Friday, June 20, 2008

BP Travel Award: Gareth Reid and the Finnish winter bathers

copyright Katherine Tyrrell
They say you have to suffer for your art - but I never realised that this could involve swimming in ice holes in Finland until I saw the BP Travel Award exhibition of Gareth Reid's work at the National Portrait Gallery!

Gareth Reid was one of the two winners of the BP Travel Award 2007. He proposed creating portraits of members of the Scandinavian 'vinterbaderklubs' (winter-bathing clubs) who regularly swim in man-made ice holes. Gareth explains below in an extract from his diaries in the exhibition. There's a longer version in the catalogue
an extract from "Avanto" - Gareth Reid
In December I toured Finland visiting the 'winter swimming clubs' where thousands of members swim in bitterly cold avannot (ice-holes) in otherwise frozen lakes and rivers. I was interested in the bond between bathers and the northern landscape, the incongruity of bare flesh and ice and the stoic pursuit of invogoration through exposure to extremes in the near-constant dusk.

Oulu 5 December
It is assumed today I will be swimming. Mariia suggests I go with Timo to take the plunge with him. I try to make excuses but this is the only time Timo can do it. I get changed then take the long walk down ice-covered steps towards a black freezing abyss. Timo says 'Remember to breathe'. Feet first I dunk myself up to my neck for a second. It's not too bad; then it feels really good and exhilerating.
Apparently global warming is having an impact on Finland and the ice started to melt while he was there and the swimmers weren’t very happy about this!

Photographs courtesy Gareth Reid/NPG
The photographs are of Gareth and his close encounters with very cold water plus studies completed of a swimmer and landscapes.

He found it was far too cold to work for any length of time outside so had to limit himself to very quick studies – and then painted when he returned home – with the help of sketchbook studies and photos taken. The landscapes in frames (above right) are oil studies on paper. The study of the woman swimmer above can be seen translated into an oil painting below.

Images are (clockwise from top left) Hut by Lake; Swimming Place; KuopioII; KajaaniI
Copyright Gareth Reid / Photographs coutesy of Gareth Reid

I really like Gareth Reid's work a lot. You can see more of it on his website. He's not yet got the Finnish series posted but there's lots of other really good work to look at. He's adept at both landscapes and portraits.

What I particularly liked in this mini exhibition at the NPG was the juxtaposition of the reddish tones of bodies - straight from the sauna - in the dusk and the yellow/blue cold colours of the landscape.

Images copyright Gareth Reid/
Photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I also am really enamoured with the way Gareth uses composition to such good effect in his work. Always very simple, always very effective plus the sum of the paintings add up to create another image which is even more effective. It's almost as if in starting a series he envisages them hanging together on a wall.

That's a lesson I guess a lot us could take on board in terms of how works work together as well as on their own.

The BP Portrait Award exhibition - together with the exhibition of the two winners of the BP Travel Award 2007 is being exhibited as follows:
  • National Portrait Gallery 12 June - 14 September 2008
  • Wolverhampton Art Gallery 27 September - 14 November 2008
  • Aberdeen Art Gallery 29 November 2008 - 24 January 2009.
(1) Born in 1974 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Gareth Reid currently lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland.
He trained at the University of Ulster Art College and the Glasgow College of Art. He has had solo exhibitions in Bangor, Glasgow and Belfast and exhibited in the BP Portrait Award in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2007 and the Hunting Art Prize, 2002. He has work in private collections in Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Italy, USA. For further details seee his CV
(2) Timothy Hyman was the other winner of the Travel Award 2007
(2) Unfortunately, the National Portrait Gallery has not yet put up a page for the Travel Award 2007 on their website - I'll include a link here when it does.



  1. A wonderful artist - I must say I like the study of the woman bather even more than the finished painting - but I love watercolour, (which I think it's done in). Thanks for your virtual tours of the BP awards - almost as good as getting there myself...but not quite ;o)

  2. These are great paintings. I love the sombre tones in them. They do reflect the northern landscape and feel.

    'Polar bear dip' we call this Canada. Its a January 1st ritual. Brrrrrrr

  3. Thanks for this article. How very interesting his choice of subject for me! As I read this, I wondered if any mention would be made of the sauna, an integral part of this ritual. I'm a Finnish-born Canadian and love the sauna but have never had the courage to attempt the dunk into a hole in the ice, or even the easier and more commonly practiced roll in the snow!


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