Article from DGB Life Magazine (issue 3) by Fiona Armstrong.
An encounter with work by artist Silvana McLean delves deep into the senses, calling forth the taste of salt-coated wind and the crash of waves on tempestuous shores.
A painter and printmaker, Silvana’s art in recent years has been devoted primarily to seascapes which might lead to the assumption that she lives at the source of her inspiration – the land’s edge.
Yet home to the Motherwell-born artist and her husband Alasdair has for many years been an unusual property in the pretty Dumfriesshire village of Moniaive, miles from the nearest beach.
“I’ve always felt I should live by the sea,” says Silvana, “and will, at some stage.”
Alasdair’s job brought them to Dumfries and Galloway almost two decades ago, when they didn’t really know where to start looking for a house. “As we drove around, every road brought us back to Moniaive,” laughs Silvana.
They couldn’t ignore a distinctive building in the village when it suddenly came on to the market. With its tall clock tower it’s easy to presume it was originally the village hall but in fact it was built as a home for the local schoolmaster, completed in 1867.
“To all intents and purposes it was a council house,” explains Silvana, the structure sensitively extended during the 1930s, this more recent space accommodating her airy studio and upstairs bedroom.
Alasdair winds the clock every day (villagers presumably attentive to the couple’s holiday plans), its chime accompanying Silvana’s studio work. Having studied drawing and painting at Glasgow School of Art during the early 1970s, Silvana’s preferred painting medium is gesso with overlays of oil glazing.
“Gesso was traditionally used by renaissance painters,” she says, “but I have a contemporary approach to its use.”
A few years after graduating Silvana moved to Edinburgh where she seized an opportunity to extend her artistic repertoire.
“I noticed Edinburgh Art School was running evening classes in etching,” she says; “and signed up, having always wanted to try it.”
Describing the creative impact of these classes as “a door opening”, Silvana was enthralled by etching, a means of print making long before photography was invented and through which lines can be made with something of the freedom of drawing. The printing plate is covered in varnish or wax, the design scratched through with a needle before acid is applied, eating into the exposed metal, but not affecting covered areas. Varnish removed, the plate is inked for transfer to paper.
Much of Silvana’s etching is done at Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, where her work is (currently) being shown in ‘Tidelines’, an exhibition with fellow painter and printmaker Eunice Routledge (who’s similarly passionate about the sea). Back in 1999 Silvana was part of a steering group that established a printmaking studio at the centre.
“Previously we had to use facilities in Edinburgh or Glasgow,” explains Silvana, the group opting to establish a non-toxic printing process from the start.
She also has a small, portable etching press in her studio, purchased for a series of collagraph workshops she ran in schools (a form of printmaking in which she is also leading workshops as part of the Gracefield exhibition).
Both painting and printmaking have retained constant presence in Silvana’s life and she’s thankful that the patience demanded by the latter has forced calm upon her over the years.
After raising her family, Silvana resumed full time commitment to her art in 1993, now selling work in UK-wide galleries. In 2002 she was amongst artists selected to contribute to An Leabhar Mòr, the Great Book of Gaelic, a celebration of the language that draws too on the talents of poets and calligraphers. Having toured internationally, the book – described as a ‘modern Books of Kells’ – stands as a visual anthology in which Silvana’s etched contribution plays a valued role.
Her love of the sea has long pulled her to north and west Scotland, Ayr beach an early stimulus although subsequent trips to Skye, Alasdair’s homeland, revealed an entirely different kind of landscape.
“I was overwhelmed by its dramatic environment which I had never encountered in Scotland,” says Silvana; “We looked out from Uig, where Alasdair is from, to the ferry terminal, and as usual I wanted to be beyond where I already was!”
She fell for the watery island of North Uist, later returning to participate in an environmental art course involving papermaking.
“We used clay from the beach, peat and twine and I loved the idea of making something from the island,” Silvana explains. However it was a trip to Shetland in 2001 that prompted her full-blown fascination with coastal and island communities.
“My art led me to parts of Shetland I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, “ she says; “Time seemed to expand while I was there.”
Three interrelated paintings completed after three months in Shetland - funded by the Shetland Art Trust - hang box-framed within Silvana’s kitchen, revealing her intrigue with history reverberating on the island.
Describing her work as “a distillation of impressions”, Silvana’s fascination lies with a location’s layers of history, while the physical process of creating each work is also composed of layers.
“Lots of absorption takes place before I start,” she explains, details from wind speed to the colour of sand beneath her feet taken in while beachcombing.
Back at her studio she considers scale and pins down ideas before setting to work, a seascape painting, for example, starting with the flow and texture of water.
Having visited Shetland during winter, she portrayed the tumultuous movement of water observed.
“I wanted to capture the sensation of spin drift at the top of a wave,” says Silvana, using a hazily misted texture, while the powerful, churned up nature of the sea resounds in brushstrokes and colour.
She draws, using implements, into this first ‘layer’ before the surface dries, scores creating furrows that highlight areas and enhance texture.
Paintings often include symbolic depictions, such as sea bird eggs and feathers, these ‘snapshots’ representing aspects of history and the significance of the place to Silvana.
While in Shetland, Silvana spent time on St Ninian’s Isle, joined to the island by a spit of sand. She enjoyed walking on this amazing, uninhabited Isle, named after the earliest known bishop to have visited Scotland and where, in the late ‘50s a schoolboy stumbled upon a hoard of treasure, ornaments and silver bowls believed to date from about 800AD.
“Can you imagine how exciting that would be?” asks Silvana animatedly, her imagination fuelled. The hooded figure in the aforementioned tri-part painting represents the saint, while a glistening fish (washed with silver leaf) and sea bird eggs are emblematic of the role these creatures played in island life. “People ate the birds’ eggs, the birds themselves and used their feathers for comfort and warmth,” Silvana continues.
Printmaking and painting don’t converge within individual works, but the processes feed from one another. Faint box-like ‘frames’ around painted symbols are, for example, reminiscent of printing plates, highlighting the relationship between each item and the landscape from which they are derived.
She admits some paintings ‘happen’ more easily than others.
“Working closely on a piece, it’s important to get away and return with fresh eyes,” she explains; “If I have to bite the bullet and repaint, it’s always worth it.”
Her work has become increasingly pared down, earlier pieces utilising more decorative techniques. At this year’s annual Dumfries and Galloway Spring Fling open studio event she included such work, which utilises aged effects and includes inland themes.
“I noticed that my landscape horizons sat high in the compositions,” says Silvana, “and realised that, living amidst hills, I see the sky at this height, something I’d represented subconsciously.”
After a successful Spring Fling, Silvana immersed attention in preparations for her winter exhibition at Gracefield.
For this new body of work she’s drawn on experiences including a return trip to North Uist earlier this year, funded by a visual arts award from the Scottish Arts Council. She spent hours trawling the beaches in the face of horizontal snow, collecting materials such as plastics for printmaking and various items for embossing in papers.
Her journey to North Uist, as snow fell heavily over Scotland, also proved inspirational.
“As we flew over Mull and Tiree, the landscape was reversed,” explains Silvana, the land coated in white against a dark sea.
“Printing already works in reverse,” she continues, “so I re-reversed everything for these pieces.”
Gathered inspirations are scattered throughout her studio, including contents of a basket woven from sea grass by Shetland craftsman Jimmy Wark, which arrived from islander friends laden with coastal treasures such as a piece of twisted metal.
Teaching became increasingly important to Silvana after hosting workshops on Shetland and she lectures part time at Dumfries and Galloway College, imparting skills and experience to individuals studying art at various times in their lives.
As for her own work, she’s noticed elements of the land creeping back in. Reeds are included in paintings and also placed through the printing press to achieve the effect for exhibition works, a wispy rustle joining the feast for the senses that comprises an encounter with art by Silvana McLean.