YELL, in Shetland terms, is known as an island you pass through on the way to somewhere else. But by the end of this month, the 750 inhabitants – some fiercely proud of its attractions – will have the northernmost art gallery in Britain to boast about.
Shona Skinner – artist, former Edinburgh art teacher, and daughter of the Scottish rugby international and artist Adam Robson – will showcase her pick of local talent, including her own sewn landscapes, while her husband, Alan, a former investment banker, handles the sharp end.
It’s to be called the Shetland Gallery – no-one else had nabbed the name, and the Yell Gallery didn’t quite cut it. The work will range from gossamer-light shawls or lace panels by local knitters, to seascapes by award-winning Shetland artist Ruth Brownlee, they hope.
“It will be a constantly changing group show,” says Shona. “The idea is to exhibit the best contemporary Shetland art, and high-end craft.” The couple are novices at the gallery game, but ambitions include a line in art holidays.
Their own art collection includes rare works inherited from Robson, head of art at Dollar Academy, to the northernmost known painting by the Scottish Colourist FCB Cadell, a portrait of a boy, which the couple bought in Edinburgh.
Tourists typically zip through Yell; they catch the ferry from Shetland’s Mainland to the southern tip of the island, drive rapidly north-east, pausing to snap the odd herd of tourist-hungry Shetland ponies (all right, I did). They take ferries onward to Unst, Shetland’s most northerly inhabited island, with stunning cliffs and hill walks above the famous Stevenson lighthouse at Muckle Flugga, or to Fetlar, famous for geology and wildlife .
The Skinners live at Cullivoe, with sweeping views towards the Unst cliffs. Artist Ron Sanford lives nearby.
Sanford shares his studio building with the local Up Helly Aa squad, and is keenly aware of the risk the whole place will go up in flames.
“That’s why it’s surrounded by beer cans,” he said. “They make the boat next door, and they then take it away and burn it.”
Sanford trained at the Royal College of Art in London, and also taught there. Remarkably skilled in print, drawing and graphic design, his major commissions ran from oil rigs to buildings by Norman Foster and the Millenium Bridge, to newspaper and book illustrations, to line portraits of leading English poets. He worked in Hong Kong for Foster, where his wife, Meilo, also an artist, is from, and they later moved to Shetland with their daughter, Ming.
Now the masterful portraits on his wall are of mariners, bus company owners and a Zimbabwean singer, the first gay man to marry here. He’s a “drawing addict”, and his subjects include subtle Shetland landscapes and freshly caught fish. Sanford’s work sells in Lerwick at the Vaila Fine Art Gallery, where Polish emigrée Dorota Rychlik shows artists like the photorealist Brian Henderson and poet and singer Joyce Wark. Charismatic and choosy, she opened the gallery in 1999, named for the island of Vaila, which she owns with her husband.
“ONE of the issues in Yell,” says Shona Skinner, “is that people drive through. We are all looking to find a way to make people stop. We have got to have lots of signage.”
Shona’s Shetland Gallery will have an impressive 1,000 sq ft of space in one of four well-windowed business spaces built by the local enterprise agency. Other artists are set to include retired GP Mike McDonnell, with quirky wood constructions, made from old, ink-printed wooden herring boxes, or discarded musical instruments whose glue he softens in his bath.
McDonnell is closely involved in Yell’s other big attraction: the Old Haa Museum, of Burravoe, a charming white-painted house dating back to 1637. Last year Skinner sold 20 of her own landscapes there, coastal views sewn on to calico fabric by machine, remarkably accurate in form and colour. Local history museum, tearoom and arts and crafts space, it boasts a sound archive of 250 recordings, and a collection of thousands of photographs. To quote the brochure: “Go to Yell!”