Ice queen

Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of a doomed ad­ven­turer and a for­got­ten name­sake, and the re­al­i­sa­tion of a life-long dream have taken the work of an ac­claimed Scottish artist in an un­ex­pected di­rec­tion. Bar­bara Rae ex­plains to Barry Did­cock

Sunday Herald Life - - Cover Story Interview -

WHEN Bar­bara Rae was a school­girl in Cri­eff in the 1950s she loved maps and ge­og­ra­phy. One map and one area held a par­tic­u­lar fas­ci­na­tion: the fa­bled North­west Pas­sage, which links the Atlantic with the Pa­cific through the per­ilous ice floes of the Arc­tic.

Af­ter cen­turies of searches and hope­ful ex­pe­di­tions, it was Nor­we­gian ex­plorer Roald Amund­sen who fi­nally nav­i­gated the Pas­sage by ship in 1906. But the most dis­as­trous and no­to­ri­ous failed at­tempt hap­pened over half a cen­tury ear­lier, with the Bri­tish ex­pe­di­tion of 1845 led by Sir John Franklin. He and his crew per­ished and both his ships were

lost. For 150 years all that re­mained were three graves, what­ever shreds of ev­i­dence the melt­ing ice gave up and a host of ru­mours, most in­trigu­ingly that Franklin’s crew re­sorted to can­ni­bal­ism at the last. For Rae, the story of Franklin and the North­west Pas­sage proved ir­re­sistible.

In the end she be­came not a car­tog­ra­pher or a ge­og­ra­pher but a painter: a con­tem­po­rary of John Bel­lany and Alexan­der Mof­fat at Edinburgh Col­lege of Art in the 1960s, and later a main­stay of the teach­ing staff at Glas­gow School of Art where she nur­tured the ca­reers of Steven Camp­bell, Peter How­son, Ken Cur­rie and Alison Watt among many oth­ers. In her own art, of­ten painted in south­ern Spain or in the deserts around Los Angeles where she lived for a long time with her screen­writer hus­band Gareth Wardell, she presents dra­matic, semi-ab­stract land­scapes that hum with colour. But for all her time spent in the arid south she never for­got the North­west Pas­sage.

“I re­ally, re­ally wanted to go north as well,” she tells me when we meet in her stu­dio in Edinburgh’s New Town. “I wanted to go to Ice­land and ex­plore Ice­land and ex­plore this idea about go­ing over the top of the world. I’d spent such a long time in Los Angeles over the last 14 or 15 years so ev­ery time I was fly­ing there I was fly­ing over Ice­land and Green­land and look­ing down and say­ing to my­self, ‘I re­ally, re­ally want to go here to th­ese frozen wastes’.”

So in 2015, aged 72, she did. She joined the crew of a Rus­sian ship and set sail for the Arc­tic. In 2016 and 2017 she made two fur­ther ex­pe­di­tions and three years on from that first trip the re­sult is a vast new set of paint­ings which goes on dis­play at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh next month in an ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled – what else? – The North­west Pas­sage.

But there’s another as­pect to the work. Blend­ing with Rae’s long-term in­ter­est in the Arc­tic and the North­west Pas­sage is a more re­cent dis­cov­ery – her name­sake John Rae, an Orkney-born sur­geon-turned-Arc­tic ex­plorer and a con­tem­po­rary of Franklin’s. It was Rae, fol­low­ing Franklin’s last known move­ments, who first heard (and, im­por­tantly, re­ported to the Ad­mi­ralty) the claims by lo­cal Inuit that Franklin was dead and that the last of his crew had re­sorted to can­ni­bal­ism. His own rep­u­ta­tion suf­fered as a re­sult though he’s com­mem­o­rated with a me­mo­rial in Kirk­wall’s St Mag­nus Cathe­dral and there were ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions about him in Orkney and Edinburgh in 2013 to mark the 200th an­niver­sary of his birth.

On a paint­ing visit to Orkney in­spired by her long-stand­ing in­ter­est in Ne­olithic cul­tures – her Ari­zona paint­ings in­cor­po­rate cave art and rock sculp­tures – Rae came across the story of her name­sake. “That started me off on the his­tory side of it,” she says. “It’s al­ways a story about the his­tory [for me].”

It also meant an im­por­tant fi­nal piece of the in­tel­lec­tual jig­saw fell into place be­cause what makes land­scapes in­ter­est­ing for

Rae is the hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties that have taken place within them. To paint those land­scapes re­quires her to en­gage with those peo­ple and those ac­tiv­i­ties, of­ten over a long pe­riod of time. “I need a con­nec­tion,” she says. “I don’t like to just go to a place and see a land­scape and say, right, I’m do­ing that, then go.”

And so she set off not so much in the foot­steps of John Rae – dif­fi­cult when you have sev­eral thou­sand miles of wa­ter to cross – but in his wake, at least, and with a sense of the ter­ror and won­der he felt when faced with the Arc­tic’s in­hos­pitable en­vi­ron­ment al­ways in her mind. That was the plan, at least, though it’s dif­fi­cult to adopt the mind­set of a 19th cen­tury ex­plorer when your fel­low pas­sen­gers are sip­ping cock­tails in an out­door hot tub as the glaciers and ice sheets slip past. Rae’s travel mates did just that and she has a photo to prove it. It was, she says, “such an amaz­ing con­trast to the hard­ships that Franklin and ev­ery­one who came af­ter

him en­coun­tered”. But the jour­ney it­self didn’t dis­ap­point, nor did the even­tual destination. Ev­ery day brought dif­fer­ent im­ages and ex­pe­ri­ences, some star­tling, many awe-in­spir­ing. Go­ing on deck at 4am one day she watched the ship glide silently through pack ice in the grey-white Arc­tic gloom as the First Of­fi­cer peered in­tently over the side. Ap­proach­ing the “misty and mys­te­ri­ous” Prince Leopold Is­land bird sanc­tu­ary she saw a “mon­strous” black cliff face split by a wa­ter­fall that ap­peared to hang in the air. “It was just mag­i­cal to wit­ness that,” she says. And vis­it­ing the bleak, peb­blestrewn fore­shore at Beechey Is­land, she saw the place in which three mem­bers of Franklin’s crew were buried un­til the 1980s when the mum­mi­fied re­mains were ex­humed and ex­am­ined.

“It’s such an amaz­ing, des­o­late place and when you come onto the beach it’s cov­ered in grey peb­bles,” she says. “It looks like some land­scape gardener has been at work. It’s a beau­ti­ful horse­shoe bay with a sprin­kling of snow on the hill­tops. It’s very dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the scale of it, and when you think about Franklin and his crew be­ing in this des­o­late spot and be­ing trapped there for a cou­ple of years …” She trails off.

And how did she feel when she saw the graves of the sailors?

“The grave-mark­ers have been re­placed from the orig­i­nal ones, but it’s still a very haunt­ing place. And of course in my mem­ory are the pho­to­graphs of the bod­ies they ex­humed and tested to see if they could find out what they died from.”

The po­lar bears were a par­tic­u­lar treat. They were also a threat. When go­ing ashore to paint Rae had to be ac­com­pa­nied by an armed crew mem­ber to guard against at­tacks. But from the safety of the ship she once saw a bear and her cubs jump­ing from ice floe to ice floe in search of food. That was spe­cial. Another time she watched as a pack of bears gorged them­selves on a whale car­cass then all fell asleep one by one.

Draw­ing and paint­ing on site where she could, or work­ing from pho­to­graphs in her cabin stu­dio when she couldn’t, Rae filled her port­fo­lio and stuffed re­flec­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences into the thing she refers to as her “mem­ory bank”. Re­turn­ing to Edinburgh, she set it all down on can­vas and pa­per re­sult­ing in works such as Devon Is­land Beach, a study in blues and greys of Devon Is­land in the Cana­dian Arc­tic archipelago, the largest un­in­hab­ited is­land in the world. Or Through The Ice Sea, a work on pa­per which shows the prow of her ship nos­ing through ice floes against an inky black hori­zon. Or the se­ries of pow­er­ful dip­ty­chs she made, aerial views of the Arc­tic land­scape in­spired by a plane trip dur­ing her sec­ond visit in 2016.

Other works are more ghostly, such as Black Pyra­mid or the self-ex­plana­tory Dark Berg. In Dark Sea: Peel Sound she presents a threat­en­ing seascape slashed across with vivid yel­low and a mono­type of the Cro­ker Glacier at dusk turns the ice into a jagged anvil shape jut­ting out of a grey-blue sea. And that all-im­por­tant hu­man pres­ence is there too, in the many works fea­tur­ing des­o­late trad­ing huts and shel­ters, or show­ing shad­owy fig­ures in the Arc­tic gloom.

One story that’s harder to tell on can­vas and pa­per is the degra­da­tion of the ice caps as global warm­ing takes its toll. Over the course of three con­sec­u­tive vis­its Rae didn’t see any mas­sive change, but she did see proof enough of a less talked about down­side of global warm­ing – an in­crease in tourism and foot­fall, some­thing which is hav­ing a detri­men­tal ef­fect on both the Arc­tic’s ecosys­tem and the lives of the peo­ple who live there, the Inuit.

“The big prob­lem now is that be­cause the North­west Pas­sage is ac­ces­si­ble there are big­ger cruise ships com­ing in,” she says. “The one I was on car­ried be­tween 70 and 90 peo­ple and they were all pro­fes­sion­als – ge­ol­o­gists, pho­tog­ra­phers, wildlife ex­perts, bird watch­ers – and they were mostly re­tired aca­demics. It was very strict what we could do. But the first time we ar­rived in this Cana­dian Inuit set­tle­ment called Pond In­let there was another ship there with 600 pas­sen­gers, and there was a French boat back in Green­land with 400 pas­sen­gers.”

And big­ger ships have fol­lowed. In 2016 the largest to date to tra­verse the Pas­sage – the 13-deck Crys­tal Seren­ity

– left Alaska for a 32-day cruise around the Arc­tic to New York. It can carry 1600 pas­sen­gers. “I don’t think they can cope with that num­ber of peo­ple com­ing in,” says Rae.

On that, as on mat­ters closer to home, Bar­bara Rae isn’t short of opin­ions. Talk fi­nally leaves the ice of the Arc­tic and turns to the fire that de­stroyed the Mack­in­tosh Build­ing at Glas­gow School of Art (GSA). Here again Rae has plenty to say.

Few Scots were un­moved by the dis­as­ter and it’s safe to say no Scottish artists were. But Rae’s con­nec­tion the place runs deep: she was a lec­turer there for over two decades, from 1975 un­til 1996. Even at the end of her time there she would see some­thing new in the build­ing ev­ery day, so she’s un­der­stand­ably up­set at its de­struc­tion. More than that, she’s out­raged.

“I think it’s tragic, the lack of care for the build­ing from the first fire. [Peo­ple say] ‘what an ac­ci­dent’. Wrong. What a lack of care.”

I ask her if she thinks the Mack should be pulled down and a new, mod­ern build­ing raised in its place. “You mean like the build­ing op­po­site,” she snorts, re­fer­ring to the unloved Reid Build­ing. “Like that pile of sh*t?”. No, she says, the Mack has to be re­built. Ex­actly like it was.

“I think that’s the only so­lu­tion. I’m very fear­ful of knock­ing it down and hav­ing an in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tec­ture com­pe­ti­tion and end­ing up with a pile of crap.

“Of course the patina of the build­ing, the wear and tear, can never be re­pro­duced. But, re­luc­tantly, I think it’s the op­tion that’s the right one.”

Rae sits at the cen­tre of mod­ern Scottish paint­ing thanks to her own artis­tic out­put and the rep­u­ta­tion it has brought her, and her years of teach­ing at GSA and at schools in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. But her re­la­tion­ship with Scot­land it­self is more prob­lem­atic. She said in 2013 that she didn’t con­sider her­self a Scottish painter. Now res­i­dent in Edinburgh again af­ter years in Los Angeles, does that still hold true?

“Be­ing Scottish is very im­por­tant to me be­cause this is where my roots are and I guess my love of land­scape came from grow­ing up in Perthshire,” she replies. “I was con­stantly out in the hills. I was a grouse beater. I worked on farms. But I want to be an in­ter­na­tional artist. I don’t want to be pi­geon-holed in any sort of way. It’s wrong to put peo­ple in cat­e­gories. We don’t call some­one ‘an English artist’ or ‘an Amer­i­can artist’.”

What she es­pe­cially hates, how­ever, is be­ing called a woman artist. “That makes me mad,” she says.

“We don’t say some­one is a male artist, do we? That has been my phi­los­o­phy all my life. I’ve come across some se­ri­ous is­sues with men in my work. Not in my paint­ing but work­ing at Glas­gow School of Art and work­ing in schools and so on. But I have stead­fastly kept to the idea that I’m an artist and I don’t want to be de­fined by be­ing a woman. I don’t like prizes for women and all that crap. That re­ally, re­ally an­noys me … Equal­ity? We can have equal­ity. But I don’t want con­de­scen­sion.”

The corol­lary is that she doesn’t feel she has ever been un­der­val­ued as an artist be­cause she’s a woman. True, the Scottish Na­tional Gal­leries still doesn’t own one of her works and that does seem to ran­kle, but she would never put that down to any­thing to do with her gen­der. “I’ve never moaned about be­ing a woman and I’ve never asked for spe­cial priv­i­leges be­cause I’m a woman,” she says. “As an artist I didn’t feel my­self unequal in any way, and I’ve never been held back by that.”

Nothing much else would hold Bar­bara Rae back ei­ther, I sense. Now 74, she re­mains vol­u­ble, ac­tive, opin­ion­ated and in­trepid – so much so that she’s re­turn­ing to the Arc­tic in Septem­ber to un­der­take a new se­ries of works. She has to, she tells me, “be­cause my mem­ory banks have gone down”.

A life­time on, the North­west Pas­sage is still call­ing to her.

Bar­bara Rae: The North­west Pas­sage opens at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh on Au­gust 4 (un­til Septem­ber 9, admission free) and will then trans­fer to the Pier Arts Cen­tre in Orkney. Bar­bara Rae trav­elled to the Arc­tic with One Ocean Ex­pe­di­tions.

Back home in her stu­dio, Rae used her Arc­tic trip as the ba­sis for her lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion

One trips ashore, Rae had to be ac­com­pa­nied by an armed guard in case she en­coun­tered po­lar bears

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