by Julia Welstead
I initially find out about Kirsty O’Connor through a Tiree friend who attended UHI (University of Highlands and Islands) art college at Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy. I’ve already passed through the Isle of Berneray on my Outer Isles odyssey, but I’m more than happy to re-trace my steps for such a fascinating artist.
Looking at her work online, I’m drawn by her soul vessels, a series of beautifully formed ceramic boats shown in her 2017 exhibition. Once in her studio, my eyes flit from her few remaining boats, to bird vessels in the making, a group of earth mothers on a shelf and various other intriguing shapes and forms emerging out of clay.
Kirsty’s initial training was in textiles at Bradford College in England. During the two year weaving course it was mandatory to do two day’s drawing per week. Life drawing classes led Kirsty to think more about the female form and later fed into her work with clay.
Born in the Channel Islands, Kirsty has been moving north ever since. After a spell in Yorkshire she moved to Edinburgh, studying ceramics at South Bridge Resource Centre, as well as learning and subsequently teaching book binding. Next came a stint at Culross Pottery in Fife, and then a portfolio art course in Ullapool, and finally a move west to Berneray.
Within that synopsis of her journey to the Outer Isles lie a wealth of experiences, adventures and stories: running away with a circus, artist-in-residence in a psychiatric hospital and at conferences, travelling overland to India, designing logos and leaflets for small businesses, working for the wholefood co-operative Suma, and always reading and learning – all of which inform and enrich her creative endeavours
Kirsty initially moved here to study art at UHI Lochmaddy campus, during the first year of which she began making boats, which led to her Soul Vessels exhibition, based on the five generations of boat building by the Stewart family of Grimsay. These were boats used for fishing and domestic purposes: transporting sheep on and off smaller islands for summer grazing, collecting peats, and as a mail boat for the Monach or Heisker Islands.
Kirsty’s installation coincided with a lot of world media attention on the migrant ‘boat people’, and also reflects the boat as the cradle of soul and the vessel of birth and death – themes of many cultural beliefs and traditions. Here, especially, boats loom large in terms of life – as transport when the sea routes were more important than land routes – and in terms of death/loss: kith and kin lost at sea and lost through the Clearances. The fact that many of her soul vessels are bought by people who have lost a loved one shows her that her theme is understood and appreciated.
Taking forward the theme of vessels of birth, Kirsty has produced stunning and illuminating work on embodiment of the female form, motherhood and female sexuality. She says there was huge support at the art college for innovative and risqué work, even though the visual arts – unlike the aural arts of poetry, song, music, storytelling and practical crafts like weaving cloth, knitting and building boats – are not traditional to the Hebrides.
“I’ve been here 10 years and love it. I’ve no smart phone, no car, no Amazon account. I take the shopping bus to the Sollas Co-op when I need to, and order more specialist foods through Highland Wholefoods. I try to live in a way that’s as close to nature and light on resources as I can. I follow my heart and feel privileged to be able to live as an artist.”
Kirsty’s new work is focusing on seabirds and the impact of climate change and ocean plastic pollution on their survival, hence the elegant bird-like forms taking shape on her workbench. I very much look forward to seeing the resultant installation. Meanwhile though, I simply cannot leave her studio without two of her irresistably tactile earth mothers.