Until last week, the Fine Art faculty of Lews Castle College at Taigh Chearsabhagh on North Uist had the brief distinction of being the only art school in Scotland able to open their degree show in a physical exhibition space for the public to come and enjoy.

Part of the University of the Highlands and Islands, the campus was not subject to mainland lockdown restrictions. Sadly, the Western Isles entered lockdown last week, and so the Alumni and Staff shows, the latest exhibitions in a two-month “takeover” of the exhibition space by the college and a celebration of ten years of Fine Art at UHI, have now had to move online.

It does, of course, give those of us who were already confined to quarters a chance to see what the students and staff of Taigh Chearsabhagh, this most lovely of campuses, have been up to. With a warning that our phone connection might go down due to the high wind, I speak to Rosie Blake, course leader, who is in the midst of editing exhibition photos to make this show live once more online.

Wind, weather, and immersion in the environment are what draw students from all over the UK and beyond to Taigh Chearsabhagh. “This is the most incredible place, the landscape, the community, the culture, the heritage and history. The student community itself is very close knit. And because we’re small, you get a lot of tutor support and time.”

The studio spaces look out over the ever-changing bay at Lochmaddy, the hub of a course that roots itself in art that responds to place. “We embed the environment in our curriculum,” says Blake. “Most of the students are really influenced by the surroundings.” If the underlying theme of connection with the land is common to most, the methods of expression are as diverse as in any far larger art school, with everything from ceramics to performance, painting to metalwork and installation. The students themselves range in age from 17 to 72.

The current exhibition is two-fold – a showcase of previous alumni from the BA (Hons) Fine Art course, celebrating the developments of the previous decade, and an exhibition of work from staff. “It’s quite amazing, really,” says Blake, “lots of people are still making work and living on the island, but we’ve also got alumni studying in New Zealand or on post graduate courses elsewhere. It’s lovely to catch up.”

Blake herself came to Taigh Chearsabhagh three years ago from Glasgow, where she had long been based after studying at Camberwell in London. Her art school colleague, Anne Mackenzie, is from Uist, “She knows the land and the culture and the history, she speaks the language.”

In the staff exhibition, Blake’s own work investigates the phenomenology of the mink trap, the wire cage structures placed around North Uist in the 1970s when hundreds of American mink escaped from fur farms on Lewis and swam over – or otherwise arrived - to North Uist. “There are still a lot of mink traps on the moor, quite violent structures and strangely architectural.”

Blake works in cyanotype, a photographic paper highly reactive to light that creatives beautiful and distinctive blue images. “I put paper in the mink traps and left the sun to do its work. It’s a time based record, very elemental, a contrast of the structures of control in a wild and natural landscape.”

Other staff exhibiting include visiting lecturer Nicola Neate, another “incomer”, as she terms it, that now calls North Uist home. Arriving with her partner, the photographer John Kippen, on a Leverhulme-funded residency, they fell in love with the island and decided to stay. “They’ve made portraits of people who’ve moved to North Uist for various reasons, documenting what contemporary life is like here.” Neate also works with found objects, “miniscule animal skulls, a tiny rodent,” says Blake, in installations from her “Cabinet of Curiosities.”

The students’ work is equally varied. Jean Newman works with repetitive drawing, sparked by an interest in mark-making and archaeological marks – a rich resource in the Western Isles. Anne Corrance Monk, who is based on Uist, has created an installation (pictured left) made from translucent tape that criss-crosses the walls and winds up the staircase. “It’s quite different to the other work in the exhibition. It’s quite subtle and catches the light, an interpretation of sound bouncing off surfaces.”

Meg Rodger, too, attempts to capture what cannot be seen, using a key resource in the Western Isles – the wind – to make her “wind drawings”, each created using a large tripod set up in various locations around Berneray.

Blake says applications are currently open for the BA course and one year National Certificate in Art and Design courses starting in 2021, and all are hoping things will somehow, by then, be back to more of what we might consider normal. In the meantime, this celebration of art that has come out of Lews Castle College gives a snapshot of the growing output of an art college that is rigorously and fruitfully tied to its natural and cultural surroundings.

https://www.taigh-chearsabhagh.org/events/lews-castle-college-uhi-staff-and-alumni-exhibitions/ A virtual tour is also available on the Lews Castle College blog page www.lews.uhi.ac.uk/blog

Critic's Choice

It has been the bane of many a student’s life this last year that their degree shows have had to be seen online, rather than in all the thrilling mayhem and diverse conjunctions of the labyrinthine corridors and studios of the art schools themselves. And yet there are some positives, not least that there has been a greater emphasis on better presenting work online, so that a student’s work can reach not only an audience, but a wide audience.

Glasgow School of Art's postgraduate degree show last summer was a case in point, its online presence well-designed. And now, some six months later, more students on the one year taught postgraduate programmes, who themselves stayed on to extend their studies until December, are showing new work in the degree show.

The courses which are adding content this month include the M.Litt in Curatorial Practice and the M.Litt Fine Art Practice. Amongst many Shalmali Shetti, who studied at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in Gujurat and New Delhi, presents a publication, “this cloud may burst”, inspired by the accidental wiping of a crucial hard drive in lockdown, which brings together work from artists and writers based around the loss and preservation of memory.

Elsewhere, Marianne Vosloo, who studied Art History in Pretoria in her native South Africa, looks at the social and economic injustices occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic in her curatorial practice. “The Art of Defiance” took its cue from street posters and placards from the numerous protests in 2020, in the creation of artwork for billboards in Glasgow.

Postgraduate Showcase: Glasgow School of Art www.gsapostgraduateshowcase.net