Obituary: Robert Callender, artist

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Robert Callender, artist. Born: 14 January, 1932, in Kent. Died: 27 July, 2011, in Fife, aged 79.

Robert Callender was born in Kent, where his father was an engineer and boatbuilder on the Thames. For six decades he worked as an artist in Scotland, studying medical illustration in Edinburgh, and then painting at Edinburgh College of Art from 1954 to 1959, and teaching from 1960 to 1993. He was a much-loved teacher and a cherished presence in the Scottish art community.

His career is remarkable for its openness to innovation and its devotion to self-generated challenges.

He began to exhibit in the early 1960s and underwent a short-lived pop art phase, which involved the insertion of domestic and personal objects on busy and brightly coloured canvases.

Later, works which attracted attention were large paintings, sometimes very large indeed, of beach scenes, mainly of the stony and pebbly kind.

"Photo-realism" was mentioned by various critics, but the term was shrugged off by Callender, who preferred the simpler term "realist", and suggested that the difference between realism and photo-realism was considerable.

Probably what he had in mind is the fact that realism leaves room for original vision and expression, even eccentricity and obsessions, while photo-realism leads to enslavement to the object and exact representational techniques as an end in themselves.

Such works were exhibited in a solo show in the Serpentine Gallery, London, and Watermarks (1980) at the Fruitmarket Gallery, together with Elizabeth Ogilvie's equally large drawings.

Callender, known to his friends as Bob, began to re-invent his work several years after he and his partner, subsequently his wife, the artist Elizabeth Ogilvie, acquired a bothy in Sutherland at the Point of Stoer.

In that remote spot, without electricity, taking fresh water from a nearby burn, and collecting driftwood from the beach for heating and cooking, Callender became increasingly intimate with the sea as an artistic resource as well as a formidable element.

A catalyst to his subsequent work occurred in 1983 when there was a tragic boat wreck offshore and five fishermen lost their lives. On a DVD accompanying a package of work done between 2003 and 2006, Plastic Beach, he is recorded as saying that his maritime work can be seen as a homage to those who earn their living on wooden boats. It led to a close observation of wreckage and the massive variety of what gets washed up on the shore. This prompted a series of collections, beginning with Between Tides in 1985, and followed by Sea Salvage in 1989, both shows at Edinburgh's Talbot Rice Gallery, and three exhibitions of exquisite smaller works at The Mercury Gallery, London.Balsa wood, cardboard, pulped paper, paint, sawdust and adhesives were chosen to create replicas of boats and wreckage which, despite the lightness of the substances used, convey an astonishing illusion of weight. If the impetus behind these works is elegiac, it is also chilling in its assured avoidance of sentimentality.

In 1990 Callender and Ogilvie moved from Leith to the Fife coast where they created a new home and studio in a former cinema, providing inspiration and space for new and even more original work by both artists. Coastal Collection, for example, amasses a multitude of objects found on Scottish shores in the area between high and low tides.

Instead of spreading out real objects - the work is a floorshow - he made replicas from pulped paper and paint. Weirdly, the objects do not appear replicated but renewed. There is pathos in this in that objects do not feel retrieved so much as recovered from the sea.

It would be pointless to try to list them all, but they range from pots and pans, boots, shoes, fish-boxes, floats, spanners, jemmies, hammers, chains, chunks of machinery, a sailor's box for treasured possessions and so on.

For Callender, beachcombing was a fascination, a pleasure. It was also an encounter with the extent to which coastlines can look like garbage dumps.

Any ecological criticism exerted by the work- and it is present - is partly undermined by the evident delight the artist took in making each perfect replica. If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then Callender possessed it in abundance.

But why re-make objects in another substance from that in which they existed in reality? The answer is simple.

He was a dedicated artist and could no more betray his hand-and-eye skills than turn back the tide.

It is not always admitted, but artists are often driven by their work towards unpredictable destinations. In any of the arts, there can be no standing still, repetition, or self-parody. Comparing earlier works with later ones is to witness Callender's protean ability to move, not just with the times, but with the impulses of his own mind and intuitions.

He was a stickler for principle. He knew what he was doing and did it with unyielding integrity.

Plastic Beach was his last major work, again a reflection of a worsening environment. It formed part of an installation at Contemporary Art Space Osaka (CASO) in 2009, where 600 works were selected from both Coastal Collection and Plastic Beach, to the delight of his devoted Japanese audience.

To enable current and future generations to enjoy Callender's many projects and exhibitions - six decades of work - a box publication to celebrate his life and art will be published in 2012 to accompany an exhibition.

Robert Callender is survived by his wife and soul mate, the artist Elizabeth Ogilvie, and his two dearly loved sons John and Mike and grandchildren Fiona, Laura, Robbie and Sula.