Taking oil painting to a whole new platform
IN THE NORTH Sea, 100 miles east of Shetland, sits Alwyn North, a man-made island which pumps 150,000 barrels-worth of oil and gas per day out of the seabed. Home to some 200 people, it is built to withstand 100mph winds and 100ft waves. The latest engineering technology is pitted against the worst of winter on the ocean. For an artist, it offers the experience of a lifetime.
Scottish painter Fionna Carlisle was given an opportunity rarely granted to those outside the oil industry when the platform’s operators, Total E&P UK, invited her to visit Alwyn North for four days. Back in her cosy Edinburgh flat, she recalls it vividly: the waves, the muddy drilling deck, the blazing flare, the horizon so wide you can begin to see the curve of the Earth.
Carlisle got her first glimpse of Alwyn North from a juddering helicopter hundreds of feet above the North Sea. The flight from Aberdeen was spent strapped into a survival suit, which holds a pocket of air at the chest - enough to breathe your way to the surface under water. "I remember landing, seeing the flares and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what have I let myself in for?’" she laughs.
Stumbling out on to the helideck, she found herself attending her second safety briefing of the day; safety is enforced rigorously offshore. She had already started sketching the things she had seen: the men sleeping on the helicopter, the windswept helideck.
Visiting an oil rig had been a dream of Carlisle’s for some years but until now, attempts to set it up had failed. This visit was arranged after a "chance meeting" with Andrew Hogg, public affairs and corporate communications manager of Total, at a charity dinner for Spinal Injury Scotland, of which Carlisle is a patron. She says: "Now I know what’s involved, I understand why it was difficult, and how lucky I am to have gone.
"The more I learn about Total, the more I realise it is a unique company which would be prepared to do something wacky like let an artist loose on one of their oil rigs."
The offshore environment might seem an unusual choice for Carlisle, whose vibrant, colourful paintings are more reminiscent of Crete, where she lived for 15 years, than the grey, mechanical world of offshore engineering. And yet that is precisely why she was drawn to it: the challenge of doing something new, the chance to find fresh inspiration.
Originally from Wick, Carlisle studied at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1970s. On graduating, she was one of a group who founded the 369 Gallery. Her work has been shown as far afield as New York, Moscow and Hong Kong, has been included in shows at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Barbican, and is held in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Speaking of her work, Duncan Macmillan, art critic for The Scotsman, says: "She’s a good artist, and a very bright person. I have always looked at her work with interest. Just before I left the Talbot Rice Gallery, I was talking to her about holding an exhibition of her portraits there. She was one of a group of artists who showed at the 369 Gallery when it first opened, and is one of the only ones who has come through as an enduring, significant painter."
Her first full day on Alwyn North began with a wake-up call at 6:40am. Then, kitted out in regulation protective clothing - hard hat (green for a visitor), orange overalls, safety glasses, ear-plugs, gloves - it was time to explore. Offshore, everything is a speciality, from the muddy, noisy work of the drillers, to the geologists’ meticulous study of the rocks on the seabed, and the mapping of the ocean floor by the electronics experts using the latest acoustic technology.
Carlisle found herself walking up and down seemingly endless stairs and mesh walkways with the sea foaming beneath. "I thought I was used to walking on mesh because I have had a studio for the last four years at the Caledonian Brewery," she says. "Then I looked down and saw the sea 100ft below me!" A fire alarm was a timely reminder of the platform’s isolation. "Every now and again, I’d think, ‘My God, I’m so vulnerable here. What if anything goes wrong?’ I started to understand why safety was such a priority."
She also started to learn the offshore patois used to describe the different parts of the platform: the dog house, the monkey board, the rat hole, the cat walk. "It was like going to a foreign country, with a foreign language thrown in. It reminded me of when I first lived in Crete, picking up every second word and hoping I would get the meaning later."
ALL THE WHILE, as she went, she was filling the pages of her sketchbook with the pipes, the derrick, the cranes, but most of all with the men who work on Alwyn North. "I didn’t want to spend ages drawing pipe after pipe. I wanted to draw the people, get a feeling for the whole place."
Setting up her easel in a makeshift studio, she began to work on portraits of the men, starting with offshore installation manager Colin King, her guide for much of the visit. To her surprise, the men welcomed her warmly. "I thought they would think I was rather unimportant, but they thought that having someone painting on the platform was great. They were so enthusiastic, they all wanted to know when I could paint them, and when the exhibition was going to be. They were so helpful I felt completely spoilt!"
Hogg says: "We had a great time hosting her. It was a novelty for all of us out there. The men took pride in showing off the platform to someone who wouldn’t normally be allowed out there."
Immersed in the atmosphere of hard work on the platform, where men work 12-hour days, seven days a week, Carlisle followed suit, starting at 7:15am and working until almost midnight to paint as much as possible. "People are there to work. They work flat out," she says. "It was almost expected that’s what someone else would do. I painted every night until my arms were sore. I can take six months on a portrait, but I had almost finished Colin King by the time I left. If I was living there, maybe I’d get an exhibition ready in two months, not two years!
"Normally I’m so self-conscious and nervous about needing my artistic space, it would have been my worst nightmare, drawing while everyone was looking at me, but I felt I had to make the most of this fantastic opportunity so I just got on with it."
THERE WERE LOTS of pleasant surprises: the sunset over the ocean; the better-than-expected food - "It was good that I didn’t discover the puddings until near the end!"; the ready workout without going to the gym - "I thought I was quite fit, but by the second day I was hauling myself along. All those stairs..."
But what surprised her most was how quickly she became used to the highly structured life of the platform. "Being a freelance painter, I’m used to making every decision about what I do. It was nice to be told what to do, when to get up, when to have dinner. In a funny way, it was a bit of a treat for me. I was institutionalised within ten minutes!"
She hopes she can use her sketches and paintings as the basis for a new exhibition, and plans to work on them in her studio in Crete, distilling the memories of the North Sea in the warmer climes of the Aegean. Meanwhile, the men on Alwyn North are waiting eagerly for the opening night.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east