I’m finally back with another in the Portraits of Scotland series! While in Scotland, we spent several weeks on isles, with the sea visible or within easy drive of where we stayed. Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, was no exception. We stayed in Harbour Guest House on Tobermory High Street, which is the main street that curves around, hugging Tobermory harbour. Tobermory is the capital of Mull because, with a population of 700, it’s one of the few places large enough to be considered a town rather than a village. You may remember mention of it in my post about the Leather Artisan. Well, having spent so much time around the sea, and having eaten fish and chips to our heart’s delight, I hoped to find a fisherman who would let me paint his portrait.
Our very last day on Mull (even as we were packed up and ready to drive back to the mainland), I stopped in at a shop to pick up a glass fusing piece I’d made the day before. When I came back to the car, my mom said, “Mollie, weren’t you hoping to paint a fisherman? I’ve been watching this man climb nimbly down a narrow metal ladder to his boat. I can’t believe his agility! He must be nearly 70, but he’s up and down that ladder in the blink of an eye! This is your chance! Ask him whether he’d mind if you take his photograph.” So, I approached the fisherman. It was a quiet morning, still fairly early, and he was alone – no crew with him. I figured he had simply been checking on something in the boat, and I was right. Funnily enough, his first response when I asked about taking his photo was, “Does my hair look alright?” This is the same question Alan (the Leather Artisan) asked before I photographed him!…must be a Tobermory thing. Well, the fisherman’s white hair was blowing in a harbour breeze, so I laughed and said it looked fine. Like several of the people I approached, he was surprised anyone would want to paint his portrait. Perhaps the tourist-painter intrigued him. Perhaps he was merely complying with an odd request. Whatever the motivation, he agreed. And, while I took a few photos, we chatted.
I asked about his work. We’d eaten fresh lobster the night before. Had he caught those lobsters? He said that all of the lobsters his crew catch are actually shipped overseas…makes more money than selling it locally. I asked whether he had children who’ve followed in his footsteps career-wise. He said he has no sons. But his two daughters married fishermen, and his sons-in-law work with him. It was a short conversation, a brief glance into his life. But each of these portraits has opened doors for me to learn something of the people of Scotland. They are humble, yet proud; hospitable and friendly; they work hard and value tradition; they highly value family and community. Possibly because their towns and villages are so small, a sense of community is inevitible…for better or worse, everyone seems to know everyone else. I asked whether he knew Alan, and he said, “Aye, of course! I know him well.” My favorite part of this particular portrait is the fisherman’s stance. Hands are jammed solidly into his pockets. Weatherbeaten and ruddy, his face holds the wrinkles of sunshine and wind, laughter and life. His eyes are used to peering out across the water, whether through glaring sun, storm, or fog. No fancy airs or moment taken to brush his hair…the wind would blow it again anyway. He is a man’s man, a working man, a provider for his family, comfortable in his own skin. The stance says, “Here I am! If you want to paint a portrait, you’re welcome. Just make sure my boat is included. For my boat is part of who I am.”
This illustration is actually a compilation of several photos taken during our days on Mull. The jetty where the fisherman stood was lined with lobster cages. Beyond those you could see the panoramic view of iconic Tobermory shops. The red, yellow, and blue group of shops in particular is well-known. Apparently, they appear in a BBC children’s show called Balamory. I’m a little old to watch the show now, but the Scottish accents are fun! In designing this scene, I took the photo of the fisherman with his boat, combined it with photos of the panorama and lobster cages, then added in a couple seagulls for good measure. Huge seagulls are the other “fishermen” of Tobermory. Whether swooping and diving below the water’s crest, or scavenging bits of fish left by the pros, they’re always interested in the day’s catch. Just a few feet from this scene (kind of behind and to the left) was the fresh fish-&-chips vendor. This tiny trailer sold fish that had been caught fresh that morning. You’d tell them what kind of fish you wanted (halibut, cod, etc.), they’d pull it out of the fridge, dip it in batter, and fry it right there in front of you. Then they’d toss it onto a bed of hot chips, and you could add vinegar or ketchup before carrying your treasure home to feast. It was so good, Mom and I literally ate there 3 out of 4 nights on Mull! If you look above the Tobermory shops, you’ll see one more iconic building. The Western Isles Hotel, up on the hill, is one of the filming locations for the 1945 Wendy Hiller movie, I Know Where I’m Going. Wonderful film! If you’ve never seen it, check it out!
Well, this concludes our tour of Tobermory. Of all the places we visited, this is a top one on my list to visit again. If you’re ever there yourself, keep an eye out for my friend Alan and for his neighbor, the fisherman.
30 years ago today, I drew my first portrait. I know the exact date because it’s written in large, tidy letters, on that lined manilla paper you use to practice writing in elementary school. With carefully rounded “o”s, curved “r”s, and very straight “t”s, the 6-year-old Mollie wrote: “A Special Birthday Today is January 15, 1987. It is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.” MLK has had more of an effect on my life than I’ll ever really know. My mom’s high school was desegregated in the 1960s. Her brother was bused off to another school, while kids from the black school came to join her high school. Because of that desegregation, she gained a lifelong friend named Keith.We still keep in touch with Keith and his family. I got to meet his wife for the first time last summer when we were all at my grandparents’ house in Virginia. Keith is a joyful, honorable, faith-filled man. I’ve gotten to visit with him many times through the years and have always looked up to him.
Growing up in suburban Virginia, skin color wasn’t something I really thought about. The friends that I ate lunch with, played basketball with at recess, sat next to in class, invited to my birthday parties…were a mix of black and white. Schooltime memories are filled with color. I accidentally hit my friend Jackie in the back of the head with my flying loose tooth in kindergarten. Naomi was the quirky friend who loved to crush her potato chips before eating them at lunch. We all prayed for my friend J.J.’s family when his dad died tragically in a fire, trying to save the family dog. Elisabeth was the first friend my dad threatened to take home in the middle of a sleepover birthday party…she was a bit on the noisy, rambunctious side. Tharrin was a big and tough kid, (my hero) who was always standing up for me if boys tried to exclude me from playing basketball. These friendships, and countless memories, would never have been mine if not for MLK and others like him.
The drawing above was done in Mrs. Spence’s 1st-grade class. Even Mrs. Spence is someone I can thank MLK for. She wasn’t tall in stature (perhaps that’s why 1st-grade was a good fit for her), but she taught us respect and honor. And, I can think of at least one major instance where she showed me great grace. A few weeks before this drawing was completed (Christmas holidays of 1986), she gave each kid in class a hand-made ornament to take home and put on their tree. Mine was a styrofoam mouse with a curled pipe-cleaner tail, beady black eyes, whiskers, and red plaid ears. He has hung on my Christmas tree every year for 30 years and is still one of my favorites to hang on the tree today. Now, I teach in a fairly diverse district, where kids of every color, race, and religion come together to learn on a daily basis. As a teacher, I look back on the example set by Mrs. Spence and the classroom atmosphere she created, endeavoring to foster a similar environment of respect and grace with my students.
The same week that I drew the portrait of MLK, we used his “I have a dream” theme as a springboard for discussions on what we’d like to become or accomplish when we grew up. I’m only slightly surprised that at the age of 6 my life’s goal was already set in concrete (or crayon). Notice that the portrait of MLK was much more realistic than the proportions/accuracy of my hands, feet, and table legs. Students, this is why we always tell you to work from a reference photo rather than drawing out of your head/imagination! It was true when I was 6, and it’s true today. Anyway, the point is that MLK’s portrait was an intriguing foreshadowing of my life now. I have always been interested in faces. Shapes of ear and nose and eyes are puzzle pieces that (when fit together properly) can tell the visual story of a life…or if the subject has passed away, trigger memories of a life well-lived. In his famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” I’m neither ignorant enough nor idealistic enough to say that MLK’s dream has completely come true. Unless the world becomes colorblind, I’m afraid there will always be undercurrents of racial tension this side of Heaven. Newspapers, TV shows, and other media remind us of the broken ideals on a regular basis. But I am ever thankful that he dared to dream. That dream trickled down into the cracks of society, crumbling walls, shifting courses, and expanding into a river whose current continues to erode racism. The more you and I cultivate classrooms, hallways, lunch rooms, office spaces, churches, and neighborhoods where people are not “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” the more his dream becomes a reality. Each doing our part in the process of erosion, we can help fulfill another lesser-known line from his speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
From my 3rd-grade yearbook, here is part of the crew I hung out with growing up. Note: my older sister liked to circle faces with pencil…
How do we process grief? With words? In silence? With anger, action, inactivity? At some point these have all applied to me. Sometimes…I process grief through painting.
As a teacher, there have been times where people asked me what I dislike about my job. I may flippantly reply that I hate when students are lazy, or (when piles of papers loom over my desk) that I dislike grading. But there is really only one thing I hate about teaching, and that is losing students. In 12 years of teaching, I’ve already buried more than I can count on one hand. Four of those were within the past 2 years, and time/experience don’t make that aspect of teaching easier. I still see the back of someone’s head in school or out shopping and think (for a split second) that it’s this or that student I lost years ago. Particularly when they’ve graduated, and I wouldn’t be seeing them often anyway…it’s hard to believe they’re really gone.
A student once interviewed me for a sociology paper about faith and its positive (or negative) effect on modern teens. At some point during our discussion, I remember asking her why death always feels wrong. Whether we’re burying my 100-year-old great-grandmother, a miscarried baby, or a child of any age, the loss pierces straight to the heart. When asked, my student was thoughtful for a few moments and had no response. I told her I think the reason death always feels wrong is that we were not created for death. Before Genesis chapter 3, it wasn’t part of the human equation. And ever since then we’ve fought it with every fiber of our being. We cannot cheat or stop it. And, whether we know the person is going to a better place or not, we mourn it. At night, as tears slide down my cheek, into my ear, and dampen the pillow beneath, I cry out: “Papa, WHY!?” The silence echoes no audible answer. Though, peace descends slowly with the softness of sleep.
Alex Kierstead was one of those kids who brightens a room. Friendly, easy-going, a twinkle in his eye; I’ve seen posts on Twitter and Facebook of everyone saying how he genuinely loved people and would do anything for them. I first met Alex in 6th-grade and had him in various art classes throughout middle and high school. When he wasn’t in my class, he was one of those kids who would catch me in the hallway and check in…ask how my classes were going, fill me in on what he was up to. It was his goal senior year to gather enough students to finally make our Printmaking class run. (For many years no one had signed up for the class, and people practically forgot it existed.) Alex rallied friends and strangers together, spreading word , and encouraging them to sign up. I think about 13 did sign up for it…still not enough to run the class. So, he never got his Printmaking at Waubonsie. But the fact that he had the gumption to try, and the charisma to bring others along for the ride, was typical Alex. I can’t stand to rehash the details of his death here. There are news articles online I’d encourage you to read. They speak of creativity, a love of hiking and outdoors. They speak of a life well-lived and a young man dearly loved.
This is the first time in my life where the advent season and mourning have gone hand-in-hand. This is a hard Christmas. I am not used to crying this much or this often. And, as difficult as this is for his teachers and friends to process, it must be infinitely harder for his family. As I talked with my grandpa on the phone this evening, I asked him to pray for me…and he did, right then and there on the phone. Hanging up after that call, I was reminded of John 1:5, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” That night in Bethlehem a new star appeared – bright enough for astrologers to follow it hundreds of miles. That star pointed to a tiny life which could not be extinguished. Emmanuel was here. God was finally physically with us. The darkness could fight, but it could not win. I will wrestle. I will mourn. I will cry out and question why. But darkness and mourning do not have the final word. In tears again this Sunday at church, the words of a familiar carol had new meaning for me: “Mild he lays his glory by. Born that man no more may die. Born to raise the lost of earth. Born to give them second birth. Hark! The herald angels sing: glory to the newborn king.” …Born that man no more may die. Lord, help us. Show us you’re here right now. God with us.
Opening the window of your apartment on the Royal Mile, you’re met with sights and sounds of a bustling city. Tourists and lorries, street vendors and shop owners create a chatter of activity. This cacophony is part of the music of Edinburgh. However, it’s merely the backdrop for a ribbon of song that floats and weaves through the city street. For, on several corners stand Edinburgh pipers whose bagpipes screel the notes of the nation.
During the several days we spent in or near the Royal Mile, we saw (and listened to) pipers of all ages. Each wore a traditional kilt, some in full regalia. And most played traditional Scottish bagpipes. Then, one day we came across a young piper whose music carried more harmonies, without the shrill drone of Scottish pipes. I asked the young man, whose name is Rex, whether these were Uilleann pipes – an Irish form of bagpipe I’d heard once in college. The Uilleann pipes look a lot like those Rex played. Turns out I was on the right track! Rex was playing a lesser-known instrument called the Scottish smallpipes. In preparation for this blog post, I emailed Rex, asking for more information about smallpipes and his experiences as a piper. Rather than summarize what he said, I’ll share his responses here:
Specifics: The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ as played when we met are a less commonly played form of pipes. The more traditional ‘Highland Bagpipes’ are most common. They have a huge link with Scottish culture and are referred to by some as an ‘instrument of war’. The ‘Scottish smallpipes’ are more quiet and usually played in pubs and at local gatherings. Very few people play these and so it takes around 6 months to a year to get a good set from a maker. They have the same finger work as the highland bagpipe although look and are played differently (with a bellow instead of a blowpipe). They are great for playing with other instruments, particularly the guitar whereas the highland bagpipes are more of a solo instrument (unless of course played with drums) The Uilleann pipes, also known as Irish pipes are, in my opinion the holy grail of piping expertise. There is a saying which is: “7 years learning, 7 years practicing, 7 years playing”…21 years to master. They are usually played sitting down and have 2 octaves with wrist actions to hold chords at the same time as playing. These are extremely complex to play and indeed make, which is why it can take several years to get hold of a set.
Says the LORD, your Creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine! When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, you will not drown…For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.” ~ Isaiah 43:1-3
This painting and post are for Ava – an 8-year-old little girl and her family who have been trudging the deep waters of cancer. I cannot fathom what they are going through. Yet, though I only know them through a mutual friend, their story and faith have brought me to tears and put me on my knees in prayer continually over the past several months. I won’t try here to retell their story. Instead, I encourage you to read it yourselves. Ava’s mom has chronicled much of it through a Facebook page called Team Brighter Days.
Many of us know children or loved-ones who have faced debilitating illness. As we walk with them through the impossibly hard days/weeks/years, we fear drowning…drowning in sorrow, anger, exhaustion. Hope can either die or become a rock to cling to in those times. There is no training manual that prepares parents for talking with their children about the possibility of death. Ava has already had those conversations with her parents. More than most children her age, she understands that this world is not her ultimate home. And, while she continues to fight for her life, she also manages to sing the lyrics to one of her favorite songs: “You can have all this world. Give me Jesus.” While we plead with God to touch her cells, heal each one, and allow her many more years on this earth, we also pray that she and her family feel His arms carrying them in the midst of this.
No matter our walk, be it easy or heavy, we all need a savior who will walk beside us, able to relate to what we’re going through. One of the last words I painted in this illustration was the word “with”. As I filled in the letters with a flesh-tone brown, the name Immanuel, which means God with us, came to mind. God came in the flesh to be one of us. When Jesus was 8 days old, a man named Simeon took the baby in his arms, spoke of what his life would one day be, and said to Jesus’ mother, Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:21-35) What words to give to a new mother! I’m sure those words came back during the week of Christ’s crucifixion. Beaten, mocked, stripped, and hung on a tree, her boy (age 33 now) would have been barely recognizable. He had the power to heal, walk on water, raise people from the dead – yet he allowed himself to be overcome by death. Did Mary understand that death could only hold him down for 3 days? I think many mothers can relate to Mary, guessing that she wrestled with warring emotions of hope and despair. Michelangelo, in his sculpture Pieta, depicts Mary holding her son after his body’s been retrieved from the cross. While Jesus’ body seems limp and lifeless, his calf-muscle is tense in the sculpture. Michelangelo, who dissected cadavers and knew muscle tone better than any painter or sculptor of his time, would not have accidently carved that muscle in a flexed/tense position. I believe (as others do) that he used it as a foreshadowing of the resurrection. Yes, Mary’s son was dead. But death could not hold him down. He would soon declare permanent victory over the grave. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
The man Jesus who walked on water, who walked through Hell, and defeated death itself, now walks with us through the deepest waters. Rivers cannot overwhelm us. The grave cannot swallow us. Because when we lack the strength to stand, he carries us. And when we’ve lost even the will to hold on, he won’t let us go.
One of the leading industries in Scotland, tourism employs over 210,000 people and rakes in almost £6.4 billion annually (according to scotland.org). Not hard to believe, considering B&Bs, self-catering rentals, and guest houses line the streets of every scenic village…and in Scotland, nearly every village is scenic! Where the terrain is too rugged for a B&B, camping tents cluster along streams and cliff-sides. My parents and I stuck with the more conventional housing options. So, during our month’s travels, we encountered a wide variety of hosts and hostesses. Some were chatty, some shy, and others business-like. Many had moved from England to Scotland because they loved the land and its people. Others had been born and bred in the area. A few learned the hospitality gig from their parents. Others left the “dog-eat-dog” business world for a more relaxed lifestyle. But whatever their age, disposition, or background, they all share certain qualities: a knack for hospitality, the ability to organize and run a busy household, tremendous cooking skills, deep love for the country around them, and a breadth of knowledge about their home’s history and the surrounding town/village.
Nine years ago, my parents stayed at The Victorian Townhouse in Edinburgh. This trip, Mom and I decided to return there for our Edinburgh stay. Mom remembered Aileen (pronounced Ay-leen with emphasis on the first syllable) as a friendly hostess who took great care of them in 2007. She was right! Aileen took wonderful care of us. She rents out 3 rooms on the lower level of the house. The upper level is occupied by herself (and previously) her son. The accommodation and treatment were fancier than anything we’d come across previously. High ceilings and window looking onto a back garden, ornate fireplace, large bathroom, and a sitting area with tea and snacks on-hand. We enjoyed getting to know our hostess and the other guests at breakfast each morning. And, upon request, Aileen took us upstairs to visit the Victorian parlour. This room has tall windows looking out onto Eglinton Crescent. The ornate tray ceiling, rich wooden wainscoting, and Persian rug with brushed tassels all harken back to quieter times. This particular townhouse was the childhood home of one of our favorite Scottish authors – D.E. Stevenson. Dorothy Emily was the cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. While not as well-known as Robert Louis, she has a wide fan-base even to this day. Her books are novels about family life in England and Scotland, written from the 1930s-1970s. My personal favorites are Miss Buncle’s Book (recently made into a play, and possibly going to be made into a BBC movie), The Tall Stranger, and The Five Windows. During our Edinburgh stay, Mom and I actually stumbled across a treasure-trove of D.E. Stevenson books! They were tucked into a corner of an establishment called (appropriately enough) Edinburgh Books on West Port Road. The City of Edinburgh placed a plaque commemorating her birthplace at The Victorian Townhouse this very month! Seeing Aileen’s Victorian parlour, we could imagine D.E. Stevenson as a small girl…peering out the front window at people passing in the cobbled street, sitting by the large fireplace on chilly nights, ringing the bell to summon servants for tea. Our stay with Aileen was the perfect end to a memorable month in Scotland!
About the artwork:
For many illustrations in my series, I simply asked the person in passing permission to photograph them for a portrait. In Aileen’s case, I wanted to set her up in the Victorian room and do a more formal photo-shoot. While her cooking clothes and apron might have represented the everyday aspect of her position, The Victorian Townhouse hostess should have a chance to show off her string of pearls and stately sitting-room. Mom and I chatted with her for nearly an hour while I snapped photos. The photo-shoot itself was as fun as the actual painting of her portrait!
Tucked away, merely steps from Tobermory Main Street, is a small store where old meets new. You enter a shop where the walls, paint, carpet and furnishings are modern, clean lines. Yet behind the workbench stands a man whose craft dates back hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Alan Willetts taught himself leatherwork as a hobby. But the deeper he got into the craft, the more dissatisfied he was with his regular job. So, he opened up shop. Now, with both a store-front and an online site, he can be found working long hours at what he loves best. I stepped into the store out of curiosity. But both the artisan and his skill quickly caught my attention. One wall is a rainbow of earth tones, belts of all lengths and colors. In front of the workbench hang a row of leather bracelets with tooled or embossed designs. By the window are tables of wallets, journal covers, and other items, each hand-stitched and completely hand-crafted. We asked Alan if he might show us the tooling process. His eyes lit up as he explained various thicknesses of leather, demonstrating how to carve, emboss, and paint a leafy vine. He’s even designed a map of the Isle of Mull, made from his vine and leaf pattern. Mom and I would be leaving town soon, but we ventured to ask if he could finish a couple items for us if we placed an order. He was able to complete the order, and had both items ready by the following evening! Not long after we left the shop, Mom said, “You should see if he’d let you take photos to do a portrait of him!” So, when I returned to the shop to pick up our order, I brought my camera. Alan’s one comment was, “How does my hair look?” I assured him it looked fine! And we set up the shots that became the above illustration. I love that the photos (and painting) caught his intensity of expression as he concentrated on carving. This is a man in his element who puts ingenuity and time into every inch of every piece he creates. In a world and time where mass-production factory output is the norm, it’s refreshing to visit a place where time slows down while an artist hones his craft.