Sunday, 30 January 2011

All fired up

Over the past year or so I have interviewed lots of artists and craft makers (mostly but not all from Assynt) and written profiles of them. I love getting the chance to visit their work place (whether that's a studio, shed or living room), hear their life story and find out about their creative process. Meeting someone who makes their livelihood from creativity is always an inspiration. In return the artist gets some publicity, a bit of exposure, a chance to explain what's behind their work, and often this leads to more sales of their work. The magazines, ezines or papers who publish the pieces I write about these encounters get some reader-friendly copy about an interesting person, usually with great visual content, and so they're happy too. Readers get inspiration and a behind-the-scenes view of an artist at work. Everybody wins. It's an ideal day's work.

One of my recent profiles was of Fergus Stewart, a potter based in Assynt who makes beautiful and functional ceramic mugs, teapots, drinking cups, vases, crock pots, bird feeders, all sorts. He's also a passionate advocate for how the arts can play an important role in rural economies. He is a community-minded man as well as a highly talented artist and it has been a pleasure to win a commission to write about him in Ceramic Review, the prestigious and beautifully designed ceramics magazine. An earlier, shorter piece was published on Northings, the ezine for Hi-arts.

What most excited me about finding out about Fergus' work was his process of firing pots. The clay bit is kind of interesting, particularly the skill involved in creating elegant forms with such a maleable substance, and I am sure that glazes could fascinate me if I found out more. But the kiln is a total thrill. It is magic. It is a dragon. Fergus becomes a wizard when he fires his pots, feeding the belly of the beast with fuel for its blaze, creating not just a hot box with pots inside, but a fluid cascade of fire, like a recreation of the heart of the earth. Within the kiln, white ghostly shapes of clay are transformed to glittering stone. It is pure creation.

I ask most artists I interview how their environment influences their work. As a nature poet, I think of my natural environment as the primary source of inspiration. Fergus is fascinating on this topic. For example, he has started making bird-feeders because of wanting to give something back to the natural world, and he designs them to offer not only food but protection from predators and competitors, with each feeder designed for specific sizes of birds. He thinks ecologically. He sources wood for his kiln from sustainable sources and it matters to him that burning with wood means that he is using a renewable fuel. This kind of thinking really gets me excited. There is so much more to learn and say about how the arts and the environmental movement can complement each other and work together.

I have lots of Fergus' pots at home - a teapot, drinking cups that are so elegantly shaped to fit the hand you can't believe it until you've tried them, and several bowls. I eat breakfast, soup at lunchtime and salads for dinner, and drink tea and wine out of vessels made by a real person, close to home. It's so satisfying to know that the money I spent is supporting someone nearby to be creative. Fergus teaches too, and I've bought pots made by his students, glowing with pleasure to be supporting the handing on of an ancient craft. This is, I believe, genuinely sustainable consumption.

Saturday, 29 January 2011


Over the past couple of years I have been doing a project called 'Assynt: Fire, Ice and Stone'. It began thanks to a Scottish Arts Council writer's bursary, which enabled me to get off the environmental campaign trail, stay at home in Assynt and devote myself to writing. The general plan was to walk to all the many piles of stones in the area that are remnants of buildings or signs of human occupation, and then write about them, while thinking about the big elemental forces (particularly fire and ice) that have shaped the landscape and the lives of people who have lived here for millennia.

There are also stones that are nothing to do with human activity, but still tell intriguing stories, particularly the boulders that were picked up by glaciers during the last ice age and dropped again, often in incongruous places. There are bits of Canisp on our croft, for example, about 10 miles from where they 'belong'. These enigmatic stones are called Erratics and I have a very, very short story of this title in the new edition of From Glasgow to Saturn - scroll down to the bottom of the page, mine is the last and least story on the fiction page. I'll be interested in any feedback.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Losing focus

I have just discovered that I am an ENTP personality-type, according to the Myers-Briggs system of psychological character analysis. This means I am an Extrovert-iNtuitive-Thinking-Perceiving kind of person. Apparantly this means that I am 'quick, ingenious, good at many things....' and 'apt to turn to one new interest after another.' Spot on.

This is, I realise the diagnosis of why I have faltered when it comes to writing this blog. What's it about? What's the focus? I am interested in so many things - which of them should this blog be about?

I spent the weekend with a bunch of writers, one of whom blogs a lot, and she encouraged me to stop worrying about what the focus is, and just write what makes me buzz. So perhaps cybercrofter will broaden out a bit and, hopefully, the result will be that I'll post a bit more frequently in future.