Whisky & Culture

Seeking inspiration from a dram

Whisky has long helped provide the inspiration for some artists. Glenfiddich even provides a home for artists each year. Robin Laing looks at the connection.
By Robin Laing
Over the last three years visitors to Glenfiddich have had the usual distillery tour experience enhanced by being exposed to various art forms.There is a gallery in the former distilleryshop where they have been able to enjoy, or puzzle over, art works ranging from paintings, photography, figurative sculptures and mixed media to video
sequences, furniture covered in ‘fragile’ tape, grass orchestras and other art installations.The Glenfiddich Artists in Residence scheme, described by Peter Gordon as a “cocktail of malt whisky and visual art creation” was conceived and driven by directors of the family-owned company.
There is an annual budget of around £100,000 which pays for the curator, the fees for eight artists over their three-month residency, a grant of £2000 to each of them for materials and various other costs.Five refurbished distillery workers’ cottages provide the accommodation for the artists (and sometimes their families) and they have fairly open access to the distillery complex (including Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie) and all the production facilities including bottling hall, cooperage, warehousing and workshops.A range of on-site materials is made available to them and they are able to use the gallery space, indeed they can also show or install their work anywhere round the distillery. When I was there, art was on show in the tun room, in one of the unused cottages and in a peat shed near the visitor centre.The artists in return, are expected to bring some work with them to show in the gallery, create new work while at the distillery and leave at least one piece at Glenfiddich when they leave.The curator, Claudia Zeiske, has been given complete freedom to select approximately eight artists each year for this international residency programme. She does this by communicating with fellow curators and gallery owners throughout Europe to identify suitable candidates.Claudia is always looking for range and variety, but within that she is keen to identify artists with a track record, and whom she believes will enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to find inspiration from Glenfiddich – the product, the process, the people and the place.£100,000 is a considerable investment but the programme involves other risks and challenges. Every summer, the distillery staff have to put up with artists swarming around, watching, asking all sorts of questions and then doing their art installations, sometimes in the working areas of the distillery.Some artists are of course more challenging than others. Nonetheless it does seem that the distillery staff take it all in their stride and are actually quite tickled by the experience, even if there are a few mumbles about the kind of nonsense that passes for art.Indeed one of the objectives of the programme is to establish a dialogue between the workforce and the artists by a series of talks, parties, barbeques and joint outings.The artists arrive at Glenfiddich at different times over the summer and each arrival changes the nature of the group and the social dynamic in the distillery. For the distillery staff the arrival of the artists must be a bit like a whisky tasting – waiting to see what each individual in a given ‘flight’ has to offer.Glenfiddich hopes that its initiative will achieve a number of objectives;1. affirm authenticity and craftsmanship of Glenfiddich2. generate activity and dynamism at the distillery and provide visible evidence that Glenfiddich supports artists and craftsmen3. give Glenfiddich a broader, higher cultural profile worldwide4. enable a collection of new art to be established by William Grant and Sons.It also brings added value to the community and to the many visitors who come to the distillery.Already in three years, the range of work that has been created, shown and in some cases left at Glenfiddich is remarkable. The scheme will be reviewed regularly, but there seems to be an appreciation that art, like whisky, takes time to develop and mature and to gain value.Claudia Zeiske says that the best thing she has been given by the company to achieve the aims of the programme is time. After all, how could a company that makes single malt Scotch whisky take a short-term approach to art?And perhaps it is the independence of Glenfiddich that allows them to take risks and in the words of Peter Gordon, “encourage the unknown”.There are a large number of artists working within the world of whisky. Ones worth further investigation include:Stephanie Bourne – controversial artMost people think of art as something that you hang on the wall. Stephanie Bourne’s ‘art’ is definitely off the wall. She rejects almost every convention of the art world. She doesn’t do works of art – she arranges interactions or encounters and she is not even keen on having those documented.According to Richard Demarco, she therefore not only challenges the commercialism of the art world but also questions the reason why art exists in the first place. That makes her, in Richard’s eyes, “the nearest thing to a real human being there is.” I was intrigued!During her three month residency at Glenfiddich, Stephanie had been preoccupied by questions of how value is created in art and whether any analogies can be drawn from the creation of value in whisky.She came up with two themes, ‘time’ and ‘subjective opinion’ and these two concepts formed the basis of her production at Glenfiddich – a production in two parts subtitled ‘Tasting and Nosing’ and ‘Risk Taken in Moonlight’.Risk Taken in MoonlightThis production involved exploring the idea of time and maturation. Along with Guillaume Lacroix from the Glenfiddich cooperage, she tried to design a cask that would accelerate the process of maturation. What they came up with was a small, elliptical or oval shaped cask. The small size and the flattened shape should increase the wood to spirit ratio and so produce a 12 year old whisky in five years.She made three casks, two from sherry wood and one from bourbon. One of the sherry casks was filled with new spirit, the other two casks were filled with 3 year old whisky.Five people with whisky or art credentials were invited to witness the filling and signed a contract undertaking to consider and promote the value of the work.Her three casks are indeed unusual, and as there are strict rules governing the design and construction of casks, there is considerable doubt whether these would pass muster. These casks, curious and lovely as they might be, will probably never be allowed out of the Glenfiddich bond.Tasting and NosingI was involved in this event, along with an invited group of artists, journalists, whisky experts and distillery workers. Stephanie, who had become fascinated by the language used to describe whisky,
worked closely with two local chefs to create a series of tastings.Each tasting consisted of a group of artistically presented canapés, all of which included food and uncooked whisky in rather unusual and sometimes thought provoking forms.These ranged from whisky filled cups made of coconut and chocolate to nettle rissoles, from oysters to eggshells filled with meringue and green slime.The canapés were certainly presented in imaginative ways. Tomato and shrimp were served on a piece of wood from a cask, and some things were served on stones or slates cut in the shape of stills or on a tripod of golf balls.The bemused participants were invited to make subjective notes as we sniffed and tasted the various offerings. These scribbled notes will be the only record of her art. No photographs were allowed.It felt strange to be ‘in’ a work of art. Indeed the art was in me and I was in the art – Mickey in the Night Distillery. Art as the puff of a dandelion clock – definitely controversial.But was any of this art? Clearly there were all shades of opinion in the group from those who thought it a most refreshingly though-provoking episode to those who thought it was a weird piece of
nonsense. It certainly seems that the Glenfiddich programme does not shy away from the controversial.Ian Gray – the passionate exileIan Gray and his work can be seen at many whisky festivals throughout Europe and he is becoming a well-known face in the whisky community. He really does do the rounds of the distilleries and other whisky establishments, which is not all that easy for him, for although Ian is originally from Hamilton in Scotland, he now lives near Dusseldorf in Germany.He paints distilleries and other whisky scenes and says his most popular subjects are Ardbeg and Bruichladdich distilleries. Indeed it was his love of Islay that got him started in his whisky related work.Ian, with the passion only an exile can feel for his native land, has always been a keen painter of Scottish landscapes. Jim McEwan of Bruichladdich saw some of his Islay landscapes in 2001 and invited him to come and paint at the distillery.The rest is history as they say. Whisky related art now accounts for about half of Ian’s work. In his non-whisky work, Ian still concentrates on seascapes and landscapes. He is not an artist who stands still in terms of technique and he says he is always rediscovering himself through different styles, forms and mediums.He has done abstract paintings and landscapes using watercolours, oils, cibochrome and mixed media with photography.Ian now paints distilleries on the mainland as well as on Islay. His work is currently being shown in the new LEAP gallery at Craigellachie. He is also artist in residence in the new Queen Street
premises of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Edinburgh. In addition his work can be seen in a number of distilleries and whisky shops. A selection of his work can be seen at www.ileach.co.uk/artwork and at his own website www.iangray.deFor Ian, painting is about capturing the essence of a personal experience – that which no one can take away from you. He findsinspiration in places and loves Islay for the light, the remoteness and
the people and because, for all its poetic dreaminess and misty Celtic mythology, it is essentially a working island.He likes the whisky too. Though he appreciates the wide range of Scotch whisky he says he has a tendency to go for the bigger flavour, ‘in-your-face’ drams. He is delighted that much of his work is about promoting Scotland and its fabulous product.Alfred Prenzlow – spirit of time and placeAlfred Prenzlow was born in Leverkeusen in Germany in 1965.The early 90’s found him based in Edinburgh and he somehow ended up in the members’room of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.Rather surprised to see French impressionists paintings on the wall (“whisky was not a subject of art at that time”), he made his first whisky orientated trip round Scotland. The first distillery he
portraited on that trip was Isle of Arran at Lochranza, just as they were filling their first casks.Like many landscape artists, Alfred believes that each place has its own essence or spirit and his challenge is to find a way to make thespirit of the place visible in his work.It is the spirit of the location that determines what he tries to capture in pencil drawings rather than any pre-conceived ideas. He says that in his last distillery series some of the best work was of
trees and bridges.What really fires Alfred’s creativity is the combination of place and time. He says that every location has a story to tell and it takes time to hear these stories, especially if they are told in a whisper.Distilleries are particularly rich in this place/time configuration. The people there are working away at whisky production, but that is only a snapshot. They are making something their children may
enjoy, or indeed bottling something made in their own childhood. Thus he says distilleries have “an atmosphere packed with the souls of ancestors and future generations.”Not surprisingly, time is an important element in the development of Alfred’s own art. Pencil drawings he makes at the time are taken away and worked on. The final work might be a drawing, etching, woodcut or serigraphic work.He needs time because “in memory often things become clearer”.He uses classic drawing and printmaking techniques. “Engraving an etching plate is like an extra distillation of the work’s spirit.”His work is shown in exhibitions, art galleries and sometime at whisky fairs. One project was Bushmills Artist´s Reserve, (Single Cask Irish Malt Whiskey, packed with a serigraphic work).In September 2004 he had an exhibition of his work at the British Embassy in Berlin. In 2000 his work ‘Cascading Casks’ was the subject of Glenfiddich Fine Art Auction in Germany. The money
made by selling that picture was the foundation of Glenfiddich´s German Fine Art Award, first given in 2001.I asked Alfred what kind of whisky he preferred and he answered, (as only an artist could), “I love the immense variety of whisky. How could one have a favourite rainbow colour, and how would a rainbow with just one colour look?” Best answer to that question I’ve heard.Bob Dewar – on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of dramsLess than a quarter of Bob Dewar’s output is whisky related, but what a prodigious output it is. From his studio in the East Neuk of Fife, Bob keeps the Scotch Malt Whisky Society supplied
with a seemingly endless stream of illustrations for their various publications.Indeed having done this almost from the start of the Society’s existence, his work has become an essential part of that organization’s house style.As well as his regular work for the SMWS he also did the drawings for the ceiling in the members’ room at the Vaults in Leith. This did not actually involve him climbing scaffolding, but a few weeks after the work was ‘installed’ part of it started to peel and had to be redone. Michelangelo never had to put up with that.Bob is very much a jobbing artist. He tells me that he “works all day, every day”, illustrating all kinds of books as well as his work for the SMWS.The style of his work varies according to the subject or the feel of the publication, but he nearly always works in ink and sometimes artists’ gouache. He paints very occasionally but painting doesn’t interest him that much, as ink seems somehow to work better with literary material.When not illustrating whisky themes, Bob works on a wide range of other projects, from children’s books to books about midges (the Scottish version of the mosquito, only tolerated with whisky, but
that’s another story).If there is a common theme it is probably Scottishness. He tends to be more interested in Scottish subjects and would like to see the Scottish publishing industry thriving.Bob is unlikely to draw many distilleries, being much more interested in people than in buildings. People have stories to tell and he likes the way in which the whisky industry is such a community-based industry.In his illustrative work he is never actually given a directive brief, but reads the text and goes wherever that takes him usually pulling out an idea and developing that.He proudly asserts that in all the work he has done for the SMWS he has never revisited or repeated an idea, always finding something fresh to explore. He also likes to explore occasionally the robust peaty whiskies of Islay.Hans Dillesse – craftsmanship, time and woodHans Dillesse lives in Utrecht, Holland. For nearly 15 years he was mainly a portrait painter and then a few years ago he started doing landscapes, initially in Ireland.When he first came to Scotland he was already a whisky lover and keen to learn about whisky production and the industry’s history.Perhaps it is not surprising then, that he became captivated by the visual impact of some aspects of distilleries. In particular, he was attracted to the visual quality of the colour, sheen and shape of pot stills, and to pagodas, those stunning architectural relics of a (mostly) bygone whisky process that seem to pepper the landscape of Scotland.Hans works in various painting mediums, including oils and pastels and even ink he made from soot, but it is perhaps for his woodcuts that he is becoming best known. The craftsmanship and time taken to produce colour woodcuts as well as the use of wood itself reflect the craftsmanship, time and maturation in the whisky making process.This may well explain both why Hans chose it as a way of representing distilleries and also why it is proving popular.From an outline sketch, a colour scheme is worked out and the drawing transferred to wood, which is then carved to create a relief. The first colour is then applied to the wood with printing ink and then pressed on to paper by hand. This gives the first colour of the work.To achieve the second and third colours the process, including more carving, has to be painstakingly repeated and the final picture is built up in layers. After the required number of pictures is achieved (say 20 prints) the woodcut is destroyed. In this way it becomes a limited edition run.Hans enjoys painting distilleries like Edradour and Tormore, which have something special to offer visually, but the people who buy his work tend to go for their own favourite distilleries, and Ardbeg is very popular.Hans likes Islay whiskies but is also developing a fascination for Longmorn. His work can be seen at the whisky festivals and fairs in Holland and in Germany. He has also brought work to the Speyside Whisky Festival and shows some samples on his website www.hansdillesse.net