Valentina Bold on Heather Andrews' 'In Erms of Clay'

Heather Andrews, 'In Erms of Clay' (2021) Courtesy of the artist.

ONE WORK is a series of online discussion events to think more deeply about how an artwork came into being. Focusing closely on a single work, these generous discussions provide space for an artist to present a recent work and talk through the work’s creation. The events are accompanied by a month-long online screening and specially commissioned written response published on the LUX Scotland website.

Heather Andrews’ work In Erms of Clay’ was presented on the LUX Scotland website in January 2023 as part of our ONE WORK series.

We commissioned writer Dr Valentina Bold to respond to In Erms of Clay’ and you can read their text on the work below.

Dr Valentina Bold is a writer, researcher and presenter. She works freelance and, half-time, as Heritage Policy & Projects Officer with the Crichton Trust, Dumfries. Valentina is Convenor of the Scots Language Centre, an Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh and editor of the Review of Scottish Culture. Her books include James Hogg: A Bard of Nature’s Making, Smeddum: A Lewis Grassic Gibbon Anthology and Robert Burns’ Merry Muses of Caledonia; creative work includes James Hogg’ Royal Jubilee and Up the Middle Road: Crichton Stories of Recovery and Resilience.

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Gods o the land,

Cradle the fermer an his wife,

In erms o clay”

This is a powerful film; I would hesitate before watching it again. For many, like me, who lived in Dumfries and Galloway, and in Cumbria, in 2001, it will bring back memories we would rather forget. For others, the central image of epilepsy will be equally evocative – and provocative. And yet, there is a catharsis in the making of this. Through the subtle portrayal of suffering, through association rather than the explicit, I was left with a sense of hope.

In 2001, I lived in a rural area just outside of Dumfries. I still remember the light of the fires on dark, winter days, and the distinctive smells that lingered, through closed windows and despite lighting numerous scented candles. I recall one fire in particular. It was lit behind the primary school in the village, where children from farms were learning as their parents coped with the slaughter. Its presence lingered.

I remember, too, the kindnesses of people: the farmers who made sure soldiers killed their stock humanely; the isolated people talking at road ends or on buses as we went together into town; the disinfectant foot baths which became part of daily life. I also remember the feeling when, during that time, I went to the city and mixed with people who had no real idea of what was going on, and how it felt. The feeling of being unclean, and of carrying a collective burden. This was an ordeal to be endured, in a community with deep memories of previous outbreaks in the past.

An the breath draws

Close to the hert”

In Erms of Clay captures that time in essence: the way it felt, the memories it left. It does this compassionately, through evocative images, poetic phrases and haunting, percussive music. This is filtered through that key image of epilepsy, and an unquiet adolescence, presenting these as darknesses containing gifts which go beyond nature, leading to experiences which resemble second sight, or being touched by the fey.

Your een burns brightest

Tae see the sliver o licht

Fore the thunner claps”

Traditional images are used here in abundance: the thistle and the horse as an animal which is sensitive and empathetically bonded to the human; the green clothing of the seductive and dangerous Fairy Queen. The wild places here offer access to an otherworld, combining threats with nurture. At one point the sign for Ladyfield, the unit for children at the former Crichton Royal asylum flashes by. Is this a symbol of the narrator’s state of mind? It is, too, evocative of the care she, and the animals who were lost, needed and were given, for ill and for good.

This is a film of subtle colours with the odd jarring shade. Just as the music veers from the lyrical to the jagged, the gentleness of nature is juxtaposed with stark images of decay; bright lights are set against subtle greens. The way In Erms of Clay explicitly shows the production process, adjacent to the poetic text, is both honest and captivating. It captures creativity in action, evocatively, and – in a sense – protects the viewer from its content.

Aesthetically, this is beautifully conceived. As I watched, I thought of various artistic parallels: the confusing, resonant open spaces of Badlands; the detailing of Dutch and Flemish painting – Vermeer, perhaps – the sense of building doom in Peter Shaffer’s Equus. In Erms of Play shows great artistry: a poetic response to a terrible time which stands by itself, as well as being highly personal in its storyline and imagery.

Lay doon in they grasses,

Let your voice be clear”

The short length of this section of a longer work is perfect: I was left with the feeling that I had seen something original and perfect, fleeting and memorable. Although I will only watch In Erms of Clay once – or twice, if I have the opportunity again and time to brace myself – it is vividly etched on my memory, just as that time left lasting impressions on those who experienced it: individuals, and communities. I commend it.

Valentina Bold

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Image description: An image with two film stills, to the left is an image of a field of green grass with a blue sky with white clouds, in the centre of the field is a bonfire of straw billowing grey smoke, the right side is an image of two hands scrunching loops of light coloured plastic ribbon near a black microphone.

Audio Version