She opened the door of the gallery and there it was, there it lay, before her, nearly perfect: her exhibition. The opening was an hour or so away and there were, naturally, a few adjustments to make, but in essence it was right, and as she walked to the middle of the rectangular space (to survey the full effect ) she felt held by the quiet wonder of it all; that she had made all this and with ‘the quality control of nature’s accidents’. He’d written those words some years previous when a solo show was but a dream she would enter between sleep and wakefulness, when she would think of the west coast of Scotland and the poetry of its seashore, the infinite variety in the seashore strand between sand and sea. It was such natural accidents of form and transformation by nature’s hand that had guided her imagination into rightness and towards this exhibition.
At breakfast that morning she had come to the table dressed to greet her audience, and for the first time as a featured artist in a festival of some repute. She had felt the quiet joy of choosing the right combination of clothes to be the public person she had now become. He had loved the new dress she had bought to clothe her gallery persona. She had been conscious of his eyes following the lines this frock so generously drew around her body’s shape and form, the way the material fell across her *******, lay smoothly on her thighs. It was a very grownup frock and with the jacket and scarf made her look purposeful, confident. His looking made such confidence possible, his admiration and what she could tell was that coming together of love and passion that, her being dressed in this formal way, so often evoked.
In the gallery she had worried over the lighting, climbed up the metal ladder with the fluffy green glove thoughtfully provided to enable those small adjustments of direction to be made on a hot spotlight. There were four large pieces flanking a corner that had embossed lines running across their surfaces, lines that needed oblique light to reveal the shadowing of this effect of swirls and marks of a retreating tide on sand. Two smaller pieces needed rearranging; she’d placed them, late the evening before, in the wrong sequence. Poster boards were to be filled with her poster and put outside on the pavement by the gallery entrance. She opened the main door, a very green door with its top and bottom bolts and black-painted handle ring. The street outside was a welcoming mix of 18th and 19th C buildings, hardly one the same, the sort of three storey buildings that had simple plaques prominently placed into the brickwork from a distant past when proud builders would describe a structure’s use or ownership with a title and date. By ten o'clock this one-way street was lined with parked cars, but now there was little traffic. It was a quiet sunny morning in a market town.
‘Don’t mind the dog, ‘ he said. ‘He’s used to coming in here.’ It was a long-haired verging on the side of scruffy sort of dog, used to keeping its own counsel, probably used to being taken to exhibitions. ‘Just popping in,’ he said, this man who, and she couldn’t help noticing this, seemed to hold much in common with his dog; the long, but retreating on the forehead, hair, slightly scruffy from the want of a comb or a good brush (like his dog), he had dressed without much thought (because who dressed thoughtfully to walk a dog?), and that’s what he was doing, walking the dog and, seeing the Gallery open, thought he ought to look in.
Giving him her brightest smile, she embarked on performing the artist’s music of conversation, that score holding gentle melodies and welcoming harmonies. Although she had become quite practised in talking to her audience there was always the challenging inquiry that would catch her off guard.
‘Well, are you finished with the seashore now?’ said the man with the look-alike dog. For a moment a half dozen possible answers seemed possible. ‘Could one ever finish with something so extraordinary and various as that hinterland between land and sea?’ No, that was seemed a mite critical and clever. ‘Oh, I’ve hardly started’ was tempting, but rather smug and too confident by half. ‘I just love the seaside’ would probably do, as no one else was listening. ‘Merleau-Ponty says the complexity of the seashore is a metaphor in the search for self-identity’. She did wonder what he’d make of that, but finally decided on ‘It’s such a rich source of ideas and images I’m sure there’s a lot more I want to do with the subject.’
”It’s all the same colour”. She’d had that one a few times. ‘When I’m on the beach I’m fascinated as much by the texture and shape of what I see and feel than the colour. I like the subtlety of the colours in the sand. I think my pieces – and she waved her hand towards what she had titled her Sand Marks pieces – show so many of the different shades of colours you find on the seashore.’
Those Sand Marks, a collection of variously dyed and marked two metre plus linen-lengths, dominated one wall of the gallery. They floated a few centimetres from the white wall, and when people moved past them the slight shadows cast by the linen lengths seemed to ripple in the human-made breeze. She could never look at them without thinking how their very accidental making – binding a linen cloth with inner placed objects and using the natural dye of tea – could create such absorbing results. She would follow with her gaze one of the linen-lengths from bottom to top (or top to bottom) and find herself walking on the wet sand of a Scottish beach, overwhelmed by the clear light and space with only the sea sound surrounding. He would tell her, had told her often, how moved, how affected he had been when he first saw them hung. To him, these ‘marks’ carried an essence of this aesthetic she now owned and for which had become recognised.
Even on this, her first day, she had been visited by a small number of admirers and supporters, some travelling distances to see her work with the aura of the original, a truer view than that possible on the back-lit screen of their computer monitors. Ladies who loved textiles, the containment and privacy to sew and stitch secured in their busy lives. These friendly and smiley women (the comfortable side of sixty) understood something of what she was doing here, and perhaps imagined themselves as thirty-somethings walking Scottish beaches free from children and the relentless list-making of house and home and occupation, able to create imaginary worlds of marks and folds, pleats and textures. Full of enthusiasm for the medium, what they perhaps didn’t have was the skill of seeing, a skill she had grown up with, had always owned to some degree: found, fostered, honed, developed into a second-nature activity of always looking.
There would be the occasional brief lull when the gallery was empty or close to empty, as though needing the space to come up for breath after being occupied by people and their movement. She would then walk slowly around the long well-lit room viewing her pieces and her arrangements of pieces from different angles. She would look at his poems placed antiphonally between her work, commissioned for her catalogue, her book of images of the sea shore paired with, incorporating even, her made pieces. She’d chosen a favoured few she’d felt caught the essence of being in the sea’s company, in the sand and shore’s domain. Like everything he did it had been undertaken with the utmost intensity of purpose. She saw him now in her mind’s eye with his notebook sitting against rocks, paddling in the great shallow pools, walking head down along the tide line, those bright days on a Scottish island and before, before on that ellipse of beach by the fishing station.
He would tease out an idea formed from a little motif of words, perhaps like the very music that was his private territory: here, alone, apart we are marked by the tide’s turn. Yes, we are marked by being solitary in such unconfining space, the marks at our feet become the lines, the mounts, the fingers, those interruptions, breaks and blockages found in the tridents, chains and crosses of the art of palmistry. We read the seashore as a psychic oracle reads the hand, hoping, as Kathleen Jamie so rightly says, for the marvellous. And marvellous it so often is.
Standing in this gallery was like being gathered about by the seashore. It was a short jump in the imagination’s miracle to hear the soft breathing of the sea, the wind caressing the face, the warmth of the afternoon sun on the freckled cheek.
See how those we love are transformed
when the sea is their only boundary
a figure stands before a sand bar
in a crescent of water left by the tide
an affecting geometry of solitude
. . .
These words had always stopped her in her perambulating tracks. She thought of her son, far distant on the beach, at rest for once, still, motionless within the confluence of the elements of the beach, at the epicentre of her gaze, all things flowing to and from his tiny, far-away figure.