Open Story

Nickolai Globe and The Mission House Finsbay

By David Prentice - Added 06/05/2014

Leaving the smooth surface of the A859 behind, the taxi turns on to the C79 Bays Road, a single-track bitumen path that winds its thin passage through some of the most beautiful and surreal scenery that Harris has to offer. Frequently compared with the surface of the moon, the landscape is littered with rocks and boulders of all sizes, evidence of the moraine that scraped, gouged and formed the island under the weight of glaciers millions of years ago.
I’m on my way to The Mission House, a converted former Free Presbyterian church that is the home, studio and creative sanctuary of Nickolai and Beka Globe. Situated in Finsbay, on the brink of the Atlantic Ocean, it is this place, where the geological history of the island is at its most exposed, that Nickolai sources the inspiration and the materials to create his unique, high-fired sculptural pieces that go beyond mere representations of the island, and push creativity to the very edge.
It would be difficult to discuss Nickolai’s artistic work without first giving a mention to the space in which he creates it. Standing as a work of art in its own right, The Mission House is a testament to the couples’ imagination, perseverance and hard work. In a process which took over two years and ‘damn near broke’ them, Nickolai and Beka designed and built the Mission House themselves, putting in 90% of the work required to transform the derelict church into one of the most innovative and exciting buildings on Harris today.
Aptly described as a ‘creative space on the edge of the Atlantic’, The Mission House embodies a seamless balance between the artistic and the domestic. Inside, the gallery and studio area is suffused with a tangible feeling of tranquillity and action, productivity and design. This is a place not only to create, but also to reflect, and Nickolai and Beka have used the space with such ingenuity that while you find yourself surrounded by the couples’ formidable creative output, you never have the sense of being crowded by it.
Mounted in their frames against the stone walls, or else suspended by high-tensile wires to the ceiling, Beka’s black and white photographs command your attention with a strange and beautiful melancholy, while Nickolai’s sculptures, ranging from bowls containing glistening pools of glass that beg to be touched, and ceramic pieces that look to have been formed by the earth itself, are displayed on furniture carved from the original building’s timbers.
After a tour of the ground floor, including the anterooms which function as miniature galleries all of their own, Nickolai leads me upstairs to the where the family stay. Seated at the table in the open-plan kitchen and living room, with light pouring in through the ceiling windows and the sound of the wind moving outside, it’s easy to see why anyone would want exchange this scene for the cramped, busy conditions of central London. I’m curious to know what prompted the couples’ decision to leave the capital to begin a life less ordinary on the Isle of Harris:
‘The first thing we had to do was to get out of London’, Nickolai explains. ‘That’s where the trap was. We both needed to make a change; we needed to find a way to get out of the rat race and back to our principal art forms. We moved to the highlands and started looking around for a property. Eventually we found this place and it was simply too good to refuse. Beka spent a great deal of her childhood here, and I was from the Northwest of Scotland. As soon as I moved here I fell in love with the place; I knew that I could live here, that this place could fulfil me.
Harris also offered the most amazing environment to work in. Both of us had had enough of living in cities, the urban scene and the rat race, so we were ready for a complete change of life. We wanted a place by the sea to raise our children and have a dog and to be able to live that kind of dream that comes to you in your thirties,’ he says, laughing.
Though in many respects that dream has come true for Nickolai and Beka, the success and creative freedom they now enjoy has been hard-earned over several years, and there were times when neither of them felt sure that the project of relocating to Harris and setting up The Mission House was going to succeed:
‘We were lucky to get the Mission House’, says Beka. ‘ A fish farm company was also interested in the property and we stretched ourselves to be able to get it, and then once we’d bought it we had to go back down south and earn the money we needed to keep the Mission house. We then worked and lived in a shed at the bottom of someone’s garden to keep our overheads as low as humanly possible while I was temping and Nickolai was still Art Directing.’
His career in graphic design had begun with him taking time away from his principal artistic occupation in ceramics to pursue the creative possibilities that computers were beginning to have. Though he was to work in various fields connected with graphic design, eventually working as Creative Director, the demands and pressures of the industry were a distraction away from the creative fulfilment that he found in ceramics.
Disenchanted by the stress of an urban lifestyle that was also taking away from their artistic ambitions, the couple travelled to the Isle of Harris, where Beka had spent much of her childhood, in order that she could take some portrait photographs for a series she was working on. It was during this time that a family friend informed Beka that the church building was on the market. After taking some photographs of the building, Beka then showed them to Nickolai, who immediately fell in love with the idea of transforming it into a home and studio space:
‘We bought the place outright and set about commissioning a local architect to help with the renovation,’ Nickolai tells me. ‘However, it didn’t work out with the architect and so we decided to build and redesign the building ourselves. We did most of the design and the actual construction work ourselves, with the help of some local tradespeople, though we did ninety per cent of the work on our own. The project took two and a half years to complete and it damn near broke us!’ He laughs, ‘We literally scraped our way in through the door. We had borrowed a relatively small amount of money to help fund the project, but once we’d moved in we found ways of avoiding the overheads that would have pushed us back into our previous jobs.’
Having gone through the arduous process of moving to the island and rebuilding The Mission House, both Nickolai and Beka were adamant that they weren’t going to compromise on their shared vision of having an artistic space to concentrate on their work and raise their family. ‘When I go downstairs into the studio in the mornings, the feeling I get of being there is absolutely sublime, so why would I want to compromise that?’
Given the unique space offered by The Mission House, and the relative scarcity of arts venues on the island in comparison with the mainland, I ask Nickolai if he would ever consider using The Mission House as an arts venue:
‘Because this place is our home, as well as being our gallery and studio, we’re reluctant to convert it fully into an arts venue, however we have had some amazing concerts here; in the first year we had an incredibly talented violinist who asked us if she could bring a quartet and perform Beethoven’s String Cycle, inside the gallery. Perhaps we were a little naïve, but we immediately agreed to the idea. Despite the fact that it was a huge undertaking, the project was a great success. We also raised several thousand pounds for charity!’
Since opening The Mission House, Nickolai and Beka have hosted around twelve concerts of contemporary classical music, all of them performed inside their gallery space. A future event will include a project centering around the theme of the machair flowers, and will feature Beka’s black and white photographs of the minute flowers blown up to a scale of one and a half metres, set to music that has been composed specifically for the machair.
Aside from the thrill of having live music performed inside their very own house, the events also provide Nickolai and Beka with the opportunity to remain in touch with members of the artistic community from all over the world:
‘The other interesting thing is that, despite all our years in London, we’ve had greater access to more interesting people living here than we ever did back home. From film and theatre directors to designers, artists, composers and intellectuals. Because they’re on holiday, there’s a different, more relaxed environment for conversations to open up.
Speaking about the move, Nickolai tells me that coming to Harris felt like ‘coming home to somewhere new’. Not only was he able to return to creating his own work on a full-time basis, but by coming to Harris, Nickolai was in some way able to revisit a landscape that had been the setting for his early development as an artist.
Born into the family pottery in Durness, in the far northwest of Scotland, Nickolai’s relationship with ceramics began at a very early age, and one could argue that clay was the medium he was destined to make his own. Taking his first inspiration from his mother Lotte Glob, herself a respected potter and ceramic artist, Nickolai left home when he was just seventeen years old in order to work with the internationally renowned ceramic artist Erik Nyholm at his studio in Denmark. Despite an age gap of almost sixty years, the collaborations between the pair on large scale architectural ceramics and sculptures were to have an influence on Nickolai that he still feels today.
Subsequent collaborations would take him from Southampton University, where he studied traditional, wood-fired pottery with Tim Holloway, to the Tropical North of Australia, where he set up his first studio and started exhibiting sculptural works sourced from brick clay. It was during this time that he also assisted the internationally acclaimed aboriginal elder and ceramic artist Thanakupi, the first aboriginal person to study ceramics at a tertiary level in Australia.
Speaking of the people who helped inform his development as an artist, Nickolai says:
‘What you have to remember is that clay is a completely individual medium. My own development through the medium of clay is directed more towards a sculptural route rather than the more domestic elements of pottery and glazing. The artists that I would say have influenced me the most are more contemporary international artists. Claudi Casanovas is one in particular. Ewan Henderson is another. They both tend to work with the idea of the physical properties of the material and work with it almost in a geological sense.’
Through an understanding of the physical properties of his medium and the processes at work within it, Nickolai has been able to apply this knowledge to his own artistic interpretation of the Hebridean landscape:
‘When I first came to Harris I was interested in the landscape in a geological sense; what forms the landscape, its physical properties, history, etc. What I love about Harris is that the landscape is very much laid bare; you can see the processes of deep, geological time. I’m interested in what happens under the surface: the magma, the crust, the mineralogy of the sediments and the sands and what makes up the earth.’
By avoiding visual representations of the island Nickolai has managed to distance himself from the majority of resident artists; focusing his attention on what happens beneath the surface of the landscape itself, he has found a way to close the gap between material as inspiration, and the raw materials of his sculptures, with the result that his art literally embodies the beauty of his surroundings:
‘I want my work to feel like the landscape. Clay itself is made out of sedimentary rocks that have been gradually broken down. It’s a totally natural material, and so working with it is in its own way a geological process of transformation, in the same way that rocks in nature are transformed by varying degrees of heat and pressure.’
In addition to the clay that Nickolai uses, he also sources rocks, minerals and glass directly from the Hebridean landscape, combining them with the clay to bring his sculptures to life:
‘One of my favourite materials that I use is an anorthosite, which comes from the mountain of Roineabhal. It’s a very interesting material to work with and to see the way that it interacts with the clay.’
As Nickolai explains, anorthosite contains titanium dioxide, the mineral which causes the rocks in the Bays of Harris to be so reflective. Measuring between 2.6 and 3.6 billion years old, it is one of the oldest types of rock on the surface of the planet. In addition, anorthosite contains some of the same materials that make up the surface of the moon:
‘People often say when they come to visit the gallery that the drive to Finsbay is a lot like looking at the surface of the moon. The rocks here are very reflective and they react differently to light during the day. Partly because of the connection with the moon, and partly because it’s right on my doorstep, it’s a material I love to use and it produces very interesting results.’
By incorporating melted glass into stoneware sculptures such as ‘Mantapool’ and ‘Frozen Sea’, Nickolai has created bowls and vessels of shimmering, ice blue water that act almost as microcosms of the Hebridean landscape, where the elements of land and water collide and interact:
‘The interesting thing about glass from a material point of view is that it can also be considered to be a liquid; it has many of the same physical properties as liquid does. It has a very high viscosity so it’s still flowing, and when I melt that in my pieces I do so because I want it to reflect the water of Harris as it’s found in the lochs and in the small resonating pools that you see scattered all over the landscape. ‘
Not only do these sculptures resemble the landscape, they also serve to demonstrate the unique dialogue that Nickolai has with his environment; by combining an expert knowledge of the physical properties of his materials with an alchemist’s imagination, Nickolai is able to create such a seamless relationship between his art and the natural world that even he sometimes forgets where one ends and the other begins:
‘There are moments where I’ve been working for long periods in the studio and I go outside for a breath of fresh air and for a moment I don’t know if I’m looking at the landscape or if I’m looking at a piece of work. I see the rim of a bowl as a horizon, with all these different elements condensed and contained within it. That same feeling is what I want to achieve with my work.’
Indeed, many of Nickolai’s ceramics echo natural formations such as tree bark, fossils, petrified wood and other elements of the landscape with such accuracy, that some people visiting the studio struggle to believe they’ve been made at all. As Nickolai says:
‘Some people’s reactions on visiting the studio are to say that my work looks ‘formed’, or as if it’s been found on the beach rather than made by hand. That’s fine by me, because the forming of the landscape isn’t a contrivance, and that’s what I do; I make things without contriving them, if you like, which is very difficult to do, because our human nature is to contrive and to decorate and to embellish and to perfect. I don’t want to make things; I want to form them.’
Now that Nickolai is established on the island, and with the growing success of The Mission House, I’m curious to know if he has seen a development in his art since his move to Harris:
‘It’s got better!’ He says with a laugh. ‘At least I hope so. The big thing really is that now I’m able to do it all the time, and having a studio that is big enough to accommodate all my needs of living and working creates a kind of seamless environment where I can go downstairs at four in the morning if I have an idea and do something with it. When you make a living as an artist, you realise that you just have to make and keep making. All my work is, in a sense single piece, a process. Once a piece of that work is sold it also creates a space which I can fill with more pieces, so that I discover more by doing more.’
As for the future, things show no signs of slowing down for Nickolai, as he and Beka have been commissioned to take part in an enormous project in Glasgow’s new Southern General Hospital, with Nickolai creating sculptures for thirty one rooms:
‘It’s a huge honour and one that we’re very proud to be a part of. The brief is to focus on the ecology and the wildlife habitats of the Scottish landscape, and they want me to interpret it in my own abstract way. I’m working with the loose theme of the bowl, the bowl being reminiscent of home in a comforting, reassuring way. My aim is to create pieces that in a quiet way will transport people out of the negative, stressful environment of being in hospital, towards a more soothing, happier natural space.’