Elaine Smith – Befriending Arts exhibition: Reflections and insights

  • Published on: 14th January 2022
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The Befriending Art’s exhibition in An Lanntair’s Cafe/bar is a collection of work co-curated by its members. The colourful array of different media and approaches represents each member’s response to projects they engaged with, as well as their own individual explorations. Bringing all these wonderful and intriguing perspectives together for the exhibition has been a real pleasure. It has also allowed us to reflect on our journeys exploring the different ideas and mediums.

To the far left of the wall are the results of the most recent project ‘Local Heroes’, based on research from the fantastic online resource Hebridean Connections public archives. Each member chose a person from the archives, who were well-known and valued by their community in their day, to celebrate and share their story of how they contributed to their communities by creating commemorative artworks using paints and mixed media onto canvas. We thoroughly enjoyed sharing with each other what we’d found out about the people and seeing all the drawings and research they accumulated before the final work emerged.

It was a really exciting process, each member focussing on aspects that interested them and found relatable. For example, ‘Socks for Soldiers 1918’ was created by a member who regularly knits for good causes. The images were photocopied – before being gleefully collaged onto canvas – from a war-time pattern book from the 1940’s that was kindly brought in by one of our volunteers. To see the book was a fascinating insight into a seemingly basic but vital component to both the war-efforts.

Another piece which celebrates ‘Donald Macaulay, Herbalist c1824’ became a triptych, but was initially a little more challenging for the artist in that there were no images or photos to work from, so they chose to focus on Scottish plants and herbs that he might have used. Two of the canvases are without names beneath the illustrations which could be seen as unfinished, however to me it is a very fitting and evocative reminder of the tacit knowledge that was lost when he passed away without having had anyone to train to continue after him.

Other pieces represent heroics in the sense we are most familiar, such as John Finlay Macleod who famously took the rope ashore from the HMY Iolaire, to the more everyday heroics, such as bus drivers who went above and beyond running errands and ensuring people from their rural villages were retrieved from pubs and delivered safely to their homes. The idea of going ‘above and beyond’ is of course something we’ve been reacquainted with more recently with the pandemic and lockdown restrictions seeing many of us running errands and taking on different roles.

Central to the exhibition is a mixed media textile map of Lewis and Harris, a collaborative project made up of 16 sections by the members while working remotely during lockdown when we were only able to work online via zoom or discuss projects over the phone.

Embroidery kits, fabric scraps and aida cloth with the map section outlined, were posted out to the members who were encouraged to work directly on the cloth and attach any media using whichever way they saw fit – with the emphasis that no specific crafts skills were needed. They were invited to include any aspect of the chosen area such as familiar landmarks, wildlife, flora and fauna, folklore and stories. One particular section (Barvas) even commemorates a lost friend. Each of the sections are like windows into people’s relationship with each location, loaded with unique, insightful detail and thoughtful use of materials.

Surrounding these two projects are a range of preparatory drawings, painting studies and work from their individual art practice. Some of them are even of the office-dog, Brogan, who kindly modelled for a drawing class! You will also notice that several of these are based on maritime folklore and stories that were later traced onto canvas using a projector and then painted to create large scale banners for the Stornoway Port Authority’s Harbour Open Day celebration back in August 2021. The banners were hung on the railings near Perceval Square in Stornoway, along with a QR code linking to an online gallery with the stories behind the banners.

The project’s core aims were to tackle loneliness and isolation through creativity and so there was much emphasis on creating a sociable and mutually supportive atmosphere where everyone contributed. Members – and volunteers – could access a creative activity on offer, work on their own projects or get ideas for new ones.

Interacting socially and having conversations was also key to our arriving at the different themes, ideas, and approaches with the results of one creative project often leading to the start of another. Themes such as folklore and archival research, came from a need to adapt and explore new ways of responding to our surroundings during times of restricted movement and where members faced barriers to leaving the house. Being able to have a conversation, whether online, in person or staying connected via a whatsapp group with peers, to me, is vital for creativity, it allows us to problem solve and can sustain endless creative possibilities.

You can view the Befriending Arts exhibition from the comfort of your own home via our Virtual Gallery.

Befriending Arts was a project by charitable organisation Befriending Lewis & Harris, Volunteering Hebrides, whose aims are to tackle loneliness and isolation in our communities, from 2018-2021. The volunteer-inspired project was led by Creative Project Co-ordinator Elaine Smith and supported by its wonderful volunteers and members.

With special thanks to Hebridean Connections, Comunn Eachdraidh na Pairc / Pairc Historical Society, Comunn Eachdraidh Uig / Uig Historical Society, Comunn Eachdraidh Bhearnaraigh / Bernera Historical Society, Comunn Eachdraidh Ceann na Loch / Kinloch Historical Society and Comunn Eachdraidh Nis / Ness Historical Society for their assistance and kind permission in the use of the digital archives.

As a visual and socially engaged art practitioner with nine years of experience, Elaine Smith seeks to galvanise interactions, communication and conversation through creative activity, working with people on both short and long-term projects, in group settings, 1-1 and online. Creating spaces where people feel connected and valued are at the core of her practice. The projects she creates consider who is participating, their needs, and why; encouraging collaborative processes wherever possible while supporting individual creativity to flourish. Drawing is always integral to Elaine’s visual art practice which is based on gaining an understanding of lived experiences within communities and our relationship to our environment. She is currently a freelance practitioner, painter and printmaker, alongside studying for an MA in Art and Social Practice, UHI Shetland College.