Margarita Williams Holmasaig Gallery
By David Prentice - Added 06/05/2014
As one of the few local artists currently working on the Isle of Harris, Margarita Williams has succeeded in creating her own unique interpretations of the landscapes, lochs and machair of the island; using watercolours, mixed media and Japanese woodblock print techniques, her approach is as varied as the changing light and shifting weather of Harris itself, and is deeply rooted in her understanding of the culture, history and geography of her artistic home.
I meet with Margarita Williams at her home and studio at the Holmasaig Gallery in Quidinish, where she has been painting and exhibiting her work on a full-time basis since 2009. Situated with a scenic view of Loch Finsbay, and surrounded by the lazybeds and rolling hills that feature in her paintings, Quidinish is not only a continual source of inspiration for Margarita; it is also her home town and the place where her artistic aspirations began.
‘I was always interested in drawing and painting from a very young age,’ Margarita tells me. ‘I used to draw at every opportunity when I was a child, on every available piece of paper I could find and on book jackets when I ran out of paper…I enjoyed any kind of creative process and I think I knew even then that I wanted to be an artist above anything else.’
At age five Margarita and her family moved to Oban. Prior to that her father had been campaigning with local newspapers and with the Herald to get a road built in Quidinish:
‘My father had been all over the world and he used to talk about Quidinish as a third-world country because we didn’t have a road. Quidinish at that time was a busy, vibrant community with two shops and a lot of people living here, which might be hard to imagine now.’
Once in Oban Margarita was enrolled in a local school where she continued to pursue her artistic passions, eventually going on to study at the Glasgow School of Art. Throughout this period of her life and afterwards Margarita never lost a sense of her connection with the island, and would return to Quidinish during the summer holidays and breaks in her studies:
‘During those times the whole family would be back together in the house and it always felt like I was coming home,’ she says.
‘The interesting thing for me when I was at the Glasgow School of Art was the realisation that I was one of hundreds of people who wanted the same things from life, who felt the same way about art. Back home I had been something of a big fish in a small pond; I didn’t know anybody else who felt the same way about drawing and painting, and so the sense of competition and being immersed in an artistic community at Glasgow was very useful for me.’
While at Glasgow School of Art Margarita demonstrated a versatility with different mediums such as textiles, watercolours and life drawings that she would continue to experiment with throughout her artistic career, holding needle felting workshops at the ‘Seallam!’ visitors centre in Northton after her return to the Isle of Harris as well as drawing and painting workshops for the public.
Following her graduation from the Glasgow School of Art Margarita became an art teacher herself, teaching at a variety of schools and colleges across mainland Scotland while continuing to paint and to draw during her spare time. From looking at many of Margarita’s online galleries and at the work exhibited in her studio, I find it interesting to note that urban environments, buildings and heavily populated landscapes don’t seem to feature. I ask if this was a deliberate decision on her part:
‘Yes I suppose it was. While I found those areas to be stimulating I never felt the need to explore or represent them in my paintings. I was always much more concerned with the landscapes and the scenery of where I came from, and trying to capture the feeling of the island, and of home. ‘
‘I think an understanding of your roots and of where you come from is very important to any artist; it’s an essential part of how you express yourself and that understanding is invariably reflected in your work.’
This desire to understand and explore her roots helped inform Margarita’s decision to return to the Isle of Harris in 2001, where she continued to teach art on a full and later part-time basis in Lewis before eventually retiring to open the Holmasaig Gallery in 2009.
Tracing her roots back to the people of Pabbay, who in turn had a connection with Berneray and St Kilda, Margarita visited the archipelago of St Kilda in 2010 to see the island and the surrounding Stacs for herself. Speaking about the trip, Margarita tells me:
‘The visit to St Kilda was very interesting, generally when people speak about St Kilda they only mention the harsh conditions and the difficult lives of the inhabitants, but when you’re there you realise just how vibrant and colourful it is; the wool dyed and produced by the women there was very colourful, and there are many happy accounts from people who enjoyed living there, so that was interesting to hear.’
While on St Kilda Margarita conducted a series of sketches and preliminary drawings from which she would later produce Japanese woodblock prints and paintings inspired by the atmosphere of the island, which were exhibited at ‘Seallam!’ the same year. One of the paintings from that collection, a painting of Stac Lee, was selected to be included in the Royal Scottish Academy exhibition.
I ask Margarita if she is striving for accuracy in her paintings and drawings. Many of her seascapes and landscape paintings are easily identifiable as being on Scarista or Luskentyre, but they all have an added atmosphere and vibrancy that gives them a timeless, ethereal quality.
‘I’m much more interested in trying to capture the feeling of Harris, whether through the transience of the light, the weather, the formations in the land such as the lazybeds; all these things contribute towards a ‘sense’ of Harris which I’m attracted to. For many people buying my paintings, they’re leaving with an evocative, visual memory of the beauty of the island and the sensation of being here. People connect with my paintings in different ways, but generally they want to take the experience of Harris with them, to revisit at home.’
‘I think one of the nice things about having the gallery is that you never know who’s going to walk through the door. I’ve recently been awarded the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Residency in Collioure, in the south of France. It’s a brilliant opportunity; Matisse and the Cubism movement began there, so there’s a great deal of history and culture connected with the area. That opportunity came about quite by accident; there was a group of French tourists who had been planning on visiting St Kilda, but because of the bad weather the trip was cancelled and so they toured the local galleries instead. While they were visiting me here at the studio, one of them suggested I apply for the residency, which I did.’
Each year the seaside town of Collioure in the south of France invites two established Scottish artists to take part in a one-month residency, where they are free to paint and create without the distractions and obligations of their everyday lives in Scotland. At the end of the residency, the art produced by Margarita and fellow artist George Donald will be exhibited in galleries in both France and Scotland. Speaking about the residency, Margarita says:
‘It’s a fantastic opportunity to be able to paint without distractions in such a beautiful location. I think it will be a challenge, too; I’m familiar with painting land and seascapes, but I expect the weather, the climate and the quality of light will be a change from what I’m used to, and it may be a chance to introduce new directions to my work, taking in the buildings and the people and so on. I’m really looking forward to it.’
Though Margarita herself says that she doesn’t have a particularly strong connection with the art establishment these days, in 2012 and 2013 paintings of hers were selected for inclusion in the Royal Scottish Academy, as well as appearing in private collections throughout the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. I ask Margarita how she measures success, and whether she feels as though she’s missing out on exposure by choosing to exhibit almost exclusively from her own gallery.
‘For me success has been being able to strike the right balance between my art and my family, I now have time to see my friends and family as well as being free to create art on a full-time basis. I’ve realised my ambition to become a painter, which wasn’t possible during the years that I was teaching, and the Holmasaig Gallery is the embodiment of that balance; I have my studio upstairs which is a wonderful, bright space to work, and I sell that work from the gallery on the ground floor.’
As for whether she’s missing out by exhibiting mostly from her home studio, Margarita says:
‘I don’t think so. By exhibiting here I avoid the logistical difficulties of transporting work to other galleries, and the fees incurred by doing so. I don’t really feel as though I need to exhibit elsewhere, I sell around seventy paintings in the six months that the gallery is open to the public, I sold eighty last year, and I also exhibit work by my son Gavin Williams, and my daughter Marigold Newman, who are both established artists in their own right.’
I’m curious to know if Margarita is busy all through the year, or, like many artists on the island, the summer months are too busy with visiting tourists to afford enough time to concentrate on painting.
‘I’m busy all year round,’ Margarita explains. ‘Even when the gallery is open to the public, I’m in quite a remote location, and so I have time in the early mornings and in the evenings to be creative, which are the times of day that have the kind of light I like to work with. As for my favourite time of year to paint, I love the transition into spring, when the light starts to improve and you start to see new colours emerging in the landscape.’
I want to know more about Margarita’s process as an artist; the places she goes to source her inspiration, and the way in which she transforms an initial idea into a finished work of art.
‘It depends upon a lot of things,’ she says. ‘On a clear day like this I may go down to Luskentyre or another of the beaches and sketch there, I’ve got a brilliant sketch programme on my IPad that allows for a great range of colours and features. When I was on the trip to St Kilda the sea was quite wild and so that made sketching on the boat almost impossible because there was so much movement; so there I worked from photographs and memory and I was able to sketch once I was ashore.’
Much of Margarita’s artwork is inspired by her close relationship with the physical materials of the Hebridean environment, and while she may be fortunate in having such an abundance of natural beauty so close to her home, she still retains the ability to pay close attention to the intricate details of her surroundings, and never takes them for granted. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the floral watercolour paintings which she sources from the machair fields at Northon, and from her own back garden:
‘In the spring there are wild flowers and orchids everywhere here; they’re all around the house and I end up trampling them when I go for walks sometimes, so I gather them and use them for some of my still life studies of flowers. That’s quite a useful discipline, as it keeps me on top of my still-life’s and there’s a botanical accuracy required that demands a lot of attention to detail.’
It is a tribute to Margarita’s abilities as an artist that she is able to bestow paintings of individual flowers with the same sense of place and atmosphere that she applies to her landscapes; her sensitivity to light and to colour means that these smaller paintings still contain the essence of the Hebridean experience, concentrated to such an extent that they serve as a distillation of her passion for the island as a whole.
In closing, Margarita Williams is the perfect example of an artist whose familiarity with her subject matter has in no way diminished her appreciation for the small and greater details that inform and inspire her work. The continued diversity of her paintings is informed by her passion and willingness to understand and render not only the beauty of her surroundings, but the emotional and cultural significance they have to both islanders and tourists alike. For visitors to the island, Margarita’s paintings present the best possible introduction to the sensations behind the scenery. For locals, they should consider themselves fortunate to have an artist amongst them who is able to see each new day in Harris for the first time, every time.