Issue 206
Winter 2018/19


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Mar 19, 2019

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Bridge House: a phenomenon

Nick Jones visits a very special art school

Work from Bridge House students on show at An Talla Solais in Ullapool

THINKING about releasing your inner artist? Or don't know you've got one? Or perhaps thinking you could or should be doing something more ‘useful' (but less creative)?

If any of these apply, think again, and check out the Summer School Programme and the Portfolio Course at Bridge House Art in Ullapool.

Why? Because the world needs artistic, adventurous spirits more than ever, and you're more likely to find them on the edge than at the centre. Less big city, less Big Brother!

It's that edginess, close to other worlds, sea, sky and mountains, that makes Ullapool a natural place for radicals and non-conformists.

Especially significant in recent years is the role three visionary, determined women have played in putting the arts at the centre of community life. A process started in the 1970s when Jean Urquhart created the Ceilidh Place, for meeting, sharing, and bringing music, art, theatre and dance to town.

It attracted artists like Eleanor White, who moved here in 1994 from Edinburgh, where she had been teaching at Leith School of Art. The setting up of Bridge House Art followed soon after. That, in its turn, has brought more artists, like Barbara Peffers, who set up An Talla Solais (Gaelic for Hall of Light) gallery and studios. Together these three have and continue to make a great contribution to Ullapool's cultural, social and economic life.

So why is Bridge House Art special? Partly because signing up for a course, particularly the Portfolio Course, demands a commitment and a leap of faith. Taking yourself off to Wester Ross, away from family and routine, for four dark cold, wet and windy months from November to the end of February might not appeal at first, but it's the best time to get stuck in

Group photo for the The Bridge House team

Not so tempting to take off into the stunning landscape, although there are days when there's no competition! So the antithesis of an urban art school, where student life, and city lights, can be both distraction, and diversion.

With only twelve students, there is intensive tuition and strong support from tutors and fellow students. Ages range from seventeen to seventy-plus, meeting the needs of people from many different stages in life.

Some go on to art school, others to a major mid-life change of direction, having discovered their inner artist, and been given the skills and confidence to let her fly. For others, it's a chance to to build on or rediscover known talent. For all, a rare opportunity to immerse themselves deep in the creative flow. That's why the studios are open every day, and evenings, providing time to develop an idea, or wrestle with a problem. Especially valuable when, as part of the course, students work in depth on a special subject. Another strength is the teaching practice; more a dialogue, a shared journey of exploration and discovery, because there is no single, right way to do it.

Everyone is encouraged to develop their particular interest, and, all the while, there is constant sharing, scrutiny, creative critique and feedback. Scary, embarrassing even; but also freeing and confidence-boosting.

It is this egalitarian, exploratory approach that sets the course apart from a more hierarchical teaching tradition. Late February is a relatively quiet time of year, but ‘Resonance', the 2018-19 end-of-course show at the An Talla Solais Gallery, is one of the most popular regular exhibitions, with locals, visitors and schools

The quality and variety of different styles, media and subject matter impress, like the experimental work of younger students, making jewellery from found objects on the shoreline, and artists' books, exploring the inner landscapes of the mind.

Wherever they go next with their practice, these students have learnt the value of self-discipline, commitment, long, detailed, painstaking in-depth observation, and the ensuing discovery and expression.

Nothing new, but rare in today's educational climate, a tick-box world, where speed and superficiality are the norm. It begs the question, what kind of training do aspiring young artists need when, ultimately, any buyer or admirer is not interested in their diploma or a degree, but in the quality and integrity of their work.

It's clear that, if they do go to art school, after a Portfolio Course like this, they will be very well placed to make the most of it. Away from the studio, in the long Wester Ross evenings, there's a lot of chat about the role of the artist today.

The young are already answering that question, repossessing art, taking it away from the controlling grasp of patron and market, and seeing the world and its challenges with fresh insight.

That kind of paradigm shift isn't easy. Bridge House Art provides a safe, peaceful, supportive place for nurturing this adventure.

Can it be replicated? Yes, but not exactly, for this is very much the manifestation of Eleanor's vision, commitment and dedication – that unique combination of person, place and catching the moment.

The Portfolio Course has been running for twenty-one years. Now it has come of age. An inspiration in itself, and to others.

NICK JONES
www.bridgehouseart.co.uk
www.antallasolais.org
www.theceilidhplace.com

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