There are many ways to tell a story and, arguably, one of the earliest was through pictures. When I recently visited Beth Robertson Fiddes in her studio, I was struck by how much of her experience as an artist I could relate to as a writer and I was inspired to invite her to take part in the Smorgasbord. She agreed, and so I am delighted to introduce the Smorgasbord’s first (but not last) visual artist.
Hi Beth, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Smorgasbord. I’ll kick off with one of my favourite questions: what were you like at school?
Quiet mostly. I have nice memories of early primary on Tiree and I had a spell at school in Kansas which was interesting although maybe a bit overwhelming. I was fine in the school itself but used to literally get lost in the car park, too many buses, all yellow.
Later school years I enjoyed less. I did work hard, depending on the subject, and there were some good teachers there but I’m glad those days are over. I spent a lot of time on my own outside which was just fine. My report cards mainly focussed on whether or not I had shown signs of coming out of my shell or retreating back into my shell like some sort of indecisive snail. One teacher commented that she was unaware that I was in her class.
When did you realise you had creative ability?
I don’t think I had a conscious realisation of that. I think all children start out creative and that sometimes that is lost somewhere along the line. I just kept going. Everyone around me when I was young was making something, painting or drawing, it was a natural thing for me to continue.
What has been the evolution of Beth Robertson Fiddes, the artist?
I think as far as my evolution as an artist is concerned I have reached the stage of a hopeful sea sponge. I have always felt I was just beginning and I still do, I think that feeling is helpful in a way. I often forget how much work was involved and how long it has taken to get to actually just do this everyday.
What makes you paint?
I’ve always been driven to draw and paint. There’s a wealth of inspiration in the surrounding landscape and coast here. It’s memory and a sense of place I try to capture but maybe with subtle alterations. My work has been described on occasion as otherworldly and there is a sense of escapism both in the process of painting and in the finished piece. It is a way of transporting myself to a different world and time and if I’m away from it too long I feel uncomfortable. So that’s what makes me paint
How much of yourself do you expose?
I am not aware of myself while painting. I really do escape from myself and anything that’s going on around me. I’m not intentionally trying to reveal any particular aspect of myself but inevitably it’s a form of communication and it’s my individual view point so I guess there must be something of me in all of them.
Are you ever surprised by what is revealed on the canvas?
Yes all the time. Sometimes pleasantly and sometimes not. Actually the most enjoyable parts are the surprises. I start with an idea of the direction I would like to go in but it’s the mistakes and surprises that drive the painting process forwards, choosing what to keep, what to discard and when to move on. I would never be able to sustain interest in a piece of work if I knew exactly what it would look like in the end. Which is a big part of the reason that I don’t do commissions. The painting is finished when I’m happy that I’ve captured the feeling and memory of the initial point of inspiration or place.
What is the hardest thing about painting?
Finishing anything and sending it away.
And the easiest?
Getting started. I can happily start any number of things in a day.
Which artists inspire you?
This one is really difficult, so I’ll just say what I’ve been looking again at recently: Andy Goldsworthy, Samuel Palmer, Anselm Kiefer, Joan Eardley, Kathe Kollwitz and Richard Diebenkorn, and Ran Ortner.
Best art-related moment so far?
I enjoy what I do very much so difficult to pin down a best moment but this one was funny. I sign my paintings just Robertson Fiddes. This has sometimes caused mild confusion. I was at an exhibition preview of my own work and I ended up stranded alone next to one of my paintings, which I usually try to avoid. A lady approached with a glass of wine waving at the painting behind me and asked whether I knew the artist. I said, um… yes. She then went on to tell me what a charming old gentleman Robertson was, that she had been collecting his work for years and made regular visits to his studio. Apparently old Robbie, as she went on to call him, had been very helpful with tips for her own paintings most of which she was delighted to have already sold in London and abroad. She asked what I did for a living and when I replied that I painted, she offered to put me in touch with old Mr Robertson Fiddes for some encouragement and advice. I thought that sounded great as I do like encouragement, so I said yes and gave her my card. He never got back to me. Previews can be strange events sometimes. There is usually free wine.
What are your artistic ambitions?
To keep going. I feel lucky in that I am able to do this now and I want to make the most of this time. I would like to travel more and maybe return to Iceland. I would like to incorporate more printmaking and paper based pieces in my work in the near future.
What is your favourite time of day for painting?
I paint at all times of the day and night. I think I probably get more work finished at night.
Do you have a painting routine?
No set routine other than putting on music. I always have to have music when I’m working. Other than that, there can be something different to do every day from preparing boards to going through source materials and sketching. Its chaotic but usually works in the end.
What are you working on at the moment?
Land and seascapes for my next exhibition at The Strathearn Gallery in March.
What advice would you give the young Beth Robertson Fiddes?
Well the young Beth Robertson Fiddes probably wouldn’t listen but here goes. You do not need to seek the approval of anyone for your ideas, just get on with it, you will waste too much time waiting for that. You do not need to remember to smile at school or later. Only smile if you feel like it. Do not take advice from people who use the phrase, if there’s one thing I know… Do not take any overt praise or criticism of your work seriously. Paying too much attention to either of these things will put you off course. It is however, perfectly acceptable to defend yourself if you need to…everyone does not have to like you. Do not drink Snakebite. A couple of cheering thoughts…You will never have to do the Gay Gordons again after you leave school and The Cone Gatherers will play no part in your future life whatsoever.
If you could spend a day hanging out with any one person, past or present, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
Brian Sewell and an afternoon of paintballing. His comments and views were the source of much heated debate of between my father and I over the years. Sometimes I couldn’t agree more with them and sometimes I couldn’t agree less. Whichever position I took on any particular Brian quote, my Dad invariably chose to hold the opposite view. The ensuing discussions could cause alarm to any onlooking family members and there was also a potential risk of structural damage. I would have let Dad join us if I’d been allowed two people but maybe even Brian doesn’t deserve that. So just Brian and I paintballing…..in a sparsely wooded area.
Who would play Beth Robertson Fiddes in the film of your life?
It would have to be that sea sponge again.
A few short questions to finish. Favourite book:
Impossible to pick one. Collected poems of Norman MacCaig, Dorothy Parker’s What Fresh Hell is This? and Five Get into a Fix.
Iain Banks just now
I love films.. can’t pick just one so… Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Red Balloon, What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Waterbabies, Trollhunter, Storm Boy, The Day After Tomorrow, Snow Beast, Koyanisqatsi, The Outsiders, Jean de Florette, Paper Moon, 2001 a Space Odyssey, Some Like it Hot, Avanti and Hot Tub Time Machine.
I don’t watch much TV although I enjoyed Fortitude and the Icelandic series Trapped.
I listen to everything. There is always music, sometimes different music in different rooms. Some of the music I’m listening to at the studio and everywhere else just now – Soundgarden, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Pixies, Kaleo, Biffy Clyro, Phillip Glass, Rage against the Machine, Tom Waits, Iron and Wine, Bjork, The Eagles.
This changes all the time but today it’s Moonlight, A Landscape with Sheep by Samuel Palmer. I think because of all the big moons we’ve been having recently.
Thanks Beth, it’s been a real pleasure (and glad to meet a fellow loather of The Cone Gatherers). Find out more about Beth at her website, on Facebook and on Instagram.
Books by LG Thomson are available from Amazon and from bookshops in Ullapool. Writing as Lorraine Thomson, the Dark Times dystopian trilogy is also available from Amazon.
Find out about the Isle Martin Writing Retreats 2018 here.