BC20 FK17 at the Sayle Gallery is the brainchild of artist and educator Helen Fox who has curated her own work and that of three other artists – all of whom have been influenced by the Island’s fishing industry, and in particularly that of Peel. Even the title references fishing boat registrations, using the initial letters of the four artists’ surnames – Vici Blackburn, Ian Coulson, Helen Fox and Phil Kneen.
BC20 FK17 brings these four well-known artists together for the first time, with different responses to an industry which is vital to the Island. Ian Coulson’s family history is steeped in the fishing industry; his Mum was a ‘gutter girl’ processing the catch before joining his father as a kipper curer, and Ian himself funded his own art school education by smoking kippers in the summer months. Although he didn’t follow in his parents’ fishing footsteps, Ian’s work in this exhibition, which includes drawings and multi-layered mixed-media documentary art, is his own tribute to “Peel, the place which shaped me”.
As he says on his website and on social media, photographer Phil Kneen ‘shoots people’ and for BC20 FK17 he’s turned his attention to fishermen. The ten images in the exhibition were all taken on one day last winter, when he went out with the crew of the Sarah Lena, and it’s hard to look at his finished photographs and not see both the hardship and the camaraderie of the fishing life. And it’s no surprise Phil has chosen to donate the proceeds of sales of these prints to a service fishermen rely on but hope never to need – the RNLI.
Helen Fox’s own installation piece ‘She Sells Sea Shells’ began life earlier this year as part of the Isle of Man Art Festival, when visitors to the Sailors’ Shelter in Peel were entranced by an eight by eight ft steel frame hung with scallop shells, which almost filled the space. She added more shells to it for her MA degree show ‘Verge’ at the University of Northumbria in September and recently transported it back from Baltic 39 in Newcastle to the Sayle Gallery where, with now over 4000 of shells it will fill a specially constructed space for visitors to look, touch and explore. “I see this is as a grown-up mobile,” says Helen, “and the tinkling of shells reflecting the light is incredibly joyful – you can’t help but smile.”
Vici Blackburn’s contribution of fascinating and beautiful ceramics to this exhibition is aptly titled ‘Torn From the Sea.’ Peel is her home and a constant part of her visual language: “wave-battered and rain washed Peel swims through my veins.” The clay pieces in this exhibition are, Vici says, “a chaotic collection of a moment of time, under constant revision like the endless remaking of the shore.”
Helen Fox is also inspired by the landscape, and by the human stories which contribute to it. “If you visit Peel you’ll see truck loads of scallop shells, the ‘waste product’ from the processing plant, being taken up over Peel Hill and emptied out, returning them the sea,” says Helen, “and as I began work on ‘She Sells Sea Shells’ I felt a particular connection to the men and women who fish for the scallops, those who work at the processing plant and ultimately to the children and adults who are thrilled to pick up the shells for their own collections.”
As curator of BC20 FK17, Helen saw the connections between the artists: not just their lives on the West of the Island, but also the varying artistic responses to that. “All four of us are inspired by our surroundings,” she says, “but also have a natural interest, curiosity even, about the lives of the other people who live and work there. Fishing is integral to what Peel was and still is: Ian has delved back into his own family history to interpret the fishing industry going back over a hundred years, Phil was prepared to suffer severe seasickness to document his subjects, and the handling of so many shells allowed me to immerse myself in world I knew nothing about. And all the time, the weather and tides affect the catches on which the Island’s fishing industry depends and change the landscape which Vici interprets in her work.”
Helen is sure that the exhibition will have wide appeal: “My work as an educator and my recent MA is all about extending art out from the usual gallery-goers to the wider community and BC20 FK17 is particularly able to do that. The fishing industry is an important part of our economy and I hope that this exhibition will raise awareness of that, and show not only a bit of its history, but also how it is now, despite the years of overfishing and the current quotas which rule the lives of today’s fishermen.”
BC20 FK17 is at the Sayle Gallery, Douglas from 14 October – 12 November. It is sponsored by Isle of Man Seafood Products Ltd, and supported by the Isle of Man Arts Council.