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This Fragile Earth: Pioneering Scottish artists who anticipated the climate crisis

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Morrison, James, Arctic Mural, 1995. Oil onboard. The Fleming Collection Ⓒ The Artist

Six artists. Six Scottish artists. Six pioneering Scottish artists who as early as the 1970s and 80s anticipated the threat of climate change and responded to it in their art.

Until now, although known to one another, they have never been perceived as a group with common artistic goals. They were simply individuals who, sensitive to the changes they were seeing in the environments around them, made extraordinary and perceptive works of art that are now on show within the awe-inspiring, art-filled nave of Coventry Cathedral.

The exhibition is the brainchild of James Knox, Director of the Fleming Collection of Scottish art, and it came about after the gifting to the collection in 2022 of the late landscape artist James Morrison’s monumental Arctic Mural (1995). This led him to investigate whether other Scottish-based artists shared similar preoccupations around that time or earlier; and if so, why?

Knox had recognised a common thread in the work of the six artists on display at Coventry: a shared response to the beauty and fragility of the planet that was ahead of its time. “Now, every artist worth his or her salt is engaging with the climate crisis, as they should. But back then very few were,” said Knox. At every level these artists were aware of what’s going on and what was likely to happen.

The artists on show are painters Frances Walker (born 1930), James Morrison (1932-2020) and Glen Onwin (born 1947); visual artist and constructivist, Will MacLean (born 1941); artist / filmmaker Elizabeth Ogilvie (born 1946); and expeditionary artist and photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper (born 1946).

Among the strands that bring these artists together, Knox explains that they came of age career-wise roughly around the same time in the early 1970s, and also all came into contact with the German visionary artist, Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), a towering figure in the early environmental art movement.

They share a common instinct driven by geography to engage with the topography and ecology of the North - defined as stretching from Scotland’s north-western coastland and archipelago to Greenland, to Canada’s High Arctic – and in Cooper’s case to the North Pole itself.

This placed them at the frontiers of climate change where the onset of global warming was most immediately felt, and honed an awareness of the threats faced by local peoples.

Take for instance, Walker’s 1987 joyous landscape, After the Storm of the low-lying Inner Hebridean island of Tiree. Two years after painting this she was voicing concerns about “the sea level rising …and engulfing most of low-lying Tiree like another Atlantis.”

Walker, a legendary figure in Scotland for her paintings and etchings of remote places – and her love of wild and desolate spaces – from 1971 on, lived part of the year on Tiree, which she described as ‘on the fringe of Europe - a place of great glittering beaches with the wide sky, the clouds, the seabirds in flight…’ By 1989, she was warning of the threats of rising sea levels and oil pollution to the island.

Maclean, Will, Red Ley Marker, 1989. Mixed media on board. The Fleming Collection ⒸWill Maclean MBE RSA

History also plays its part, Knox explains. Maclean’s forebears were victims of the Highland Clearances when his great grandfather was forced off the land to join the herring fleet. Two generation later this occupation also collapsed due to modernisation. Maclean’s impressive mixed media artworks, assemblages of found and carved objects, powerfully reference the maritime heritage.

Elizabeth Ogilvie’s family had to leave the remote island of St Kilda in 1930, along with the rest of the population, triggering her life-long interest in lives lived on the edge of existence –also, the sense of being dispossessed. Glorious watery stills from her and colleague Robert Page’s Into the Oceanic installation that was projected in 2021 onto buildings at Cop26 in Glasgow are among her works on display.

James Morrison’s six-metre-long mural takes us beyond Scotland to the Canadian High Arctic where Morrison worked alongside a community of Inuit peoples who had been forcibly re-settled from their traditional territories by the Canadian government. For Morrison, their fortitude in the face of injustice heighted the emotional intensity of his Arctic paintings. It led him to despair at humankind’s destruction of the planet.

Thomas Joshua Cooper’s photography has a real sense of place. Cooper, who is of part Cherokee descent, grew up on an American Indian reservation in North Dakota, learning “how to live honourably in the natural world.” In 1982, he created the Fine Art Photography department at Glasgow School of Art. Like a true adventurer, his long-term projects take him to the world’s extremities where he works with an 1895 American field camera - a camera that requires single frames, long exposures and hand processing. The haunting photo on display at Coventry repays that dedication. Chillingly beautiful, the white-framed silver gelatine print’s title says it all: Freezing Fog, the Artic Ocean, Sea Ice Sestrugi and Melt Lakes, the North Pole 90°.

Onwin, Glen, Photosynthesis, Open the Kingdom, 1987. Organic matter, coal, metal, oil, wax and shellac on canvas mounted on board. The Fleming Collection © The Artist

Glen Onwin differs from the other artists shown in that his development as a land artist sprung, not from looking north, but from awareness of areas close to his Edinburgh home. His first project, the salt marsh series (early 1970s) led Onwin to a life-long career of responding to the earth’s history and ecology. Some Saltmarsh paintings are displayed in the Chapel of Industry, while in the Nave, Photosynthesis is a stunning piece made from fern fronds, coal dust, oil and other materials, from his prophetic 1988 Revenges of Nature series.

James Knox concludes, “This landmark show installed in the modernist masterpiece, Coventry Cathedral, which incidentally was designed by a Scot, will open the eyes of the public to the sensibility of Scottish artists to the threats and consequences of climate change as expressed through works of great beauty and force.” Combining great beauty and force, threat and loss, this perceptive exhibition is at Coventry Cathedral until May 29th.

This Fragile Earth

Coventry Cathedral

Showing until: 29 May 2023

The Fleming Collection’s definition of Scottish extends to anyone who has lived in Scotland for a long period or been part of a significant Scottish Art movement. All but one of the artists shown were born and have lived in Scotland all their lives. Thomas Joshua Cooper was born in America but moved to Scotland in 1982 when he set up the Fine Art Photography course at Glasgow School of Art.


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