Interviews Travel

Katie Tunn – Island Life

Back in 2013, Windsor and London based artist Katie Tunn was doing alright. Her career as a portrait artist was taking off, she’d won prizes for her work, exhibited all over the place (including The Firestation), had a whole bunch of friends and a healthy party-girl weekend diary.

So, naturally, she left.

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After a short month off one summer, wandering map-less around the Highlands and Islands, Katie returned reluctantly to London, where a chance job ad for a Gallery Assistant on Skye and an endless stream of Facebook ads and co-incidental TV documentaries made her mind up. Skye was calling and within a couple of months, she was gone.

Hi Katie, where are you now, what are you up to?

Hi, I’m at home in the studio. I’ve just finished putting a resin glaze on a new painting and I’m about to make a fire and kick back for the evening. It’s been a busy week so I’m looking forward to an evening off!

So if we understand this right, at the age of twenty-something, after living your whole life round London/Windsor way, you upped sticks to the most northern cottage on the Isle of Skye, to set up an artist’s studio and set up environmental charity Art for Oceans. How did that come about?

Well, my painting practice and Art For Oceans were already established by the time I made the decision to move to Skye, but the joy of being freelance meant that I had the freedom to move somewhere completely different. I was actually looking at moving back to London when it occurred to me that, other than family and friends, I had no ties or responsibilities keeping me in one place. I think that’s quite a rare thing (for me anyway) so I saw the chance and took it.
There are a number of different factors that led me to settle on Skye itself, but I knew after my first trip around the Highlands and Islands that this was a place I needed to return to. It sounds cheesy as hell, but once the sea and the mountains get into your heart it’s difficult to not be called back.

Where did you start, it must have been daunting?

Not at all. I arrived with no house to go to, no friends and little local knowledge but that’s what made it exciting. When you’re travelling to somewhere you want to be then it’s pure anticipation, no trepidation.

What did you expect it to be like?

I expected to experience living somewhere wild, remote and different. I was hoping for it to feel like a big adventure.

What’s the reality?

There was no feeling of adventure, it felt like I had come home. I had expected solitude and calm but instead I found wonderful people and plenty to do. There is always somewhere new to explore and someone new to meet.

What do you miss most?

Other than my family and friends (of course), there’s very little that I miss. There might be fewer shops and services here but you very quickly adjust.
That said, we still have Michelin starred restaurants, contemporary galleries and artisan cafes… Skye is a fairly creative, forward-thinking island so it rarely feels like anything is missing.

How easy was it to integrate with the rest of the community there? Is it mainly Nomads like you, or mainly long standing families?

It’s probably about half and half. When I arrived I expected to have to work hard to integrate myself into the local community but I was taken aback by how warm the welcome was; Skye folk (incomers and ‘locals’) are the kindest people I’ve ever come across. As long as you’re friendly and respectful it’s easy to mix in.

Are you massively piped for internet and cable TV, or did you go more off grid?

Although I get almost no phone signal I’m actually better connected internet-wise here than I ever was back in England. The downside of this is that I’m online more than I’d like to be; it’s a necessary evil when it comes to work or keeping in touch with loved ones. Every now and again I take a few days out to go off-grid, to go camping and exploring, to write or to immerse myself in painting, but work means I always have to return eventually.

How does being a portrait painter on an island with very few people work?

My client base is fairly spread out, so I’ve often had to travel long distances to sittings. Most of my commissions still come from the South of England or Germany, only now the journey back is a little longer.

Has your work or style changed since living on Skye?

Whilst I still enjoy working in portraiture, I’ve recently started creating abstract contemporary work inspired by my new home. This recent series is more intuitive and is inspired by the colours and patterns of the geology, seascapes and skies here.

What’s your best moment so far?

It’s hard to pinpoint one; if you take joy from the small things then every day here can be special… seeing new wildlife, exploring new places, or just watching rainbows or listening to storms.

As an ocean lover I have fond memories of spotting my first basking shark here. It was a beautiful day with bright blue skies, some of my oldest friends had come to visit. I had taken them for a walk along the cliffs behind my house and as we sat overlooking the sea I noticed a huge black fin snaking through the water. We scrambled down the cliff for a closer look and it turned out to be a huge, dark grey basker. We sat on the rocks just metres away watching it weave between lions mane jellyfish in the crystal clear water whilst gannets plunged after fish in the water around it. It was mesmerising.

Of course, seeing the Northern Lights is always pretty magical too. We’re kind of spoilt for nature here.

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Do you get lonely?

It took a year before I felt my first pangs of loneliness. I had a little bit of heartbreak and suddenly realised how far away I was from the hugs of friends and family. But I think the trick to loneliness is recognising it and getting out there – it’s a great excuse to pack a bag and go off exploring new places. There’s enough to do here that you can easily distract yourself.
What’s your biggest hindsight revelation of the life you had before Skye?
Well, I didn’t expect for my perspective to have changed as much as it has. I suppose being in a natural landscape has made me more fiercely protective of it in an environmental sense.

Similarly, my tolerance for consumerism/materialism has really decreased. For example, last Christmas I returned to London and found myself at a large store where shoppers were just grabbing novelty gifts off the shelves and shoving them into bursting trolleys, barely looking at what they were choosing. It seemed like buying for the sake of buying and I found it kind of gross.
I suppose it’s just a modern day thing but we don’t have huge shops in Skye so you’re forced to live a slightly simpler existence. There’s a great article by George Monbiot called ‘The Gift of Death’ which I really relate to in terms of environment and the buying of “stuff”.

Do you see yourself back in London?

No. I love London and always have, it’s the city I grew up in. But now it’s a place to visit, somewhere to dip in and out of, for fun stuff and playing with friends. Now if I’m in a city for more than a couple of days I start wishing I could get back to the hills and the ocean.

What’s next?

I have no idea, which is quite exciting really…

Katie’s Skye blog can be found here and you’ll find her on Facebook by searching Katie Tunn Fine Art.

Portrait by Daniel Sutka.

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