Fiona MacRae is a well-known painter based in Argyll, who also works across printmaking and assemblage. Her works are inspired by the colours and forms of Scotland's west coast as well as her domestic environment. In mid-July, I went to see Fiona at her studio to see what treasures she'd brought back from her recent trip to Tiree, and to learn more about how and why beachcombing informs her practice.
Kim: "How much do your surroundings affect your art making"
Fiona: "I’d say my surroundings affect me but on a subconsious level. Being outdoors gives me clarity of vision and thought. When I’m on Tiree, I’m inspired by the vast skies, light and empty horizon, especially in winter as I find the colours on the island in the summer overwhelming. Meanwhile, I find the summer colours of the garden here, a great source of inspiration. Space in the landscape is another subconscious influence. Broad horizons equate to freer, emptier works and when surrounded by woodland, it becomes busier and more constrained."
Kim: "Have you always had an interest in art and making"
Fiona: "I've had an interest in art and making from an early age. My parents were always encouraging me and my siblings to make and do. They both came from art loving families. Dad was brought up on Skye, knowing of people like Ann Redpath, and his mother (my grandmother) who had a hotel on the island, often had artists staying with them, amongst them turn-of -the-20th-century artist Muirhead Bone. Mum was the same. Her mother was friends with a couple of the Glasgow Girls, and people like Lamorna Birch. So, the artist influences from Dad’s side were slightly more avant-garde and from Mum’s side, they were much more traditional.
"Dad had in fact wanted to go to art school but didn’t, so he sought ways of enjoying and learning about art through his collection of books, which of course he shared with us growing up. Amongst his collection were books on artists like Graham Sutherland, Mondigliani, and Munch, Joan Eardley and Turner, which for a wee west-coast village in Scotland, was odd and unusual. And, I think by not going to art school, Dad was even more encouraging of me and my siblings. He taught me to dream and imagine and made me feel that my observations and ideas had value no matter how abstract or unconventional. But most of all, he taught me how to ‘see’."
Kim: "You are best known for your paintings; would you say you always knew you’d be a painter?"
Fiona: "No. I never saw myself as a painter. I went to Glasgow School of Art to study Environmental Art. I had it in my head that I was going to do something with my beach-found objects and find ways of exploring ideas around landscape and being in the landscape. But I was completely useless at getting permission, or collaborating, or any of that administrative stuff. And all those things are fundamental to Environmental Art, so I was a bit lost for a time, and ended up taking some time out. Then I thought I’d go back and do sculpture, which is odd because I’m a really ‘flat’ person- I mean everything I pick up is flat and the way I paint is flat, so I don’t know why I thought sculpture was a good idea. The sculpture department even told me that I’m not a sculptor, I’m a painter. But I’d always been quite hesitant about doing painting at Glasgow- the painting department was in the Mac building and seemed like somewhere I didn’t belong. In my view, I wasn’t competent or talented enough. Sounds funny to say that now because I felt very comfortable there. And I’m so glad I did end up going as it completely and utterly opened my eyes and gave me belief in myself. I loved it and realized that what I was doing was me."
Kim: "What would you say is the main motivation behind your art?"
Fiona: "Beachcombing is probably my passion. It spurs my imagination and I love setting out to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Whether it’s imagining an object’s history, who it once belonged to, where it might be from- has it come down from Scandinavia, or up from Ireland or from across the Atlantic- these enigmatic objects offer me a whole network of possibility. I find things like seedpods from South America- to think they've travelled down the river into the sea and up the gulf stream to here! I just love how far-fetching beachcombing can be – without moving, the world comes to you!
"I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to using these materials. For years, these objects have been finding their way into my painted compositions but what I’m motivated by at the moment is developing my assemblage."
Kim: "What’s your favourite medium?"
Fiona: "Oil paint. I love its colour and its versatility, clarity and intensity. And its forgivingness."
Kim: "Where did your love of beachcombing come from?"
Fiona: "Both my parents beachcombed but mum would go and look for beautiful stones, whilst dad took me on the high-tide to look for adventure- messages in bottles, that sort of stuff. I can remember we once found the most amazing fish identification cards all written in Russian, so we became convinced that there were Soviet submarines out there. Beachcombing with dad was never straightforward. He would bring things back that would suddenly be repurposed. When I was a teenager, there were these long plastic tubes that would wash up on the beach- something to do with the oil industry maybe. Anyway, we made them into mousetraps- humane mousetraps before they were even thought of- and we would catch mice in them and take them in the car and offload them somewhere else. So, beachcombing with Dad was incredibly imaginative and playful, and that was instilled in me from a young age and has remained a fundamental part of my life and my art practice."
Kim: "Talk me through a recent piece of art"
Fiona: [Picks up 'Fried Which Way'] "I always do an underlayer. This one is umber, but it was quite thinly applied so the effect is more translucent. The top layer is sap green, which I then worked through the entire painting- so even the grey has sap green in it. My work tends to start from tiny sketches so about three times the size of a postage stamp. It features a fish, which of course is a common theme in all my work. Fish for me relates a lot to happy times. When I was a child, if you asked me what I wanted to do, the thing I’d want to do the most was go fishing or have a fishing picnic. I have always loved mackerel fishing- it’s the best thing in the world, throwing your line into the turquoise, open water, and seeing those silvery scales flipping into the boat! For me, this painting just works. It’s like a good poem, it can be read on so many levels. It’s not my message to someone, it’s for someone to find a message in it that means something to them."
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