Report for Deveron Arts Artist in residence Deborah Beeson – 2007 At the beginning of 2007 I felt I was losing my way a little. After the whirlwind of 2006 and all that had happened I was afraid that I was suffering from a creative burnout. Would anything that I was to do in future be as good or better that which I’d already created? I had big doubts. I did not want to be one of those artists that just create the same thing over and over again – slightly varied- no matter how successful. What did happen though and probably kept me sane was my involvement with the MacDonald festival. It put me on a level of a jobbing artist, not coming up with the whole idea but collaborating and contributing in a small way to make the overall event successful. Having already set up the lunch time art club with probation art teacher, Stephanie Milligan, it made things easier in collecting volunteers to make the Macdonald masks for the photo shoot. Although one thing I have to say is that when working to a deadline where children are volunteering their time-especially at lunch time- enough notice should be given. With so many other activities going on plus forgetfulness and illness it is difficult to keep the momentum going especially when a job requires patience and isn’t instant. Persistence seems to be the key when working with teenagers and not being too disheartened when they don’t always show up. Getting the balance between instructing them and letting their own creativeness come through is challenging. I have always advocated that I am not a teacher to both the kids and their teachers – I am there merely to give them a different experience or perspective of what art can be. But a school experience is very structured and I have found it challenging to break through teenage preconceptions which are built through their own conservativeness and the schools own need for curriculum and government guidelines and the inherent obsession to be able to measure ability. There is little room for imagination or eccentricity in the kids’ eyes but when presented with it they rise to the challenge. I think for future reference what might be prudent is to have a tutorial with the kids after a project is complete. I think a discussion session with them might consolidate what has been or not been achieved also it may help to put in to context those difficult concepts artists tend to address and help answer questions like ‘why are we doing this?’ Perhaps a good department to have those discussions in is the RMPS dept. and I have a feeling those particular teachers would be pleased to be approached. Another part of the MacDonald project was to collaborate, although at distance, with Bob Peg the story teller. I had encountered Bob before so I knew pretty much what he was
about. I was asked to illustrate a booklet of his stories. It was an interesting exercise for me as I had been doing some pen and ink doodlings which I was quite pleased with but the challenge was to translate another artist’s imaginings. Bob was very much about the local landscape and so I took inspiration from that and based most of the drawings on pictish symbolism. These seemed to be the most successful ones.
The final little job for the festival was the photo shopping of the school images for publication. Not a difficult job once the software was in place just finicky and time consuming. A good exercise on what I don’t want to do as job!
Once the Macdonald festival was over it seemed I was back to square one again wondering what my next project would be. I needed to build on what I had already accomplished but it was just finding that hook that could let the flow begin. Claudia, I’m sure, was getting worried because I had come up with some ideas but never really got them off the ground. On hindsight it felt like I was repeating myself and I wasn’t happy with that. Eventually, over coffee, Claudia and I sat down and had brainstorming session. She iterated what she felt had been successful and with referencing back to my degree show piece with the clocks I had said I was looking for an alternative energy source for the clocks. This brought us to potato batteries which can run digital clocks. All of a sudden potatoes were a great metaphor for a rural area. After some initial doubts as to what to do with potatoes apart from plant them, I went along with the idea. I didn’t necessarily want to dig up the garden so I started to search for other ways of planting the potatoes and came across some colourful plastic tubs in a local garden centre. Planting one pot was not going to make a statement so I thought 200 might.
Initially I wanted to put the colourful pots in various places around Huntly but practicalities about watering and vandalism came into play- this was going to be a long project so I needed the plants to survive. Another idea was to put them around the edges of the A 96 King George V round about but on contacting Bear Scotland they were not best pleased with the idea. So they stayed in the garden behind the library where they could be safe and nurtured. A quick mention to Fraser Wilson who is a local farmer who produces organic potatoes who supplied me with several varieties of very colourful potatoes to go with the pots. Edzell Blue, Highland Burgundy Red, Golden Wonder, Salad Blue to name but a few. In the mean time I needed an event to punctuate the year, having not had one so far. This took me back to the idea of a potato battery. It seemed to encompass a lot of my thoughts at that time about land use and the issue of renewable or alternative energy versus food production. It seemed quite an absurd idea to be able to produce energy from a potato so I took it to the science department at the high school to see if it could be done. With the help of Kevin McIntosh –chemistry teacher- and – physics teacher- and after a few brain storming sessions and a practice run we managed to rope in a few of the senior pupils to be involved in setting up the giant experiment in the Square in Huntly on the 21st of June. 400 potatoes some zinc and copper electrodes and several metres of wire we managed to light a small led light bulb. This was placed behind a frasnel lens because it was so small and also in an attempt to represent a light house effect. It was such a bright day the light was incredibly difficult to see and I sometimes had to convince people it was actually there. I stayed around the Square all day and chatted to people who were obviously curious as to what was going on. Others were annoyed because I’d taken up car parking places but on the whole it was a good experience. Placing the intervention in the middle of the town worked well. It couldn’t be avoided and anyone passing experienced it. At lunch time when the school came out for lunch I was intrigued as to how many kids came up and were genuinely curious and interested. Logistically the event was a fairly simple affair once I’d got permission from the roads department at Aberdeenshire Council who said they’d supply cones to cordon off the
area in the Square and subsequently didn’t- a bit of politeness managed to move the few cars that were parked there. I was hoping to involve a science class in doing the donkey work of wiring up electrodes and use that time to discuss with them the crossover of art and science and the issues I was thinking about. Trying to pin down a time or class with the science teachers was not at all easy. They were with me in principle but again the dictates of curriculum, exams etc. seemed to leave little time in their minds for any extra-curricular activity. I was looking for a little expertise from the teachers and I certainly got that but I wonder whether my approach was a little too rigid. I went in with an idea and limited time (which is often how I work) and although ideas were certainly added-the frasnel lens to name one- maybe an approach of I’m interested in potatoes what can I do with them in your department which will help you and still be part of the curriculum may well have been a better approach. Flexible with an element of surprise at the end result –if there was going to be an end result. It is possibly may inexperience that prevented me from doing that but also I think lay people expect an idea to be fully developed when you go to them with a proposal - this is what we are going to do – to be told what to do rather than let something go with the flow. They become a little uncomfortable. But of course this is artistic process and what I would like to be more about. To make up for those doubts the setting up of the intervention went really well. I had several pupils from science and art departments plus the teachers come and join in the whole event as well as visiting later on. I feel that just by liaising in the first place with the teachers-by being friendly, interested in their work, having a cup of tea during their lunch hour and generally just making myself known- helps enormously in ultimately their overall interest in the project, in me, DeveronArts and art in general. It’s an approach worth thinking about. If an artist in residence has time the social element of just turning up at a school or group or institution over several weeks is incredibly potent in increasing awareness of their work. The one off talk is very interesting but people don’t get to see the person behind the work, necessarily. In the mean time the potato pots were developing nicely. The summer was proving to be quite wet and the pots needed very little watering but the odd feed did them good. Initially the pots were perched around the garden mainly for the convenience of the grass cutters. After having done some research on Mothers Day I was intrigued to find out that the concept originally came from people making the pilgrimage back to their mother church –in days gone by. So just a general look at the tradition brought up Chartres Cathedral in France and the maze that lies within. It is a complicated affair and is thought to represent
the road to Jerusalem and the Mother Church or cradle of Christianity. People felt obliged to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem but of course for many this wasn’t possible so they would walk the maze in churches such as Chartres instead. If you felt you were an ardent sinner then you were required to make the walk on your knees in penitence. The story struck a certain resonance with me personally about leaving home but also returning and seemed to add a little depth to the concept of the potato pots and so the potato maze developed. I needed my ‘church’ and so purchased a shed and proceeded to paint it with drawings I had been doing on a smaller scale-mainly of houses inspired by the local architecture. This was now placed in the centre of the maze.
After the potato battery intervention I was left with an awful lot of spuds and I hated to see them go to waste. I think I had a conversation with Sue in the office about potato vodka and the brewing of it. I knew that distilling alcohol is illegal but brewing it isn’t so after collecting a couple of recipes for potato wine decided to find my old brewing kit and give it a try. It seemed a fitting end and interesting process of what is an incredibly versatile vegetable. The play on the word ‘spirit’ seemed to fit well with the religious application to the installation that was now happening in the garden and so when the wine was ready to be put into demi-johns I moved it into the shed at the centre of the maze. The end of my residency was fast approaching and I needed a ‘full-stop’ to this project. It turned into a very gentle and patient process led piece of work which I find suits me. I felt I needed a gentle end that wasn’t really an end but an intermission. I had started to collect china tea cups fascinated by their intricacy of pattern and delicacy but also of the heritage encapsulated within them. Relics of a by-gone era they are never-the –less still handed down through families as heirlooms and have incredible sentimental value to a lot of people. This is where the idea of a tea party stemmed from. It is a social event and I felt it was a novel way of perhaps getting local people to come and visit an art work without intimidation! As well as the tea cups I’d also started gathering vintage tablecloths and since the tea party was imminent decided to utilise these items as artworks in their own right and so embroidered some poetry and sayings I had written onto them. The overall look of the party was important –flowers on the tables –china tea-cupsembroidered table cloths-silver teapots-cake stands- milk jugs- leaf tea – garden canopies – wrought ironwork tables and chairs- all gave the air of a lost world that probably never really existed.
I had employed a local lady who baked to come up with some interesting recipes that included potatoes that could be served as sweet or savoury cakes for the party. She came up trumps in the varieties of cakes produced for the day. Claudia, Sue and I also added to the feast. The day itself went incredibly well, boosted by the lovely weather. Some strange and wonderful people all arrived at the tea party which had the added bonus of being allowed to take away a tub or two of the now ripe potatoes. One of the most interesting groups of people, for me, to arrive were older gentlemen who generally speaking are not interested in being involved with art projects. Their interest in the potatoes and gardening in general seemed to break down their normal reserve and mainly dragged along by their wives in search for a cuppa seemed to end up enjoying the whole experience.
This could certainly be a way in to this group at a later date. Gardening amongst the older generation in Huntly is quite prevalent with borders of neat blue and white lobelia in front gardens and rows of curly kale in back gardens perhaps give Huntly an air of being stuck in a time warp where gardening success is measured by how even a potato is at the local flower show or gala. These rural shows have always interested me in the way that ‘nature’ is measured and how that attitude has over spilt into food culture. Another part of the tea party project was to gather some potato recipes from the local population. I didn’t give myself enough time to do this part justice, I feel, and could actually be a whole project on it’s own with a publication of recipe book. Maybe it is something else to follow up on? The last stages of the project were to get a publication out and to round up the last couple of years by exhibition or a talk. I opted for a talk because I didn’t feel the residency was about exhibiting in a gallery and always about the ‘town being the venue’. An ill attended gallery exhibition in Aberdeen’s’ Limousine Bull seemed wrong. A talk was more natural and pleasantly well attended by locals and folks from further a field. Backed up by a tattie wine tasting, the end product of a now destroyed installation in the
garden; fittingly ravished by the harsh winter weather, seemed to fit the comforting effects of a good crowd and a little alcohol in the depths of winter.
The publication came together relatively quickly. Claudia had asked Ken Neil to write a piece and she had written a piece herself. It was certainly a collaboration between myself, Fiona and Claudia and I tried to take as much experience from them as I could having not done much in the way of presenting a booklet such as this. Overall 2007 turned out to be an interesting and rewarding year. From dubious beginnings and doubts on my part along with a turbulent private life I somehow managed to come through it all smelling of roses and not rotten tatties. All in all challenging and educational for me and hopefully for all I came into contact with.