By Mike Briggs
There must be days when Harris artist Margarita Williams wishes the rain and wind would go away so she can get out onto the moors, beaches and hills which inspire her dramatic work.
One such stormy day, however, ended up giving her a bad case of sunburn and also helped her create some stunning paintings. It is a tale of a lucky chance seized and perfectly illustrates the old adage about ill winds and their tangential benignity.
“I had a party of French visitors in the gallery,” said Margarita. “They were supposed to be going to St Kilda but the trip was cancelled because of the windy weather. So they just drove round exploring instead, saw the sign outside and came in.”
The visitors bought one or two small works and were just walking out of the door when one of them turned to Margarita and asked if she had ever considered applying for a place on an annual art residency run by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Association of France, of which the visitors were members. She said she had not. They said she should. And thus it was that Margarita eventually found herself painting away beneath blazing blue skies in the beautiful little town of Collioure on the Mediterranean coast.
Rather too blazing, as it turned out. “The weather was perfect and I was working ‘en plein air’, but I just wasn’t paying attention and got very sunburned one day,” said Margarita who spent a month in Collioure last May along with fellow Scottish artist George Donald who also won a place on the residency.
The residency was inaugurated by the Association in 2004, on the centenary of the Entente Cordiale, and is designed as a retreat for two commercially and artistically recognized Scottish artists to get away from everyday pressures and lose themselves in their art while exploring the novel stimuli of rural maritime France.
“It was a working holiday,” said Margarita, who lives and works in Quidinish, where she was born. “I worked hard and have a full sketchbook and about 15 finished pieces to show for it. One of the aims of the retreat is to allow you to explore new directions in a different setting but as I began learning more about the area it struck me how many parallels there were with home.
“There was the sea, of course, and the mountains, although both had a completely different character from the islands. But also it is a traditionally rural economy which was once dominated by anchovy fishing, as ours was by herring, and which declined as larger foreign boats moved in. Then, the people in that region, which is right on the Spanish border, have their own Catalan language in the same way we have Gaelic, which is my own native tongue. And even the worked land with the furrows and ridges of the vineyards, reminded me of the patterns made by lazybeds. There were a lot of echoes.”
Margarita has captured this slightly familiar unfamiliarity in a collection of pictures, mostly watercolours, which vibrate with Gallic (and Gaelic) energy and take the viewer deep into the warmth and richness of the ancient mediaeval county of Roussillon (or Northern Catalonia, as the Catalan speakers refer to it), which has entranced artists over the years. She was following in the footsteps of Matisse, Derain and Picasso as well as Mackintosh himself, who spent four years in the area with his wife Margaret MacDonald before his death in 1928.
Sadly, because of loss of financial support from Creative Arts Scotland and other local political difficulties, the artists’ retreat will not be running this year and might well end altogether, which means Margarita and George Donald would be the last to benefit from an inspirational and productive initiative.
“It would be a great shame if we were the last,” said Margarita, “because it was a wonderful experience and a trigger for a whole range of work I now want to do, including etching which is new to me.”
Some of Margarita’s work from the Collioure retreat, along with her home-grown output which includes mixed-media and some ethereal Japanese woodblock prints, is now on show at the Holmasaig Gallery in Quidinish, which she opened in 2009 after deciding to quit teaching and become a full-time artist. The decision has proved a success with sales last year reaching a new high and some of her work going on show at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh.
The gallery is open from open from April to October but for those who don’t get a chance to drop by, much of the artwork is available to view online at www.holmasaiggallery.com.