Culture

When the grass dances

Poet Valerie Gillies & artist Rebecca Marr have created a new collection that invites people to walk with them among the grasses through their online presentation ‘When the grass dances’. 

Presented as an online exhibition, the website has over 70 pages, each dedicated to one of Scotland’s wild grasses. ‘Scotland has wonderful wild grasses’, say the artists in their introduction explaining what gave them their theme: ‘Grasses have been overlooked. Omnipresent but unnoticed, they cover around a third of our planet. We found that what we had regarded as simply grass revealed itself as a complex and fascinating family of plants. Casting our eyes along the road-verge and shoreline we began to recognise the grasses as distinct from one another’.

The collection has four parts. The first, ‘Approaching the grasses’, shows how the artists see their subject. ‘Knowing the grasses’ is about coming to recognise the grasses as individual species. ‘Using the grasses’ is concerned with the social history and customs around grass. ‘Living with the grasses’ sees the grasslands populated with the animals and birds of the field.

The collection was constructed over the course of a year in Orkney and Edinburgh and saw the artists finding new ways to collaborate at a time when meeting up in person was not an option available to them.

Valerie says, ‘Everyone has had to find ways to adapt these past months and for us it meant working collaboratively at a distance. We did this through phone conversations and sharing work online and through the post. The process worked for us, and moments of synchronicity occurred. At a distance of several hundred miles, the photograph and the poem would focus on one species of grass, corresponding in an effortless way, without prior intention. For example, Rebecca would phone to say, “I’ve just taken a photograph of Tufted Hair-grass”, and I would reply, “I’ve just written its poem”. These were startling moments.’

The artists worked with Orkney plant recorder John Crossley, printmaker Diana Leslie and with herbarium staff and the collections the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Stromness Museum in Orkney.

With over 70 poems and over 80 images the collection is a substantial harvest, yet the artists feel they have more to bring in and hope to do so in future exhibitions and in book form.

A specially commissioned box made using marram grass was created by Orkney maker Kevin Gauld. ‘The Kist o Wild Grasses’ is filled with photographs and poems and will be kept at Maggie’s Centre at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. The kist will be used as a resource for creative workshops and to bring the outside in so that patients and their families can experience the grasses through the poems and photographs. The collection will also be used in workshops with Orkney Blide Trust, a mental health support organisation.

The artists explain how they feel grasses can be a symbol of survival, ‘Through re-growth and regeneration, grass signifies resilience: the grasses can be trodden down and crushed, yet survive’.

The artists met while working in The Royal Edinburgh Hospital for Artlink in the mid 90s.   They embarked on another year-long collaboration twenty years ago: ‘Men and Beasts’ became a book and a touring exhibition. Since then, Rebecca has moved to Orkney and Valerie has remained in the capital where she became the first woman Makar to the city. They relished the opportunity to collaborate again.

Rebecca says, ‘Working together over a sustained period gave me focus during a challenging time. It allowed us to really deepen our friendship and creative practice. The concentration on a particular aspect of nature opened out to show us a whole kingdom. I guess we fell down a rabbit hole. I’ll miss those two-hour conversations about the smallest handful of grass’.

The collection can be viewed at www.whenthegrassdances.art

This project was supported by the National Lottery through Creative Scotland. 

2 replies »