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Sacred Celtic geometry in batik

Sri Lanka’s traditional art finds new life in Scottish highlands through the efforts of Therssy and Gavin Major

  • Wax is applied to cloth with a tool called cantingImage Credit:
  • Gavin and Therssy Major with their children Ben, Thushara and MaxImage Credit:
  • Batik items being dried at the workshop in Sri LankaImage Credit:
Gulf News

Skye Batiks is not an art gallery. It is a shop where you can buy museum-quality art on various objects. Based in Portree, the largest town on the Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides, Scotland, this art destination’s owners have a unique story to share on their journey of 30 years.

Experimenting in Celtic art was just a moment of truth, triggered by a random customer. “Two years after we opened in Portree, someone walked in and asked us why we didn’t do Celtic designs. It was a real eureka moment. I wish I could remember or meet that person again and express my gratitude,” says Gavin Major, co-founder of Skye Batiks. Celtic knots and its stylised graphical representations are iconic to Scotland, just as batik is to Sri Lanka. And so Skye Batiks drew inspiration from the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels to create their designs that are a marriage of two cultures.

Artists have been using these originally manuscripted gospels to study its ornate geometric interlace borders, animals interlace borders, carpet pages, page decorative elements and Celtic knot. The references from these books provide a unique guide to knotwork drawings. Most are endless knots and many are varieties of basket-weave knots. Endless knots are a form of sacred geometry that symbolises the interconnectedness of all things. They represent the eternal web and the continuous cycling of existence.

Skye Batiks was started in 1987 by Therssy and Gavin Major in Armadale, on the Sleat Peninsula, Skye. Just like the endless Celtic knots, the couple say their life has been a constant source of creative inspiration. Each design has a certain cultural significance and a story to tell.

The books

It was believed that only angels could have written the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels. These were, in fact, handwritten by monks between the 6th and 8th centuries. They are among the most cherished masterpieces in Ireland and Scotland and are referred to as an “illuminated Bible of astonishing beauty”. The books are elaborately decorated, combining traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of insular art (insular is derived from insula, Latin for island). Insular art is also known as Hiberno-Saxon art — a style of art produced in the post-Roman history of Ireland and Britain. In this period Britain and Ireland shared a largely common style different from the rest of Europe’s. The original books were found in calfskin and their pages are illuminated.

Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, make the manuscripts’ pages appealing. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism that further emphasise the themes of the major illustrations. Some figures such as the goats were presumably part of everyday life but others could have been pagan symbols carried over into the Christian era. The figures often add drama to the gospel stories.

The details in these illuminated manuscripts are vivid. No one symbol, illuminated initial, Celtic knot, interlace or page decoration element is duplicated elsewhere.

The hand of more than one scribe is recognised in the scripts, three of them being the most relevant. The Book of Kells takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, which was its home for centuries. It is on permanent display at Trinity College Library, Dublin.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript produced around the year 700 in a monastery off the coast of Northumberland at Lindisfarne (northeastern English countryside). The book is on display in the British Library in London.

Celtic art today represents a bohemian spirit. Though tattooing was not a Celtic tradition, Celtic knot tattoos became popular in the US in the 1970s and have since been identified as hallmarks of free spirit.

The couple says stumbling upon these ancient books marked the true turning point in their life as artist-entrepreneurs.

Cultural confluence

It all started when Gavin Major from Scotland was sent to Sri Lanka by Unilever Research to study the ecology of prawns in commercial prawn farms. During first week there, while cycling to work, he met Therssy who was working in a batik enterprise. “I made sure my project, which was initially scheduled for three months, lasted for two years until Therssy agreed to marry me. We celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary this December,” says Gavin.

Therssy had the experience of working in the batik industry in Sri Lanka and it seemed a good idea to set up something in Skye. The Highland and Islands Development Board supported the couple by offering a £8,000 (Dh37,000) grant to build a dedicated workshop and retail space. “The two of us, with no building experience, bought some tools and built the first shop. That was the best bonding exercise a couple could ever have. It was literally building the foundations for a long future together,” says Gavin.

Skye Batiks’s workshop is now located in Sri Lanka, as Portree’s cold and wet weather does not allow curing the batik stains properly.

Batik is a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to whole cloth, or cloth made using this technique. Batik is made either by drawing dots and lines of the resist with a spouted tool called canting. The applied wax resists dyes and therefore allows the artisan to colour selectively by soaking the cloth in one colour, removing the wax with boiling water, and repeating if multiple colours are desired. The traditional batik is found in various countries. However, those from Sri Lanka and Indonesia are among the best-known.

Skye Batiks’s workshop in Sri Lanka is like a beehive abuzz with activity. There are mostly craftswomen here. Some draw intricate patterns using canting and wax that are kept hot and liquid in a heated small pan. Others wash and dry the stained patterns. And there is an entire team to sew them together, by hand or with machines.

Gavin directs and manages the creative visualisation aspects of the production. He carefully considers the pros and cons of new ideas with Therssy and their team. Therssy is the one who gets all the work done. “We manage to strike a good balance, but in the end nearly always do whatever Therssy wants. We try not to cross over with our work but stick to our individual strengths and accept that the other is better at some things,” says Gavin.

Therssy has the spirit of a workaholic artisan and prefers working on her ideas anywhere and everywhere. She dislikes the idea of having a dedicated workspace or even breaks in between. Also, she does not comprehend the idea of going on a vacation either. “If you love what you do, everyday is a holiday. Isn’t it?” she says.

On the other hand, Gavin is a dreamer and has a completely different understanding of work and fun. He likes to have plenty of ordered space to work well and believes that travelling is the best way to nourish the creative eye. In his opinion only new experiences can offer that. “Sometimes we can get too close to the business to fully see the broader picture,” says Gavin. “I enjoy fishing, cycling, looking at a map of the world and dreaming where I want to visit on a motorbike are my hobbies. When I am in the shop I talk for up to 12 hours a day. And that is great, but when I am not there I like to go up the hills and find a distant loch that nobody has fished in for 20 years or more, and spend some time on my own trying to get to know the brown trout there.”

To prevent creative block, Gavin finds it helpful to visit unusual places in search of inspiration. Sometimes his favourite place to get inspired is Highland Industrial Supplies in Inverness. Therssy does not like travelling and keeps the connection to her inspirations through her sewing machine, just as an artist meditates in front of the easel.

“Finding the next design is also an adventure in itself,” says Therssy. “I think my favourite part of the job is the process of the next discovery. Sometimes we can spend days getting something just right and at other times, we can put something together in no more than five minutes. It is shocking to see that the five-minute efforts are nearly always more successful than the ones we have spent forever on,” Gavin says.

The team takes pride in stating that each design is carefully replicated from original Celtic art pieces. Their handmade batik artworks are made from 100 per cent cotton and come in a range of colours and patterns, and as is the nature of batik, no two items are identical.

Challenges

For the first two years all the batiks were made on the premises in a purpose-built workshop in Skye. Almost at once it was difficult to keep up with the demand, partly because the drying time on Skye can be measured in months and partly because some batiks take up to three days each to make. Changes had to happen in order to survive and grow. In 1990, the workshop was moved from Armadale, down the road, to Therssy’s backyard garden in Sri Lanka some 11,000 kilometres away.

“New facilities were built and have continued to expand as the demand on Skye for our unique style has grown. We have been producing our goods this way now for 20 years, and in this day and age of ethically sourced goods we can proudly say that we have been providing employment to some less fortunate folk in a small fishing village in Sri Lanka all this time. We do not have conditions dictated to us by an umbrella organisation; rather we operate the way we do because we believe it is right and fair,” says Therssy.

The couple spends their time between the two locations but has embraced the advantages of the distance and time innovatively. Gavin divides the year equally between Skye and Sri Lanka. Therssy spends about 10 months in Sri Lanka close to the workshop, and two months in Skye. “We are actually apart for large parts of the year. But it works well. When we get together we have loads of new ideas to talk about. The business is a brilliant common passion,” says Therssy.

To be successful in a business based on cultural inspiration, one has to think beyond the obvious, says Gavin. Having undergone a few difficult years following the recession, the couple had to tread very carefully. “A result of this is that we were not able to be as creative as we wanted to be. Undoubtedly the biggest challenge to our business has been the financial repercussions of the recession. For a couple of years we were on the verge of losing everything. Sacrifices had to be made by the whole family. Now things are better and we are in a position to try out new ideas. We are working on six new items that will be launched next year. We have also been developing Therssy’s curry mixes and are looking forward to spice up our cultural offering,” says Gavin, who believes your creative horizons expand when you can stay enchanted by the beauty of things around you. “The trick is just going around with your eyes wide open. It is hard to spend a day anywhere and not be inspired,” says Gavin.

Retailing art

According to Gavin when art occupies retail space, its creators are not merely indulging in fantasies. If an idea does not sell, one has to be merciless in axing it. “Retail is fantastic because you get instant response to new ideas. Because we produce everything we sell in the shop we are able to respond quickly to new ideas and try new things out in small numbers. If they work then we can easily increase production. Without wanting to sound flippant, everything in the shop is popular. If it isn’t then we drop it mercilessly. We are not here to indulge our fantasies. We are here to create beautiful things that people want to buy from us and treasure.

“When you put art at the centre of your long-term business, one needs to be willing to grow and change as an artist. And listen to what your customers say. Ninety per cent of our best ideas are from customers. We recognise that revenue and potential goodwill doesn’t come into the shop through a secret chute at the back. All visitors are potential customers and potential new friends. If you give them what they want they will feel involved and keep coming back,” says Gavin.

Doing a creative business with your significant other and family requires a lot more than people realise. “Discussing everything about what you hope to achieve with your new business is inevitable. You have to make sure that you share the same goals. I am constantly amazed by Therssy’s ability to deal directly with any issue. She does not prevaricate or beat around the bush, but will happily tell anyone if she has an issue with their behaviour. She does it in a way that wins people over every time. I wish I could be half as direct as she is,” says Gavin.

Cultural differences have also been a constant source of learning and growing for both of them. From food to thought process, Gavin says he has learnt a lot from Therssy about balancing ethics in business and family values.

Despite being a full-time designer and entrepreneur, Gavin hopes to find time for some of his ambitious plans. “I would love to design and build the perfect sailing canoe. For many years we had a kayak-building business and exported them to the US and the UK. It was hard to make a living from it and eventually I had to close it down. But the lines of beautifully crafted boats are like poetry and if I had any spare time I would spend it making one-off canoes out of teak and mahogany.”

Gavin believes that perfection is not achieved when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away. “Style means simplicity to me. Natural simplicity.”

According to Therssy anyone doing their own thing and not slavishly following the latest trend has style. “It might not be my style but it is their style,” she says.

Archana R.D. aka B’lu is an artist-journalist based in the UAE who writes on global art and culture.

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