How Scotland Gave an Artist Creative Fodder

Parvathi Nayar on her silver linings sketchbook.  
Isle of Skye, Scotland
Soaking in the Isle of Skye is about enjoying the small things, like watching the sunset from the iconic Neist Point Lighthouse. Photo by Nick Fox/Shutterstock.

The clothesline of the heavens is hung with a deep grey fabric that stretches down to the low horizon. Beyond the gunmetal cloud bank, unseen yet real, a pale sun turns to silver—liquid, magic silver—the edge where loch meets sky. The air shimmers with water, and in four hours exactly my daughter will see her first-ever rainbow.

We are travelling on the Trotternish Peninsula of Skye, looking down the hill towards the village of Uig. The landscape, spare, majestic and desolate, unfolds along the ribbon of the road for just the three of us, which includes my eight-year-old daughter and Pam, who is driving the bus. The scale of space that I have come to drink in is breathtaking. It’s one of the key reasons why I keep my passport updated: to restock that inner reservoir of wonderment upon which I can draw.

It is a feat that can be accomplished only if I am physically at the place in question. It’s the difference between sending the postcard of a glorious sunset and beholding the sunset myself. The former demands that I undercut its prettiness with some scribbled wit: “The weather is here, wish you were nice”; but if I am present then I become witness and participant, a mourner in the ritual of the dying day.

Executing the desire to travel isn’t an easy achievement for me, and involves the deft juggling of time, finances, work and familial pressures. Pressures that can so easily kill the travelling impulse. Yet, time after time, I have found how travel clears the cobwebs that creep into my mind, when its geography has remained unchallenged for long stretches of time.

Isle of Skye

The small, picturesque towns scattered along the Skye. Photo Courtesy: Parvathi Nayar

The Isle of Skye has been replete with many such cobweb-clearing moments, from watching seals swim in the distance to listening to the eerie sounds of wind and water at Kilt Rock. Originally, though, I had booked myself into this, my first coach tour, with some nervousness: what if the tourist busloads destroyed that intensely personal involvement with a place? However, it proved to be the perfect choice: one, because it was just the three of us, and two, because the Scottish Highlands yield perfect landscapes for long stretches of travel in a bus.

Every frame of the Highlands is a still from some sci-fi film, and I feel the pressure to record it with my camera. I am the child in the candy store who wants to taste everything, all at once. But once that frenzy settles down, I am content to just look and experience—the spookiness of Glencoe, or the colour explosion of the golden gorse, or building my own small cairn with stones that I have collected along the way. Scotland is a rare place where rain has the gumption to present itself as a necessary addition to the atmospheric vistas—happily enjoyed in the dry comfort of the bus.

But back to our moment of admiring the skyscape over Uig. It is decision time: should we drive past the otherworldly landscape of the Quiraing again or head off in search of the Faerie Glen? The lure of the little people wins, and off we go on our expedition, giving me time to segue into a reverie on the wherefores of journeys.

The story of art is peppered with many life-changing expeditions undertaken by artists: Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer’s journeys to Italy or Paul Gauguin’s voyages to the South Pacific or Paul Klee’s trip to Tunisia. Travel, in these cases, profoundly influenced the visual language of the artists and the works they produced.

Parvathi Nayar

The author (and artist). Photo Courtesy: Parvathi Nayar.

For me, the act of travelling does sometimes yield actual fodder to create art. For example, though not a landscape painter, I am fascinated by water and by the monochrome palette. I find myself shooting endless images in Scotland of how nature presents herself in grey, black and white. Perhaps these images will find their way into a show as photographs or video art. Or perhaps these inspirations will work subtly, expressed in the scale or emotion of an artwork.

It is a very agreeable pastime just to be a flâneur: walk, move, observe and let the milieu wash around oneself. I can see variations on a theme, and that changes perspective; I notice how people are different and yet the same.

I also travel to see art. It is the creative equivalent of the religious pilgrimage—the opportunity to visit historically important sites, museums and galleries. We may live in the digital age, but no image can replicate the experience of being in the presence of the actual work. Just as a writer is exhorted to read more and more to become a better writer, equally, it is important to have a sense of the vast history of the art to which one belongs, in an infinitesimal way.

As the ways of the Scottish landscape wind past me on our way to the Faerie Glen, I can’t help wishing I had the time and resources to create a mini art residency for myself here. To rent a croft and stay a while—with the optional extra of someone to cook and clean as well. You may well ask what difference it makes to think about art, or make art, in a different country.

Though mine is largely studio-based art, I have experienced how it can be energised by different inputs. There are also many pragmatic advantages to being away from the quotidian routine. Recently, I was fortunate enough to do a couple of informal residencies in France—which offered fresh inspiration to contemplate, create, ruminate. In some cases—and, I would argue, in the best cases—the art residency is deliciously unstructured time in which to think things through. When the inputs are different, the methods of processing do alter—and that’s an organic way of growing, rather than forcing change upon one’s art and self.

My residency in Brittany was close to the woods and to the little town centre—so I could head either way daily for a spot of inspiration. I found myself writing a lot—all day sometimes. While the other French residency in Nancy offered an unusual chance for some collaborative work, I was immersed in a different iteration of the creative impulse. Sometimes it is fun to experience being an “artist as a journeyman”—and by that, I mean a combination of the historical sense of the term “skilled worker” with some literal sense of a person who journeys to many worlds.

Portree, Scotland

Portree’s magic lies in its dreamy location; the way the water hugs its harbour and in the rise of its craggy cliffs. Photo by DanKe/shutterstock.

If there is a romantic notion of the artist as a wanderer between worlds, to me it has a particular truth—underscored as we arrive finally at the small-scale world of the Faerie Glen. While Pam and my daughter skip ahead, I find myself trundling more slowly up the path. Clutching at the errant camera, coat, cap and scarf blowing madly in the wind, I arrive at the glen feeling like some blowsy witch who has stumbled upon a charming sanctuary of the faeries.

It is a world in miniature with small groves of trees, stepped slopes, a hill with a basalt top that’s oddly called Castle Ewan, and grassy, cone-shaped “mountains”. There is the ubiquitous presence of nonchalant sheep, perched at impossible angles on steep slopes. Below us are circles made of stones and mud and grass, patterns which add to the whimsy of the place, but which locals may perhaps dislike as something man-made.

Earlier, Pam had shared with me a map of the Isle of Skye. When we leave the Faerie Glen, I’m poring over it, trying to track where we are. I see relationships between travel, art and cartography. Especially during the major shifts in my life—such as relocating from Singapore to Chennai—the geographies of where I was moving from and to became particularly important. The notion of mapping and fragments of maps became subject matter in the works. Maps represent for me a duality of abstraction and reality, which is something I explore in my art; i.e., the map of Skye is an abstraction but it also points to very real places on the island such as Portree, to where we are now headed.

Finally we reach the place we are staying, the accurately named Pink Guest House that overlooks Portree Harbour, which my daughter adores. She looks over the waters, sees and feels the pure pleasure of her first rainbow. There are boats and lights, fresh seafood for dinner and a prolonged blue twilight that will last long. I think for an artist, travel can be a synonym for experience, or even knowledge, but you need to be using the right dictionary.

  • Parvathi Nayar is a contemporary visual artist and writer based in Chennai. She is known for her complex drawings, installations and video work. She was part of the Kochi Biennale (2014-2015); public installations of her work include A Story of Flight, (Jai He art programme, T2 Terminal, Mumbai airport) and solos include Haunted by Waters (2017, Chennai).

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