Art and the written word are familiar bedfellows, although the overlap between them can be a tortuous one. But if conceptual artists frequently now also play with words, poets have long made play with art. WS Graham (1918 – 1986), foremost a poet, was not interested in the words themselves as functional art objects, unlike the Concrete Poets, but in using art as a means of releasing his literary creativity, according to biographer Dr. David Nowell Smith, curator of this new exhibition at the Pier marking the centenary of WS Graham’s death. “Poetry and art are intertwined in a way, the same medium,” says Gallery Assistant Kari Adams, installing works at the Pier Art Centre when we speak by phone one blustery September afternoon. “I don’t think he saw the two as separate things. They were both outlets of expression.”

If the WS Graham exhibition contains a large number of works, much on loan from the National Library of Scotland, alongside works in private hands, it is certainly smaller than the main Autumn exhibition, being installed in the larger gallery spaces downstairs - Barbara Rae’s The Northwest Passage, a series of paintings saturated with deep blues and cold views from her recent time in the Arctic, shown in Edinburgh at the Royal Scottish Academy this summer. But if Rae deals in larger physical canvases, Graham’s is the neat medium of letters and postcards, books and notes, smaller scale but vast in breadth, a fascinating archive of material, much of it never before exhibited. If Graham’s poetry was largely unknown during his lifetime, his art still is.

Here are original manuscripts, postcards with painted portraits, sketches, oils. Graham sketched on anything to hand, the archetypal back-of-the-envelope, the inside cover of a notebook, a letter to a friend – and he wrote many and to an array of friends, many of whom were important writers or artists in their own right. It was “automatic drawing”, he called it, the process defined by the surrealists of drawing whatever was in the sub-conscious, a random movement across the page to access the inner mind. He even painted on his bedroom wall in Madron, Cornwall, where he lived until his death in 1986.

Graham’s work is in bright colours, faces face to face beneath poems questioning language and communication, tin mines under abstract skies, the fishing boats of his poems. Art had not come by chance – he had been apprenticed as a draughtsman to a shipbuilding company on the Clyde, not far from where he was brought up in Greenock, before training in structural engineering.

Born in 1918, Graham moved to Cornwall early in his career, living there for 43 years, working in a variety of part time jobs, including as a fisherman, although his time was devoted to poetry, written at all times and at night after evenings spent in the pub with friends literary and otherwise. His early work was influenced heavily by James Joyce and Dylan Thomas, the words and the sounds an end in themselves. With The Nightfishing (1955), he began the process of redefining his work, coming towards a more pared down vibrancy of language that became very distinctively his own and made him one of the most interesting – and in his lifetime, largely unrecognised, despite the support of both TS Elliot and Harold Pinter – British poets of the twentieth century.

But what is of interest in this exhibition is his artistic links, for Graham was a key part of the art scene in St Ives, led by Ben Nicolson and Barbara Hepworth, and was friends in particular with Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton, for whom he wrote moving poetic elegies. His art was influenced by theirs, and doubtless vice-versa, his ideas becoming more abstract, reflected in what went on to the page, both visually and in his language.

Amongst other friends and acquaintances, he knew Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and Alfred Wallis, for whom he also wrote an obituary, and Margaret Gardiner, whose artistic collection forms a core part of the Pier’s own holdings. Indeed it is these paintings from the Pier’s wonderful collection of St. Ives artists that a context is made for the WS Graham work, exhibited alongside his letters and paintings. Read his poetry in this centenary year, read more, then go and see the exhibition, if you are in any place to be able to.

Voice and Vision: The Poetry and Art of WS Graham, Pier Arts Centre, Victoria Street, Stromness, Orkney, 01856 850209 Until 10 Nov, Tues – Sat, 10.30am – 5pm

Critic's choice

Katie Paterson’s Earth-Moon-Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon, 2007) has been installed for the next few weeks in St. Cecilia’s Hall, the Georgian concert hall and musical instrument museum on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. Paterson, interested in the idea of our place in this world in the vastness of space, our existence in the context of deep time, takes Beethoven’s famous Moonlight Sonata and bounces it off the moon, quite literally, translating it into Morse Code and transmitting it via EME (Earth – Moon - Earth) radio signal. The returned signal is translated again into musical notation, the resulting score pocked with gaps like the moon with craters, a charting of what has been lost in very long transit, Beethoven’s work absorbed into craters, shadows, crevices and the atmosphere of the Earth itself, returning an incomplete echo of the original work.

Although it has been played in live performance in the past, it is usually played, as here, by a modern day ‘player’ piano, an automated grand piano, adding an extra mechanical layer to this poetic endeavour. Surrounded by the ancient musical instruments lined up in the wonderful museum at St. Cecilia’s Hall, themselves frequently used in recital in the concert hall by groups such as the Dunedin Consort, this fragile, automated stumbling-through of lost chords and subverted climaxes has an added resonance, a memory of music in an assemblage of silent instruments.

More of Paterson’s work is on display at the Ingleby Gallery in their Jacob’s Ladder exhibition, a dialogue between the real and the fantasy, and the Astronomy Victorius exhibition at the University's Main Library in George Square.

Katie Paterson: Earth Moon Earth, St. Cecilia’s Hall, The University of Edinburgh, 50 Niddry Street, Edinburgh, 0131 650 2600, Until 27 Oct, Tues – Fri, 10am – 5pm, Sat, 12pm – 5pm

Don't miss

Muir is Tir: Land and Sea, is an exhibition of the wind-blown work of six artists who took part in a unique residency running over the past two years. Taking place in part on board a sailing boat charting the waters of the Outer Hebrides, in part in a shared bunkhouse on South Uist, the venture was organized by Jon Macleod at An Lanntair along with Sail Britain as part of their Coastline Project, circumnavigating the British coast in the company of writers, artists, scientists and musicians, amongst others. The resulting works, made from up-close interaction with the sea and land, range from glass installations to painting and sculpture.

Don't Miss - Muir is Tir: Work from An Lanntair residencies, An Lanntair, Kenneth Street, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, 01851 708 480 Until 6 Oct, Mon - Sat, 10am – 9.30pm