Putting art and soul into hospice support

THE painting that has caught Sheana Stephen's eye is certainly striking: a carved aubergine, its squeaky, shiny purple skin sliced open to reveal the spongy creamy flesh within set against a deep scarlet background.

• Sheana Stephen admires some of the jewellery on show at the exhibition

"Now, what's it called?" ponders Sheana, flicking through the art exhibition catalogue, running her finger along row after row of entries to find number 84: Crudite.

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Another glance at Edinburgh-based RSA artist Gordon Mitchell's apparent still-life and suddenly it all falls into place. "Oh, I see! It's a naked lady," laughs Sheana, peering closer at the ragged line that earlier just looked like a roughly cut chunk of vegetable but now revealed to be a pert breast and the curve of a thigh. "That's very clever indeed."

Next to it on the stage of Freemason's Hall in George Street is another of Gordon's works, this time two chunks of driftwood which, rather more obviously than the more subtle Crudite, are quite clearly also a pair of breasts. This time the artist hasn't even bothered to conjure up an intriguing name, it's simply titled Bust.

Not that the 25th annual fundraising art exhibition and sale in aid of St Columba's Hospice, featuring the pick of Scottish artists, is in any way risque. In fact, it's a diverse, sometimes slightly abstract other times quirky and on occasions gritty range of some of the best, affordable original art around.

When it opens to the public today it will also present art lovers with a once-a-year opportunity to not only snap up a striking and unique artwork, sculpture or piece of jewellery at a reasonable price but to support a city charity that has nursed countless people through the final hours of their lives.

From humble origins in a tent in Charlotte Square in 1986 when a group of local artists gathered to show their work and raise money for the hospice, the annual art exhibition - run by a committee called The Art Friends - has raised more than 325,000 for the Boswall Road facility.

This time around it's hoped to boost that sum by at least a further 40,000 as artwork from talented artists - many of them Edinburgh-based - is snapped up.

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Paula Garrow, chair of the organising committee, has been busy helping pull the pieces together in time for the three-day event. As she pauses to appreciate Glasgow-based artist Karen Cairns' bustling scene of Princes Street - a vision of buses, taxis and shoppers but, thankfully, no road works - she points out that it is just one of many familiar Edinburgh scenes in this year's show.

"We have such a good selection of excellent Scottish artists - which means there's a very mixed selection of art," she says. "It's very diverse, although it tends towards the traditional, there are also items that younger buyers will enjoy.

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"No pickled sheep or unmade beds though, I don't think we could ever sell that."

Instead there is a bright scene of the Fringe box office on the Royal Mile by Penicuik artist Alan B Heriot, alongside Edinburgh College of Art graduate Stephanie Dees' intricately detailed scenes of Victoria Street, the Water of Leith and the New Town. A swirling vision of two ceilidh dancers - their tartan outfits blurred with movement - appropriately entitled Birlin' by local artist Janet McCrorie, shares gallery space with a voluptuous sculpture - Chloe - by Alejandro Lopez, one of the more expensive items, on sale at 1000.

But, Sheana insists, pointing to Venetian glass earrings adorned with milky white pearls by Avril Jacques priced at 30, the majority of the exhibition works come with a very affordable price tag. "And people do have birthdays and anniversaries, even if it's a tough time financially these days," she adds.

Indeed, in a catalogue of 270 items of original artwork from around 100 artists, only a few burst the four-figure mark: prices start at 90 for an original Fairground Fantasy print by Jennifer Pettigrew, rising to 2850 for a dazzling Continental landscape by contemporary artist Tom Watt.

By far the most quirky of all are eight cute and intricately detailed images of Morningside's favourite feline, Maisie, by artist Aileen Paterson, pictured right.

The writer and illustrator has supported the event throughout its 25 years, providing works for every exhibition and sale and, on occasion, buying some for her own walls.

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In recent years her contribution has taken on additional significance. "A very close friend of mine died very young but was cared for by the hospice," she explains. "It was so sad, but I'm not alone because so many of us have a friend or a neighbour or a relative who are helped by the hospice."

Income from previous sales has helped fund a range of important equipment for St Columba's Hospice, including a people carrier that is used to transport patients to and from the day hospice. And it's because the hospice is so close to many people's hearts, that the art exhibition and sale takes on a special significance, adds Paula.

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"The care the hospice provides is magnificent," she says. "Although I'd worked with the Art Friends Committee for a while it wasn't until a friend of mine died in the hospice that I really began to understand the significant role it plays.

"The hospice resonates with each and every one of us."

• The Art Friends of St Columba's Hospice Exhibition is at Freemasons' Hall, 96 George Street from today until Saturday. Opening times are Thursday and Friday, 11am to 7pm, and Saturday, 11am to 5pm.

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