Last Saturday, 30th September, I visited the Shetland island of Yell and met someone whom I’ll never forget. I first became aware of Jeanette Nowak’s exquisite craftwork through her website https://www.facebook.com/Hjarta.art/, and earlier this year bought one of her reclaimed china pendants for a friend’s special birthday. Over the past couple of years people have shared stories of Jeanette’s legendary garden shed with me (pictured above and below by the artist herself) and I wondered whether it might be open for a visit. I called Jeanette, or Peanuts/Nutsie as she’s been known since childhood, and received a warm welcome. She recommended that my parents and I stop by her North-a-Voe home en route south to Lerwick.
As we pulled up the track Jeanette was visible at her shed window, folded in concentration over the workbench. The evening light was rich and mellow, prophetically illuminating what was clearly a special place. Incense too hung alluringly in the air, heavy with promise.
Jeanette was instantly familiar. No sooner had we arrived than we found ourselves embraced by the extraordinary little world she has created. Every shed crevice is festooned with carefully curated ephemera in a dizzying visual feast. Layer on the soundtrack of Jeannette’s life story and prepare to be moved.
“I have cancer. When I was diagnosed a year ago it had already established itself in several parts of my body and I declined conventional treatment in favour of a more natural path,” says Jeanette matter-of-factly as we greet each other. “I was given three months to live in April and have decided to focus on quality of life. Creating things helps. I also meditate here and have changed my diet to a vegan one. I have a bad leg but I’ve never felt better”. That shows. Seldom have I gazed into someone’s eyes and seen such visible spirit, such joie de vivre. Jeanette’s every utterance is life-affirming, clearly the product of a self-possessed soul. “I’ve had a wonderful year. I’ve spoken about everything with my man and boys. Cancer defines you. It gives you time.”
That Jeanette invests her precious time in creating is profoundly inspiring. Around the shed walls a lifetime’s collection of seaborne treasure is arranged with meticulous care and artistry. “Build clutter from the ground up,” is her sage advice, “a clear floor gives the illusion of space.” Sea glass and broken pottery are the source material for Jeanette’s coveted jewellery. “I buy crockery from the charity shop, smash it at the shore, and wait for the sea to do its work.”
Against this backdrop of sea gifts sit creations from the land. “I have beetroot leaves drying on my ladder right now to make into baskets. Rhubarb skin has worked well in the past so why not give this a go?” There’s something deeply satisfying about Jeanette’s instinctive, organic and unique basketry. Clearly I’m not the only person who thinks so.
“This is the piece that changed everything” says Jeanette tantalisingly, producing a section of basket material with a flourish. “A couple of women from the Pringle of Scotland fashion house came to Shetland seeking inspiration and the Lerwick tourist office sent them here, to my shed. I was tidying up for them coming and sweeping under the chair when I found this old basket which I’d sliced up the middle a while ago because I wasn’t happy with it. I laid it on the chair as decoration and they asked me to post it south to their design team. They later offered to buy the remnant for £100 but I took it home with me. My baby’s not for sale,” says Jeanette proudly, cradling the beloved creation in the crook of her arm.
In spite of the foiled Pringle purchase, a dress inspired by Jeanette’s deconstructed basket appeared in their catwalk show at last month’s London Fashion Week. Fifty of Jeanette’s vessels also decorated the staircase at a stylish One Marylebone event showcasing Pringle’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection. The Yell baskets have since travelled to catwalks in Paris and Milan. “Pringle flew us down for the London event and put me, my husband Ritchie, and our boys up in a swanky apartment. It was wonderful but it was good to come home afterwards too.”
It’s clear that Jeanette loves where she lives. The work assembled around her is testament to a deep and enduring relationship with her surroundings. That she lives so positively here in the face of inevitable pain and frustration left me fighting back tears throughout our visit. As we hugged goodbye I whispered meekly “keep shining your bright light”. “What a lovely thing to say!” Jeanette responded, undimmed.
I wrote the following song lyrics for Jeanette a couple of days ago. The sweerie-geng (the first and most difficult row in knitting) was tough, but soon words flowed and will be accompanied in due course by a tune which I’ll post on my soundcloud site. How gently Jeanette reminded me that the time for creating is now.
Mair life I’m niver seen Athin ee peerie place As in dy shed dis hairst An in dy sonsie face “Jeanette Nowak shö bides In Nort-a-Voe” dey’d tell On axing fir Peanuts Whan stravaigin trowe Yell
Sun ida window An in dy glansin een A coose o creations Da rarest I hed seen Beetroot laeves lay dryin Firnenst sea gless an lem Hingin bowes an baskets Skoitin neest a ring
Dy seaborne proil sat prunk In reason and in rhyme Frida Kahlo chaise longue A place for tinkin time Fashion lasses fun dee Here in dy licthsome state Reddin up afore dem Aboot ta change dy gaet
A basket clippit up Balled doon apo da flör Dichted an laid up noo Wis art, no’ bruck, no more Wid you tak a hunder? Dy babe wis no for sale So dey med a froak for Der London Fashion rail
A blink o city life Wis dine for joost a start But hame wis shön pooin At treeds aboot dy heart For du kens mair as maist Whit is really wirt wir might In wir shed o dreams it’s Foo bricht we shine wir licht