Monday, 2 March 2015

Pen, Pencil, Paper

Have you always wanted to develop your drawing skills but do you need someone to nudge you to actually get going? Do you draw regularly but would welcome some feedback from others? Or are you always drawing the same in the same materials and need someone to suggest new subjects, new techniques and signposting to new artists and their creative ideas?

There is now the opportunity to join the Facebook group Pen, Pencil, Paper where you’ll find like-minded people who give each other feedback to work produced in response to fortnightly prompts. I am a community artist mainly working in the mediums of music and creative writing. My interest in visual arts and drawing has been long-standing but because of family and work commitments I’ve found it  hard to join regular drawing sessions. My resolution for 2015 was to improve my drawing skills and I hope to do so through this Facebook group.

The group is for everyone from beginners to established artists. I would particularly like to encourage those people who otherwise find it hard to join a regular class, because there is no class running locally or, for example, because of family or care commitments.

The content of the prompt will vary each time and will include objects, still life, portraits and people, nature, landscape.  Other times we’ll take excursions to take inspiration from other art forms, specific artists ir techniques or explore ideas in contemporary drawing. Each prompt will contain some ideas for beginners and give a suggestion for using a less obvious technique to approach the creative suggestions.

If you would like to join the drawing group, please visit the Facebook page and ask to become a member. I look forward to welcoming you. The first prompt will be up on Tuesday 17 March.

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Friday, 20 February 2015

Gunn's modern pilgrimage

On Wednesday 11 March, during my Following the River mini-residency with Dunbeath Heritage Centre, I’ll be joining the Helmsdale-based arts organisation Timespan on a walk to the monastic site at Ballachly just west of Dunbeath. For Timespan this walk is part of their project 58° North -A Modern Pilgrimage Around the Globe, a journey to discover the creative communities which share with Helmsdale their latitude, coastal setting and population size. For me, this collaboration is an opportunity to explore the ideas in Neil Gunn’s Highland River from a slightly different angle.

Though few people use the term pilgrimage, a lot of Gunn’s critics allude to this idea when they discuss his novel Highland River. In my view, the journey of the adult Kenn is a pilgrimage as the main character senses an immense urge to find the source of the river - ‘the source of being, of all being’ as Dairmid Gunn writes in the introduction to the novel - and this journey is - what this author calls - positive and life-enhancing.

More then ten years ago, when I still lived in The Netherlands, I walked parts of the Way of St. James to Santiago de Compestela in the northeast of Spain. I carefully mapped my route from my hometown to the Spanish city, read many accounts of people who had done so before me and learned about the key cathedral towns en route. On my way, I delighted in visiting churches and monasteries, and encountering signs of the scallop shell that affirmed I was on the right way. And I was in good company. Above all, my memories of the pilgrimage are infused with the kindness of people who recognised me as a pilgrim and with the conversations with fellow pilgrims who shared my path for a few minutes, hours, sometimes even several days.

A few weeks ago I read an account by Celeste Ray about pilgrimages to Ireland’s holy wells in Landscapes Beyond Land, a book edited by the anthropologist Arnar Arnason and colleagues. She describes how Irish communities visit holy wells to venerate the saints associated with them. On the way to the wells these pilgrims visit stations to pray. At the actual well, pilgrims leave votives such as strips of cloth tied to nearby trees and bushes  as a plea to the saint for health and wellbeing for themselves or those close to them. Similar to pilgrims on the Way of St. James, pilgrims to these holy wells follow an established route along which they carry out specific  religious practices as have many people done before them.

It is not hard to see that Kenn’s journey to the source of the river is different from the above religious pilgrimages. I choose, however, to call Kenn’s walk a pilgrimage too. That said, for Kenn the pilgrimage is a personal and his destination is one of personal choice rather than one carrying religious significance. Whereas religious pilgrimage is undertaken for the fulfilment of some prayer, Kenn’s - and my own walk to the source of Gormack Burn - is a journey of discovery and reflection. I would even argue that the path of personal growth involved has become more important than actually reaching the destination. What’s more, the pilgrimage started long before Kenn embarked on the actual walk as it was the strength he derived from his childhood memories of the Highland river when he was in the trenches during the World War I, that ultimately urged him to embark on his walk to the source of the river. From my own pilgrimage along the Way of St. James I’ve learned that the discovery and reflection related to pilgrimage not only precedes and coincides with the physical journey, but also extends well beyond the arrival at one’s physical destination.   

I’m interested in learning more about Timespan’s understanding of pilgrimage in the context of their 58° North project. If you want to join us in our conversation on Wednesday 11 March, please email Jacquie Aitken at

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Poem as document

The burn
with the trunk’s gurgling reflection
in the shallow water and the shadow play
of trees on the opposite bank –
a place perfect
for salmon to spawn

After weeks of ice and snow I finally managed to do my second and third walk along Gormack Burn earlier this week. North of Drum Estate the valley has opened up and given me a clear view of the foothills of Hill of Fare where the burn well up. Miles pass, and the view of the hill sharpens up. As I’m approaching the source, the burn has become shallower with the shadows of trees spanning its entire width. The stony riverbed is clear now. 

Documenting the walk through poetry has proven to lift out and intensify my experiences. After capturing initial impressions, I choose a prompt - drawn from my background study of, and my own reflections on Neil Gunn’s novel Highland River - randomly to focus my observations, direct me into the direction of new interpretations and deepen my thoughts. Sometimes ideas for lines or a particular voice or form emerge naturally, sometimes I have to wait until I’m behind my desk before I’m able to create a poem.

Linger, like a magpie in flight –
do not think you know its slight already

The walk influences the poems and the poems influence the walk. What I see, hear and smell serves as a background, metaphor or other vehicle of experiences and thoughts expressed in the poems. Vice versa, my intention to write poems, and the time spent to take notes and develop these into poems, intensifies these observations, experiences and related thoughts and the poems serve as a vehicle to remember these.

I see the poems resulting from my walk along Gormack Burn as working documents rather than finished products. Inherently, they are vehicles for capturing, intensifying and remembering observations, experiences, thoughts. For The Light of the North Festival in Dunbeath in November 2015 I’m creating a longer work of poetry and music. I have started to write the first part of the poem and have drawn on images, experiences and thoughts generated through the prompts and poems - sometimes an image, sometimes a line or two, at sometimes a full stanza.

From 5 to 7 March the Helmsdale-based arts organisation Timespan will host the True North Conference ‘Recording the Past, Present and Future’. As part of this conference I’ll give a short presentation on my walk along Gormack Burn and the way I’ve used poetry to document it. More information about the conference can be found at Timespan’s website.

Copyright text, poems and image Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Gormack Burn

Another bank

How do you generate ideas for creative writing? How do you, after deciding upon the theme, develop a story?

My creative spark in Following the River is Neil Gunn’s book Highland River, but the way in which I will respond to it is only emerging to me slowly. What really stands out for me in the novel is the way the main character Kenn explores the landscape of Dunbeath Water, the landscape that frames and framed his childhood experiences. A walk along Dunbeath Water is certainly something I aspire to, but my walk will be very different from that of Kenn’s as I lack the intimate connection with that landscape. My experience of the strath will be that of a stranger.

I thus need another strategy to explore the idea of walking along a river - I need to find a river that I know well. The landscape around my home is infused by rivers. To the south, the river Dee carves its way east towards the North Sea. Contributing to this river are many burns, among which Culter Burn, an important spawning ground for salmon. The papermill that used to dominate life in Culter up to the 1970s has, however, dammed this burn a mile upstream. Last autumn, a fish ladder was installed just behind my house and the first salmon have explored their way up north along Leuchar Burn and their way up west along Gormack Burn. Interestingly, both of these burns find their source on the foothills of Hill of Fare.

To emulate Kenn’s experience of walking to the source of a river with which he is intimately acquainted, I have decided to walk Gormack Burn from its junction with the river Dee to its source on Hill of Fare. Though I have often encountered this burn on my many walks, I have actually never followed its course as such. By taking pictures and making sound recordings, and by writing poems, my experience of following the course of the river is intensified and my awareness of the river is lifted from something I take for granted to something I’m highly aware of.

Earlier this week I did my first walk along Gormack Burn. The poems this walk generated capture observations, atmospheres, thoughts. I expect the walk along the entire course of the burn to take  around six days, and to generate a series of poems. Among these poems I hope to find the spark that will ignite the storyline for my script.

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

New arrivals

To get inspiration for Following the River I have been exploring Loch of Skene the last few weeks.

As the autumn evening settles
smoke from scattered chimneys
lies low over fields
cotton warmth
merges with October woods

A walker labours
carved forest paths
to the shores of the loch

The weight of the day’s journey
suppressed by feet
scurrying tired leaves
in storm-strangled groves

Fourteen hours it took geese
to navigate the ocean –
that morning, as they left Icelandic lands
the walker set off
to reach the edge of the water
in time to greet the new arrivals.

Copyright text, poem and image Petra Vergunst

Following the river

A new year, a new beginning.

As the final project for my composition studies with the OCA two years ago, I composed the chamber opera Highland River based on Neil Gunn’s novel of the same name. The idea of journeying – daily journeys, away from one’s childhood landscape, to the source of the river – that is central in this novel  has continued to inspire me. And this was how I started my conversation with Dunbeath Preservation Trust who celebrate the work of Neil Gunn. Two years on this will result in a year-long poetry and composition project around the idea of journeying along a river. Kenn, the main character of Highland River, salmon and geese will be my travel companions. Part of my creative work will take place in Dunbeath, part of in Aberdeenshire river landscapes around my home.

A new beginning. Sparks from previous years have ignited Following the River.

As part of this project I shall be working towards a performance during the annual Light in the North Festival organised by Dunbeath Preservation Trust around the birthday of Neil Gunn in November. In the course of the year, however, I hope to share ideas, compositions and poems in progress as part of performances, readings and walks.

Other blogposts for Following the River:
New Arrivals
Gormack Burn
Poetry as document
Gunn's modern pilgrimage

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst