Artists can capture the soul and spirit of the place they live and work in – I love meeting them and hear about their inspiration. The North East Open Studios festival in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire is one of ten Aberdeen Festivals and gives visitors the opportunity to peek inside artist spaces and meet the makers. I traveled to NEOS in September 2018 and met three local artists I would like to tell you more about!
Have you ever traveled for a festival? I think festivals are the perfect reason to pack your bags, head out and experience a destination at its most vibrant, bustling and colourful. I’ve travelled to Shetland for the Viking fire festival Up Helly Aa, to the Faroe Islands for the musical G! Festival and happened to visit Berneray during Berneray Week and managed to catch a traditional live music performance. Each of these visits was made extra special by connecting with locals who also participate in the festivals. Events like that turn locals and visitors alike into discoverers, break down boundaries and make for instant ice-breakers in conversations.
That’s why I was super excited when VisitAberdeenshire and Aberdeen Festivals invited me to join this year’s North East Open Studios festival and meet some of the local artists in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. I packed my bag and road-tripped around the area for 3 days, meeting artists along the way and getting to the bottom of their art and their inspiration.
Edinburgh is not Scotland’s only festival city! Aberdeen and the surrounding region of Aberdeenshire are home to a thriving festival landscape. Throughout the year, from February to November, Aberdeen Festivals presents 10 major cultural festivals covering a variety of art forms and speaking to all kinds of interests. Whether you love music, want to peek inside an artist’s studio space, enjoy a dance performance or learn new facts about science and technology – Aberdeen Festivals has an event for you.
The 10 member festivals are SPECTRA, a festival of light and music, Aberdeen Jazz Festival, May Festival at the University of Aberdeen’s Old Aberdeen campus, Look Again, a visual art and design festival, Scottish Traditional Boat Festival in Portsoy, TechFest, a festival of science, technology, engineering and maths, North East Open Studios (NEOS), True North music festival, DanceLive and sound festival of new music.
North East Open Studios (NEOS)
One of the UK’s largest open studios events, North East Open Studios (NEOS) takes places across 9 days in September. Artists and makers all over Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire open their studio spaces to the public, enabling visitors to see where and how they get their creative juiced flowing. Some even do live demonstrations of their work or host workshops to share their skills and crafts.
I was psyched to be a part of that. One look at the brochure was enough to see that this area of Scotland is filled to the brim with creativity and talent.
Art is such a personal thing – it can be quite hard to understand (or explain) where the inspiration for a piece came from and it’s easy to forget sometimes that there is always a person behind every piece of jewelry, art print or ceramics you buy. Visiting a maker in their sacred space, learning what inspires them and seeing where they create their unique artwork is a fantastic way to get close up with their art and forge a personal connection.
Meet the artists of Aberdeenshire
With this in mind, I met three artists working in different corners of Aberdeenshire: landscape painter Wendy Crichton who sets up studio in her Aberdonian conservatory and shares her art in a garden gallery; seascape painter Frances Innes who has transformed the attic of her townhouse in Peterhead into a cosy gallery space; and basket weaver Helen Jackson who is part of the Banchory-based artist collective Heckleburn Quines.
Wendy Crichton, Aberdeen
“I’m not a trained artist, but I’m also not scared to put myself out there either.” Wendy Crichton joined NEOS for the first time in 2017. Selling several images she had put up at her local GP’s surgery, gave her the confidence boost she needed for that. Her first year was a great success – many people came and showed an interest in Wendy’s work. Loving the experience, she hosted again in 2018, showing off her conservatory workspace and her gallery space in a quirky shed in the middle of her wonderful garden – painting is by far not Wendy’s only creative talent! Surrounded by the busy neighbourhood of Bridge of Don in the north of Aberdeen, her garden feels like a calm retreat to me, far away from the bustle and noise of the city.
After her children had left the house, Wendy was looking after her mother-in-law. When she passed away, Wendy was suddenly left with a lot of time at her hands – time she wanted to fill with a creative outlet. She enrolled in an art class at Aberdeenshire College, took an interest in painting and continued her training at the local community centre. The teacher there did not prescribe what motifs or styles they should paint, but rather encouraged her students to paint what they were really interested in – and in Wendy’s case, that was Scotland’s beautiful landscapes.
Wendy tells me, she tried for a while to paint landscapes which she thought people would be interested in – paintings of Skye when she was exhibiting on the West Coast, or Portsoy when she set up her stall at the Portsoy Boat Festival – but somehow, those paintings did not sell in the places she painted them for, and she went back to painting just what she felt like. In her gallery I found beautiful sceneries from Plockton next to the romantic cobbled lanes of Old Aberdeen and detailed studies of colourful puffins.
“I still get slightly – you when you’re painting and people are coming and looking at what you’re doing – I get slightly embarrassed, in case they think it’s crap or something. I don’t have the confidence.” And yet, selling the first painting of her life, up at a gallery in northern Scotland, felt amazing. It’s weird to sell a painting, she tells me, but in the end, selling one means she has new space for the next project.
There are a few paintings though, Wendy would never sell – and NEOS was a great opportunity for me to see some of these mounted on the walls of her workspace.
Frances Innes, Peterhead
“At NEOS I can show a lot more of my work”, says Frances Innes, a land- and seascape painter based in Peterhead along the Aberdeenshire Coastal Trail. And to show, she has a lot! Opening the doors to her townhouse near the sea, she invites visitors to see her workspace, but also her wonderful attic gallery. Unbelievable that it is usually used as a storage space or somewhere to leave big paintings out to dry – I feel like I’m being invited into a sacred space; a place the artists usually keeps to herself.
Even though she had always been creative, helping her husband with school projects, for example, it took a watercolour class around 15 years ago, to convince her to give painting a try. At the end of the source, the class put together an exhibition and every single one of Frances’ paintings sold. “It was astounding, I couldn’t believe it,” she tells me, surprised at the fact that she was any good at watercolouring. Admittedly, watercolours are often used for very delicate paintings, and one look at Frances seascapes tells me, that delicate is not her style.
Instead, her paintings are full of emotions – lines expressing the forces of nature, colours blending together to capture the richness of the Scottish sea and land. Frances is interested in details, but she is not obsessed with them. When a painting does not work out the way she imagined it, she is handy with the guillotine, making sure the best bits are kept and reframed as stand-alone pieces of art.
“I feel like my paintings are really a visual diary of what I’ve seen each day,” says Frances. Growing up in Bridge of Don, long before it turned into the bustling suburb it is now, she tells me about childhood trips to the sea and playdates by the beach. Her new home Peterhead is surrounded by water on three sides and since she’s not driving, her frequent walks allow her to get to know the local beaches like the back of her hand. She often draws from photos, she takes on her walks, or from quick sketches, she makes out and about, and her passion for the sea shines through in her powerful paintings.
For Frances, NEOS is an opportunity to let the public into her space, but also observe how other people interact with her work. She tells me about two women, who visited her studio the day before me and spent a long time, playing around with several unframed prints. They tried to find combinations that they liked and would work in their homes. NEOS is not just a festival for us to meet artists, it’s also a way to let artists be inspired by us and how we interact with their work.
There are many other landscapes Frances is interested in, and I loved seeing some of her moorland paintings and pieces from her woodland series exhibited around the gallery. You can find more of Frances’ work on her website and on Instagram @innesfrances.
Helen Jackson, Royal Deeside
“I think everybody loves baskets, there’s something about them.” And then there was Helen Jackson. Helen was the last NEOS artist I met on my road trip around Aberdeenshire. She is a basket weaver, producing wonderful functional baskets but also decorative wall hangings made from willow, some of which she grows herself.
Trained as an arts and crafts primary teacher, Helen had always been creative – “you mention it, I probably had a go at it,” she tells me after naming just a few crafts she felt passionate about. After a few years in America, her husband’s job brought her to the Royal Deeside in Scotland, where she is based now and exhibits every NEOS together with the all-female artist collective Heckleburn Quines. Apart from Helen, there is ceramic artist Hilary Duncan, landscape painter Mel Shand and textile artist Sarah Pooley. Even though they mostly work independently, they have joined forces for creative projects in the past and find that their work compliments each other perfectly for NEOS. Their gallery is bustling with visitors when I visit, some just looking around, others picking up pieces of ceramic they had produced during a workshop with Hilary.
But back to Helen. She got into basket making when she moved to Scotland and is fascinated with the plethora of techniques and materials she can utilise as part of this craft. For her latest collaborative project, Wattle and Daub, she started using all sorts of natural fibres to weave baskets – lavender, leaves, twigs, nettles. It’s never-ending; “you go for a walk, see something and want to make a basket out of it.”
Her passion for the craft is infectious. For centuries people were using baskets – to carry their shopping, as measurements tools, for storage – only recently have we started to replace them with plastic bags and crates. But the craft of making baskets is still very much alive. Helen tells me about the Scottish Basketmaker Circle and the British Basketmaker Association; about the young artists picking up the craft and the workshops she holds for anyone who is interested in weaving their own basket.
Lately, she also started dipping her toes into more aesthetic weaving – not just functional baskets, but also artistic wall décor, made from cuttings and scraps leftover from her bigger basket projects. I figure, their main purpose might be to be looked at, but in the end, using leftovers and avoiding waste is a functional purpose in itself – Helen wants her craft to go full circle and be environmentally conscious at all times.
Our conversation turns towards selling her baskets and she tells me about her experience of selling something she made for the very first time. “It was a cringe-worthy feeling,” she says when she sold her first basket. The parallel is striking – like Wendy and Frances, she admits that she was not very confident in her skills, to begin with. Now that has changed though, and she’s proud to present her work with NEOS, meet other artists and share her love for weaving with the public.
You can find more of Helen’s work on her website.
Thinking back to all three artists I visited, I realise that not only did I find out a lot about painting and weaving, I also got to peek behind the facades and learn more about the creative minds behind the art. North East Open Studios festival presented a great opportunity to see off the beaten track locations in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire – I doubt I would have stopped in Bridge of Don, Peterhead or Banchory otherwise – but also a unique perspective into the mindset of locals who draw so much inspiration from this beautiful region in Scotland.
NEOS will be back next September, so make sure you book your trip to Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire at the same time and visit some artists yourself!
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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.
Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Visit Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen Festivals. As always, all opinions are my own.