Embarrassing art admission #4: I spent the vast majority of my four years of undergraduate study, going to class in a museum and never knew it.
In my defence my uni was built in the 1960s and it really shows in the architecture. There was certainly a fair amount of art on the walls of Pathfoot (and I was vaguely aware of the art collection) but I thought of it mainly as bequests to compensate for the building, rather than any sort of curated collection. (No offence to the actual curator, on the strength of this exhibition she’s clearly good at her job.) Art at the university was something we stumbled upon, in obscure courtyards, unexpectedly in stairwells and on ambles round the loch. Part of the fabric of the place, we took it for granted and occasionally competed over who had found a piece of sculpture that no one else we knew had. I suspect that’s always been the point of their approach to art and university life, making it part of everyday life rather than something that you go and look at.
In the spirit of this, there’s currently an exhibition of landscape art on, in the University Library of all places. Not in some side room or seldom used classroom, but scattered around the building. Most of it congregates on the walls of the lower floor, leading from the printers round into one of the reading nooks, but other pieces lurk in unexpected places, and I strongly suspect I may have missed some of them – I found a whole staircase I didn’t know was there last week. A particularly striking piece on the stairs drew me to attend a lecture by the artist Philip Hughes (a former visiting lecturer with a long connection to the university) as part of a series of biannual arts lectures.
He spoke interestingly about his walks and this work, the way in which he is fascinated by geology but didn’t understand it at all. Many of his works are accompanied by maps, technical drawings showing cross sections of hills, or geophysical maps more at home on an episode of time team. He spoke of his enjoyment of walking in winter, of low light and the bones of the earth showing through. His ongoing interest in how ancient sites like Stonehenge and Maes Howe fit into their landscapes. I suspect some of the audience were looking for more explanation than he was able to give, but where his words ran out the slides of images not included in the exhibition filled in eloquently for him. The exhibition, and in all likelihood the book too, – with the constructed, layered mixed media pieces, with their scrawled observations by the artist, and in one inexplicable case a carpet – is an exploration of how people make sense of these ancient landscapes. The art is his response to these places, we don’t really need his words, he’s already told us what they make him think and feel. They certainly made me want to walk where he’d been to see them through my own eyes and compare them to what I’ve now seen through his.
Of course the rather sad thing about this whole situation is that Philip Hughes is a man after the university’s first Principal’s heart, both scientist and artist. The tradition of combining science and the arts at the university has been increasingly falling by the wayside, with departments in the Arts Faculty (largely based in Pathfoot) falling to cuts like dominos.
The exhibition is taken from works included in a book the artist wrote recently around his artistic impressions of 11 iconic walks across the UK, from Orkney to Cornwall. The exhibition contains mainly pictures from the North-west of Scotland and is part of a wider project of seven displays across the UK, each focusing on their locality.
Tracks: Walking the Ancient Landscapes of Britain, is on at the University of Stirling Library from now until the end of December.