Helen Boden’s poems are published in magazines and anthologies including New Writing Scotland, Mslexia, Butcher’s Dog, Dactyl, The Eildon Tree, and the new Umbrellas of Edinburgh, from Freight Books. She collaborates with visual artists to make place-specific text art, and responsive poetry, which appears in artist books and pamphlets. A former lecturer in English and Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University, she has published critical essays on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry, women’s writing, travel writing, and contemporary Scottish poetry, identity and culture. She has been a freelance Literature professional for the past thirteen years.
Artist Joan Eardley (1921-63) seems not to have been perceived by her contemporaries as dangerous – though I imagine she could have been viewed with suspicion by some in the communities she inhabited. She was dangerous because of the choices she quietly made. After art college she worked as a joiner’s labourer, rather than completing teacher training. She painted outdoors in all weathers, and preferred the stormier sort. She travelled, but returned to Scotland, rejecting the option of settling in London that some of her contemporaries made. Here she divided her time between two testing locations. In the overcrowded, run-down district of Townhead in Glasgow city centre, she befriended and painted the local streetkids, and also depicted street scenes unlikely to go down well with city fathers bent on slum clearance, re-housing and improvement. She stayed in a number of basic dwellings in the depopulating fishing village of Catterline, Aberdeenshire, with a special affinity for homes on the edge of it – so she could go out to make her work, laden with huge boards, without the distraction of having to make polite conversation. She returned repeatedly to the same subjects, deepening her engagement with them, literally making her mark on the shoreline spot from which she observed them. Despite mental and physical ill-health, she created ever more innovative work.
Andrew Stephen, the fisherman first sent to collect the ‘young lassie’ from Stonehaven station, found no such lassie on the platform; the woman in cords and a tweed jacket had to be pointed out to him. ‘The artist’, as she became known in the village, the inhabitant who didn’t fish or farm, was dangerous enough be well kent beyond it, and to make a comfortable living (though she chose not to live comfortably) in her too short lifetime, and to exhibit widely. She became famous enough for details about the locations of her studios and her composition methods also to be well known.
She collaged grasses, grit, sweet-papers and text onto her painted landscapes and portraits. The weather itself seems similarly incorporated, rather than just represented, in her Catterline work. Like north-east writer / walker Nan Shepherd, she was a twentieth-century role model for how a woman creative could do things her own way; unfettered, go out in all conditions to make her life’s work, to make her life work.
This poem collages my own impression of Joan Eardley onto some of the known details about her life.
 Ron Stephen, interview with Patrick Elliot, 27 May 2016, quoted in Joan Eardley: A Sense of Place, Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland, 2016, p. 59
Note: An exhibition on Joan Eardley will be on at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 21 May 2017.
Feature image by Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48564032