Inspired by lichen





I photographed all 306 fenceposts that enclose my field.  Many are lichen encrusted.
Lichens first caught my attention while artist-in-residence at Sumburgh Head Lighthouse in Shetland, and they continue to inspire and intrigue like a good thriller!  I get lost in research, reading of the wolf lichen, apparently once used as a poison to kill wolves in Russia but also used as a dye in Alaska by the Chilkat Tlingit people for their prized blankets. Other lichens provide much needed winter food for wildlife and have even been ground up to make tea as well as variety of cures in traditional medicinal remedies. 

Peltigera lichen  dog tooth lichen - pen and ink.
Taking my camera on walks, I now seem to have hundreds of images of lichens – their variety is quiet astonishing. I was delighted to have been one of a handful of artists invited to stay in Inverewe House located in the middle of Inverewe Botanic Gardens, originally created by Osgood Hanbury Mackenzie in the mid 1860’s, all now owned by the National Trust for Scotland. Compared to the tiny crusty lichens found clinging on the cliffs around Dunnet Head cliffs where I live, the lichens at Inverewe were positively showing off – very flamboyant!  One tree in particular, a turkey oak, planted in the 1930’s by his daughter, Mairi, to commemorate the rebuilding of Inverewe House (it had been destroyed in a fire), a stunning tree that’s also home to about 24 different lichens!
Watercolour studies - lichen on rocks - walks on Dunnet Head.
Trying to capture not only the variety and different uses, but the stories connected to lichen over time, is proving difficult – I’m easily distracted, drawn in to follow new leads in the mystery.  I started to look at the illustrations of lichens by Johan Peter Westring made around the early 1800’s. These early illustrations show not only great detail, but also the range of colours made by each lichen when used as a dye. It’s the bold black lines and soft colours (perhaps faded with age?) combined with the formal layout for scientific research  that I enjoy, as the rest remains a mystery – the text, is of course all in Swedish!  I also visited the herbarium department at Manchester Museum, and like a child in a sweet shop, I delighted in opening box after box of lichen specimens – the aged papers with beautiful hand written copper plate text labelled lichens in folded packets or still attached to rocks. A few larger rocks were in individual boxes, but most were stuck to paper, thin paper at that. Again, most of the info on the labels meant nothing, particularly as many of the names had changed since they were first collected, it was the formal layout of an old collection that inspired.

'North' - A coastal Coat.

Embossed handmade linen rag paper, inspired by coastal lichens at Brough Harbour, Caithness. 
Common names of lichens on the coat:  Black - sea tar;  Tan - sea star;  White - crab’s eye (crottle); Shaggy hood - sea ivory
As I go back to the source, making detailed observational drawings of lichens, using the photographs I’ve taken, while I figure out what to do next that will somehow encapsulate all that I continue to discover, one chapter in my lichen inspired work has come to an end.   I have been working in Swaledale as invited lead artist on the Chrysalis Arts project, ‘Fabric of Place’.  A slow art, community project, I decided to make the focus with the groups I’d been working with, lichens.  Working as volunteers, British Lichen Society members Les and Sue Knight led the workshops about lichens. We had our ‘end of term’ party, bringing together some of the adults who had been working on the project, with pupils at Reeth and Gunnerside Primary School.  All had been working on the same theme – creating artwork inspired by lichens in Swaledale, linking it with scientific research, the landscape, folklore or even personal stories.

I worked in parallel, investigating lichens around Dunnet Head in Caithness where I live. This approach of contrasts helped to highlight how lichens adapt to their environment.  As a slow art project, it also meant that we could all access the source of inspiration on our doorsteps and make use of the time taken to research, document and create new work.  For our end of term celebration, the pupils transformed their classroom into a gallery, displaying not only their work, but a selection made by the adults in the project, including mine.

 Ochrolechia parella  (light crottle) - pen and ink. Crottle inspired  'crottle spoons'.

The children talked excitedly to their invited guests about the research they’d done and the artworks they’d made.  We adults formed a panel of artists and lichen experts for a more formal questions and answers sessions led by the children. Making use of local expert knowledge was key to the project, as without Les and Sue Knight, we wouldn’t have the depth that’s been created in the artwork.  It was clear that all had engaged with the project, hopefully igniting a new interest, and inspired new ways of creating artwork that is much more than just decorative.

A Chrysalis Arts project supported by NYCC Stronger Communities and YD National Park,  all of the Fabric of Place events were offered free to the public.


Wrap Apron with  Ochrolechia tartarea (cork lichen) repeat pattern design from original drawing. The wrap-apron was often worn by women doing chores in and around the home.  In the Scottish Highlands and Islands, this included dyeing wool with crottle. Crottle  or  crotal  (gaelic) is a Scottish term for lichens that were traditionally used as a dye, this is one of them. Location: Dunnet, aithness.
Wrap Apron with  Ochrolechia tartarea (cork lichen) repeat pattern design  from original drawing. The wrap-apron was often worn by women doing chores in and around the home.  In the Scottish Highlands and Islands, this included dyeing wool with crottle. Crottle  or  crotal  (gaelic) is a Scottish term for lichens that were traditionally used as a dye, this is one of them. Location: Dunnet, Caithness.