When you visit The Gallery in the Woods, it feels as if you have stepped into an extension of the nearby woods, where art and nature have already merged so easily. It is hard to imagine that the gallery has only been here for two years as it seems to fit so naturally within its space.

The breathtaking views from the gallery alone serve as a constant reminder of the surrounding natural beauty.

Fired Mud – Chiseled Wood, is an exhibition of works by Matthew Reade and Chris Barnes, which is delighting and amazing both locals and visitors and is a perfect example of this fusion between art and nature.

Self-taught from the age of eleven, Matthew Reade is well-known on Mull for his original and wonderfully quirky, sculptural “furniture” – now, in some cases, a collector’s item.

In this new departure, he has created large-scale wooden panels featuring mainly seaside forms such as shells, seaweed, sand and stones. Not that this is new to his work, but here it’s a constant theme, with titles of his works reading like titles of poems about the sea: Ripples, Shell Fragments, Sand Starfish; Blue Sea Swirl, Lichen, Sugar Wrack.

Indeed, these works conjure up a minute, almost obsessive observation, from childhood, of the varied seascape surrounding him and his family in Calgary.

As Reade explains: I’ve been lucky to have spent the last twenty years living and working by the silver sands of Calgary Beach. Recently I have tried to capture the sand’s ephemeral movements and the shapes created by the tides, winds and visitors.

I carve in local woods using a chainsaw, a chisel or any other tool that comes to hand. I then finish with burning and applying colour.

This latest work has given him more freedom to express his inspiration in a three-dimensional style, where at times the natural contours of the wood add yet another dimension by forming shadows. The panel Cobbles and Kelp is a wonderful example of his new style. It’s also reminiscent of Andrew Mortley’s wonderful sculptures of kelp and seaweed.

As for wood, Matthew’s favourite is ash, because;

it’s straight-grained and burns beautifully. It also shows clearly in the grain the wonderful difference between Spring and Summer.

The forms seem to emerge from the wood, almost as if they had grown there rather than been carved, and imperfections in the wood are maintained as part of the finished piece, not only giving a satisfying tactile effect but greatly adding to the final integrity of the work.

Blending perfectly with Reade’s work, are the stoneware and raku pieces of the ceramist Chris Barnes.

Barnes studied sculpture at Goldsmith’s and St Martins School of Art. But over the years he became disillusioned with the art world and with his sculpture which he deemed “whacky” and impractical. Abandoning sculpture, he pursued an early interest in clay, eventually helping to set up the Chocolate Factory Artists’ Studios in Stoke Newington, London in the 1990s. He also taught during this period.

In 2006 Barnes moved to Rhemore in Morvern where his brother Tim has a croft and where he spent many holidays with his Scottish grandmother.

It was in Morvern that Barnes built his first, large gas-fired kiln. The resulting stoneware and raku pieces have produced good results, encouraging him to leave teaching in order to devote himself exclusively to his pottery.

Matthew Reade was quick to appreciate the beauty of Chris Barnes’ work. On a visit to his pottery this year, he invited Chris to have a joint exhibition with him on Mull.
It was an enriching move resulting in a perfect, fusion of styles.

Yet, Chris Barnes seems unaware of the special quality of his work. A soft-spoken, mild-mannered man, he merely seems to appreciate the functionality of his craft and the visions of Japanese tea ceremonies his raku pieces conjure up.

His work ranges from small bowls, plates, and mugs to handsome large pots. Influenced by the Scottish landscape, he uses natural colours such as soft browns, greyish greens, faded pinks and mauves reminiscent of heather – a far cry from the greyness of London streets.

But though Barnes stresses the practicality of his craft - even proudly mentioning that his pottery can withstand a dishwasher – there is a charming, playful side to his craft too. A good example are pieces like Bird in Hand and Horse Boat. In the latter, a cheerful little horse stands impudently gazing out, atop a Noah-like boat. There are many other original and imaginative small sculptures in which his past as a sculptor is still apparent even though Barnes dismisses his early work.

Another artist’s work closely connected with Gallery in the Woods, is Andrew Mortley.

Mortley and Reade have worked together in the workshop at Calgary for the past eleven years and clearly inspire each other to experiment with new forms and techniques.

Sea-Change was the name of Mortley’s exhibition held at The Gallery in the Woods earlier this year and had the gallery been large enough to house all three artists, it would have been ideal.

Ideal because Mortley’s muse is also the natural environment. Like Reade, he is intimately acquainted with Calgary – its seascape, sky and land – where he too has been living for many years with his wife, Helen, a fellow artist, and his son.

Best-known for his paintings and drawings of birds and wildlife, otters and seaweed, he also works as a sculptor. His metal sculptures of seaweed are well-known and much admired. He loves experimenting and has painted on linen, paper, canvas and stained steel – the latter evolving from making steel sculptures.

In the paintings exhibited in Sea-Change, he uses glass as his canvas, laying down paint in the traditional manner and working as fast as possible to capture a remembered image, or at least the experience of that image.

Once the initial picture is revealed, he makes changes using found tools such as sticks, brush ends, pins, cotton buds, working at times with a palette knife which reveals layers of colour hidden beneath the initial image. An interesting effect is created by later adding graffiti-like marks on the painted surface.

The colours reflect the landscape: the rusty orange of kelp, the cool blues of rocky pools, the changing light and reflections.

The effect is sometimes that of enamel or that of glaze on ceramics.
The overall effect is one of great vitality, energy and exuberance.

There is something special happening on the Isle of Mull that can no longer be ignored; there is a vibrant and original culture of contemporary art growing here year by year just like the rings of a what is sure to become a great tree.

Giuliana Ashford