Ivan Isbister is a time bandit.
Through his art, Ivan attempts to steal and capture a moment frozen in time, a moment going back to when he was seven years old, a moment between life and death.
It all began when his uncles decided to take him fishing in the North Sea.
“The highlight of my holidays to the Shetland Islands was being taken fishing,” Scottish-born Ivan explains. “This was handline fishing from Fair Isle, an island between the Shetland and Orkney Islands, in a yoal, an open timber-built boat about 100 years old, held together by tar. We rowed out as fast as we could to a moored ferry. There we would get a bailing bucket, as the yoal would take on water. My job was bailer, my uncles did the rowing. There were fishing grounds nearby, but it would take about an hour to get there.”
It was here at Fair Isle, surrounded by dark water, grey skies and a dreary boat, dull with age, that Ivan experienced something that would change his life forever, and eventually lead to a never-ending artistic quest to replicate its profundity.
“My uncles struck a huge shoal of mackerel and began pulling fish onboard. I marvelled at the silver and iridescent hue of the fish with every colour of the rainbow. But, very quickly, they died and their colours would fade. The silver would hold a little but the iridescent shine would go almost immediately.”
Even at the time, Ivan did his best to halt this process.
“I discovered that if there was enough water in the bottom of the boat, then the fish could actually swim up and down. So I started bailing in instead of bailing out, so the fish could swim the entire length of the boat. At which point my uncles told me in no uncertain terms that, in the middle of the North Sea, it was not good to be in a leaking boat.”
This exact moment, both frozen and fluid, a childhood snapshot of a between time, moving constantly in Ivan’s memory from life to death, colour to grey, innocence to maturity, was to surface again many years later in a most unexpected way, when Ivan was attending a metal-work course in Edinburgh.
“I have always been interested in art. I see it as a bit like sport. Everyone has a sport they are good at, though you may never find it. I think it is the same with art. I tried a lot of different mediums. Then, I did a metal-work course in Telford College in Edinburgh, in 1999. It was a technical college, and it gave us a chance to try different things through forge work, jewellery making and metal fabrication. It was while playing around with metal that I realised that if I polished steel, and then applied heat, it would create iridescent effects.”
The images dancing before Ivan’s eyes that day sparked a childhood recollection.
“As soon as I saw that effect I immediately was reminded of the mackerel in that boat. So I played around with applications to see what shine and what colours I could produce and how to make the shape of the fish, and then began applying techniques to try and preserve those colours so that they won’t fade and almost last forever.”
For Ivan, the recapturing of those colours last seen within the struggling gills of a dying fish became a quest. He sees this process and the colours he produces as not only redressing that feeling of helplessness he experienced when he was seven years old, but also addressing the more metaphysical anxieties we all experience from time to time.
“I sometimes get a feeling of sadness, of time slipping away. We are all heading towards that moment of oblivion or whatever might lie beyond, and it is wonderful to preserve some of those perfect moments before they are gone. Maybe it’s a little attempt at immortality! I think all art is an attempt to leave a mark.”
And leave a mark Ivan has. Since completing his course he has exhibited in many of the galleries in Edinburgh and, since emigrating to Australia in 2001, has been slowly building up a reputation here in Brisbane.
“The course I did at Telford was quite a privilege, as I worked with some really good sculptors. We put our own shows on, fundraisers etc, and the success of these showed us we were maybe onto something. Then we did an end of year exhibition at the Cowgate in Edinburgh which did really well. I was lucky enough to get involved with No. 42 gallery in Hanover Street which was great and then one of our own lecturers opened his own gallery, Hamish Gilchrist Gallery, and he helped students to exhibit their art. This also helped us get some press exposure. In 2001 I moved to Brisbane and had to start from scratch. Initially I sold pieces at Riverside and Eumundi markets, and then formed some relationships with galleries like the Graceville Gallery, where I am a consignment artist.”
Yet, despite the success, what drives Ivan onwards is that single moment that so captured his imagination.
“The actual process of making my sculptures is quite dangerous, noisy and toxic. A tin shed in Brisbane, in the middle of summer, can get quite sweaty. But, when the hard work is done, and you apply the heat torch, there is a mellow moment when you never know what colours are going to come. And then, the magical instant when you watch these colours arise! It is the closest I come to that moment when I was seven years old.”
Is it simply a child’s repulsion of death? Is it the witnessing of a moment in time, a time of fluidity, a passing of a being from the living into the dull and grey void? Is it merely a chance discovery in a technical college in Edinburgh? Or is it a desire to, in some small way, fight against the inevitable victory time has on all of us?
In truth it is probably all of these factors that combine to compel one sculptor to never end his quest to steal back time, and create iridescent art.
by Adrian Gibb