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Artistic team appointed to GMB100 public art project for Stromness

Date: 02 December 2021

Orla Stevens with oars from Orkney Historic Boat Society

An artist-writer duo have been appointed to take forward a public art project based in Stromness to celebrate the life, work and character of much-loved Orkney writer George Mackay Brown.

Commissioned and funded by Orkney Islands Council’s Arts Development service through the Culture Fund, the project is part of overall GMB100 activities marking 100 years since the writer’s birth.

Local writer Gabrielle Barnby has teamed up with Orla Stevens, a visual artist from central Scotland who was involved in a collaborative project for the Orkney International Science Festival this year. They were appointed by a panel including representatives from VisitScotland, Voluntary Action Orkney and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

While the exact location and form of the artwork is still being researched, the duo say they have been inspired by old heritage materials – oars, tillers and rudders, kindly donated to the project by the Orkney Historic Boat Society (OHBS).

Orla explains the link: “Stromness and the sea are consistent themes running throughout George Mackay Brown’s writing – we wanted to honour and reference that, and also the deeper theme of life as a journey which permeates his work.

“The maritime history of Stromness is a frequent element in many of the characters and narratives in George Mackay Brown’s work - this led us to explore the current restoration work being carried out by the Historic Boat Society.

“Observing their practice and hearing the stories of the vessels they have been working on has been central to our inspiration as to the form of the artwork and to the focus on heritage materials – we can’t thank them enough for their support and generosity.”

Gabrielle has already started working with secondary pupils at KGS who are part of the Advanced Higher English group, looking at three of GMB’s poems - The Friend, Waters and To the Tibetan Refugees - all poems from his final posthumous collection ‘Travellers’ - exploring themes of friendship, the sea, and travelling.

Orkney writer Gabrielle BarnbyGabrielle adds: “George wrote in many forms, including fable, myth and folklore and this is perhaps what he is best known for – but he also wrote about issues contemporary to him, such as uranium mining and the Tibetan refugee crisis. He was deeply concerned with what it really means to be a citizen of this world and the importance of our links with each other and with our planet.

“We plan to incorporate the words of young people in this project as well, to provide that stepping off point for people to explore George’s writing here and now, as something truly relevant to all of us.”

Emma Gee is the Council’s Arts Development Officer: “The idea behind the commission is to view the celebrations of the centenary as a beginning of marking the legacy of George Mackay Brown and widening awareness of his work by producing a destination marker for Islanders and visitors for the next 10+ years. The Panel were particularly delighted that this commission was being led by a local writer in Gabrielle Barnby, in a partnership with visual arts through Orla Stevens, which feels a fitting way to honour GMB and his collaborative practices.”

Orla has started restoring and embellishing the heritage items obtained from OHBS:

“With the encouragement and advice of OHBS members I have been researching restoration techniques, seeking images from throughout Orkney including St Magnus Cathedral and Stromness. These are being developed to be included in the final design. The idea is to weave together words and iconic images that re-appear in George Mackay Brown's work in a vivid and contemporary way.

“It's exciting to be learning new skills and using heritage materials. There's something special about using genuine heritage pieces in the work, they are totally unique and that's all part of their impact.”

Gabrielle sums up:

“We hope that the piece will inspire many things, that it will draw people to George Mackay Brown’s work and to Stromness, the place he called home.

“We also hope that it will begin conversations around the support and welcome that everyone needs as they travel through their own personal journeys.”

More about Gabrielle and Orla:

Gabrielle Barnby lives in Orkney and writes short stories, poetry and full length fiction. Her work has been included in numerous anthologies and magazines and she is twice winner of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship writing competition. Gabrielle has run creative writing workshops for many years, encouraging new writers and supporting creative discovery. She is Programme Leader for Wirdsmit, Orkney’s writing group for young people, and has a particular interest in writing for well-being.

Orla Stevens is a painter based in central Scotland. Orla’s work explores human connections and experiences of wild land/seascapes. Her work is informed by plein-air trips, where she documents her experience of the landscape, and often uses historical and folklore narratives to inform her paintings.

  • Summary:

    An artists-writer duo have been appointed to take forward a public art project based in Stromness to celebrate the life, work and character of much-loved Orkney writer George Mackay Brown.


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    Leisure and Culture
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