Artist and Jeweller Helena Emmans lives and works on the Hebridean island of Skye where she makes handmade silver spoons, each one an irregular, unique beauty, as well as paintings and hand dyed thread work sculptures. All are inspired by the colours and forms of the landscapes that surround her – the spoons borrowing their shapes from light pools in the peat bogs, the paintings capturing ever-changing scenes of a Highland coast and the thread pieces borrowing colours from it.
The artist is from Edinburgh and studied embroidery and woven textiles at Glasgow School of Art. She moved to Skye around 16 years ago, not intending to make it her permanent home. “I lived in Glasgow with my partner for many years, then my partner got a job at the West Highland Press and we were going to move temporarily. Then we ended up having children, the kids end up at school and life carries on. It was more of a happy accident than a plan,” she told us. “It was a culture shock at first moving from the big city – a nice one. But there is a lot of freedom here and that was always attractive.”
Here she tells us more about her work practices and her inspiration, the nature of one of Scotland’s beautiful islands.
Tell us about your workspace?
“It’s a caravan next to the house. It’s not very glamorous! It’s a good space, I close the door and that’s me in my zone. I can’t be working outside every day doing my paintings, this is where I do my thread pieces and silver spoons. It’s small, sometimes it’s cold. I’ve got pictures up on the wall, a workbench, all my tools. I have a radio, though I don’t generally listen to that. You hear the wind, the rain and you can see the snow capped hills in the distance in the winter. It’s good to have a separation from the house. I’ve got inspirational things around me – lots of clippings, postcards, print outs from exhibitions, art I like, landscapes, photos I’ve taken, old pieces of wood and feathers, a lovely stone I found in north Skye which has coral in it. I have pieces of old pottery I like – things I like to have in my hand that I know someone else has made. I have little bits of silver and tools in pottery pots. I like the idea that I’m making things with these tools and it’s like they’re sitting in someone’s hands. I find that inspiring.”
How about where you paint – do you have a favourite place to paint on the island?
“I live in south Skye, basically at the bridge. It’s beautiful. I paint outside in Ashaig, which is about seven miles from where I live. That’s my favourite place to go. It’s so variable, when the tide is out it’s a massive expanse and when it’s in it changes again. I go there partly because it’s near, but mainly because it’s so different each time you go.”
“I see quite a muted seascape with flashes of ox red, rusting colours coming through from the beachwood, sparks of lime green, coral, copper and the slants of light catch on it all.”
How would you sum up the colours of your corner of Skye and are there any unexpected shades you notice when you are painting landscapes?
“The colours are so different each time I visit Ashaig. When the tide is out you’ve got acid green from the tangly seaweed next to deep dark green. There’s loads of contrast between the ancient stones and glistening pools and there are very intense blues. But to me the palette of Skye is subtle, soft hues of landscapes but little sparks and bursts of intense colours come through. I see quite a muted seascape with flashes of ox red, rusting colours coming through from the beachwood, sparks of lime green, coral, copper and the slants of light catch on it all.”
When you go to paint are you ever not in a good mood and does it alter your mood?
“I have a family and children so there’s always a lot going on in my mind! I pack my bag and think lets go, because I’ve got a certain amount of time and I’m often quite harassed when I go, thinking of things I’ve got to do, the dinner. But there’s something about the landscape that washes all of that away and makes you calmer. You haven’t got a choice but to feel better. It’s quite a release painting. You’re concentrating on what you’re looking at and what you’re looking at changes rapidly. One minute I’m looking at the horizon and it’s clear and there’s a streak of blue, the next minute it’s completely changed so you have to be quick at mark making. Then you’re in it, and not so much thinking about the dinner.”
Do you have a favourite time of day for surveying the landscape and colours to paint?
“I like when there’s real movement in the sea though that’s quite challenging to paint. There are days when it’s quite calm and it flows into the rock pools, but I like the fast pace of change – that’s basically Skye. When painting I’m trying to capture a moment of the day. The feel of it. I’m not trying to capture a photographic vision of it. It’s more the smudginess of the colour of the day. There are lots of rhythms to the colours and the scene is so changeable .The weather is really material and you can feel quite battered by it. It’s bigger than you and that’s a good thing.
I paint on the spot as it needs to have a freshness. I have tried to do it not on the spot, but those paintings just look dull and don’t have the same liveliness. I don’t ever think I’m doing a masterpiece, but I do want to complete it. Sometimes I paint over old paintings so it’s not a blank canvas. That way I’m painting days over days. I like the dustiness of that, the greys and blues all merge.”
“There’s a gentle ripple in the pools that you can see in my spoons. They are inspired by pools of water – the sky reflected in the peat bogs.”
What motivated you to start making spoons?
“I was making jewellery already and I think I was sitting with my friend over a cup of tea looking at the spoon once and thinking I’ll make a spoon. So I did start making spoons and they were hideous spoons at first! I think the idea came on one of those days when you think ‘am I ever going to make good work again? What am I doing?’. It’s good to have those days I think. You can reflect. It is good to be disciplined but the ideas can become repetitive if you don’t pause. Although it’s painful at the time, it’s good when you have that crisis moment when you need to get out the wine or the biscuits.”
How are they influenced by the geography of your locale?
“They are inspired by pools of water – the sky reflected in the peat bogs. There are pools of light in them, the clouds are reflected in them, the wobbly edges of the peat bogs, the hem of the grass edges. If you walk at night you can see the moon reflected in them. It’s not a literal interpretation of that it’s a natural infusion of ideas. There’s a gentle ripple in the pools that you can see in my spoons. They’re not perfect, they’re wobbly, hand drawn. The handles are like the grasses or the details in the ancient rocks. The seed heads are like the formed details that give the spoons character.”
What is the process of designing and making them?
“They are imperfect and a little bit like families. They all have their own dynamic. I might start by thinking I’ll make five, I don’t really plan it, but work out the shapes and then it’s like they are hand drawn but in silver, like drawing with tools. I keep the techniques simple and then keep refining the pieces. Each spoon is totally different, I’ve never made two spoons the same. I am led by the work, but I do also get ideas from customers – they might say ‘my husband likes silver birch trees’ and that will determine a material. The process is fed through different environments.”
What are you working on next?
“At the moment I’m working for a spoon exhibition at Unit 12 [in Staffordshire], which runs from the 29th September until 17th December. I want to make a whole variety of pieces and I might make more practical tiny spoons. It was nice to be asked to be part of the exhibition, it’s all hand made spoons.”
Find out how to buy pieces by Helena Emmans from her website.