Spring Fling, in May of each year, is Scotland’s leading visual art and craft open studio event. It spans the whole of Dumfries and Galloway, our region here in south west Scotland. It’s getting close to the end of June now, some weeks since I made the tour of my chosen studios over the Spring Fling weekend but I like to think about it for a while afterwards, letting what I have seen percolate and work its magic. Every year the event fills me with joy and prompts me to share a little of it with others.
I expect you are wondering what an art event like this has got to do with a blog about writing fiction? Well, it’s partly because tapping into the incredible creativity in the environment where I live inspires me to create too. It’s because artists, like writers, use their skills to draw someone to their work and their techniques and experience to make their work the best it can be. They strive to create new worlds, new perspectives, to enthrall anyone who stops by to sample their work and hopes they will leave satisfied and wanting more. But mainly it’s because art teaches me to pay attention which is also at the root of all good writing.
On the sunny morning of May 30th 2016, I sat in the park at Castle Douglas waiting for the mini bus to arrive and take our small group east, along the Pink Route that traverses the Glenkens area. While I waited I was entertained by a feisty gull marching up and down on the grass near my seat and squawking at me. I noticed that the inside of his mouth and throat was scarlet. That certainly got my attention.
Our first stop was Threave Garden and Estate on the outskirts of Castle Douglas where Lucy Hadley’s work caught my eye in the large open space by the visitor centre and cafe. It would liked to talk to her in addition to seeing her work and the video she had made, but she wasn’t well that day. However, her friend Helen was there and told me a little about her and gave me permission to photograph some of her work. Lucy has recently graduated and, perhaps because of this, there is a fresh, playful quality to her work, a blend of traditional techniques and modern digital practice. All her work starts out with with inked lines before moving on to rollers and brushes loaded with ink or paint to build uptexture. Here are two of her pieces (it was hard to escape the reflections from all the lights above). I love houses and boats so I was smitten straight away and her sketchbooks, laid out for us to see, were a joy to leaf through. In them you could clearly see how she started out as a graphic artist and evolved into the illustrator she is now. I hope we will get to see more of her work next year.
Lucy’s work shared this studio space with another artist, Catriona Taylor. What is really interesting and innovative about her work is that she uses google earth imagery, maps and shipping forecasts to create Scottish landscape and seascape collages. No-one seemed to be around so it didn’t feel right to take photos. Here is an example of her work from the Spring Fling catalogue, as she will have given permission for that to appear in print.
We had fabulous warm and sunny weather to enjoy the long winding country lanes that led to fine art photographer Phil McMenemy’s studio in Laurieston. I have been itching to go there for a long while and it doesn’t disappoint, so light and airy and hung with a surprising variety of work, some of it quiet, spare and still,
What they all have in common is his signature skill, the play of light on his subject.
This bench outside his studio is an example of Phil’s humour. He will always give you a warm welcome but you may get your leg pulled, too.
Next up was the lovely light-filled studio of the very personable Jo Gallant in Mossdale, and her lovely, black, sun-basking cat.
Jo works with fine fabrics, translucent silks, and cotton velvets that are hand dyed and embroidered and made into cushions, scarves and wall hangings featuring aspects of the surrounding landscape like this little row of houses. The fabrics seem to draw you in, just asking to be touched.
Here is a page from Jo’s sketchbook showing swallows that have recently come to visit our region.
Then it was on to Amy Winstanley’s studio in Crossmichael. Hers may not be work that is to everyone’s taste as it is not representational in the way so many people expect art to be (why?) but I loved it. Look at this: I could stare at this one for hours and keep seeing something different (apologies for the very odd angle; I was trying to avoid reflections). I loved the wonderful oil-painty smell of her studio space and got excited by the mass of tubes and brushes on her table.
She enjoys exploring abstract themes like emotion or memory, primarily in paint, but often brings photography and sound to her practice. She is also interested in man’s relationship with nature. I spotted this gorgeous example of what I see as a flower in bright dappled light (but you may see something else). Just gorgeous.I wish I had asked questions but there was a small sofa in her studio and on it was a whippet that she was looking after for the day and, as this is my favourite breed of dog, it stole much of my attention.
From there we drove to Kirkpatrick Durham, a lovely village with a number of studios to visit along the high street. Among these was the working forge of artist and Eminent Master Blacksmith Adam Booth, where he creates contemporary sculptural metal works using traditional techniques but modern equipment. He gave us a (mildly) noisy and sparky demonstration and it was amazing to see a dull rod of metal heat up and morph into an elegant leaf and stem within minutes. It was passed around our group and the last person to hold it got to keep it.
In the centre of Kirkpatrick Durham a pop-up tea room had been organsied in the village hall for the duration of Spring Fling. It was a welcome pit-stop for us, by now, hungry and thirsty travellers. Apart from food being served here, there were also more artists displaying work on stalls around the edge of the hall.
I was completely blown away by the work of Karen Menarry on one stall in particular which turned out to be the highlight of my Spring Fling journey this year:
Karen is primarily a print maker and the inspiration for her projects springs from her love of coastal towns and how they are affected by time. I found her series of Kirkpatrick Durham houses bright, innovative, skilfully and precisely made and utterly charming. I would have a whole street of these houses on my wall if I could. What is so amazing about these houses is that they are exact replicas of real houses in Kirkpatrick Durham, and Karen has researched the history of each of these houses so meticulously that the people and objects that appear behind the recessed windows are representations of the people that have lived in them, with some of their belongings.
Better still she has created a series of beautiful hand-made, small and larger, concertina style books that feature these houses. Well I don’t know about you but I’m saving up for one.
After lunch we visited a studio in Corsock which was being shared by a pair of artists Natalie Vardey and Amanda Simmons because, in addition to their own striking and individual work, they have collaborated on a sculptural jewellery project. They were also serving strawberry tarts in the studio that looked so delicate I wasn’t sure if they were edible (real) at first or another of their projects.
The first thing you notice about Amanda is her smile and it seems to have been distilled somehow into her joyful work. She creates kiln formed glass, in a way that she has honed to perfection over the last ten years, while still finding time to experiment with new ideas such as a large vessel collection. I’m so disappointed that none of my photos of her work came out successfully, so I have included a photo from a the Spring Fling catalogue, because you really have to see it. It’s a bit grainy but aren’t those elegant shapes and blends of vibrant colour astonishing? And here is one of series of prototypes for a barn she is working on, which I adore.
Natalie creates jewellery of fabulous quality in silver and gold and with the most gorgeous fat, lustrous pearls, producing necklaces, earrings and brooches (not good photos, sorry, due to the lower light conditions towards late afternoon) that take your breath away Truly. Look at these earrings; so fine, they could be lace.
She had a replica of her workspace in the studio to showcase her tools and working materials, and it came with a replica of the view outside her window, too, which made me smile. A lovely idea.
We had to leave out one studio due to an accident blocking the only direct road to it and returned to Castle Douglas where I just had time to visit my last studio, that of Michal Sur, in the gallery next to the central library. Michal specialises in fine art black-and-white infrared photography inspired by the Scottish landscape and with a special interest in trees and ruined buildings. He told me he walks for miles looking for the right tree. I asked him if he gets excited when he finally comes across one and he nodded as if he would prefer not to admit to that.
He is finding inspiration on our Scottish islands at the moment.
Though I don’t feel this is his finest tree photo, I loved the unusual perspective. And it reminded me of my childhood in India where you would often see trees growing through buildings. He also had cards for sale, so you could go home with miniature versions of some his work.
It was a packed day and lasted from 10 am to around 4.30 pm, though the day is flexible and it’s length depends on how long you want to spend in any studio. And the the cost? £10 for my minibus ticket and free entry to all the studios. At no time do you feel you are obliged to buy anything, though I’m sure the artists would love it if you did. There is always a range of smaller pieces or cards for anyone whose budget doesn’t stretch very far, and business cards to take away so you can get in touch later if you want to.
Doesn’t all that sound wonderful? Doesn’t it make you want to go? Maybe see you here next year, then?
My grateful thanks to all the artists who allowed me to photograph their work and trusted me to write about it in a way they would be happy with. I’ve loved meeting you all and being able to share a little of what you do.