‘Get comfortable with being uncomfortable’ and other gems from two island artists on a creative high

  • Published on: 20th August 2021
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An Lanntair’s Artist Support Coordinator, Sandra Kennedy, recently enjoyed a chat with Lewis-based photographers Danielle Macleod and Mhairi Law, who have just completed a An Lanntair Mentoring Project together. In her role as Mentor, Mhairi has guided and helped new art school graduate Danielle reach her goal of finding her voice as an artist while making a new body of work. Read on to find out more…

Sandra: Danielle, tell us a little bit about yourself?

Danielle: I’m from Stornoway and moved to Glasgow at 21 to do a portfolio preparation course at Glasgow Clyde College, then on to Glasgow School of Art, where I studied Communication Design and Photography. Photography became my speciality.

Sandra: Do you think growing up on the island shaped what you wanted to do?

Danielle: Yes, but subconsciously. I knew I wanted to do art, that’s all I knew, I didn’t know I wanted to do photography. I actually struggled to pick a subject when it came to art school – I liked doing everything! I didn’t know what kind of practice I wanted, but I knew that the themes that were always running through my work were about home, place and identity. I went home to do several projects while at art school, these were about oral tradition, and a story my granny told me. This was a recurrent theme, even before I specialised in photography.
Deep down I really love it here and having come back from Glasgow I feel at my most creative.
In 4th year I was wanting to do a project about the islands’ oral tradition, but I was in Glasgow. The kind of materials I wanted to use were far easier to come by on the island. I was already wanting to use sheep wool, and I was like, ‘I need to search on eBay’! If I was home, it would be so much easier to get inspired. I’d know where to get sheep wool, I know where all the stuff I want to use can be found here. So having come back, it’s all worked out, and I feel far more inspired here.

Mhairi: Do you think it took leaving here to that realisation and that inspiration?

Danielle: When I was at The Nicolson Institute, I was making art about myself, not so much about the island. I also thought I was going to be a painter. Maybe it took leaving to really understand how much this place did influence me. But before I left, I had no idea.

Sandra: Were you influenced by Glasgow as a city?

Danielle: I loved living there, but again when it came to inspiration for artwork it would never be urban based. I would leave the city to get to landscapes that were natural, and that’s what I wanted to do when it came to my work.
I did love the city though, and when coming back I appreciated the island more. I could see it through a different lens. Like these bus stops everyone talks about…well they have always been here but after you come back it’s like, ok now I get it, they are a bit weird!
So yeah, the peculiarities that people who aren’t from here fall in love with, it’s easier to see those after having been away a while. That’s a really nice thing to happen. It’s also accepting that I’m a home bird. Totally this year has been about accepting who I am.

Sandra: Tell us how you found the art school environment?

Danielle: I enjoyed being at art school, having been out of it for a while now I can really appreciate what it did for me in terms of teaching me how to think critically and creatively. It was really great for getting in with a community of creative people, that was really nice.
That was one of the reasons I wanted to do the Mentee-ship when I got home, since all my creative pals were scattered in different places after graduating. It was actually really important! If I’m going to live here, I need to have other creatives in my hub of friends.
Art school was really good for me; I developed as a person over the four years. It equipped me with a tool-kit of skills and experience for photography – but I did not find my voice as an artist, or my visual language, during my time there. I definitely had the expectation that it would and should happen for me there, but it was actually leaving, coming home and doing this (mentee-ship) that I actually found my direction.
It took me a bit more time, and probably being here in this environment as well. It was really important for me going to art school, but I definitely learnt a lot this last year as well. I feel this has been a more important year for me in terms of sussing out what I want to do, my direction as an artist.

Sandra: That’s amazing Danielle, and so great to hear. I wanted to ask you what do you think appeals to you as about photography? And this way of working – setting up a scenario – it’s almost like a performance still. What draws you to that narrative that comes through?

Danielle: Oh yeah, whenever I’ve made work, it’s always been about the story, the concept, or theme that’s excited me most. It’s not I want to take a photograph; it’s I want to make something about ‘this’! I really struggled to pick a tool to make work about the stories I love working with. I love artists like Eyes as Big as Plates and Charles Frèger; and in the end my tutors told me to do photography. After leaving Uni I still didn’t feel confident calling myself a photographer, but I feel more comfortable with that now since doing this project.

Sandra: What have you found most difficult since graduating?

Danielle: I didn’t know what kind of photographer I was, didn’t have a direction for my work or a visual language. There’s also the battle of expectations; worry about what people expect of you as opposed to what you want to do. The questions around why are you making art? Who is this for? I’ve learnt that it’s important to allow yourself to be vulnerable and being happy to be vulnerable in how you are making things.
The one thing which I think was missing from my art school learning was about the nature of creativity. Obviously, everyone is different, but it would be reassuring to know what feelings are normal and good. Also, ways to get yourself out of a rut. Just knowing ‘this is what the creative life is like, get comfortable with being uncomfortable’! I didn’t know all that, I just thought I wasn’t doing so well, but really this wrestling is the nature of making work.

Mhairi: There’s also that ongoing realisation that the more you learn about your subject the more you glimpse the vastness of possibilities.

Danielle: Yes absolutely! I also find that now I’ve made the work I need to learn how to write and talk about it, and that’s another skill.

Mhairi: It’s good to be able to articulate your thoughts, especially for applications and projects; but as long as you understand enough for yourself then writing about it will become easier. To begin with, the important thing is making the work, not explaining it.

Danielle: When I was working I was really pulling on my own experiences of being brought up on the island. I wasn’t sure what was going to come out of it, didn’t know what kind of creature I was going to give birth to! And now it’s arrived it feels like ‘well, this is what you got’!

Danielle’s solo exhibition ‘Guardians’ proved a popular show at Island Darkroom (Achmore) this summer; and her work also features in An Lanntair’s upcoming art school graduate show ‘Mìr air Mhìr’, opening in the main gallery on Friday, 27 August.

One of the stunning images from Danielle’s ‘Guardians’ exhibition