Close your eyes and imagine an artist’s palette of Agapanthus Blue, Tresco Aquamarine, Dappled Seal Grey, St. Martin’s Sand Gold or Hotentot Pink. Perhaps throw in some Storm Black, Sea-Mist Silver and Heather Green. If you’ve been to the Isles of Scilly then this is no doubt how those glorious islands will look to you in striking clarity of colour when you clutch in your mind’s eye at those Scillonian memories.
With its lovely if at times wild and dramatic natural environment, its wonderful clear air and the feeling of being set away from it all, it is no wonder that the Isles of Scilly have served as inspiration for the work of many an artist. Our wanders around most of the inhabited islands took us past at least one artist’s or photographer’s studio each time, with everything from intricate jewellery to mesmerising watercolour studies luring you in from each open set of doors. One of my favourite finds was the beautiful solid silver shell charms of Fay Page on St. Martin’s. The artist makes each piece by using a real shell found on the local beach as a cast – an inspired way of capturing a little of the island’s natural wonder.
If you are visiting St. Mary’s then a stroll to the Phoenix Craft Studios in Hugh Town is a must. The studios are home to the work of several local artists, headed up by Oriel Hicks -something of a local celebrity. Working principally with glass, her work freezes in eternal motion the colours, moods and elemental beauty of the islands, skies and seas of Scilly. From simple glass mobiles of nautical creatures that entice the natural light into a willing collaboration in casting their spell, to crashing glass waves, it is quite astounding how much of the essence of the local landscape Oriel is able to capture in her work.
We planned our visit to the Phoenix Studio with Roo on what was forecast to be a gloomy afternoon. It is perhaps testament to the dominance of the elements’ natural trickery on Scilly that a day that had started so unpromisingly turned into enveloping heat and dazzling blue skies. As we browsed the glass-work and visited the silk-work, jewelry and wooden craft-work of the other workshops located within the studios, Roo set to work under the expert guidance of Oriel at capturing Scilly’s colours in her own piece of glass-work. Starting out by sketching a design on paper, Roo then moved on to transferring her design onto a plain glass roundel before filling in the lines with an array of paint colours.
At three years old Roo was at the lower limit of the sessions available for children at Phoenix Craft Studios but she got stuck in all the same, tongue stuck out in concentration. For older children and adults the Phoenix Craft Studios also offer the possibility to create sun catchers, paint ceramics and design and paint a silk scarf. Roo’s work of art finished and her baby sister cross with being left out of the fun, we left Roo’s roundel at the Phoenix Craft Studios to dry and we set off to continue our explorations of Scilly.
Oriel Hicks’ glasswork is not just found in the Phoenix Craft Studios. As we visited the off-islands over the course of our visit we found her interpretations of Scilly life and landscapes reflected back at us at the most unexpected moments. In a mad dash to the ferry on Bryher as I ran panting after my husband I looked up at the little church I was passing to see I was being pursued by swallows streaking in gentle mockery of my own exertions across the intricate stained glass window above me.
In the tranquil church on wild little St. Agnes, we sat in silent contemplation of another window created by Oriel Hicks depicting the struggle of two gigs rowing out to a possible wreck on stormy seas – a reflection on the comfort of religion and the elemental power of the sea that surrounds these exposed isles and the islanders’ long, tumultuous, courageous and yet too often tragic relationship with it.
The window seemed fittingly placed amongst the engravings commemorating the bravery of lifeboat crews and the lives lost by those wrecked in the Scillonian seas. Its vivid blues and swirling waves provided a perfect portal between those simple, solid grey walls of the little church to all of the drama and untamed beauty of the seascape lying just outside. On the other side of the church a depiction of a lighthouse beamed out at us from another of Oriel’s beautiful pieces of glass-work.
I’ve always wished I had more artistic ability. I shouldn’t complain – my outlet is through the written word and music – but there is still a longing to capture the colours and feelings that a particular landscape evokes deep inside me. Oriel Hicks’ ability to simmer and reduce a whole landscape, a culture, a rich history and feelings towards a place and then catch this in a single piece of glass is impressive. It is only fitting that it requires a final ingredient of the clear Scilly light to add the final touches to her glass-work.
An action packed last few days on Scilly and an early start for the plane home saw us disastrously overlooking to pick up Roo’s carefully painted glass roundel. Fortunately for us, Oriel Hicks very kindly offered to forward it on to us. A short time later, to Roo’s delight, a rare parcel arrived addressed to her. Inside the box nestled her glass roundel – a little bit of Scilly of her very own with Roo’s childish and haphazard artwork freezing our own grown-up memories of this special summer visit into its glinting colours.
Roo was lucky to be invited to paint a roundel with Oriel Hicks during our trip to the Isles of Scilly. All words and experiences remain as ever, entirely our own. For more information on art and craft workshops available at the Phoenix Craft Gallery for children and adults, please contact the studio by dropping by, by telephone – 01720 422900 or visit their website .