BW Jand T insert 01 proofing
Lil Neilson, ‘A Place for 4 Women’, 1989. Insert in ‘The Bitter Cup’, photographed by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Catterline, April 2019.

‘I used to look outside–to paint the sea and the land. I can no longer bear to look at the despoiled land and the polluted sea and the dead seals. Now I’ve come into my cave praying and painting the signs, like the women at Lascaux and Altamira.’ [1]

Lil Nielson, 1989


‘The painting is put in your mind from somewhere else. I’m not trying to describe anything. A work of art doesn’t have a subject. It has a spirit. I’m looking for a perfect space.’ [2]

Agnes Martin

A tiny, square, black plastic box with an image of a unicorn on the lid. Sealed under convex gloss, gleaming white amongst emerald foliage, under Phthalo blue sky. Inside, a miniature, clear, glass cube pendant and a geometric fragment of quartz.

[the scent of dewberry perfume]

A pale green (eau de nil) round plastic soap box with gold trim. Inside, a small handful of pussy willows, silvery fur soft as a mouse’s ear. Quiet and tender in their powdery room. Days pass, and they open up like feather down, yielding a clutch of fat white maggots. Tumbling and writhing on the moss-green carpet, waiting to be hoovered up.

[the scent of Le Jardin d’Amour]

A battered old wooden first aid box. Once white, its painted surface is layered with worlds of dirty scuffs and scrapes. Wobbly on its feet, rusty hinges. A cross made from two intersecting linear rectangles is lightly scratched into the lid. A grubby palette of cream, cloud-grey, yellow ochre, burnt sienna and raw umber.

[the scent of old newspaper]

A rectangular, clear, perspex box with rounded corners and a flat sliding lid, roughly the same dimensions as an old video cassette case. Inside it has a static divider lengthways, with moveable panels that slot in horizontally to create adjustable sections. It is a box for sorting out and seeing things clearly. The perspex is scratched and clouded in places but light filters through. A cross-section of the heart.

[the scent of a fisherman’s hands]


[1] Quoted in Into the Light: The Art of Lil Neilson, Aberdeen: Aberdeen City Council, Arts & Recreation Department, 1999.

[2] Interview with Agnes Martin by Michael Auping, May 1997, in Transcript, volume 03, issue 02, p.86. Dundee: Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, 1997.


Valerie Norris is an artist and writer based in Dundee.

‘The Bitter Cup’ by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan is published by Book Works in association with Hospitalfield, Arbroath, 2019.