potARTo Ken Neil
At time of writing, Debbie Beeson’s residency in the town of Huntly is drawing to a close after two calendar years. Fittingly, ‘An Artist for All Seasons’ was the rubric. The work produced and facilitated by Beeson over the months has reinforced the notion that prolonged and engaged creativity might wisely be a productive and perennial element within a community’s patterns of living. By contrast, of course, the world of urbancentred contemporary art (and much more besides) is agog with fashion, fad and fickleness. Beeson’s contribution to Huntly is to be seen on one level, then, as testimony on behalf of Deveron Arts that patient and cumulative art projects are desirable and achievable in our epochal moment of short-termism.
So the exceptional duration of the residency has allowed Beeson to lift her sights beyond the strict parameters of conventional residencies, and the artist has dutifully taken a longer view. As a bona fide ‘Artist for All Seasons’ Beeson has indeed paid close attention to the seasons unfolding; but the work produced is as concerned with attendant anthropology as much as meteorology. Projects were devised with local groups to coincide with Pancake Day, Halloween, and Christmas for example, and vernacular celebrations resulted.
The closing project, potATo HOM(E)age, continues Beeson’s fascination with the intricacies of local customs: she sees remnants of aged behaviours in contemporary social habits, and she also unearths the environmental causation of those habits. And so it is that Potato Maze reflects on the relationship of the town, of any town, to its surrounding land and the potentials of that land for inhabitants over time by the will of the seasons and the grace of something.
To sharpen the focus of these themes for Huntly, the potato could not have been bettered as a 'lens'. The town was once home to a buoyant potato industry and the tuber is part of the historical identity of the area. Only recently the seed potato shop has shut, but surrounding agriculture remains rooted in the crop, and the townsfolk have an array of tattie recipes for every month of the year. The potato is, of course, a food for all seasons, a staple component of diet, an everpresent in larders and kitchens.
As part of potATo HOM(E)age Beeson’s ‘Tattie Tea’ in late September invited Huntly people and visitors to walk through a maze of colourful pots containing organically produced heritage seed potatoes. At the end of the maze was a garden shed which housed a makeshift potato spirit brewery. Participants enjoyed potato scones, cakes and took home pots of potatoes along with one of the many available potato-reliant recipes which Beeson collected from the locals.
To draw an analogy between the potato and the artist is too crude and no artist will thank me for considering it here. Nevertheless, in so doing, and please forgive me, we arrive at an important strand in Beeson’s artwork, safe in the knowledge that her allusion is more subtle than mine. To see the artist or the artwork not as a delicacy but as a staple, is to shift emphasis away from art as a special thing given by a special individual to a special few on special occasions. The artist will continue to be special in a way but, within the logic of Deveron Arts, they would be more numerous, and much more akin to a catalyst than a giver of discrete self-generated things.
With this as a possibility, arrived at through a reading of the potato’s ubiquitous usefulness and nourishment, the potent brew in the shed might stand for the heady mix which can arise when the ordinary is patiently catalysed over seasons by a creative agent – the strength of that agent being improved if a concerted, shared effort is made in the process. If the output is also generous in its relevance to makers and beholders, as is potATo HOM(E)age, then so much better the brew. The maze itself emphasized patience again, and underscored the notion that art works on us by way of wrong turns and deadends as much as anything else.
Deveron Arts has once more made the ordinary extraordinary by unlocking aspects of vernacular history and presenting them in the present with imagination. The lasting message from the ‘Artist For All Seasons’ might be, then, a twofold observation about creativity and community.
Firstly, and ideally, creative imagining should be a permanent resident of communities countrywide, harnessed with purpose to knit groups together across the cycles of the years in response to the foundations of their place. The still special but more common artist might well be present to encourage and sustain activity and production in various ways, for example, those tested and proved by Deveron Arts.
Secondly, more practically, such a vision might not normally be easily realized within communities beyond the good work of Claudia Zeiske’s and Debbie Beeson’s. But where such cooperative activity does not manifest itself in an organized way, take heart, says Beeson, for the creative resilience of those who can, analogously, transform the everyday staple into something beyond the ordinary are themselves working away at the rearguard action against the onslaught of the temporary and the inherent banalities of the short-term.