Latitudes north: Vivian Ross-Smith

Jordan Ogg speaks to the Shetland artist about her work

Growing up in Fair Isle, studying in Aberdeen and Turku, and now living on mainland Shetland: it’s a biographical triptych that both foregrounds Vivian Ross-Smith's artistic sensibility and occupies her work.

Fish skins, sand, seaweed and rocks: all are brought to bear in her practice, and the effect is magical, like experiencing a northern coast through all four seasons in just one sitting. Working with such materials requires graft. First comes the gathering, then the deployment. “My studio practice is very process based and dependent on experimentation”, she says.

“I enjoy layering – for instance, with pieces like ‘Tectonic’, ‘Plutonic’ and ‘Foliation’, I painted and placed natural objects, such as rocks, between layers of resin, slowly building up a highly textured surface. In ‘Thule’ I used a copper sulphate solution – one of my favourite materials – on rotting wood to preserve some areas and decay others. In the process of eroding a surface, the sulphate adorns it with beautiful crystals. It's this reaction of embellishment through decay which is very prominent in my mind.”

Da Fishing Hands o Fair Isle, 2014
Da Fishing Hands o Fair Isle, 2014

Vivian is also interested in preserving traditional skills: “I hand knit all the textiles I use in my work. I also taught myself how to make nets by hand. I want to understand the processes involved in what I am making and, when possible, avoid using machines.”

Part of her degree was awarded from the Arts Academy at the University of Turku, a small city right on the edge of the Finnish archipelago. She had an amazing time living there, from where she could take the ferry for trips to Stockholm, and it left an important mark on the development of her practice.

“Turku sits on the same latitude as Shetland, so I was interested to see how they compared. I arrived in early January and was greeted by temperatures of minus 30 degrees [celsius] and blankets of snow and ice. The land is flat, the wind does not blow and the cold takes your breath away: a very different environment from Shetland.

“I spent a lot of my time walking and taking in the still, frosted beauty. The light was very pure, but the days were just as short as we have back home. Work inspired by my time there made up half my degree show and still informs my practice now.”

Time seems to be a key concern in Ross-Smith’s work. From the inexorable movement of hulking geological formations, to the preservation of those fish skins and traditional crafts, she appears to be occupied with trying to capture things in the coastal northern environment as they are.