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High flyer helps us get better view of the forces of nature

Has there been a more dangerous contribution to an arts project?

READY FOR TAKE-OFF: Polish artist/photographer Kacper Kowalski with his paraglider on Barvas Moor, Lewis, as he sets out to take pictures of the island's peat bogs.
READY FOR TAKE-OFF: Polish artist/photographer Kacper Kowalski with his paraglider on Barvas Moor, Lewis, as he sets out to take pictures of the island's peat bogs.

A man with a petrol tank, motor and propeller strapped to his back takes to the sky suspended by a sail shaped like a banana. If the wind had been coming from the wrong direction at more than 12mph, he could have found himself heading past St Kilda out over the Atlantic.

This was the acclaimed Polish artist/photographer Kacper Kowalski at work. Paragliding at about 1000ft, he was composing his extraordinary visual interpretation of Barvas Moor on Lewis, which he saw as "an alien dominating the island".

One of his images will appear in Creative Scotland's new calendar, but his aerial photographic work in, or rather above, his homeland, is already renowned - from the colourful stains and emissions spewing out of the industrial plants, to beautiful lakes changing throughout the seasons. More recently he has been working in China, before his first trip to the UK, when he headed directly to the Western Isles in October.

He had come to take part in the Sexy Peat (or Tir mo Rùin) project, which is being exhibited at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Getting him was something of a coup for the Highland Print Studio (HPS) in Inverness, which had set up the project as part of the Year Of Natural Scotland.

Funding was from Creative Scotland (£45,263) and Cape Farewell (£7000) and the aim was to celebrate the properties of the blanket peat bogs that have been described as Scotland's rainforest because of the massive amount of carbon they store.

John McNaught, HPS's studio manager, says: "Sexy Peat was a reference to how rainforest has become 'sexy' environmentally speaking, whereas bogs are not, despite being a greater carbon sink. Our children hear about the rainforests in primary school, but there is no mention of peat bogs. They are the unsung heroes of climate regulation."

Importantly, Barvas Moor also has a special place in the soul of many islanders, whose forbears down the centuries had taken their cattle out into the middle of it in the summer and stayed in shielings (small huts). There they became immersed in the unique environment, which had held the island's people for a millennium. This was integral to the project, according to Mr McNaught.

"We had seven artists involved. They had a two-week residency on Lewis, although two lived there. Then it was one week back here in the studio, where we worked with them to produce a print to complement work in their own medium. On Lewis they were given access to a variety of experts from weather and peatland scientists to social historians and Gaelic botanists. The artists were also given the chance of a four-hour walk into the centre of the bog to stay overnight in a shieling. They all took it."

One was visual artist Anne Campbell from nearby Bragar. It was her family's shieling.

Another was Glasgow-based textile artist Deirdre Nelson, originally from Ireland, who produced a roll of tweed that has the plants of the bog, and an apron based on the plant patterns, which she has called "Shieling Chic".

She had been looking at photographs of women in Lewis in the 1940s and 50s. "Many who walked across the moor would have worn brightly patterned cloth. When looking at archive photos of women at the shielings, I noticed many were smartly dressed," she blogged.

Paul Slater, from Yorkshire, is, for some reason, known as Fabric Lenny. In fact, he makes iPad sketches and produced an animation for the final exhibition on the stories about Barvas Moor, its monsters and ghosts.

But critical to the whole enterprise was the airborne Kacper Kowalski. Mr McNaught says: "I saw his name in a photography magazine a while ago when he won a prestigious award for documentary photographs of a big flood in Poland. They were remarkable. They looked like abstract paintings, such is his eye for composition and colour."

He emailed him at the start of the year to see if he would be interested in Sexy Peat. "Within a few hours he replied and said he was."

But there was a major difficulty in getting him to Lewis because no airline would take his para-glider. After months of negotiations it was decided he and his partner would fly and a driver was hired to take his aircraft to Lewis by car via a North Sea ferry.

Alison McMenemy, HPS's director, could not get over how Kacper and his wife Karolina spent months monitoring forecasts, talking to Stornoway Airport and waiting for a weather window when the winds might be less than 12mph.

She says: "They really knew what they were doing because they finally got three days in October. It was amazing to see the first time. He just took a few steps and he rose and rose. I felt quite emotional seeing him head high above us, after all the difficulty getting him there."

John McNaught says it was all worth it artistically. "His work puts the whole exhibition into context - here is the bog as you have never seen it."

Certainly nobody has seen it quite the way Kacper himself did. "My strong impression of the Lewis peat bog was that it was like an alien from space who dominated the island, and the people were guests on its territory. It was as though the bog had its own will, and people were trying to live with it. Each move of this alien was above our perspective.

"If nature's rhythm means that one beat of a forest's heart takes 20 years, one beat of the peatland's heart would surely take hundreds of years."

Peatlands Project: Sexy Peat - Tìr mo Rùin 2013 is part of the Sea Change exhibition at Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, running to January 26, 2014

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