Artists, Fairies, and the Old Man on Skye

The Isle of Skye is a wonderful corner of the world. My husband and I stayed in an old stone farmhouse for 3 nights on the most scenic part of the island—the Trotternish Peninsula.

A car is a must on Skye. The island is a lot bigger than you may think and due to the abundance of single track roads, a car is a lot more manoeuvrable than a bus (my parents went to Skye several months after we did and unfortunately couldn’t see some places because there was no room to park, even though their bus was on the smaller side).

The Trotternish Peninsula is the northern part of the island and contains a bucket list of tourist sites: Kilt Rock, Lealt Gorge and Falls, the Quiraing mountain range including the distinguished rock formation The Old Man of Storr that we climbed to, along with everyone else. The Old Man of Storr was created from an ancient landslide. The word “Quiraing” is Old Norse for “round fold” and apparently was used to conceal cattle from Viking raiders.

The Quiraing is a popular yet difficult hike. You can see it in the distance on the left.
Hubby going up to the Old Man of Storr, what looks like a jagged finger from a distance.

It was quite the scramble to actually touch the base of this famous rock. One of us could do it; the other was pregnant and got halfway up before she realized her travel insurance probably wouldn’t cover “rock climbing” and so decided to play it safe and snap pictures instead.

Another distinguished rock formation near the Old Man of Storr.
Proving how windy it was up there.

The views along the way overlooking lochs and the islands of Rona and Raasay between Skye and the Highlands of mainland Scotland are stunning. Here’s one of our favourite pics of us with that incredible background.

Even though we didn’t hike the Quiraing, we got to enjoy it every morning and evening from our farmhouse in Flodigarry, the second oldest dwelling in this rural village. I woke up one morning with the sunrise and sat on a grassy nook near sheep and lambs, soaking up the quiet, remote beauty of this place.

Our next door neighbour was the Flodigarry Hotel where we splurged on an anniversary dinner one evening.

The owner and host of our farmhouse was artist Morag Archer who showed us her mixed media collages inspired by this landscape as well as the landscape of memory. She shows her work at the Skyeworks gallery in the main town of Portree, but we bought a small painting off her directly and love looking at it every day from where it hangs in our kitchen.

Mixed media artist Morag Archer with her collage artwork

She talked about how croft houses often appear in her work— those tiny white dwellings especially found in the Highlands. Crofts are units of land (usually about 12 acres) that people share for common grazing, and which were traditionally rented from a landlord. Multiple croft houses exist on this shared land, usually white with thatched roofs like you see in her artwork.

I love how she uses all sorts of ordinary things—including gold foil candy wrappers—to create her collages.

The great thing about staying at a local’s place is learning about hidden gems. Even though we did hit the main sites (see below), we also ventured to Loch Sheanta or “the enchanted loch” because of her. This lake was believed to have holy water that could cure any ill. It was a gentle 15 minute descent to this spot that we had all to ourselves. I’m not going to describe where it is so that it stays hidden and you have to ask a local yourself! (you can probably google search it if you’re really dying to know).

The crystal clear Loch Sheanta
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s the aptly named Kilt Rock whose parking lot is flooded with buses.
Same goes for Lealt Gorge and Waterfall—striking scenery that’s well worth a stop though.

You may have heard about the fairies on Isle of Skye. There are two spots named after them (their role I’m not quite sure of, other than these are places of whimsy and mystery and are thus suited to legends about fairies). According to the Isle of Skye website:

Skye has a long history involving the Fairys, most of which is related to Dunvegan Castle and their ‘Fairy Flag’. The Fairy Glen (much like the Fairy Pools in Glenbrittle) has no real legends or stories involving fairys that can be traced. The simple fact that the location is unusual so it has been given the nickname Fairy Glen.

isleofskye.com

The Fairy Pools are like a musical crescendo of crystal clear blue pools along the River Brittle. You can cross them, swim in them (though they are extremely cold), walk alongside them, hang out by them. There are so many along the path it wasn’t hard to find a private one to enjoy.

We preferred the lush green, magical landscape of The Fairy Glen full of miniature hills, stone circles, and a rocky outcropping you can climb for a spectacular view. I love how it appeared out of nowhere too—very inconspicuous, hidden among farmland. The rings of stones you can see in the photo isn’t the work of fairies, unfortunately, but tourists who have moved the rocks into circles and have been encouraged by tour guides to leave a coin or token. Locals naturally prefer to keep the setting as is.

On that same Isle of Skye website, I learned more about the rock formation below concealing a cave that my husband and I squeezed through to stand at the top of like these people:

One of the hills still has its basalt topping intact which, from a distance, looks like a ruin and has been called (inexplicably) Castle Ewan. It is possible to climb to the top where there is not much room, but does have wonderful views. In the low cliff behind Castle Ewan there is a very small cave where it has been said pressing coins into cracks in the rock will bring Good Luck.

islyeofskye.com
Looking out at the billowing landscape from Castle Ewan. All the creases and folds remind me of a pillow or duvet I want to jump into.

We arrived on Skye by ferry and left by bridge so we could stop off at what Rick Steves describes as the most photogenic castle—Eileen Donan.

We said goodbye to this enchanted landscape and hopped in our car to the more prosaic town of Inverness. I looked up the word “prosaic” to make sure I was using it right and the dictionary came up with “commonplace, unromantic.” I snicker as I recall car adventure #2 that happened there: our 2nd flat tire, on our actual anniversary, an hour away from Inverness next to nothing but a whiskey distillery that wasn’t open (much to my husband’s chagrin) and me going pee behind some trees off the highway every few minutes because my pregnant bladder required frequent emptying and for dinner, eating granola bars and crackers and whatever other snacks we had in the car while waiting three hours for a tow truck to rescue us. Maybe not commonplace, but yup, definitely unromantic. On the glass half full side, an unforgettable anniversary.

Gazing at Glass in Durham Cathedral

On our way to Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District, my husband and I stopped in the small town of Durham to see their towering, world-class cathedral.

Elvet Bridge in Durham

Durham Cathedral is a great example of Norman or Romanesque architecture. It was built to house the shrine of St. Cuthbert from Lindisfarne. The cathedral you see today was erected over St. Cutherbert’s tomb in 1093 and completed in a remarkable 40 years.

Durham Cathedral

There’s another famous figure associated with Durham Cathedral: The Venerable Bede, an eighth century monk who wrote the first history book of England. Fun fact: his Ecclesiastical History of the English People was the first work to use the AD dating system (anno Domini, meaning the year of our Lord or when Christ was born).

Tomb of Venerable Bede in the Galilee Chapel

Romanesque or Norman Architecture

Rounded arches and vaults are characteristic of Romanesque architecture (meaning “from Rome”). In Britain, however, it’s more common to call this architecture “Norman” because it was the Normans who came to England from Normandy (France) who introduced this style.

Compared to the Gothic-style York Minister I blogged about last week, Durham Cathedral impresses you with its bulkiness and solidity. You can immediately notice the difference. There’s a weight and heaviness to the nave with those chunky stone pillars that you don’t experience in the lighter, airier York Minster nave. Because churches in the Romanesque period were made of stone, they had to be very thick and the windows small to prevent the building from collapsing. Over time, a leaner style was achieved that led to the Gothic style of ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and pointed arches.

Geometric patterns were common Norman decorations and I enjoyed spotting different markings in the stone pillars of the nave (e.g some had a chevron pattern, others a honeycomb).

Durham Catheral’s website states that during the monastic period (1093-1539), the walls would have been painted and the windows filled with stained glass. After the Reformation, however, the walls were all whitewashed and the stained glass removed. The stained glass you see today is almost all Victorian. I wonder if this section below is a remnant of the monastic wall paint showing through like old wallpaper.

Stained Glass Windows

My favourite part of Durham Cathedral isn’t the architecture but the numerous stained glass windows that give more colour and life to this dark and sombre structure.

Of course there are the classic stained glass windows showing Biblical scenes like the crucifixion:

The Rose Window and 3 stained glass windows above the Chapel of Nine Altars

. . . but you can see those in practically any cathedral. What’s different about Durham Cathedral is its abundance of contemporary stained glass windows and how well these modern artworks complement the traditional ones and even combine with them in such a historic building.

The millennium window

The Millennium window is a great example of an artwork blending classic and contemporary motifs. Installed in 1995 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of St. Cuthbert’s shrine arriving at Durham, it begins with imagery of St. Cuthbert’s tomb and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, moving through England’s history with depictions of coal miners, cows, and a computer (bottom left) printing out a 12th century account of moving St. Cuthbert’s coffin.

The TraNSfiguration window

I couldn’t make out many scenes in The Transfiguration window, but I loved the use of the orange and blue complementary colours centered around a swath of blazing light. The window seamlessly integrates representational figures in the lower half with abstract representations in the top half. It was designed by Tom Denny and contains Biblical stories and scenes from Durham’s history.

The Daily Bread window

The Daily Bread window was a gift in 1984 from Durham’s Marks & Spencer department store, of all places! Mark Angus is the artist. It’s a modern interpretation of The Last Supper seen from above. I had a wonderful chat with an elderly docent about this window, where he asked me questions to help tease out more of the meaning. Instead of literal people, the artist represented the apostles as circles resembling worlds with their own colours, uniqueness, and personalities.

“Which one do you think is Judas?” the docent asked me.

“That dark greenish black one on the left.”

“I would agree. And notice how it’s painted further out than the other circles are, as if he’s in the act of leaving the table. And which one do you think is Jesus?”

“Centre bottom.”

“The brightest one. What do you think the green and blue colours refer to?”

“Water and land?” I venture.

“Or earth and sky with stars twinkling in the night, emphasizing that Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And the colour purple?”

“Royalty.” I gaze more at the wave-like pattern in the background and it brings to mind folded clothes or the loose robes that hang from the cross at church after Easter.

I loved looking at this painting of the Last Supper because I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s simple yet rich with symbols. I also love that I got to talk about it with someone who’s probably looked at it a hundred times and who deepened my experience by sharing his insights with me. There are often docents posted in galleries and museums—if you get a chance, pick their brain because they have a lot of knowledge and are usually happy to share it!

Another moving artwork in Durham Cathedral: this sculpture of The Pieta by Fenwick Lawson. It breaks with tradition by depicting lying at his mother Mary’s feet instead of in her arms.

Lessons Learned from Loving Vincent

Amsterdam was a great place to finish our month-long European vacation of fall 2017. It was friendly, walkable, and people spoke English—three important factors when you’re running out of travel steam.

My husband and I spent our last night in Europe at the Van Gogh Museum. It felt like a fitting ending to our beginning in Paris where we saw his works at the Musée d’Orsay and snapped a picture of the dried sunflowers hanging from the shutters three stories up above the blue door of this apartment building in Montmartre. The flowers mark the spot where Vincent lived for a while with his brother Theo. You have to look very closely to spot the sunflowers.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait,1889, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

27 days later with approximately 3000 photos on my camera, I decided to spend our last European night simply enjoying the artwork in the Van Gogh Museum without a lens in front of my face.

It was an interesting time to be in Amsterdam because the hand-painted film revisiting the cause of Vincent’s death called Loving Vincent had just released and there were advertisements for it everywhere, including this one just outside our Hotel Museumzicht.

We contemplated going to see it in Amsterdam (how cool would that have been?) but alas, we ran out of time. We saw it when we returned to Vancouver. That same fall, I read The Letters of Vincent van Gogh that I purchased at the Van Gogh Museum. I’ve been meaning to read them ever since I heard Matthew Perryman Jones’s song Dear Theo several years ago that I link to here.

The letters are a work of literature in their own right, let alone a fascinating journey into the struggles of one of the greatest modern painters. I loved seeing his sketches for what would become his iconic paintings and reading his intentions behind them. Take his Bedroom in Arles, for example:

This time it’s simply my bedroom. Only here everything depends on the colour, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination.

16 October 1888, Letter to Theo
Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, 1889, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

All of this Vincent immersion led me to reevaluate what I thought about him. I wrote the article “Lessons Learned from Loving Vincent” shortly after. It’s only now been published, but it’s published nonetheless and I’m thrilled to share it with you over at Still Point Arts Quarterly.

I’d love to hear what you think and what your relationship is to this much discussed artist. There’s definitely no shortage of art about him, which says something in itself. Beauty begets beauty. Next up on my Vincent journey: watching this film.

Missing the Point

The day after Christmas, I sat in a dark room staring at 14 large canvases painted in deep purples and blacks, hung in an octagonal building known as the Rothko Chapel.

I grew aware of this chapel because of a poem by Jesse Bertron in Ruminate magazine titled “Outside the Rothko Chapel, Where Big John’s Eyes Appeared upon the Canvas on the Eastern Wall.” It was one of the best poems I read this year. The speaker talks about taking a group of young students to visit this interfaith sanctuary in Houston, Texas, which also serves as a public art installation and centre for human rights. He notes the kids’ boredom and reflects on the differences between a museum and a church, between watching and being watched. I had a long discussion with friends about whether the poem is cynical or hopeful, and I lean toward the latter. It ends with these lines:

I know now what they know, to know you’re being watched
will never satisfy.
 
Once you know somebody’s watching, how you long
for them to speak to you.

This poem was hovering in my mind as I sat on one of the austere wooden benches looking at the art, opposite other people doing the same thing.

The 14 paintings depart from Rothko’s earlier canvases featuring horizontal planes of colours with soft, blurry edges, such as this one I saw at the Seattle Art Museum.

Mark Rothko, #10, oil on canvas, 1952.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is considered an Abstract Expressionist painter whose objective, like other colour-field painters, was to show the human connection to the sublime, the primordial, the cosmic using large, meditative planes of colour. Yet Rothko rejected this label, as you’ll read below.

Talk about pressure to break down and cry! To not miss the point! On going to the Rothko Chapel, I wanted a spiritual revelation like many others have had viewing his work. These are the thoughts that flitted through my head instead:

This is much heavier than I expected. Thank God for the skylight. Wish I had come on a sunnier day.

Where do I look? There are so many canvases, which one do I choose?

How long are the attendants’ shifts? They must be super spiritual from being in this space for so long. I wish I could ask them what they see but is talking even allowed?

The kids in Bertron’s poem stayed for half an hour. I don’t think I can last that long and I’m an adult who works at a contemporary art gallery. What’s wrong with me?!

Should I sit on the bench looking towards the centre to see the whole room, or should I sit facing the outside and focus on one painting?

Is that the outline of eyes in the upper right corner of the canvas? Yes, I think I can see something there. Wait a minute, do I really see something or am I just pretending to see something?

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Apart from showing how expectations did not match reality, I write down these thoughts in hopes of breaking down the elitist mystique that often comes with viewing modern art. It’s easy to look at others in an art gallery and assume they “get” the work because they look really serious and are nodding intently, as if revelations are cascading over them like a baptism.

I thought that about other people in the Rothko Chapel, and maybe they thought that about me. The truth is, I found the experience quite self-conscious, concerned with having the right etiquette and seeing the right thing that’s supposed to appear to help me decode the paintings.

And I had to keep correcting myself: Maybe there’s not something to decode. Maybe this is my brain wanting to rationalize everything, to understand and move on, and maybe Rothko was trying to get people like me to sit in the discomfort of the dark and just be. And I was missing the point terribly but then I would just strive harder to get the point, which seemed counter-intuitive and so my thoughts kept spinning round and round until I felt dizzy.

I expected instant gratification, but like any spiritual practice (prayer, meditation, worship, etc), I get the sense the Rothko Chapel requires repeat visits. I talked to one local afterwards who said she keeps going back because the light is always different and can really make the canvases come alive.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of revelation Rothko had when painting these works in his New York studio. He never got to see them installed as he committed suicide after finishing them. They were his swan song.

Even with all my self-consciousness, there were some references that came to mind when viewing Rothko’s works as it’s natural to interpret things, to find meaning.

The two sets of triptychs, where the outside panels are hung at a different height from the centre panel, immediately reminded me of church altarpieces. The one at the front of the room, however, has three panels evenly hung, with the centre panel a lighter shade than the others. If there is a main work of the chapel, this felt like it. Knowing that Rothko was influenced by Christ’s Passion (and some interpret his 14 paintings as the Stations of the Cross), I pictured these panels as the crucifixion scene: Jesus in the centre, flanked by the two thieves.

Rothko Chapel, image from their website.

Opposite this work is a single canvas that also stands out because it has an obvious colour variation. The bottom quarter is painted darker with a frame running around the edge and proportions that evoke the painting of Christ’s death and entombment by Masaccio that I saw in Florence last year.

Back wall of Rothko Chapel (see painting between the two doors). Photo by Hickey-Robertson, courtesy of Rothko Chapel.
Masaccio, The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, St. John, and Two Donors, fresco in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, ca. 1425.

Maybe these interpretations are all missing Rothko’s point but for someone who strives to do things right and meet other’s expectations, perhaps missing Rothko’s point is just as necessary to experience the work genuinely. That and going when the light is shining.

Making a World from Memory

We don’t go to Vancouver’s Eastside Culture Crawl every year, but when my husband and I do, there’s one artist we always visit. Actually, she was the only artist we visited this year. Because let’s face it: the Culture Crawl can be overwhelming. One year we did as many artists as we could in the labryinthine Parker Street Studios and agreed to not put ourselves through the crowds and chaos again.

So it’s a good thing our favourite local artist has a live/work studio in Railtown that’s relatively calm in comparison.

Galen Felde’s studio

Galen Felde is from Vancouver and uses acrylic paints to convey landscapes of memory. She’s also branched out into installations. The first thing I notice about her work is the light. How it filters through a tree; how it bathes a bridge; how it ignites a blade of grass or a telephone wire.

(right image) Galen Felde, Mastodon No.1 , acrylic on panel,  46″ x 46″.

Her work reminds me of Impressionism. Although based off real scenes and photographs, Galen’s paintings read like dreamscapes. She talked to us about how she combines multiple photographs together in her mind, or relies on memory to fill in the gaps. I get the sense she is more concerned with the emotional truth of a scene, rather than its physical attributes. 

This is what she writes on her website:

Galen Felde‘s work focuses on human and environmental interdependence and issues of empathy. Tangled branches, leaves, light particles, architectural elements, wings and wire… are some of the key elements, magnified, distorted, layered and sculpted to form the substructure of Galen’s paintings in her exploration of impermanence and our awkward relationship with origins, adaptation and alteration of the landscape. Characteristic use of trace images and skewed focus suggest the construction of memory, the resonance of absence and the process of release.

Galen Felde, Song for Sleep, acrylic on panel, 24″ x 60″.

Take the above painting, for example. It’s called Song for Sleep: Water Paths. (By the way, her artwork titles are exquisite, poetic. Some examples: Dream Cache, Sonnet for Lost Pine, Long Awaited: Heart Song, The Long Reach Back, to name a few).

Galen told us this painting was inspired by the wetlands around Killarney Lake on Bowen Island. “Have you been there?” she asked us. “No, but we’re actually visiting friends there tomorrow!”

She told us to look for the stream running under the boardwalk and to notice how there’s not a tree in the “real world” version like there is in the centre of her canvas. In her mind’s eye, though, there is. 

I put “real world” in quotation marks because doesn’t the world of memory feel real, sometimes more real, than objective facts? This comes up frequently in discussions with my siblings around a childhood event. “That’s not the way I remember it!” one of us will interject as if there was one objective version that should all be implanted in our minds. This real world of memory reminds me of something the late Madeleine L’Engle wrote in A Circle of Quiet:

When someone comes into me when I’m deep in writing, I have a moment of frightening transition when I don’t know where I am, and then I have to leave the “real” world of my story for what often seems the less real world, the daily, dearly loved world of husband and children and household chores.

I love how she turns the “real world” on its head. L’Engle goes on to say, “It is through the world of imagination which takes us beyond the restrictions of provable fact, that we touch the hem of truth.”

What Madeleine L’Engle does with stories, Galen Felde does with paintings. Both artists construct a world undeniably real to them through memory and imagination, in hopes this world will speak truth to the person reading and viewing on the other side.

It’s worked for me.

Trail around Killarney Lake

Places to Play

Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors. 

Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary. 

Westlake Park, Seattle

This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.

In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?

You can see the “PLAY” blocks in the far left corner of Occidental Square, Seattle

Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.

Perhaps this sign is more popular with tourists (guilty), but fun nonetheless

Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact. 

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro in Charleston Park, Vancouver. This public artwork was a Vancouver Biennale project and has since been removed, sadly.

When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband). 

My favourite public piano so far, Victoria
Friends in Okotoks, AB

The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.

Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.

With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.


I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me. 

Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares. 

Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.

Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!