Experience and Remembering Catalogue Essay, Taobh an Iar, Domhall Fearghasdan ISBN 978-0-953814-4-3
The American realist painter Edward Hopper, (1882-1967), famously asserted, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint” – If we imagine this the primary characteristic of some hitherto undefined legion of artists, Donald Ferguson would surely have counted among their number. From early on the subject of Donald’s work was indivisible from the love of his native environment and culture of the Outer Hebrides, the progression of his creative output reflecting his close involvement with the land, natural history and the traditions of Crofting.
A deep bond and familiarity with place, combined with a sensitivity to the environment – the extremes of nature’s forces, dramatic light and landscape – were a constant source of inspiration. Earlier paintings respond to these stimuli but significantly, they also draw the viewer into the recognition of identifiable topography. What began to emerge latterly was the impulse to respond to an experiential relationship with the landscape of the Hebrides, (and in particular that of North Uist, where Donald had moved from Barra, with his wife Mary-Clare in1991).
By 2007 Donald’s pictorial approach had begun to move away from manifestly representational works, towards a more meditative and process led engagement. One key development that may have triggered this was his shift from working predominantly in acrylic paint, on location, to the use of oils and a more studio-based practice, (developing paintings from drawings and acrylic sketches, made on location). What we see in these later paintings may suggest a landscape but the content is freed from a specific view and becomes in a sense, more connected to the artists perception, less about description and more about feeling – feeling for place and equally importantly, for paint.
There is evidence way back of Donald’s interest in the language of paint - brushwork and marking making employed to describe content to great effect but it is at this point, when remembered visual experience begins to direct the act of painting, that a new relationship seems to open up and physical gesture and perception interact, (drawings from this period support this view; despite largely being made on location they exude a vigor and urgency that tends towards enigma rather than mimicry). The resulting works allude to landscape features - peat banks, rocks, coastline etc. but at their core is a concern for the paint itself, its ‘plastic ‘ qualities, variations of application, colour and the alchemical development of image. These paintings go beyond an ‘impression’ of place, they are a synthesis of experience and perception; at their root they represent an intense expression of connection.
During this period I had many, frequent, in-depth conversations with Donald about his work - he was excited by exploring the potential of oil paint and by the expansion of scale in his work, (to the recent large format paintings). But like most artists, he was also dogged by uncertainty. He was entering new territory but rather than be defeated by misgivings, doubt encouraged him on to deeper levels of inquiry and exploration. He was on a journey and was open to whatever new directions may emerge.
Never one to be easily pleased by his achievements, Donald was known to burn paintings that didn’t convince him. It was as though their continuing existence would have interfered with the clarity of his development. He was a highly self-critical artist with exacting standards, standards that were driven forward by his integrity and commitment to his work. Whilst this makes the task of curating an exhibition frustrating, we can be assured that any works that have survived from this period, are possessed of some aspect that interested or revealed potential to him.
Donald’s untimely death in November 2008 is, without question, a profound tragedy to all those who knew and loved him, but it is equally a great loss to the cultural landscape of the Outer Hebrides. The increased confidence with which he was approaching his work, his integrity and sincere commitment pointed towards a rapid maturing of his practice. It is a source of immense sadness that we will never have the privilege of knowing where that journey may have led him.
© Sophie Morrish March 2010