AS AN artist who left behind two cities – London where she grew up and Edinburgh where she studied – to live the rural life in Dumfries and Galloway, Alice Francis might not have expected to end up working on a northern factory floor.
But when we speak she is on her lunch break at the Plumbs factory in Preston, “a proper British company” that specialises in curtains, loose covers and upholstery.
She’s been up since 5am, and is getting used to the atmosphere and strict rules of the shop floor. But Francis hasn’t given up the day job: she’s currently wrestling with more than 400 metres of 1.5m wide stretch fabric, in order to create her most ambitious work to date, wrapping an entire country cottage in a pink rose-pattern loose cover.
The piece, Couch, will be created this Thursday to form one of the centrepieces of Spring Fling, Dumfries and Galloway’s open studios festival, which will run from 2-5 June.
Now in its tenth year, Spring Fling is a major event in the Scottish arts calendar. During the weekend some 76 artists and makers, from milliners to photographers, will fling open their studio doors, offering visitors the chance to learn something about their work, and an opportunity to buy.
To help visitors navigate the event, there are bus tours, a bicycle ride, a guided walk, a smartphone app and a website that will become a long-term guide to arts in the area.
In the past, Francis has opened the door to her own studio, but this time she is going much more public, transforming a simple cottage on the B736, three miles south east of Castle Douglas, near the Doach Woods and scenic views of the Solway Firth.
“It’s a serious thing put in a humorous way,” she explains. “I was thinking when we walk down our streets, we don’t use our environment in imaginative ways. The way our dreams are defined is by what we can buy or by the latest fashions.”
Couch has been some ten years in the gestation. Where did she get the idea? “Out of my head,” she responds rather abruptly, then laughs, “but I’ve long been thinking of buildings as an extension of self-expression. It’s a cottage, a rural idyll, and the chocolate box idea of the countryside. But it’s also the symbolism of domesticity and the aspiration lifestyle, overblown.”
Francis first came to the Castle Douglas area 14 years ago. Drawn to the area by the now defunct artists’ community at Orchardton House, where some 40 artists and makers lived and work in or near the Scottish Baronial mansion. It was, she recalls, an “amazing place. I went down for a party, it was a world of its own, a place where you just had to be an artist.”
Now with a family and a home of her own, she is long settled in the area. “I have loved the solitude at times,” she says. “But at times my performance has come from desperation at the solitude.”
Her work in this vein, she says, falls into two categories: “only just noticeably abnormal”, or on the other hand “very bizarre”. Thus for one performance, in 2004, she travelled rural Dumfries and Galloway, stopping unannounced at small settlements, got out her mop and bucket and began scrubbing and polishing the white lines in the road. But the more flamboyant side of her practice has seen her dress up as a pink bunny, polish leaves and try to hoover the forest floor.
If domesticity is a recur- ring theme, Francis’s most enduring work is far more sociable. When her local art deco cinema in Castle Douglas was demolished, she built her own mobile cinema, the People’s Palace in an old caravan.
“It was the most amazing place,” she says of the old cinema. “When it closed everything was left, the sweets were still in the counter. We managed to salvage some of that.”
These days the People’s Palace works with schools and at festivals: “We’ve had live musicians, worked with young people to make their own films and hold world premieres,” she says.
Francis, it seems, is a can-do person. Working with Plumbs she has found them to be a can-do organisation too. “There’s an amazing local rep called Raymond Boyd. When you approach Plumbs they put you on to your local person. He told me, ‘Madame, I need to come and measure your furniture’ and I said, ‘I don’t have any, it’s a house.’ He didn’t even blink.”
Francis had to crawl all over the roof of the cottage to make her measurements, and much of the technical side is still experimental, but she’s undaunted and already thinking about how to reach the widest possible audience. “I’d love to do it next to a motorway,” she laughs. And with that she must get back to the factory floor. «
Spring Fling runs across Dumfries and Galloway, from Saturday until 5 June.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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