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Calum Lawrence 2021 Painting Mentee

My name is Calum Smith Lawrence and I participated as a painting mentee participating with the An Lanntair Artist Support Programme. Working from the start of March 2021 I produced a series of paintings entitled Feoil (Flesh). I was fortunate to receive mentorship through this process from the eminent artist Calum Angus Mackay. Please permit me to elaborate regarding myself, my practice and my experience of the mentorship:

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What does my practice involve?

I paint as a means to enter into the subconscious of the character of the Lamb within a novel manuscript I have written entitled Byre Dogs. The aspect that lends this narrative its unique resonance is that the slow decline of The Lamb is embedded within the marginal society of the Gaeltachd communities of The Outer Hebrides. This is the severe landscape of isolated villages, unending moorland and sea lochs that has forged the psyche of The Lamb. The austerities of this Island life define the domain where the Lamb must reconcile the ecstasies of being out of his head on junk in Town on a Saturday night with the submission to God demanded in reading from the family bible with his Father on the Sunday morning. The duality of The Lamb allows him to occupy this margin between the sacred and the profane. That Island life allows The Lamb to feel both transcendent and degenerate in the same moment, whether it be sharing in the ritual of burning back the summer heather with his Father or drinking his way through the empty Sabbath. Byre Dogs presents an uniquely unvoiced perspective on contemporary Hebridean society. The experience of The Lamb in its transgressive nature gives an insight into the complexity of individuals who are uniquely sustained and held captive by that society. These islander like the Lamb are compelled to integrate the sacred and the profane. It is to this narrative that my painting sequence Feoil is a corollary.

Does my work require preparatory work?

I do no formal preparatory work for my art. The mental preparation consisted of writing the manuscript for Byre Dogs. ‘Byre Dogs’ documents the experience of The Lamb a disaffected teen boy and island junky through the days that precede a series of Columbine influenced random killings. The aspect that lends this narrative its unique resonance is that the experience of The Lamb occurs within the tight social, linguistic and religious constraints of the Gaeltachd communities of The Outer Hebrides. This is a society that I myself originate from. I recognise how The Lamb must reconcile searching the ecstasies of being out of his head on junk in Town on a Saturday night with the austerities of being prayed for in the Village Meeting House on a Sunday morning. Like many others who grew up there I shared The Lamb’s constant transition between the sacred and the profane. I participated in that island life that allows The Lamb to feel both transcendent and degenerate in the same moment, whether it be sharing in the ritual of the catch out on the fishing boat with his father or shooting up desperate and craving in an abandoned black house. The culmination of The Lamb’s island life is in his killings in Town on Friday Night which at once constitute acts of cruelty and mercy. That narrow but deep island life resonates both within me and in the sequence of Feoil paintings.

What gave me the impetus to start my practice?

My education is in English Literature, Celtic Studies and in Architecture therefore narrative structure has always impacted upon me. However I am not formally a painter, I have never had work shown or received any structured tuition in art. My sole achievement is that my work has been showcased on the An Lanntair website by the writer Kevin MacNeil one of its featured contributors. My engagement with painting has adhered to a more marginal path and it is this exclusion that I believe empowers the work I have created.

I feel that both my art and myself were tempered by my time employed as a Healthcare Assistant. It is the enduring legacy of this period that I feel allows me to think that my voice, the inner subjectivity of a nobody from the Western Isles could say something that could touch another. In my art I aspire that my contribution is in paying quiet attention and providing a considered response to the complexities and contradictions of simply existing. I was exposed to an example of this modest observation during my time working on a medical admissions ward. It was this avid attention to the deeper human issues implicit within minor details that I have since tried to internalise into the way I produce work. One example of this that resonates within me is that in the midst of the agitation and demands of the ward I chanced upon a crumpled and discarded fragment of paper, written in an uncertain and fading hand was the muted voice of a partial dialogue. The three sentences composed in response to questions from the medical staff were:

Yes, I do get down sometimes.

I would like to get out more.

Thank you a cup of tea would be nice.

These few words embodied all the repressed and silent suffering of that disenfranchised individual. Aside from sympathy for the patient disclosing their vulnerability I felt admiration for the nurse who had initiated the dialogue and established a connection with this previously excluded person. It is the sensitivity to small moments of sympathy and transient intimacy like this and the potential to change and connect that they implicitly hold which I aspire to apply to my art.

It was during these years that I composed the nucleus of Byre Dogs as witnessing people in the extremity of their distress caused me to reflect upon my own life. There was some particularly contemplative quality to that environment that allowed long suppressed thoughts and feelings to emerge with a renewed clarity. I wrote on scraps of my handover sheet as images and fragments of my life as a teenager in Lewis returned to me. Later when I tried to collate these fragments the narrative structure of Byre Dogs began to emerge as an extended piece. The novel has subsequently been critiqued by a leading Scottish writer and I have been striving to make the writing more rigorous following their recommendations. It is from Byre Dogs that my painting series Feoil emerged.

How did this mentorship contribute to my future practice?

Prior to the mentorship I painted in total isolation. My work constituted one half of a dialogue like the note found from the patient. Like them I remained sealed in my own discourse communicating only with myself. The relationship existed introspectively between myself and the work. The incredible value of the mentorship for me was to introduce another person into the world that the painting has created. The opportunity to be tutored and mentored by a committed artist was as important an advancement to me as it was for that patient to be handed a pen and paper.

Therefore I was incredibly fortunate to be mentored by the eminent artist Calum Angus Mackay. From our initial meeting where I showed him my work in a ferry car park he proved unfailingly committed, interested and supportive. I am beyond grateful that from the first he entered wholly into my work committing himself with a serious focused energy.

The formal structure of our engagement was a series of six meetings conducted approximately one month apart. In readiness for each meeting I would prepare a new body of work normally three A1 paintings. Initially I would make a brief presentation to convey what I had been aspiring to express through the paintings. Then the meetings themselves would enter into a free discursive space where we could discuss anything that resonated with the work. This could extend from making formal comparisons to other artworks to discussing our own experiences of the Island.

It was through this process that Calum Angus proved himself exemplary as a mentor. His critique was always delivered in the spirit of unflinching honesty to purge weaker elements from the work and advance stronger aspects. This resulted in a qualitative change in the paintings through almost all aspects from subject matter to colour palette to application. All of these emergent outcomes were nascent within the work but through Calum Angus's rigorous interpretation they were empowered to manifest anew. The discussion was conducted predominantly in Gaelic which again impacted directly upon the work drawing it deeper into the Island Psychology it was trying to apprehend.

Through having the privilege of working with Calum Angus through this mentorship program it is evident to me that the work has advanced both in execution and content.

Is there any public element to my work?

At present my work excludes public engagement. The paintings are generated in total seclusion and are retained guarded in that isolation without being shared with any other party. In the most elemental form of what it means to create art this is sufficient for me. However enforcing this solipsism limits the work to being only partial, it excludes the critical engagement of other individuals. For the work to attain a deeper complexity it must sustain a critical exterior reading. Therefore there will have to engage with a public element of some nature. With consideration of the state of flux caused by the current pandemic this public element could consist of anything from a conventional exhibition to a pamphlet to a set of postcards.

Is my work Covid compliant?

Up to this point the works have been prepared in solitude employing only a mirror and my own imagination in their formulation. The completed pieces are only accessible to any viewer remotely through my Instagram site. Consequently they have adhered to the most rigorous practises of social distancing. Although it seems likely that the work can only be generated in conditions of seclusion the ideal is that the paintings will at some point be displayed in public. The experience of seeing an artwork in actuality with all its sensual dimensions remains unparalleled. This is a challenge that individual institutions must respond to either through enforcing gallery discipline or through devising new strategies to mount work. Although my pieces are constructed conventionally consisting of paint on paper I am confidant that they could lend themselves to innovative means of dispersal. These could include public installations such as mural painting or a pop up exhibitions in derelict spaces such as harbour buildings.

How does equality and diversity impact on my practice?

I originate from one of the Gaeltachd communities on the Island of Lewis. I am convinced that this legacy has marked me in all that I am. This initiated me within a particular religious, cultural and linguistic context. Life in this dispersed system of isolated, interdependent villages could be appreciated as being narrow but deep. The network of rigid correspondences where individuals integrated into extended schemes of blood lineage and social obligation was manifest to all. The profound aspect within this Island life was that it sustained an environment where communal identity was dominant in that the village rituals of communal peat cutting and marking the sheep compelled everyone together. However significance was also assigned to the individual. Each person was seen as standing alone with their tally of sins and virtues before God’s judgement. The limiting aspect was that the individual was constrained by the austere behavioural dictates imposed on them by Island society. These aspects framed me as both mired and elevated by spirituality, as reinforced and repressed by community and as muted and enhanced by language. It is against these contradictory impulses that any Islander must reconcile themselves. This reconciliation may at times render the individual a drunk or a penitent. It may make someone mad with drink on the last minutes before closing time on Saturday night in Town and filled with contrition in their family’s row in church on the following Sabbath. This is the ceaseless cycle of opposites that is contained within the Island psyche. It was this sense of an enduring yet shifting subjectivity, of a warring divided self that nurtured my art.

Is my practice environmentally sustainable?

The paintings were produced working totally alone, this condition permeates the austere method which creates the paintings. In real terms this means that the easel is a piece of cardboard salvaged from the street. The paint is the last remnants from a children’s watercolour set supplemented by Chinese calligraphy ink. The brushes are from a hardware shop while a toothpick is used to provide fine detail. The paper is often smaller fragments taped together. I possess no studio or dedicated space but simply paint with my easel propped up against a bedroom wall. This however is not a picture of deprivation. I find it empowering to paint using an improvisational style with such low status materials. There is no obligation to produce anything that satisfies the conventional demands of quality. This minimalism integrates well with the environmental imperative to employ re-purposed materials on a considered scale.

Progressing from the mentorship.

Now that the mentorship is complete I continue to independently develop my painting practice based on the foundation that it has granted me. I would aspire that An Lanntair would grant me the opportunity to show some portion of the work that the program has generated. The Feoil paintings are available to view through the attached portfolio. There is also a link to a short video that details my experience of the mentorship.

Lastly I would like to express my thanks to An Lanntair for running the program, Sandra Kennedy for facilitating it and in particular to Calum Angus Mackay for his enduring positivity and encouragement.

Le Durachdan

Calum Smith Lawrence

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