As an exhibition of his work opens in London, Jordan Ogg speaks to the artist Alex Malcolmson about growing up in Shetland, and the influence of the sea on his art.
As a boy, Alex Malcolmson listened to his grandfathers’ stories as the North Sea rolled in and out of the voes and sounds close to where he was raised in Lerwick. Like many Shetland men, his forebears had employed their deft maritime skills in the merchant navy. He heard of distant places – Hong Kong, Cape Town – and was taken on visits to the homes of friends and neighbours who had also made their living on the waves.
“In some of the houses there were pierhead paintings and hand-tinted photos of the vessels the men had sailed on, with beautiful turquoise sea tipped with white horses, and the ships standing proud and resplendent against a lowering sky.
“My grand uncle and my grandfather went to sea at different times, the former sailing out of New York. They hadn't seen each other for many years but then met unexpectedly on the quay at Buenos Aires - the first and last time they ever saw each other since.”
Such chance encounters are reflected in the materials Malcolmson employs in his sculptures and diorama-like works. Much of this is flotsam gathered from a location in the west of Shetland, which he prefers not to disclose for fear of looting by other intrepid artists. At his Harrogate home, he keeps his horde carefully categorised by size and colour. His process begins by ‘working’ the material – selecting a piece, sanding, burning, cutting it and/or applying paint. Often what might seem a simple bit of driftwood will prompt a long creative journey:
“There’s one work in the exhibition [recently held at Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery] which started on a piece of wood, beautifully painted in red oxide and made to fit around an engine casing. I’d had it for ages and started to put it together by adding things. But in the end I just had to abandon it.”
Such endeavor, however, rarely proves fruitless. Like an author drafting a manuscript – writing, editing, discarding, writing again – pause prompts reflection, pushing Malcolmson in a particular direction, albeit an undefined one: “It’s a great process, one where I’m constantly thinking. Somewhere deep in my imagination that original idea remains and leads onto the next.”.
When speaking about the recurring symbols that appear in his work, Malcolmson’s enthusiasm is enchanting. On lighthouses: “I find it curious that there are people who are not interested in them. They are quite simply wonders of the world. Useful to shipping of course, but architectural and engineering marvels. The Stevensons, particularly, managed to make them supremely elegant too.”
On boats: “Ships, especially timber ones, are full of creative potential. Their shapes are refined as if by some natural evolution like a bird or fish. Being aboard a solid wooden ship is like entering another country, a small kingdom with skipper nominally in charge but the real power being held by the wind and sea.”
And on maps: “beautiful printed objects with graphic conventions that have been honed over time, revealing abstractions and colour combinations that surpasses much of what might be considered art.”
Malcolmson’s deep connection with the sea is founded on absence. Having lived “about as far from the sea as you can get in the UK” for most of his adult life, his love of the imagery of the ocean is intensified and focused by removal. “I remember that when I did live and work in Shetland, my artwork was often concerned with mountains and landscapes which I couldn't find there. I sometimes wonder that if I were to move to Shetland or to live by the sea now, I would actually lose my interest in the subject matter as it becomes almost too commonplace and I would lose the ‘idea’ of the sea.”
This sentiment is shared by many islanders who have made their lives elsewhere. The Shetland-born writer Robert Alan Jamieson, whose 1991 novel A Day at The Office was included in a poll of the top 100 Scottish books of all time by The List magazine, playfully terms it the mindset of the ‘ex-isle’.
But then Malcolmson reminds me that all is relative: “We all live on an island in this country. I was reminded of this when reading about James Turrell – perhaps the artist I admire the most – who was discussing his work at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, at least 50 miles from the sea. He was intrigued by being on an island and seeing the constantly changing ‘maritime’ sky overhead … But then he does live in Arizona.”
This article appeared first in An Antidote to Indifference, a magazine published by Caught By The River in collaboration with The Island Review.
Alex Malcolmson’s work will be on display from 15th to 24th May at the Townhouse, Fournier Street, London. Find out more at www.alexmalcolmson.co.uk
Jordan Ogg is arts editor of The Island Review.