The Isle of Lewis is pickin’ up good migrations thanks to its thriving surf scene. In a new exhibition at An Lanntair in Stornoway, local artist Laura Maynard tells the stories of some of these hardy wave-seekers in a series of stunning portraits
Opening on Saturday at An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway and running until 11 May, Wave Migration is an exhibition of large-scale portraits by Lewis-based artist Laura Maynard, featuring members of the local surfing community. Usually when you see the word “migration” used in reference to the Western Isles, you can be fairly certain that you’re about to read something to do with population decline – a 2014 study predicted that the population of the Outer Hebrides as a whole will fall 13.7 per cent by 2039, and headlines about the islands’ shrinking population crop up periodically in the pages of the The Stornoway Gazette. However, if there’s one cast-iron good news story to be found in the delicately balanced demographic profile of the region, it’s that of Lewis’s surfing community, which has been growing steadily since the 1990s. Many of Maynard’s subjects, she says, are people who have decided to move to Lewis from the mainland primarily so they can enjoy its solid, reliable, year-round waves.
“Most of my friends are people who have moved to the island,” she says, “and I love that injection of people with new ideas from different places, and the community that it’s made.”
Maynard considers herself to be living through a golden age for surfing on Lewis, with a small, tight-knit community of like-minded souls who “all get on really well together” but none of the out-of-control crowds that plague similarly wave-rich zones elsewhere in the world.
The idea for her Wave Migration project – a series of 15 portraits, each one depicting a different Lewis surfer alongside their favourite surf break on the island – grew in part out of a desire to “document this golden age, this little point in time.”
The portraits also contain subtle clues about the surfers’ lives – what they do and where they come from. Her painting of her husband Kev, for example, pictures him alongside his favourite wave, Barvas, which breaks on a spectacular cobblestone beach on the west coast of the island, but it also hints at the journey that brought him there: the industrial landscape of his native Hartlepool also features in the image, as do a few subtly-placed magpie feathers – a nod to his love of Newcastle United.
“He’d been coming up here for years, I think since the late 90s,” says Maynard. “He’d found it in the days when you used to look at Ceefax or Teletext to check the waves. He said he kept noticing this place and it kept saying ‘6-8 foot and clean, 6-8 foot and clean,’ and he kept saying ‘Wow, this place is amazing all the time, I’m going to go there.’ So he got in his van – all his pals were going to Ireland and Cornwall but he said ‘Nah, I’m off’ – and he found this little gem.”
Another surfer, PJ, is pictured beside a thick-lipped barrelling wave and a synoptic chart.
“That’s because he works for the Met Office,” Maynard explains, “he’s a weather man. He’s the guy you phone and go ‘Pete, what’s the swell doing? What’s happening? What’s it going to be like?’ The chart is based on the swell conditions that you would need for his favourite break. It’s a secret spot that one, so I can’t name it!”
On Lewis, as in many remote but surf-rich locations, the locals tread a fine line between welcoming outsiders and trying to keep their best waves from becoming too crowded.
“The surfers here are so down to earth, so friendly,” says Maynard, “there’s almost a non-scene if you see what I mean. They love people coming and finding out about the waves, but I don’t think anyone really wants to broadcast it either – which has always been a bit of a rankle with me about doing the exhibition, because on the one hand I love the stories and I love the people, but also I might part of the thing that could break what I love. It’s a real conflict I think.”
In addition to Maynard’s paintings, the Wave Migration show will also feature a short film about Lewis’s surf culture by local surfer, photographer and filmmaker Jim Hope and three surfboards crafted by local shaper Mark Lumsden.
“Mark’s another one that travelled all over the world and went on the most epic surf trips before ending up here,” says Maynard. “He’s got this lovely little cottage up in Ness and he’s transformed the shed into a shaping bay. The three boards in the exhibition have all been made for local surfers, and he believes in making a board for the type of wave or the break you’re going to surf.”
Maynard grew up on Lewis before studying fine art at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee. She now works as an art teacher at The Nicholson Institute in Stornoway, teaching S1 to S6. She recently went down to four days a week so that she could devote more time to her own work. “I kind of fell into portraiture as a way of doing this project, because I loved the stories,” she says, “but I don’t think I’ll continue doing portraits in future. I can’t imagine doing anything other than something related to the sea though. I just can’t seem to get away from it. Every time I try and do something else I always seem to end up coming back to something to do with waves or water.”
Wave Migration runs until 11 May, www.lanntair.com