knew that its landscapes would always be the main subject of my work.

My work has always been abstracted landscapes. One day I put a painting on the floor and it happened to land beside another, which it overlapped. I liked the effect and since then I have been a collagist.

For a long time I wondered what was beyond Sutherland. I was intrigued by the thought of lands that were more northerly, remote and elemental: Sutherland, exaggerated. And so I visited Iceland and Greenland.

I found that much of Iceland is indeed similar to Sutherland, with its inselbergs and odd shapes rising out of low land and the lack of tall vegetation to obscure vistas of them. Its fjords are like Sutherland's Loch Eriboll. But it all seems on a mightier scale. What I saw of the land of Greenland looked exactly like the cnoc and lochan areas of west Sutherland: a giant version of Assynt.

My dream of seeing "Sutherland, exaggerated" has been fulfilled. However, my work is mostly influenced by what overlies much of these lands: the lava fields of Iceland and the ice of Greenland. I try to evoke specific places with my choices of colour. Cerulean and manganese blue washes are used to convey icebergs. Large areas of heavy black gouache are intended to evoke expanses of lava. I have also used the Indian red of some of the Icelandic earth. The Sutherland pieces tend to be dominated by browns, greys and some cobalt blue.

It took me a long time - many years - to invent the collage method I use. I first colour paper, usually with watercolour paint using the "wet on wet" process. I then juxtapose pieces of coloured and torn paper in various combinations. To enable me to judge the image from a distance, I stick the pieces to a vertical surface. To permit changes, I use for this removable adhesive tape. To enable me to retain the composition when I remove the tape prior to gluing the pieces to backing paper, I use numbered registration marks.

Adjustments to the image can be made quickly and, after each one has been made, I stand back from it. This is essential as I find my experiments readily produce something which looks beautiful when seen close up but ugly from a distance. The speed with which one can try out permutations of collage pieces - that is, permutations of visual components - means that effective comparison between them is possible; this is the main point of the method.

For each image, I try many, sometimes hundreds of, permutations. I try to give it, near the centre, a focal point or area which is pleasing and, on the remainder, try to put interest which does not distract the eye from the focal area. When I start a new piece I do not know how it will turn out because it will evolve, and always into something I would not have thought of.

In my North from Sutherland project, which comprises almost ten years' work, I have tried to convey the purity, mystery and drama of these northern l andscapes. However, I feel that, because of modern development and global warming, it has a retrospective angle.

I visited Ilulissat in the high Arctic- the town of the icebergs. The Ilulissat Ice Fjord is a glacial ice stream which flows from the Greenland ice-cap and calves into a fjord. It is the most productive glacier outside Antarctica and the mouth of the fjord was choked with icebergs of immense number, size and beauty.

I feel my work, and that of other artists who paint pristine landscapes of these places, is a record for the way they have been. Much of Sutherland has lost its pristine look; glaciers in Iceland have been receding; ice in Greenland has been melting. In 2005 my brother and I saw, from the air on the Greenland ice-cap, ovals of intense sapphire blue which were lakes of melt water.

A few years later, my brother flew over Greenland and saw that the blue ovals were about ten times as large and that the choked icebergs had gone.

Ann Davidson