Meet Vivian Ross-Smith, a visual artist, lecturer and island lover, from Shetland.
Why You Should Know Her
Originally from the tiny island of Fair Isle and currently living in Shetland, Vivian is a graduate from Grays School of Art. She has exhibited widely throughout Scotland and in Finland, where she spent time studying as part of an exchange at the Arts Academy at the University of Turku.
A part-time lecturer of art, she is also a founding member of the artists’ collective Visual Artist Unit, which works to support emerging artists across Scotland and encourage the wider public to engage with contemporary art through a series of members exhibitions, workshops and talks.
A self confessed island obsessive, her work is concerned with exploring her rugged island surroundings, the passing of knowledge through generations and what it means to be an islander.
Here she shares her thoughts on her creative process, the benefits of art for health and happiness, preserving fish skins and her love for knitting.
Hi Vivian! Can you tell me a bit about where you’re based and what you do?
I live and work in Lerwick, Shetland (although I count the island I grew up on, Fair Isle as home). I am a visual artist focussing my practice on exploring island landscapes, communities, traditions and skills.
When did you first know you wanted to be an artist?
I don’t remember there ever being one point in which I decided, I just always knew. I was fortunate to be raised by artist parents and within a wider family with a lot of arts knowledge. I grew up surrounded by drawing, painting, stained glass, jewellery making, weaving, knitting and design. I always knew that I wanted to go to art school, but wasn’t so sure on what to specialise in – which is probably why I’m still eager to learn as many new skills as possible and really experiment with ways of working within my practice.
What’s your background?
I studied Painting at Grays School of Art for my Honours Degree, graduating in 2013. Since then I have worked in various fields within the arts both being employed and working freelance.
I started working as a relief social care worker for adults with disabilities when I was a student and that’s something I have kept up since in one capacity or another. I’ve always enjoyed working with people and really believe in the benefits of art for good mental health and happiness, not in a “therapy” sense, but just as a means of recognising that the process of making can really be beneficial in growing confidence, skills and as a way of working through your own ideas.
“I really believe in the benefits of art for good mental health and happiness … the process of making can really be beneficial in growing confidence, skills and as a way of working through your own ideas.”
I’m also a part time art lecturer at the Shetland College, teaching within community learning for students with disabilities and autism, as well as on the Fine Art Degree course.
With the freelance work I mostly facilitate workshops and also have a brilliant relationship with Scottish Sculpture Workshop whom I have worked with a few times over the past year. As with many artists I navigate a complex network of jobs and incomes, it can be pretty tough going sometimes but I absolutely love the variation and really believe in making the most of opportunities that present themselves to you.
Your work looks at traditional methods of craftsmanship such as knitting, preserving skins, net making and metal work. Can you tell us a bit about the ideas you explore in your practice, and why you’re drawn to them?
I’m a bit obsessed with islands and that fuels my whole practice really! I’ve always been drawn to exploring landscapes, whether that’s huge landmasses or networks such as the Turku archipelago of Finland or tiny details within the geology of Fair isle.
My whole practice is very process based, and the act of making and doing is as important as the end results for me. I tend to look to a place’s traditional skills for inspiration, I like to learn them and form my own interpretation of those practices through my work. It’s important to celebrate traditional skills as they are but I like to reconfigure those processes to make people consider them in a new light.
Lately I’ve been interested in what it means to be an islander in the 21st century, considering personal and community identities within a modern age and exploring how “traditional” knowledge of the land that would have been passed through generations by conversation and story-telling is now being filtered down in a different way, or maybe even being lost completely. Island communities still have a deep understanding toward their island but has it now been romanticised away from reality?
Do you have a favourite medium?
This is a horrible question because I am a complete hoarder of materials, mediums and skills! I could never pick just one because it’s the combinations, comparisons and experiments with multiple mediums that I enjoy so much. However, in terms of processes I’ve been completely infatuated with metal casting for the past year or two and have really enjoyed incorporating it into practice. It’s careful, considered, intense work, definitely stressful at times, and the outcomes can be truly wonderful.
You use cured fish skins in your work. I had no idea that was even possible! Where did that idea come from?
At the start of my degree I used to paint very objectively with oils on canvas. I loved to paint fish, the colours and patterns of their skin completely captivated me. I started to consider preservation in my work in terms of traditional food preservation within our islands, this lead me to consider how I could take this surface that I loved painting and make it long lasting and almost like a textile to use.
Many years of experimentation later, I think I have it quite well sussed! Fishing is such an important part of Shetlands traditional and modern industries so I really enjoy celebrating it, especially when I can make use of a product that usually goes to waste, such as fish skins.
In terms of being creative, how do you manage your time – do you have any creative rituals or methods for working?
It’s a constant struggle. I would love to be in the studio all day every day just making and playing with ideas but unfortunately I have rent to pay and food to buy! Art is a labour of love, it is not something you do to get rich quick. However, I do sell work sporadically and I’m fortunate to have some paid work relating to art so that eases the pressure.
When I do get a full day in the studio however it usually starts off dressing in comfy clothes, my painting apron and not wearing make-up, playing Radio 6 and moving freely around the space, drinking tea. I think it’s important to spend time really looking at your work throughout the day so I enjoy sitting and thinking about connections and how work plays off each other as well as focussing on making.
Working as a creative can be challenging – do you ever struggle with feeling uninspired, or any of the other negative thought processes that seem pretty common amongst creatives? How do you deal with that?
Making art can be stressful. I have a LOT of arguments with myself and I frequently fall out with my own decisions and ideas. The studio can sometimes feel like running. Where your body could probably keep going quite easily for another few miles but your mind is telling you that you’re tired and should stop now. I never would give up though and for my own mental health I need to create work, it’s a big part of me and the struggles always seem incredibly insignificant when you are creating work that is interesting.
Togetherness and working collaboratively. I lead a fairly solitary practice, mostly being alone in the studio. I’ve recently been working in a collaborative manner however, especially since developing my recent project ‘islandness’ with Newfoundland based artist and researcher, Jane Walker.
The first phase of the project took part in NL between August and October of this year and included an exhibition of our work, a couple of workshops and skill sharing events, talks and conversations and a community supper. The project explored connections between our two islands and ways of life, and will be coming to Shetland in 2018. I could tell you all the details but maybe I’ll just leave this link to my website – Vivian Ross Smith – where you can go and read more if you like, or follow the project on Instagram @islandnessart …hope you enjoyed that sly bit of self-promotion!
Which artists do you admire?
This is difficult for me because I have so many artist friends that I admire greatly as well as many creative and skilled people that would never class themselves as an artist.
As far as big names go, though, I enjoy Anselm Kiefer for his textures, material experiments and scale; Peter Doig for the way he paints trees and water. Marina Abramović for her raw emotion and commitment to her practice; Cy Twombly for all his gestures. And John Bellany for the way he used art to navigate his life.
What do you love most about what you do, and what do you find most challenging?
Art encompasses my whole life, I make work about the place I live, it surrounds me daily meaning I never switch off from it. For those reason’s it is very hard to say what I like and don’t like because it is life, which will always be filled with challenges, highs, lows, successes and failures. It’s all part of the journey and there for being embraced.
Outside of your work, what are your favourite things to do?
I love to walk, to eat and drink, to be with my partner as well as family and friends. I’m definitely a lover of Instagram too which has brought me many good things and is a great tool for artists. I have recently taken up knitting which I am finding very soothing yet sometimes pretty frustrating as it’s like learning a new language. It feels really good to be doing something creative that isn’t your own work, the designer has figured it all out for you – you just need to do the making, which is always the best part.
What’s next for you?
At first, I read this question as ‘what’s next to you’ which I began to answer: preserved fish skins, a series of bronze and copper net needles that I have just cast, a foundry glove, my purse, some lip balm and a book by Richard Sennet, a cup of hot lemon water and some knitting… but upon more careful reading I see it asks what is next for me!
I’ve just returned to Shetland from Newfoundland, so I’ll be continuing on with my various work commitments and start to make new pieces for exhibitions in 2018. Time is flying more so than ever.
Which women (or woman) inspires you?
My mum. The reasons for this are too personal for me to explain right now, just know that I respect her greatly.