Published  12/09/2014

Will Maclean and Marian Leven: interview

Will Maclean and Marian Leven: interview

An Suileachan was intended to be something that looked to the future and would lead to a feeling of community ownership’


An Suileachan is an art project on the Isle of Lewis, by Will Maclean and Marian Leven, that reflects the historic land clearances there. It celebrates traditional island skills with dry-stone-walled circles and a walkway, a stone archway, an iron fire basket, wooden seating and an engraved granite circle engraved with the names of the Reef Raiders. It was awarded the Saltire Society’s prestigious and coveted award for Arts and Crafts in Architecture. Janet McKenzie spoke to them at the home they share in Tayport, Fife.

Janet McKenzie: Your joint exhibition in Hamburg in 2012, Scottish Connections, revealed that both of your artistic practices have sought to capture the experience of those peoples who have not been included in mainstream histories. In this, your work is in tune with the anthropologically motivated work of Susan Hiller. Has she influenced your respective work?

Will Maclean: The subject of the social history and culture of the Scottish Highlands as content in my work came about through the course structure of the painting department of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen in the 1960s. Figure composition could only make sense to me if it was the result of some form of emotional response. I had been reading around my family history in Skye and Wester Ross-Shire and my first attempts to describe my reactions visually came in the form of figure compositions relating to the Highland clearances.

I first became aware of the work of Hiller in 1981 when we both exhibited in a travelling exhibition called Art and the Sea. From The Freud Museum (1991-6) by Hiller was, and is, important to me, as is the installation work of Christian Boltanski and the personal history in the work of [the British painter] Hughie O’ Donoghue. Has Hiller influenced my work? I am not sure if influenced is the correct word. I take confidence and support from the fact that other artists whose work I admire are working in a similar genre.  

Marian Leven: I admire Hiller’s work and feel empathy towards her interest in anthropology, but I have not seen enough of it or considered it enough to be influenced by it. I have always worked in relative isolation on what I instinctively want to do myself.

JMcK: Will, your work can be seen as a dialogue with those people in Scottish history – crofters, fishermen and the Highland communities – who have been stripped of their language, their industries and belief systems. How do you give them a voice?

WM: Their voice has come historically through music, song and poetry. I would, however, hope to contribute to the visual in terms of Highland culture: to follow in the footsteps of [the 19th-century Highland artist William] McTaggart, but in a manner relevant to the present day, and to contribute to a growing realisation that the visual arts can have a place in contemporary Gaeldom just as it had in the Celtic culture of old.

JMcK: There are issues in your work that can be applied to numerous indigenous groups whose identity has been damaged by colonialism (Inuit, Australian Aborigines). Do you position yourself within the wider post-colonial project in the arts?

WM: Yes, I suppose that I do politically, but my work is a fusion (or confusion) of the political, the poetic and, in terms of the cultures that you mention – the nature of their art and crafts, the tools and material they use – their material culture. The dynamics are different depending on the direction of the narrative within the individual work[s] that I am attempting to resolve.

JMcK: Paintings by McTaggart are an important record of an episode in Scottish history that impacted on the whole world, namely the Highland Clearances. Can you describe your 1994 work Black Vessel Foundering?

WM: Yes, I am on firmer ground with this question. In general, this work comments on exploitation. I think it was Herman Melville who said that, in certain cases, the treatment of 19th-century emigrants from the Scottish Highlands and from the west of Ireland was worse than that of the African slave ships, on the grounds that the shipmasters were paid for Africans per head on arrival but the emigrants prepaid their passage and any death on passage reduced the cost of provisions. The foundering relates to the loss of the emigration ship the Exmouth Castle, wrecked off Islay in 1847; the bodies of more than 100 women and children were recovered. In 1834 alone, more than 700 emigrants died in Atlantic shipwrecks and between 1847 and 1853 at least 49 emigrant ships were lost at sea.

JMcK: Another Scot, D’Arcy Thompson (1860-1948), with his seminal publication On Growth and Form (1917), is an important influence on you and [his book] inspired the work we chose for the cover of The Drawn Word (2014). What is his significance for the visual arts?

WM: Many artists have On Growth and Form on their studio bookshelves. It is difficult to pin it down, but I consider that Thompson was (like Leonardo) a visual thinker and, as such, allows me to feel included in his vision, and he could draw. The museum as medium has been central to my work for many years and Dundee University collections have contributed to my body of work related to Thompson.

JMcK: Marian, you come from a long line of weavers historically and you yourself trained as a weaver. Did your work grow in part as a response to the feminist movement and the reappraisal of craftwork that was often (though not always) done by women?

ML: I come from a family of strong women so have always unconsciously asserted myself. My male relatives were the weavers, but both my male and female line had very able craft workers and creative people and I never thought there was anything unusual in that. I myself loved all forms of creativity and hands-on making from a young age and that just became part of what I am.

JMcK: Your painting begins with perceptual drawing and painting; you made a body of work recently in response to a trip to St Kilda, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. What characterises these places, in visual terms?

ML: Visually, I am drawn to these northern lands. I feel at home with the space and with the colour and texture of the sea and in the landscape. The weather suits me. Emotionally, it is through the medium of painting that I need to get to the essence of what it is that creates this, a feeling of belonging. The history of the people is written in the landscape so I don’t need to put them into the picture. They are, or have been, shaped by the same landscape that affects me.

JMcK: What do such isolated communities signify in the global world at present?

ML: In the global world, communication is now so sophisticated that isolated communities can share their experiences and by sharing gain strength from other such communities. I feel very sorry that tribal groups who would like to remain isolated are forced into the bigger, often alien, world, but I do not have the answer as how to protect them. Isolated communities show the endeavours of humans to nurture the land they love, so they signify the fact that life can be lived very well without the urban bustle that attracts others. They should teach other communities that all ways of life are valid without some being superior to others.

JMcK: How was your collaborative work An Suileachan (2013) conceived?

ML: Collaboration has not posed problems for us as we have always had common interests in social history, archaeology and all things visual. When we understood the needs of the community and saw the site they had chosen, the lie of the land dictated to us both a certain size and shape, and by talking through the back-story the form emerged as we contributed, considered or discounted different ideas. The community told us what the piece had to represent and, based on that, we presented them with the idea of how this could be created visually.

JMcK: What does the title mean in Gaelic?

Will: The Gaelic historian and broadcaster Dr Finlay MacLeod gave the title for the work to us, and I quote: “Suileachan – which orbits around the word suil, the Gaelic for eye but which extrapolates out to eye-opener and noteworthy and even prescient and far-seeing. It’s got rich connotations and looks as much to the future as to the past.” This was exactly what we wanted for the work. It was intended to be something that looked to the future and would have an interactive element that would lead to a feeling of community ownership.

JMcK: The materials you chose to work with are themselves replete with meaning. Can you explain how the project evolved?

WM: The structure in Reef (An Suileachan) is the fourth of a series of land raid works. The other three came under the management of Cuimhneachain nan Gaisgeach [Commemoration of our Land Heroes], a group set up under the leadership of the late Angus Macleod of Stornoway to commemorate the actions of the “heroes of the land raids”. The key difference is that the first three were memorials to specific events. The Reef work, while commemorating the land raiders, was designed to look forward to the future of the community now under trust ownership. It has an element of interaction – seats and a fire basket – that will allow for community events in a setting of great physical beauty. It is also a joint design with Marian.

ML: Stone is the most abundant of all building materials there and has been used throughout history. The tradition of skilled stonemasons is still to the fore and the area has many fine old walls, beautifully built to create boundaries and enclosures. This tradition of building in stone seemed an obvious choice, and the addition of a local carpenter and blacksmith and men with plenty of land-working skills in the area of the work we designed [meant it] became something that the community could take ownership of.

JMcK: Both of you work using imagery and symbols (the sea, the sky, tools for fishing) that address the historic relationship between quotidian life and eternity. They are sombre and respectful and essentially explore your cultural inheritance. Is An Suileachan intended to be pedagogical?

WM: In the broadest sense [of the term] yes, but perhaps less so than the other three. It is intended to be less sombre and memorialised. Hopefully it will continue the dialogue into future generations.

ML: The shape of the structure can be interpreted by viewers in any way they feel is meaningful to them but the shape is dictated by the idea of moving from the historic past at one end, closing into a narrow passage and through the arch which creates a divide between past and present and opens up into the present and future at the other end. The significance of this symbolism can be seen as physical or spiritual, or in any way that is right for the visitor. The idea behind An Suileachan is a historic event, and the commemoration of that event is very important to the local community. However, it also celebrates more recent outcomes from this event so can be seen to inform present and future generations, in a symbolic way, about this part of history. It can be observed in various ways, as simply a work of art that has a visual impact in the landscape no matter what it symbolises, as a place of contemplation or celebration for use by the community or visitors, or as a place of educational value that can teach people about the history and introduce them to wider understanding of the events in 18th- and 19th-century Scotland and beyond. So the intention is not pedagogical first and foremost, but to give viewers a variety of ways of relating to it through a visual experience.

JMcK: The spectacular natural effects of the Outer Hebrides are set against very muted light, and the testing experience of those who struggle (historically and in the present day) to maintain a traditional way of life. Is the landscape you explore and evoke bleak or uplifting?

WM: The landscape of the Outer Hebrides is in turn bleak and uplifting. Swept by ever-changing Atlantic weather systems, the power of the weather is a dominant factor both mentally and physically in the lives of the people who have made these islands their home.

ML: Uplifting, because human beings have conquered bleakness throughout time and the moments of light negate other hardships. 

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