I’m writing this whilst relaxing with a ‘beer cocktail’ in the Port Rexton Brewery in Newfoundland while my friend and partner in islandness, Jane Walker, works a shift behind the bar. We have just had the most fantastic few days kicking off the first events in our collaborative project, something we have been working toward together for over a year.
I am completely blown away by the incredibly warm welcome I have received since arriving to Newfoundland. This island feels like home and a huge part of that is down to the people. In the past 6 days, amongst many other things, I’ve eaten the most incredible home cooked food (bottled moose and cod tongues. Yes’by!), shared conversations on island life, drunk whiskey and played cards, started to learn from local knowledge, admired changing accents whilst moving North from St John’s up the peninsulas, caught some big old cod, accepted tips on my net making, and offered some knowledge on preserving skins. Sharing that part of my practice marked the first ever event in islandness. I had the pleasure of being asked to participate in the Bonavista Biennale by giving a workshop on using fish skin as art and craft.
For the first step of the workshop I supported attendees to prep some cod skins (kindly supplied by Jane’s family) ready for preserving.
Within my practice I explore variations in natural and man made processes, when preserving skins I tend to use two methods, one all natural and one chemical. Each process results in a different finished texture – the chemical option making skins much more ridged and cardboard-like whereas the natural process makes for a much more supple, leather-like finished material.
I bought gloves for anyone who wanted to protect their hands, offering them out to all participants. Every person declined though – we are all islanders here, no gloves necessary.
To follow up our messy work I wanted to give everyone a chance to feel those differences in texture and really understand the material. I asked participants to use thread and needles to stitch and join the skins into their own small-scale artworks. Using fish skins in a textile manner is something I do often within my practice, it allows me to show the material in an abstract manner, focussing on the comparisons in surface between species and individual skins.
Each participant identified their own aesthetic quickly when using this process; experimenting with stitch details, shape, ways of joining the skins and adding form.
Preserving fish skins is something I do for hours alone in my kitchen. It’s a solitary labour of love. To share this process, my thoughts and ideas with a group of engaged and enthusiastic participants filled me with more joy than I could have imagined.
The Bonavista Biennale team sought out an amazing town hall for the workshop in the small community of Keels. The population of Keels according to the 2016 census sits at 51, steadily falling since the cod fishing industry collapsed. This is an issue that is apparent in many outlying towns and villages across Newfoundland and something that isn’t dissimilar to that affecting small communities across Shetland and Scotland. Keels has about the same population as my home island of Fair Isle. It felt appropriate and relevant to explore this waste product of the fishing industry within this place and community.