Out of Africa: Julie Brook’s continental drift

Artist Julie Brook. Picture: Jane Barlow/TSPl
Artist Julie Brook. Picture: Jane Barlow/TSPl
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ARTIST Julie Brook swapped the wild beauty of Skye for the heat of Libya and Namibia in her latest quest for space and solitude to create her striking landscape sculptures

A film of red dust lingers over everything in Julie Brook’s studio: red dust on the floor, and the shelves with their jars of pigment; red dust on the carpentry tools, the radio with its crooked aerial, the white keyboard of her computer; red dust on Julie’s clothes and, pretty soon, on mine too. We may be on the Isle of Skye but we’re breathing the red dust of the Namib desert.

That is the location of Brook’s latest body of work, sculptures made from the sand and stone of the land itself, whose only viewers now are passing nomads and wild animals. But she brought home some of the ochre-coloured pigment, hewn from a cave in Namibia with women of the Himba tribe, who rub the colour into their skin and braided hair. She grinds and mixes it and uses it to draw: one wall of the airy room is almost covered with a large red-brown abstract. That would explain the dust.

The studio is just behind the house on the Sleat peninsula which is home to Brook, her partner, film producer Chris Young, and their children Winnie, 18, Stella, 14, Arthur, 12 and Meredith, seven. A short walk up the lane each day with Jadoula, the bright-eyed collie, bouncing at her heels is an easy separation between work and home. But Brook’s work also prompts her to seek out a more radical solitude, living and working alone for long periods in remote places, all of which must be negotiated with the demands of family life.

Currently, though, she is at home on Skye, in the final stages of preparing her forthcoming exhibition, which opens at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh a week today, and draws on more than five years of work in the deserts of Libya and Namibia. A series of films made in both locations will be complemented by the drawings from her studio, and a tufted rug inspired by one of them, a collaboration with Dovecot weaver and rug-maker Jonathan Cleaver.

Brook, 51, is tall, fair and athletic, with a long, easy stride. She talks at length about her work with a passionate seriousness. Watching the desert films on her studio computer, we quickly become immersed, seeing red sand and blistering heat, not the cool, bright, early spring day unfolding just outside the window.

That’s the aim, Brook says, showing me a film of herself and her two African guides sculpting a section of Namibian riverbank 10ft deep into a perfect curve. It’s sweltering, back-breaking work, the spades striking a metallic rhythm as they slice through the soil. Brook is throwing herself into the task as much as anyone. Her artistic tools are practical ones: spades, hammers, chisels, a stepladder, a pickaxe. In Libya, she travelled with her wheelbarrow strapped to the back of a camel.

“I really want this exhibition to be accessible to people who don’t necessarily look at art work, as well as being very true to the integrity of the work,” she says. “That’s quite a difficult balance to achieve. I really want to lift people out of the Edinburgh streets, take them somewhere else. At times you will be completely surrounded by the material.”

The desert, she says, was “a revelation”.“My desire is to go to a landscape, inhabit it, listen to the landscape in a way, and then respond to it. It’s a balance between what I bring to the landscape and what the landscape imposes on me.”

Travelling alone with local guides through some of the earth’s most inhospitable terrain was less daunting for a woman who had lived for a year in a tent on the wild, uninhabited west side of Jura, and worked alone for months at a time on the remote Hebridean island of Mingulay. Brook is not a woman who craves home comforts, but she did have to overcome a fear of the desert heat. “I’ve always worked in northern climates, and I was concerned about the heat and the dryness. But once the local people had showed me how to protect my head with a sash, I really came to love working in the heat. For me, it was a mystery how anyone lived in the desert, but by travelling with local people I began to understand how they do it.”

In Libya, she travelled into the Jebel Acacus mountains of the south-west with Tuareg guides who spoke no English “getting by with a little bit of Italian and French and a lot of gesticulation”. “But I was so at ease living in the desert, because of my time on Jura and Mingulay, I’m almost more comfortable outside. I got on well with the guides because I wasn’t asking: ‘Where are the loos?’ or ‘Is this water safe for drinking?’ I was in my element in the landscape, and so were they; we were sharing a common delight. When I started working, I think they were a little bit amused initially, but they understood that I was in my element doing it.”

Brook moved to Scotland in the 1980s in search of remote places. The daughter of an RAF pilot, she majored in sciences at school, switching to art when she was 15 after an inspiring teacher at her school helped her fall in love with the challenge of drawing. She studied at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, a period she describes as containing “a lot of failure. I was a slow developer – some artists find their language really quickly”. Still getting a feel for what she wanted to do, she spent a “fantastic” three months painting the cliffs of Hoy in Orkney, living in the bothy at Rackwick.

It gave her a taste for remote places, and, after settling in Glasgow with Young, they hiked to the west coast of Jura, four and a half hours’ walk from the nearest settlement, and camped under a stone arch. “I still can’t explain it. In the morning I woke up and I thought ‘I must come and live here and work here, and work in an unseen landscape where I don’t get disturbed.’

“I wanted to see how I fared in complete solitude. Occasionally, it’s good to put yourself in a situation where you really get to know yourself a bit. You do also need that solitude from time to time to give you freedom to work as an artist. Solitude is like a honing tool, it can be uncomfortable at first visiting extreme solitude, but for me it’s a very vital tool, and something I need to visit regularly.”

She lived for two summers under the stone arch, and then spent a full year alone on the island, swimming in the sea every day, washing in a stream, cooking on a fire, living through winter storms in the shelter she had built for herself from canvas and driftwood. “I’m incredibly practical, I love building. There were times when it was hard. When it was really, really windy that would occasionally get me down. But I felt very at home there, I made myself at home there, and loved it.”

She describes the time on Jura as “a watershed” in her work, where, in addition to painting, she began to build sculptures in the land, like the “land art” created by American artists such as Robert Smithson in the 1960s, and practised today in Britain by artists such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. She used rocks to build “firestacks” which she filled with driftwood and set alight, then watched while they were gradually swamped by the tide. It was less about the creation of a sculptural object than a cyclical process of making and unmaking. As few others saw the works, she recorded them in photography and film.

When her first child, Winnie, was a toddler, Brook started seeking solitude again, and discovered Mingulay, the island about 12 miles south of Barra which has cliffs like those on St Kilda, though it is less well known. The last inhabitants of Mingulay were evacuated in 1912, but the crofters syndicate who owned the island in the 1990s allowed Brook to live in the old schoolhouse, the last building with a roof, which was, by her own admission “really basic”.

At first, she worked on Mingulay for six month stretches. Sometimes Winnie stayed with her on the island, sometimes in Glasgow with Young. An Artworks documentary about her during this period shows Young coming to visit with Winnie, and Brook fighting back tears as she films her daughter leaving on the boat, her tiny footprints still visible on the beach. As her family grew, and Winnie started school, Brook needed to juggle her artistic trips with the demands of family life.

“I’ve worked out that six weeks is a kind of a maximum that doesn’t impose too much on the family. They can manage that, and that gives me long enough to really get my teeth into some work. Chris (who is the producer on cult teen sitcom The Inbetweeners, among other projects) is sympathetic of that need for space to make work, and he’s great with the children. If necessary, he will communicate it to them, I feel very appreciative of that.

“It’s pretty chaotic sometimes, I’m not going to idealise it, but you manage, you prioritise, you say: ‘This has to happen, so let’s make this happen’. Chris says I would be unbearable to live with (if I didn’t do this), and that’s true. I think even the children understand it, even if they complain. They’ve lived with me for long enough now, they know that’s part of the deal, and I’m better as a mother because of it.”

In the seclusion of Mingulay, Brook developed works like Stone Bowl, a cup-shaped structure carved into the earth which fills with water when it rains. She built it herself, measuring and digging, carrying stones from the river bed and embedding them into its shell. That in turn influenced Broken Circle, the circular rill she made for the Hidden Gardens at Tramway in Glasgow. Inversion, another major commission at Clan Donald Castle in Armadale, was also first made on Mingulay.

Brook was rarely disturbed on her island, but one morning she did have a rather distinguished guest. “The boatman, who is a local, said to me: ‘One day you’ll wake up and find the Queen on your doorstep’, and we both laughed. And the next day I came out of the bothy and the Royal Yacht was in the bay with a battleship escort. Where I had been swimming an hour before, the entire royal family was standing.

“I thought I’d better go and tell them I was there, but of course the security staff knew all about me. They said: ‘Just go about your business as you normally do’. I was in the middle of making a number of big canvases in the garden, so I got on with that. A woman walked past with dark glasses and said ‘Can you tell me a bit about the island?’ I went over, she took her glasses off, and it was the Queen. She was totally informal, I didn’t cursey, I was wearing really scruffy clothes. It was the most lovely encounter. She was so warm, so friendly. It was the last year of the Royal Yacht and she was so glad to have all her family there.”

Brook and Young moved to the Sleat peninsula in 1999. Their kitchen is the hub of a lively family home. Two cats rearrange themselves, reluctantly, to accommodate us. Jadoula is shut out, and runs round the house barking at the windows. Later we walk down through the woods – past another of Brook’s land works which the grass is gradually reclaiming – to the Sound of Sleat where she swims every morning.

After Mingulay was taken over by the National Trust in 2000, the island began to get increasing numbers of visitors. Brook found it more difficult to work freely, and started to look for different kinds of landscapes. When a family friend suggested a visit to Libya in 2008, she jumped at the chance to see the desert. But she had little idea of the direction it might take her work. As she began to discover the different colours in the sand and rocks she started to make “drawings” on the desert floor, precise classical forms which highlighted the natural features of the wild landscape.

The following year she returned, this time visiting the black volcanic desert at the centre of the country: “It’s the most primeval landscape I’ve ever been in, like something from the beginning of time”. Inspired by the scale of the landscape, the work grew in ambition, the “drawings” become three dimensional.

She planned a third visit to Libya, but unrest in the country made it unsafe and she focused instead on Namibia. Another desert, another revelation. “I thought I would continue the (artistic) language of Libya into Namibia, and of course it wasn’t like that at all, I had to start all over again. So I really slowed myself down and started to observe.” What fascinated her most was the wildlife, zebra, giraffe and springbok, whose bright markings nevertheless seemed to function as camouflage. “I remember wondering why the colours were so bold, and then seeing it for myself, because the light and shadow is so absolute in Namibia. I could see why the zebras have stripes, because everywhere I was seeing black and white shadows. It was such a revelation, it really influenced the work.”

On two visits to Namibia, to the remote north-west Kunene region, her land sculptures became more ambitious than ever: sculpting the walls of dry riverbeds and creating works such as Suspended Block, hollowing out the area under a large rectangular form which, miraculously, did not fall. Her two cheerful Namibian guides, Elvis and Dello, were happy to wield spades and wheelbarrows in the cause of art. Photographs show what her eyes saw: a play of light and shadow as substantial as the sculptures themselves.

Not everything went smoothly, however. The building of a tall narrow wall, the last sculpture of the trip, nearly ended in disaster. “When Dello put the final stone on the top – he was the tallest – the whole thing fell down. I only had a few days left of my trip, and I said to the guys, ‘Look, if you want to go to bed, I understand, but I have really got to start rebuilding this’. And they said: ‘No, no, no, let’s do it’, and we got our head torches, spent about five hours clearing the site and started rebuilding.”

Brook talks about a lone female artist building a wall in the Namib desert as if it is the most natural thing in the world. But then she does work to a simple principle: that anything’s possible. “When I start out on a trip I can’t tell you how daunted I get, I get butterflies, I think: ‘Is this going to be alright? Will I get on with that guide?’ But at a certain point, I just jump in. Things happen, you have to negotiate problems along the way, but you are essentially going on that faith that anything’s possible and that really has a great effect.

“I think it’s like anything in life, if you are willing to put yourself out there, start again, have no safety net – relatively speaking, life can be brilliant in responding likewise. I would really love people to see this exhibition and feel that anything’s possible for them.”

• Julie Brook: made, unmade is at Dovecot Studios, 10 Infirmary Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131-550 3660, 27 April-1 June, entry free.