Category Archives: Visual Arts


Sixteens: for Isobel is a project featuring simple, formal arrangements of related found objects, made for Northlight Dunbar 2012, and presented at the Beach Hut, Dunbar Harbour.

I developed the practice of making Fourteens in summer 2010 as part of The Road North. On my daughter’s fourteenth birthday I was on Skye while she was in Edinburgh, so to mark the occasion I picked, arranged and photographed fourteen yellow ragwort heads, and e-mailed her the image. This soon became a way of enabling Alec Finlay and myself to focus on things we came across – including berries, flowers and mushrooms.

Two years on, and I’ll be with my daughter on her birthday. But I’ve been making Sixteens anyway, sixteen related found objects arranged as a four by four grid, and photographed in situ. I’ve made sixteen such arrangements and photographs, retaining one item from each, which is displayed in the beach hut alongside the photos. The items compose a seventeenth Sixteen, derived from its predecessors (just as in a ‘crown of sonnets’ the fifteenth sonnet is composed of one line from each of the previous fourteen).

I made eleven Sixteens before my week in Dunbar, on recent trips to Moray and Orkney, and the remaining five were made on a walk along the John Muir Way east from Dunbar towards Torness power station.

With thanks to Angus Reid and Lorna Irvine for their contributions.

The Road North at StAnza 2012

'there go the geese / and the foxgloves / not yet over (Slioch)'

The ‘sampler‘ of The Road North which was shown at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh last summer can be seen in St Andrews as part of this year’s StAnza poetry festival.

1.00pm – 5.00pm
Thursday 15th – Saturday 17th March
Public Library Meeting Room, Church Square, St Andrews


Details here

Pandora’s Light Box

Lorna listening, White Gallery

Pandora’s Light Box is a collaborative project I worked on for over a year, from June 2010 through to September 2011. My brief, from Artlink, was to write a descriptive poem about the University of Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice Gallery, to be recorded and presented in the gallery as an audio work for visitors both visually impaired and sighted.
Georgian Gallery, reading

Access to visual art for individuals with a visual impairment relies on verbal description, and Pandora’s Light Box takes that ‘practical’ form and extends it into an artwork in its own right.
Listening post, Round Room

I wrote the poem for two voices, and a recording of myself and Lorna Irvine reading it has been installed in the gallery at three specially designed listening stations, downstairs in the contemporary White Gallery and the historical Georgian Gallery, and upstairs in the Round Room. You can listen to the poem here.

These were designed by Frances Priest and made by Ronnie Watt; the recordings and sound design were made by Martin Parker and Jung In Jung.

A friend of a friend sent these photos of some lines from the poem which seem to have escaped from the gallery; based on this blog, we think it was Dora, one of the project volunteers, but she’s not owned up yet! And this blog describes the project from the perspective of one of the visually impaired participants.

The Road North at the Scottish Poetry Library

Friday 5 August – Saturday 3 September

Below are photos of our ‘sampler’ of The Road North at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh in until 3 September – a display of poems written on the road, written on labels attached to whisky miniatures which we sampled while we travelled. And below the photos is a description of the project and the show. There’s also an article about The Road North in the current issue (no. 9) of Poetry Matters, the biannual newletter sent to all Friends of the SPL.

Bottles & hokku-labels

love is / a bridge // that / lives (Inver, Raasay) Alec Finlay

swallows skim ripples / on mirror-pond stillness / cup-and-ring marked rocks (Luing) Ken Cockburn

Nikka’s part / of our michi no nikki / on Mt. Nikko (Slioch) Ken Cockburn

pulling mussels / from a shell // parting the paired / tea-cups (the hidden gardens) Alec Finlay

The Road North is a word-map of Scotland, composed by Alec Finlay & Ken Cockburn as they travelled through their homeland in 2010 and 2011. They were guided on this journey by the Japanese poet Basho, whose Oku-no-hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) is one of the masterpieces of travel literature.
Following Basho and his travelling companion Sora, their journey took in 53 ‘stations’, from Pilrig to Pollokshields via Berneray, Glen Lyon, Achnabreck and Kirkmaiden. At each place they wrote and left poems in situ, as well as drinking a tea and a whisky, and leaving a paper wish. At several they met and wrote with other poets, including Meg Bateman, Gerry Loose and Angus Dunn.
This ‘sampler’ features the 53 (miniature) whisky bottles, each with a poem-label attached. These are complemented by a selection of books, word-drawings, texts and objects gathered and made on The Road North.
Scottish Poetry Library
5 Crichton’s Close, Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DT
t: 0131 557 2876
on twitter: @byleaveswelive
*New opening hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 10-5; Thursday 10-7; Saturday 10-4; Closed Monday, Sunday

Mortlach Storywalks

P2 looking towards Dufftown from Meg's Widd

P7 returning from The Giant's Chair

Earlier this year I worked at Mortlach Primary School in Dufftown, mainly with the P2, P4 and P7 classes. We walked – in snow and sunshine – some of the paths around the town, which the kids had already explored with Wild things!, and I got them to write about their impressions of the ground we’d covered. I collated, edited and wrote up their material as stories, which have just been published as three leaflets, designed by Glasgow-based artist Janie Nicoll. P2 collectively describe Meg’s Widd, P4 become Jimbo, a local boy showing visitors round The Toon’s Widd, while P7 encounter a shape-shifter who opens up the history and ecology of The Giant’s Chair. The leaflets are available from Dufftown Tourist Information Centre, and other venues in the town.

The project was co-ordinated by Mary Bourne, sculptor, and a member of the School Council. Her carved stones using poems by children from all classes have been placed along the three walks.

the river meanders beneath the spider spinning its fragile web while the buzzard drifts overhead as the river…

sLender whIte Noisy watErfall, tumbliNg And imPatient, Rushes tOwards dullaN (LINEN APRON)

rocks under water shaded by trees the heron nests in and flies down to stand on rocks…

Works made by P1, P3 and P5 with Janie Nicoll have been installed in Dufftown’s Cottage Hospital, Tourist Information Centre and at the local library. Additional works are in the school itself.

The P6 class prepared an orienteering route around Meg’s Widd, making a map and contributing words for the stones which serve as control points.

The nursery children worked with Vivien Hendry and Mary Bourne, making peg-fairies which they took to Meg’s Widd. I ‘interviewed’ them about their fairies’ skills and adventures, and Vivien has made a limited-edition book, The Magic of Meg’s Widd.

The Magic of Meg's Widd (photo: Mary Bourne)

Mortlach Story Walks is a partnership project between Mortlach Primary School, Dufftown, Moray and the Speyside Paths Network Group to produce arts-based interpretation for the countryside around Dufftown. It is initiated and supported by the school’s Parent Council.

Sitting (continued)

The finished portrait

After the drawing, Angus began a portrait in oils, which took several sittings. Again, I read my way through them – staying in the east with Pasternak and Herbert (Z), and going west with The New American Poetry 1945-1960, especially enjoying Gregory Corso’s ‘Marriage’. Above is the finished portrait, before the paint had even dried. Angus had been wondering about a title, and I wrote to him, ‘Lorna says it captures a lot of me and “it’s not going to be called Mr Fun” – ?! It was an interesting process for me too – to take that time for reading, the pleasure of reading aloud, and to observe your process, the struggle with the material, how that (relatively small) surface gradually became completed.’

Angus replied, ‘Reading Aloud is a very good title… that’s the point, and the thrill of it for me. It starts and anchors itself in the fact of your reading, and as such is a likeness of you and a kind of sketch; but it becomes an image when I began to be able to see that we were both involved (this was a shock, and perhaps the answer to a compositional dilemma). What interested me was to be able to see the exchange between us, the time it took and the process by which it was made… the daydreaming, the distraction, the concentration, the moments of frustration, the memorable line… all the points on the elastic scale of reading and listening…

‘So… whatever Lorna says, it’s the image of a special pleasure, and a celebration of it… And it’s good it’s two men I think. It’s not a parent and child (though it could be) and its not a younger person and an older person: just two men and a common ground we found to share. To me, that is something unusual and beautiful. Interesting too that it was the big expansive world of Milosz that offered the most space to stroll around.

‘I like it that you the sitter do all this active documentation and that there is the flavour of collaboration to it all. I hope other people can see that too…’

Here are some details from the picture.

Detail 1

Detail 2

Detail 3


Angus Reid, 'Hendrix Chord', 2010

I have been sitting for a painted portrait recently. The artist is my friend Angus Reid, poet, film- and theatre-maker, architectural critic, composer… he painted years ago but has just taken it up again recently, when he persuaded his teenage son Mark to sit for him, guitar in hand. Now he’s taken a studio at the Arts Complex at Meadowbank, and I’m his first sitter.
Inside the Arts Complex

We decide, I can’t quite remember how, that I’ll read poems aloud while he draws and paints. I think this is mainly to stop me getting bored, but it means he’s seeing me with eyes downcast. (One day I play music instead, but this is far less interesting for either of us – I catch myself dropping off on occasion.)
Angus and easel

Reading poems aloud is a fine way of critiquing them – their strengths and weaknesses are thrown into relief. Neruda’s Book of Questions is a life-affirming delight despite its repeated interrogation of death (Neruda wrote it only months before his own death); W.S. Graham is harder work than I had imagined, abstract and angular, the specific setting of ‘Johann Joachim Quantz’s Five Lessons’ giving the most satisfaction; MacCaig keeps producing the most startling and exact images, often in otherwise imperfect poems; but it’s Milosz I most enjoy, the good company of his prosy, conversational, curious, wry, humorous tones, that open up further conversations once the poems return to silence.
Angus Reid, 'Ken Reading Aloud', 2010

I found Angus’s comments on the process revealing too:
“In the time we have spent together, the image has begun to reflect the pleasure we both take in spoken poetry. The work is still in progress, but one drawing was a break-through, coming after Neruda and Milosz and somewhere in the midst of W.S. Graham and MacCaig: in the face of a middle-aged man reading – a face I know well – there was suddenly a surprise, something unselfconscious, that I was able to observe: small flashes of patience, tenderness and appreciation. The image seemed to be able to go beyond likeness to capture something universal that is otherwise largely hidden by the Ego, and the everyday.”
Angus Reid, 'Ken, with hands crossed&#039

At one level sitting seems an egotistical exercise, spending time having an image made of one’s transient, imperfect self; but at another, like many activities where you give in to time rather than trying to manage it, it’s a way of losing yourself, losing track of time, and finding what else there is.

A Renga for St James

This renga, or ‘verse-chain’, was composed at St James Mill, Norwich, over four days in early July 2009 by eighteen writers in all, and flows over 109m of hoardings on the north bank of River Wensum in central Norwich.

St James Place is a large riverside site currently being redeveloped, and the renga is the first part of the St James Collection, a series of temporary and permanent artworks for the site. The renga, like the Collection as a whole, draws on the history of the site as a monastery, and later a print works.

The whole renga is available here.

If you would like a printed version of the renga, e-mail me your postal address via the ‘Contacts’ page and I’ll send a copy out to you.