Ronnie Elliot 'Remakes' our tribute to John Muir and more ...
Ronnie Elliot remakes Kate Hunter's Original John Muir Mural at The Goth Steps
The storms of 2010/ 2011 did a great deal of damage along the Pans shoreline and the victims included Kate Hunter's John Muir/ Gothenburg Mural which the Lord Mayor of Gothenburg, Sweden, had unveilied in 2003. So remediation and/or regeneration was required. For the first time since the Murals Trail was launched a decade ago, simple restoration was not possible. The damage was too great. So the Prestoungrange Arts Festival confronted the 'big' decision which all ageing Murals Towns eventually face: do we replicate with a new artist, re-interpret the storyline from the original mural, or create a wholly 'new' storyline? After much deliberation it was decided to invite Ronnie Elliot to re-interpret. We all agreed that John Muir and the town's connections with Sweden's Gothenburg were vital elements of the stories recounted on our walls.
Ronnie's 're-interpretation' still depicts a familiar John Muir but this time he's sitting holding a glass of Fowler's ale having just launched a paper boat containing a sapling onto a turbulent Forth. His accustomed horse stands behind him. At the far end of the river lies Gothenburg waiting to receive it with its modern cityscape. To the side the citation reads:
'John Muir, born in Dunbar in 1838, sent forth an idea which inspired the nation of America and indeed the world for generations to come.
The least we can do is stand him a pint of Fowler's
Ronnie Elliot shared his imagination and experience as artist as follows:
'The paper boat is covered in writing for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because John Muir was famous for his writing and storytelling ability; but secondly for me it represents knowledge and so he is passing his knowledge on to us. I later also discovered that for 3Harbours Festival friends, the same symbolism has been used for several years amongst the youngsters.
'The sapling represents many things - John Muir's role in the birth of the conservation movement, nature itself, inspiration, hope, growth; all these things and more.
'The boat is also fragile and delicate and there is a chance it may not complete its journey. Will it survive as far as the Goth? But then it already has hasn’t it? It docked in 1908! But what state is it in?
'John Muir's horse helps place John Muir in time. His was the era of horse travel. It also shows that John had travelled to reach this spot. There are myriad journeys going on then. The boat’s journey across the river, the river's own journey, the journey through time, the journey of life. And the sapling? It's full grown tree and just across the foreshore a carved totem whose tree came from North America [by container ship!]. There's rock, river and sky, many of life’s cycles.
'I’ve shown Gothenburg as a modern city in the background. It’s there to establish that this is now 'our' time, with hints to it also being the future in the distance. Some may see the idea of skyscrapers as American - a link to John Muir’s home for most of his life. But if you look closely you will see a stylised representation of the Gothenburg Opera House hiding behind the Prestoungrange Totem.
'This city represents modern day Gothenburg and it's links not to John Muir but to the Prestoungrange Gothenburg and the connections they have to each other particularly the Scottish Diaspora there and the famous 'Gothenburg Principles'.
'The city is also there for another reason. It sits directly opposite the base of the large tree in the top left hand corner, the tall sky scrapers mimicking tall tree trunks. Man versus nature. We’re here and now, but have we got the balance right? I’m not sure if I mean it as a warning or I just want to raise the question. It goes right back to all that John Muir fought for; have we really learned anything from him?
'The Prestoungrange Gothenburg is very important in the image. It is central to everything depicted as it has become central to the renaissance of creative life in Prestonpans. It sits on the banks of this river as it sits on the path of the John Muir Way. It represents itself but it also seeks to represent the community of Prestonpans, Greater Prestonpans even. It's the hub of warmth in the painting and is surrounded by vibrant life and colour. If the river is seen as the river of time, the Gothenburg is as far as we have reached. We can see no more of the river although it is clear there is further to go. This is where the paper boat is heading. Can we retrieve it from the river? Have we? Has it gone sailing by?
'Staying with the Prestoungrange Gothenburg I have to explain the glass of Fowler's ale. The initial idea for this came not from me but from Gordon Prestoungrange himself. I liked it but probably not for the initial reasons. The pose of John Muir is a personal choice as it reminds me somehow of my Grandad who worked for the NCB, the National Coal Board, all his life and who would be representative of the generations of hardworking men and women that the Gothenburg was originally created for in 1908. This ‘Gothenburg’ movement recognised that a ban on alcohol would not prevent the problems drink caused within the working classes, rather it believed that by exposing their customers to better food, art and culture, and reinvesting 95% of their profits back into the community, they would do more to improve peoples lives. That’s what the glass of Fowlers in the mural represents for me. It’s a toast from me to that wisdom. And of course it's stil microbrewed in the Gothenburg today long after the original brewery has passed away.'
En passant - the joys of painting outdoors!
'Creating the mural was initially a battle against the weather with the wind reaching up to 70mph during the period on one occasion. The combination of this, frequent rain showers, and regular bombardment from seagulls, did delay my planned progress somewhat. Working onsite however means that you receive direct feedback from the both visitors and the local community.
'The reactions were overwhelmingly positive and I would receive daily visits from several locals who would frequently discuss the weather forecast and pass casual comment: “It’s looking good”; “Your getting there”; “Braw”; or the ubiquitous “I like the colours.”
'I had always intended the mural to be colourful. We have far too few bright days in this country of ours and I wanted to compete against all those grey skies. I joked at the time that I was going through my ‘Pink Phase’ as a friend had called it.
'In reality the colours I used probably originated from my training at the University of Brighton where the sun would hit all those marvellous Georgian buildings sitting on Grand Parade and light up lemon, pink, purple and sky blue. I never intended the colours to be as they are now as I would probably have toned down some of the pinks and purples but so many people seemed to enjoy them that I left them unchanged.
'I received far fewer negative comments than I expected and was generally well accepted, indeed welcomed with good grace. Murals and mural painters are now obviously very much part of the landscape of Prestonpans, and as one woman said: “ Aye, it’s guid for the community.”
'There was some criticism. One fellow artist got to wondering why John Muir needs to be holding that pint of Fowler's in his hand. He got the explanation! One regular visitor would always start with: ”It wont last you know”; another “I don’t get the horse - I like it though, it’s looking really good. ” I don’t think that I ever entirely convinced him about the horse.
'Not only locals would stop. Visitors are in The Pans from the far corners - Germany, France, South Africa, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and more. A German group stopped to rest and were intrigued by the words In Honour of Our Ancestors. I explained it means our forefathers which solved the riddle for them. Sometimes I would have to explain who John Muir was, but not often!
'For one family I was a learning stimulus. The father explained everything to his two young girls right down to how I was mixing the paint on my pallet. He then told me he would be returning with a party of 20 later in the week.
'There were often groups of walkers, some deliberately there to view the murals, others just walking the John Muir Way. Once while I was struggling to balance on a scaffold on a particularly windy day, an Italian gent stopped to try and sell me a suit proclaiming he thought I looked Italian. I’ve had had this routine tried on me before while in France but it was certainly bizarre to have it happen when your standing painting a mural in a small gale.
'I did have my particular favourite interruptions. One from a seal which would sit and sunbathe on the rocks opposite where I was working causing me to stop and watch and reminding me why John Muir is so important. Another when a rather intimidating man came bounding up to shout: “That’s my ancestor you're painting, He’s my great, great grandfather's uncle”. I wasn’t too sure of the relationship at first but he did go on to say he was a Muir and although he was a younger man I think I could see John Muir’s eyes looking back at me from his face.
'The best interruption of all was of course from Maggie Conn, who would arrive at just the right time with a tray of tea and biscuits no matter the weather for both myself and my step-father Arthur (Chief Ladder Holder). Maggie, on the wall of whose home the mural is, also had my favourite comment: “ I just love that old man John Muir.”
'I could go on and write more about the mural but from now on it is up to all those who view it to judge it. May it be discussed and criticised, frowned at and joked about. My only hope is that both the residents of Prestopans and all their many many visitors enjoy it in the years ahead.'
'..... and I thought I was just painting a mural. No, for a goodly while I was honoured to be part of the community of Prestonpans. Many thanks for the invitation; Ronnie Elliot.'
Published Date: July 13th 2011