By Ted Harrison, Special to ASSIST News Service
UNST, SCOTLAND (ANS – September 19, 2016) — I am an artist working on the most northern island of the British Isles. At 61 degrees north we are nearer the north pole than some parts of Greenland. The island is called Unst and is part of the Shetland group. For 16 years I have divided my life between here and my home south, currently in Wales.
For centuries the Unst community had been heavily dependent on fishing. Today fish farming is a major part of the economy, with salmon being reared in some of the cleanest waters in the world.
My interest as an artist is to express faith through contemporary art and one of the projects I have been working on this summer is a large-scale wall sculpture for my local church of St John’s.
Church of Scotland buildings tend to be rather austere buildings with little prominence being given to visual imagery. It is a church in the protestant reformed tradition which emphasizes “the word” through The Bible and through preaching.
St John’s is typical and its outside is made of plain, almost forbidding, stone. So I raised an idea with the minister and elders. What about making a striking visual image to go on the outside wall to arrest the eye of passers-by? Since the island was featured by the BBC in its television series “An Island Parish” we are seeing an increasing number of visitors.
I sketched a design that used words from scripture, but with the visual impact being its strongest feature.
I took two texts: the opening line of the book of Genesis and the opening line of the Gospel of St John, which of course start with the same three striking words “In the beginning”.
The two texts were intertwined into the shape of a fish, that ancient Christian symbol. They were to be cut from bright mirror steel to catch the magical light of the north, especially at sunrise. Again this was symbolic of the message of the risen Christ.
The design was met with enthusiasm – so I started work. I designed everything carefully. The piece would have to withstand some very wild weather. The steel had to be industrially cut and shipped north across three ferries, but the wooden mounting was made from local drift wood. Seasoned oak that had been hardened by the sea.
The fish also commemorated the close connection of the community with the sea and the high price, in terms of lives lost over the generations, of harvesting its bounty.
This week the fish was ready to be raised on the bell-tower. I had assembled it inside the church, but we had to grab an afternoon when the wind had died back to put it in position.
I became an artist only nine years ago after a long career in broadcasting. I had been at different times the BBC’s Religious Affairs Correspondent and run a television production company specializing in making religious programmes. My academic background was in theology, so when I became an art student at the age of almost 60, I knew what I wanted from my Fine Art degree course. It was to discover media and materials and draw on developments in contemporary art in order to delve more deeply into the mysteries of faith. The course turned out to be highly secular and discouraging in some ways to any ideas that were spiritual, but I became a member of a highly supportive group of other artists and took more from them than the academic books on the reading list.
Since then I have worked on projects for several of Britain’s great cathedrals and have also this summer completed a major 15-part work for Gloucester Cathedral exploring world conflicts of the last 100 years, relating them to the story of the trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It will be shown during Lent 2017.
The fish however I hope will last for many generations and be my legacy to a wonderful, welcoming community. It is a design I am also happy to adapt for other churches; it can be made in many sizes for indoor or outdoor display. I am now waiting for day of bright sunshine, or a night with a clear full moon, or even the northern lights, to see how the mirror steel reflects the many forms light take here on Unst.
Photo captions: 1) The new wall sculpture on the bell tower of St John’s Church of Scotland church on the island of Unst in Shetland, Britain’s most northerly community. The work of artist Ted Harrison, it shows a fish made up of the first words of St John’s Gospel and those of the Book of Genesis. 2) The fish in the sunshine. 3) Ted Harrison.
About the writer: Ted Harrison is a writer and artist dividing his life between two homes, a Scottish island in the far north of the British Isles and by the sea at Aberystwyth in Wales. For many years he was a BBC news reporter and correspondent, specialization in religious affairs, but also covering many of the major international stories of the time. He then co-ran, with his daughter, a television production company making programmes for all the main UK channels. In 2008 he decided to make a career change and he became an art student at The University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, the alma mater of contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin. His MA in Fine Art combined with his PhD in theology gives him a special interest in finding new visual ways of exploring his faith. His exhibition of 15 paintings ‘The Sins of the World’ is scheduled to be shown in Gloucester Cathedral during Lent 2017. His recent series of paintings of the ancient holy wells of Wales was shown at St. David’s Cathedral, Wales earlier this year. Last year, to mark the 25th anniversary of his kidney transplant, Ted completed a large-scale wall sculpture of a blossoming cherry tree for Guy’s Hospital in London, which was dedicated by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. He has written almost 30 books, both secular and religious, and his latest work is a study of the continuing and growing popularity of Elvis Presley around the world. Ted be contacted by e-mail at: email@example.com.
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