Were the Picts early abstract artists?

The Picts, known as the ‘painted people’ occupied the north east of Scotland around 1,000 BC. They probably evolved from Bronze-age inhabitants and early Celtic people.

The Roman Army encountered the Picts when the Romans invaded Scotland. In fact, it is possible that the Romans gave these people their name, the painted people, because of their prolific art. All over the north east of Scotland there are thousands of examples of their artwork. They left a fantastic legacy; large standing stones that have been carved with abstract and religious symbols.

Why did they carve stones? No one really knows for sure, but it is thought that they may have been created to mark battle sites or perhaps they were territorial markers. The Picts were tribal and they often fought over land, so perhaps these stones were carved to symbolise a victory or mark a tribe’s rights to a section of territory.

It has been suggested by some researchers that the Picts were early abstract artists! Their early stone carvings show symbols rather than ‘real’ images. It is thought that perhaps they were abstracting reality from the scenes they were carving, perhaps as an early form of code.

It is believed that the reason why the Romans failed to conquer Scotland was because of the fierce opposition from the Picts. According to early literature, 11,000 Roman troops were met by 30,000 Picts at the Battle of Mons Graupius. Although no one knows for sure, this famous battle was possibly fought on the foothills of Bennachie, a majestic hill that rises 1,600 feet a few miles outside Aberdeen.

A striking Pictish fort stands at the top of Bennachie. Now in ruins, the scale of the fort is still obvious today. Archeologists from the local university have discovered a well, and carbon dating puts the structure very much at the time of the Picts. It is incredible to think that these people created a stone fort at the top of a hill. Perhaps they were protecting themselves from the Roman invasion.

In the year 563, Saint Columba travelled from Ireland to Scotland, and his mission was to spread Christianity across the country. Around this time, it is clearly seen that the Picts stone carvings changed from warrior images and symbolism to images depicting Christianity. Their art is not only a wonderful record of an ancient civilisation, it is also a record of the changes that took place in Scotland during the turn of the millennium.

Growing up the north east of Scotland it was hard not to come across Pictish stones. I have always been fascinated by their culture and their art, so decided to cast a few pieces made from their stone carvings. I incorporated these casts into a piece that I hope captures something of their culture.

Please let me know if you have come across Pictish art, or perhaps you have been inspired by their images?

Forest Bathing

A Japanese friend once told me about the Eastern practice of forest bathing, or as they call it in Japan, Shinrin Yoku. This prompted me to read up on the subject, which I found quite fascinating.

In 1990, a group of scientists on the island of Yakushima conducted research into the stress-relieving benefits of walking in a forest. The scientists measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of subjects while they walked slowly through the dense forest. Their results were amazing!

Over the last 30 years, the Japanese have accumulated vast data on the physiological and psychological effects that can be observed during a walk in the forest. There are now more than 60 official forest therapy trails in Japan, designated for the practice of Shinrin Yoku. And there is a growing number of doctors who are certified in forest medicine.

The Japanese do not see people as having a special place above nature; rather, they see people and the natural world existing as equals. The importance of the natural world in Japan can be seen in their art, literature and architecture. Designers in Japan concentrate on creating buildings and structures that are in harmony with nature

The practice of Shinrin Yoku is based on walking through the forest at a gentle pace for two hours. Getting into the ‘here and now’ is a fundamental part of the process, so mobile phones should be turned off.

Practitioners talk about ‘feeling the touch’ on your feet as you walk slowly across the forest floor. As you walk, you should become aware of your presence; focusing on your present mental and emotional state. You try to become ‘one’ with the forest.

In his book on Shinrin Yoku, Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki, an emotional health scientist and researcher, says, “Allow your awareness to move up through every part of your body, and notice the sensations as you walk.

“See the colours and shapes of nature around you, the earth waking up in spring or the leaves returning to the soil in autumn. Listen to the sounds of nature, the birds, the breeze and the rustle underfoot.”

Hugging a tree and inhaling the scent from the bark is an important activity while forest bathing. Trees are important elements in Japanese culture, not only for their aesthetic value but also for the aromas that are given off from the wood.

Professor Miyazaki highlights the differences between relaxating while sitting down in a quiet place versus ‘forest bathing’. From his latest research, it was found that cortisol reduces by about 13% while a person rests in a chair, however, it reduces by 15% while walking in a forest. Blood pressure was found to reduce by 1.6% while seated but 2.1% while forest walking. The greatest difference was found in relation to parasympathetic nerve activity. While seated, this increased by 56%, but a whopping 102% while forest bathing. The parasympathetic system is the repair centre of the body, it helps restore the body to a state of calm. The higher the level, the more stress-busting your body is doing.

I love to walk in the forest. I find it energising but calming at the same time. A walk in my favourite forest brings a sense of balance and wellbeing, and it usually brings inspiration at the same time.

After talking with my Japanese friend, and after reading the book, I painted my piece, which I call Shinrin Yoku.

As always, I have incorporated a small pewter sculpture into the piece.

Let me know if you practice Shinrin Yoku, or forest bathing.

Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation by Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki.

The masks that we wear

It seems like everyone is now wearing masks, or face coverings, to protect against COVID-19. Who knows, masks might become the new normal across the globe.

When I started to see people wearing masks it got me thinking about the psychology of mask-wearing. Sure, we need them to protect against the new virus, but people have been wearing ‘masks’ for many years.

Halloween, for example, is a time when we turn to masks and other disguises. Halloween is was an ancient Celtic holiday where people believed they needed masks to protect themselves from bad spirits that roamed the planet on All Hallows Eve. Thousands of years later, we are still wearing masks.

But there is another type of mask that we hide behind; the psychological mask. Sometimes, when we are insecure, we put on a ‘front’, we often try to change our outward personality, or we act in a way that is not natural. These are conscious or subconscious ways to hide our true self.

Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken”. I love those words. We should always try to be ourselves, no matter what the circumstances. We all have potential. No matter what it is or how small the potential might be, we all have it. Not all artists can soar to fame and become ‘celebrities’. But all artists can contribute something, regardless of their training, skill or experience.

Artists, writers, photographers and poets can add a great deal to society, no matter how small they think that contribution might be. But one of the blockages for people to overcome is often their fear of rejection or ridicule. So, they put on a psychological mask to hide behind. This might hinder their creativity because they are painting or writing something that they think people want, rather than letting their true ‘self’ come out. I once heard someone say, “Let the World know you as you are, not as you think you should be because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then you will forget who you really are.”

I am a true believer in letting creativity flow. Art is something that comes from within us. It is an expression of our character, our emotions and our thoughts. Those things can never be wrong. So, if you create a work of art that is ridiculed by another person, well, just let it be.

An artist friend of mine told me a nice story. One day, a person came into her gallery and said that she wanted to buy one of the paintings. Great, said my friend, thinking that a £5,000 sale was about to happen. But the lady then said, “I need you to paint out one of the characters, is this possible?” Politely, the artist declined, but very firmly she told the lady that art is an expression from within, every brush stroke, every colour, every character existed on that canvas because it came from within her soul. “To change that would be to change my very being.” The lady grunted and walked out of the gallery!

The wearing of masks inspired my piece, which I have called, Mask.

I hope you like my painting. Regardless of whether you like it or not, it is from the soul. Similar to all my other work, the piece consists of a small pewter sculpture and acrylic on board. The piece is original and the mould for the sculpture has been destroyed.

As always, comments most welcome.