Prince of Darkness: An Interview With Norman Shaw
“I grew up with Gaelic,” artist Norman Shaw explains, his distinct brogue implying as much. Both his parents are native Gaelic speakers but never fully imparted this inclination on to wee Shaw. “My dad’s a minister, so I had to sit through Gaelic services and Gaelic Psalms singing. It was such a fundamental part of my upbringing that I sort of just switch off when I hear it.”
But it was only meaning that the young Shaw learned to ignore. He has always maintained an enthusiasm for the sound of Gaelic speaking – its musical qualities – and he admits that the rhythms of language are important to the way he draws.
As with a lot of teenagers, it took a move away from his parental home for Shaw to realise the importance of his heritage. He went to Edinburgh College of Art to begin a degree in drawing and painting, where he soon realised there was a bond between him and his native Highlands. “Moving to the city was very important. I was very homesick when I first moved and art, in a way, became a kind of lifeline.
“There’s a Gaelic word – cianalas – which means longing; a sort of nostalgia that is characteristic of the ex-isles Gaels.”
Having lived for so long in the Highlands, it’s no wonder landscape painting has always been central to Shaw’s art practice. Living in the Highlands would surely have that effect on anyone. But oddly, it was through representations of landscapes that he first encountered an interest in his impressive surroundings.
“Back at home, it was through album covers that I started to get into nature, because I realised this stuff was derived from nature.”
Shaw has been a record collector ever since, and confesses – perhaps invoking an irate partner – that he owns too many. And in 2010’s Edinburgh Art Festival, he took part in Prints of Darkness at Edinburgh Printmakers. The show highlighted the influence record cover art has had on artists and was one of the highlights of that year’s festival.
His work, in turn, is more than a little fantastical. Like the golden age of record cover art, Shaw’s prints and drawings are influenced by myth and folklore. He recently completed a residency through the Royal Scottish Academy, travelling to the Isle of Skye and staying at the Gaelic school Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, where he explored the connections between landscape and music.
“I was looking at the landscape, in a way relating it to sound and sonic phenomena, the repetitive chant of the Ossianic myth. It involved a lot of drawing and writing as well as sound-based work. I was drawing an arch between Gaelic song and the oral tradition right through to techno and ambient music.”
Not simply flights of fancy, Shaw’s artworks are based on experience, and his landscape drawings are rooted in real places he visited during his residency, such as Druidic woods around Skye. “The drawings are derived from visits to these places,” he explains, “but I’m always looking for a kind of parallel landscape, that sort of inner landscape that runs parallel to the corporeal landscape. It’s about finding the world of symbol and metaphor in the real world.”
Shaw’s drawings are imbued with what he calls a “mythic consciousness”. They show us how inclined we are to find meaning in our surroundings – a meaning that runs counter to a reasoned understanding of the landscape. Deep down, we are all Romantics, desperately grasping for a deeper, more satisfying interpretation of the world. We are all harbourers of myth and folly.