Our latest 'Introducing Orkney's Makers' feature focuses on the team at the Hoxa Tapestry Gallery in South Ronaldsay. We spoke to Jo Thomson about the family business.
Can you tell us a little bit about the business
The gallery was built in 1996 by my mum and dad (Leila and Benny) to house mum’s large, unique, handwoven tapestries. I joined the business in 2011 alongside my brother Andrew (who does all our picture framing) after I graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2010 with a BA Hons. in Drawing and Painting. I am the 7th member of the family to graduate from Edinburgh College of Art! I grew up weaving, drawing and painting so it was no surprise that I wanted to go to art college as well and return home to work.
The creative gene is obviously very strong within the family, but do you each have a very distinctive style?
Yes, I think we do. Both mum and I use the landscape of Orkney as it’s very much part of our identity having been born and brought up here and we both feel drawing forms the basis of our practice, but we each approach the landscape and drawing process differently. Mum looks to the landscape to convey ideas that tell a story whereas I look to the landscape to capture its atmosphere and identity. Mum draws her ideas full scale in black and white, but in her head sees colour and thinks of the drawing as a tapestry whereas I work across various disciplines (tapestry, drawing, painting, printing, sewing) and use whichever medium communicates my idea best. When I weave my tapestries are translations of my coloured drawings or paintings.
However, we both like to explore similar themes of rhythm, time, movement and cycles such as the ebb and flow of the tide, the moon and changing seasons. We also both love working from our local beach, the Sand O’Wright in South Ronaldsay.
One of the aspects that's always been so striking with Leila's designs is that strong sense of storytelling. Is that something that you're also very keen on - does it have to be more than just an aesthetically-pleasing object?
Storytelling isn’t part of my work but I do feel my work has to be more than just an attractive photographic replication of a landscape. Although rooted in the literal landscape, I look to convey light, a sense of the weather, repeating textures and lines peculiar to the place. I like to direct people’s eyes to things I find interesting in the landscape which may otherwise go unnoticed.
It's been such a strange year for so many producers - how have you got by during this time?
It certainly has been strange, but I’ve been making use of the enforced peace and quiet to have more time to think, walk and create. I’m lucky enough that I can work safely in isolation, otherwise I might go mad!
It's a process which lends itself well to social media in terms of imagery and you use that very well. Has the online presence become more important to you this year?
It has been more important than usual this year to keep an online presence since the gallery has been physically shut for most of the season due to the lockdown. Updating our social media lets our customers and fans know we’re still here and working. I received some really kind, encouraging messages from people earlier on in the year saying that our updates lifted their spirits and they enjoyed seeing something positive and colourful amidst the worry and uncertainty of lockdown.
It can be difficult though to make regular social media updates as neither my work or my mum’s is a production line process. Everything is one-off and each piece needs thinking and development time as well as making time and it’s only really when things reach the making stage that they can be shared online. This is why our updates can be sporadic!
Have you had to make significant changes in the way you operate to keep up with a changing market?
Although well supported locally, we are almost wholly dependent on visitors to Orkney and to our gallery for our income so, like many, we have really suffered this year. Our sales rely on people loving the place and then buying our work as it captures their experience of Orkney. Even our online sales are almost all people who have previously visited us in person and love the landscape and our work. As it’s art and not a product there is very little we can change about how we work without compromising our integrity. When we were allowed to reopen in July, we made it by appointment only and so far have stayed this way. While we have seen a lot less visitors than usual it has proven to work well; everybody has plenty of space to move comfortably and browse safely.
Of course, one of the aspects of the ongoing situation in the world is that many people say they find themselves thinking more carefully about what's important, and the kind of objects they surround themselves with. Do you think people are seeking out the kind of work you produce, where they can lose themselves in the stories and the symbolisms?
Perhaps indeed. Early on it the lockdown we sold a few items to people who couldn’t go on holiday so they chose to spend their money on original artwork instead. I think artwork can provide comfort, reflection, joy and a sense of calm or equilibrium in otherwise worrying, unsettled times.
Are you optimistic for the future?
Orkney is a special place, for both locals and visitors, so I think people will certainly visit or return once it feels fully safe to travel again. However, I feel next year’s season will still be heavily affected unless a successful Covid-19 vaccine is produced. In the meantime, we’ll do our best to muddle along and keep creating. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the gallery opening. Fingers crossed we’ll get there!
Find out more about Hoxa Tapestry Gallery from the official website.
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020