All Mortal Greatness is But Disease exhibition sho

The Shetland Stations

A question I am often asked about my textile work is “How long did that take to make?”. A common answer (depending on the piece) is “between a fortnight and ten years”. The work I was commissioned to make by the Scottish Maritime Museum (SMM) and their exhibition All Mortal Greatness is But Disease is a good example of that.

In 2020 I heard that the SMM Irvine site were looking to have an exhibition on Scottish Whaling in 2021. Although it was planned to be predominantly about Scotland’s interest in South Atlantic Industrial whaling I expressed an interest in getting involved somehow and spent some time thinking about what I could do. My work up to that point had been mostly about British Arctic Whaling (and Moby-Dick, of course) but I reviewed my resources and thought there might be things I could do that would form a natural extension to my practice.

Time passed, lockdowns came and went.

In spring 2021 I arranged to visit the museum on my way back from a meeting at the Scottish Fisheries Museum (see earlier blog) to chat to the curator about some ideas. Sadly, regional lockdowns were in force in parts of Scotland and the curator, living in Glasgow, could not travel down to Irvine to meet me. I visited the museum anyway (remembering the good café) and had a look around, particularly at the exhibition gallery. We had a catch up over zoom and things went quiet.

August 2022, new staff from the museum get in touch. The exhibition opens in November 2022 and am I still interested in doing something? The scope has widened and, since the original contact, I have made a piece about South Atlantic Industrial Whaling for the Scott Polar Museum in Cambridge so I am more confident that I can make something good.

I have a brainwave looking through my copy of Shetland’s Whaling Heritage. I see the short chapter about the short-lived land-based whaling stations on Shetland started by the Norwegians in the early 1900s. One of the things I had done whilst on a research residency in Shetland in July 2017 was to drive to the three sites and, without trespassing, get as good photos of the locations as I could. I was sure that the exhibition was not covering that part of Scotland’s whaling story and so I offer to make something around it, and they commission me to do so. In addition, I arrange to loan them and existing work, Right Whales Historically Regarded and the six relevant whaling cigarette cards from my collection.

2022 was a busy year and I had work to make for the Scottish Fisheries Museum for the end of August, so it was going to be a bit tight timewise, but I thrive on deadlines! As with a lot of my work, there are bits that are decided on quite early in the process and other elements that don’t get sorted until the last minute. This piece was one of them. I wanted a map or chart to form the base of the piece and remembered that I had made a drawn outline of Shetland from a navigation chart during the 2017 residency. Several navigation charts I had showed the land in pale yellow against the blue sea. Turning to my trusty dark turquoise fabric (Ikea Lenda blue, 100% cotton, £5.50/ metre, out of stock at that time) I thought about which yellow would look good. I had a vibrant yellow polycotton that I used for one of the pieces I made at Burton Constable and it sang with the blue fabric. Though trimming it would be tricky with the very complicated Shetland coastline. Whilst chatting to one of the Norwich John Lewis haberdashery staff one Sunday I noticed a similar vivid yellow felt (felt is great because it doesn’t fray). She explained that they were empowered to give material away to good causes and I delighted left with enough yellow felt for the piece. Looking at the three locations of the four stations (one each at Collafirth and Olna, two at the end of Ronas Voe) they were all either to the north or northwest and so I didn’t need to include the whole of Shetland. I wanted to include Bressay Island (as that was where I had stayed during my 2017 residency) and that allowed me to include Lerwick, which would usefully orient viewers. Anchoring the land in the bottom right corner gave me a vast area of sea to fill with imagery. Rather than leave it blank, I used the depth markings on the chart to guide the composition and went off to think about what I would put there.

Shetland Stations

The Shetland Stations

I wanted to include and commemorate the whales, to show the precise locations of the stations and illustrate the whaling. The most straightforward way of doing this was to make and sew these images as separate pieces and sew/applique them onto the bigger dark blue background. I found some navigation charts online from 1900-1920s of the waters around the stations on the National Library of Scotland, used some of my existing whaling imagery of catchers and harpoon guns (two from the cigarette cards I was loaning to the exhibition) and developed some drawings of the sites when they were operational from black and white archive photographs. Rather than the simple black lines I used for the whales and whalers I highlighted my drawings with white and dark fabric paint and then machine sewed the outlines. This was a technique I had used earlier that year for the piece Overhaul, and I had thought it worked well. These whaling images would all be presented as circles or semi circles. The whales were whale shape outlines with the common names sewn on them, and they were all made using a light teal cotton (also IKEA) that I’ve used extensively in other works.

After much thought and experimentation the three locations of the sites were indicated with small red pompoms. The stark redness standing out and reminding us of the true nature of the stations.

All Mortal Greatness is But Disease exhibition sho

All Mortal Greatness is But Disease Exhibition at the Scottish Maritime Museum