It’s easy to see why the blues in Leila Thomson’s tapestries are so stunning. Out the window of her Hoxa studio and gallery the water flashes a brilliant blue in this day of alternating sun and rain squalls. After graduating from art school in Edinburgh in 1980, Leila came back home and has been designing and weaving ever since. 11 years ago she opened her gallery and now visitors from around the world view her stunning work. Leila weaves private commissions, working from her own full size b&w drawings. She interprets and chooses all the colors as she weaves. This really gives the tapestries an energy and vitality often lacking in other pictorial textiles. Words and pile texture are also trademarks in her designs. As Leila readily admits “I work in a state of splendid isolation.” after the tourist season ends in September that is. www.hoxatapestrygallery.co.uk
Orkney abounds in artists. An artist collective, The Workshop, in St Margaret’s Hope carries a variety of their work. Knitwear, prints, jewelry, weaving, painting, pottery. When I asked one of the Orcadian artists we visited today why the islands are such magnets for creativity, she suggested that it was the influx of artists who came up here from England that got the movement started in the 60’s.
Crossing over to Burray on one of the Churchill Barriers, we stopped at the Orkney Fossil and Vintage Centre. www.stenness.co.uk/ofvc
In addition to the expected fossils and rocks, this small museum has excellent displays telling about the role and history of Orkney during WWII. The British fleet was stationed here and the barriers were build using labor of POWs to protect the fleet from the Germans U boats. Before the large concrete barriers, salvage ships were lined up end to end and sunk to create the barriers. One German U-boat managed to penetrate these original barriers and sunk a British ship with the cost of over 800 lives.
I love the display of rock found within Scotland: Corundum, piperock, brucite marble, basalt, serpentine, quartzite, porphyry, mica schist, barite with galena, andesitic lava, algal limestone, rugose coral, haemotite with geotite name a few.
The Italian Chapel stands on the Island of Lamb Holm just over the 4th barrier. Italian prisoners of war who built the barriers and worked in agriculture, were given a Nissen hut to turn into a chapel. Domenico Chichetti designed the chapel and the prisoners worked to decorate and furnish it over a period of 3 years with materials they could scrounge. When the prisoners were released at the end of the war, Chichetti stayed onto finish the work on the chapel. The detailed painting and metal work is a testament to what can be created from nearly nothing when you have dedication and vision.
Sheila Fleet of Sheila Fleet Jewelry, is the sister of Leila Thompson, the tapestry weaver we visited this morning. There is no shortage of artistic talent and vision in that family. In 14 years Sheila’s business has grown to 42 employees. Sheila is the chief designer, creating 3 new collections each year. She has done a total of 147 collections so far.
She took us on a tour of the workshop while explaining the lost wax method used to produce her jewelry. I found 2 of the steps extremely interesting. The skill of the master pattern maker who takes each design and hand cuts the metal master has to be exacting. The enamelists also have a painstakingly detailed job, applying the enamel mixture (ground up glass and distilled water) to the jewelry, then curing each piece, one at a time in a tiny kiln on their worktable.
Sheila enthusiasticly answered all our questions and shared her philosophy. “ A measure of success is how you feel about what you are doing. I’m still enjohing myself. You have to look at keeping the balance. Find something you really like doing and you’ll never work again.” www.sheila-fleet.co.uk
When we reached Kirkwall, the largest town in Orkney, we made one last stop at Orkney Hand-Crafted Furniture. Fraser Anderson is just 22 years old, but already a master at making Orkney chairs. The chairs combine wood (originally driftwood) for the frame and oat straw coiled and stitched with sisal for the chair backs. Locals made these chairs for hundreds of years with the materials they had at hand. It takes up to 3 weeks to complete each chair. Fraser is honoring the tradition while designing new shapes and styles of chairs, rockers and stools. www.orkneyhandcraftedfurniture.co.uk
What do you get when you combine 15 accordians, 5 fiddles, a piano and a snare drum? The Orkney Fiddle and Accordian club. They were practicing at the Ayre Hotel. Although the average age of the members appeared to be 65 plus, there was no lack of enthusiasm in the playing of the tunes. I had neither fiddle in hand to play along or partner to dance with, so I reluctantly went back to the hotel to write this blog.