Robin McKelvie in Shetland: Catching up with Ruth Brownlee
Not many painters totally capture a place for me; not many painters though are Ruth Brownlee. I went to school with Ruth and back then we had no idea she would blossom into an award-winning Shetland landscape painter and my job would take me north to her world of big seas and even bigger skies to interview her.
“Brownlee’s epic works really captures the Shetland that I know and love. It’s the real Shetland, not just of those glorious blue-skied summer days.”
I came in search of answers – answers to questions about her inspiration, Shetland’s artistic community and the most pressing question of them all: did Dougie Henshall like one of her paintings from the Shetland TV series so much he took it with him when he left the series?
Brownlee’s epic works really captures the Shetland that I know and love. It’s the real Shetland, not just of those glorious blue-skied summer days. Her tempestuous work evokes the power of the sea, surf and sky, the over-arching strength – and endless beauty – of Mother Nature in all her glory. I’ve heard other people talking about wanting to, or feeling even like they could, step into one of her landscapes. I know what they mean. When I’m on Shetland bashing across a rough moorland in search of the ever-changing light of another spirit-soaring sandy Shetland beach I feel like I’m alive inside one of her paintings.
After school in West Lothian – where I remember Ruth’s passion for art – Brownlee enrolled at the famous Edinburgh College of Art. Here she really cut her artistic teeth, honing the techniques and perfecting the styles that were to burst so dramatically on to the canvas in Shetland.
Brownlee moved to Shetland in 1998 with her late husband Tommy, a lovely Shetlander who I had the privilege of meeting. His passion for Shetland – he was the leading light behind the collections at the wonderful Shetland Museum in Lerwick – came as no surprise to me: we share that infectious love of Shetland. Ruth still lives in Shetland today with her daughter, working in the waterfront studio where I spoke to her. We stood in that studio, which peers out over the sea and sky that so inspire her, its light flashing across her eyes, as she spoke of her work and her world.
Q. What kind of artist are you Ruth?
A. Put simply I’m a painter of the sea and skies of Shetland.
Q. When did you know you were going to become an artist?
A. Drawing and painting was something I always did while growing up on a farm, but it was largely thanks to my art teacher at secondary school, who encouraged me to apply to art college, so I guess it wasn’t really until I was at Edinburgh College of Art. There I realised being an artist was something I wanted to do and was going to do.
Q. How does Shetland inspire you?
A. Ever since coming here to teach an art workshop in 1998, the light, space and vast skies of Shetland have captivated me. I’ve been in love with Shetland ever since. Being an archipelago in the middle of the North Sea, the weather is always changing: it constantly inspires and feeds my drive to paint it. I also love the sea and all its moods.
Q. What is so special about Shetland that you have chosen to live there for so long?
A. Shetland is a stunning place to live, and a safe haven with plenty of freedom, a great place to bring up a child. My daughter and I live on the beach with open views of the North Sea and sky. It has been a very safe place to live and thrive within a good community. And as an artist, Shetland is a perfect place for my work as I feel very close to the sky and sea here.
Q. Which parts of Shetland are your favourites?
A. Several parts of Shetland are my favourites, especially the beautiful beaches, and lonely landscapes in the northern isles of Yell, Unst and Fetlar, but due to time constraints and having a child, I’ve also grown to love the coastline around home on Shetland’s mainland. Places like Troswickness and the beaches in the South Mainland, such as West Voe and Quendale. But I am also hugely fortunate to live on our beach, so a lot of the inspiration is right here from my doorstep.
Q. What special challenges are there for an island artist?
A. I miss not being able to easily visit exhibitions and seeing artist friends like you could easily do when you live in a city. But the internet helps and makes up for not getting south as much as I would like.
Q. Do you know and support other Shetland artists?
A. Yes, a lot over the years – I have met many artists in Shetland. Indeed I was a founding member of Shetland’s professional artist group, Veer North, but it has lapsed for several years. We are hoping to reinstate it and get an arts group going again as we have a strong community of artists here.
Q. Where can we find your work?
A. At the moment it’s on show in the Beaux Arts in Bath, Kilmorack Gallery in the Highlands and The Shetland Gallery in Yell. Soon I will also be staging a major solo show at The Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh.
Q. How would someone go about commissioning you?
A. Sadly, I don’t take commissions as I work full time with galleries and their tight deadlines.
Q. How did the Shetland TV tie in come about and what did you make of how they used your work in it?
A. The Shetland drama in Series Three started using the idea of featuring the work of local artists in their sets. I’ve still to find out how my name came about, but I think when they were location spotting, a local guy told them about me and they approached Gallery Heinzel in Aberdeen, who then contacted me. The ‘Shetland’ production team were wonderful to work with, and for Series Four, they literally emptied my studio and set everything up as props, at another location. In the latter series, they used a few paintings and prints for Perez’s home and Duncan Hunter’s café/bar. In the last series, Series Seven, they had a large printed canvas in ‘Duncan’s Bar’. It has been incredible exposure for me and I’m extremely grateful to the Shetland production for that unique opportunity.
Q. Were you proud to hang in DI Perez’s living room and did Dougie Henshall really take one of your paintings home as he liked it so much?
A. I was very proud when I heard Henshall was asked if there was anything he’d like to take with him from the Shetland set. He, of course, kept his famous black pea coat, then the small painting of mine that was in the Perez’s home set by the window, as it apparently reminded him of Shetland. I’ve heard he has a special place for it in his home, a place that is forever Shetland.
For more information on Ruth Brownlee see www.ruthbrownlee.co.uk
Robin McKelvie is an award-winning travel writer and broadcaster who has been published in over 200 magazines and newspapers worldwide.