If it took place at any other time of year, the Pittenweem Arts Festival would be huge. Massive. It would have big bucks sponsorship and a national and international profile. It would be the kind of event that Visit Scotland would spend a small fortune promoting to prospective cultural tourists. By stubbornly continuing to share a start date with the World’s Biggest Arts Festival™ down the road in Edinburgh, however, it seems destined to remain a little bit off the radar – which, you suspect, may be just how regular attendees like it.
That’s not to say that the festival isn’t always busy – it is. The temporary car park set up each year in a playing field just out of town is so big it’s probably visible from space. In its current form, though, and at its current size, the event still retains its own, very particular kind of magic.
Obviously the setting helps: this year’s edition, which kicks off next Saturday, will see more than 130 artists exhibiting their work in unusual and unexpected spaces all over the Fife fishing village, which is in itself a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk, with impossibly picturesque cottages and steep, narrow wynds packed together at odd angles around a busy working harbour.
But perhaps more important than the unique built environment of the town is the fact that the degree of central curation in the festival is kept to a minimum. Yes, as usual this year there are a handful of invited artists – Calum Colvin, Lara Scobie and Line Mortensen – and yes, some of the year-round galleries also show work by artists from out of town, but as in the early days (the festival began in 1982) many of the people in the programme are still local painters and sculptors who are opening up their homes and/or studios to the public. As a result, this is still, to a significant extent, a festival of local art by local artists, and as such it has a distinctly nautical flavour. Artists, after all, are always likely to be influenced by their surroundings, and you’d have to be a pretty insensitive soul not to be inspired even a little bit by a place as redolent with seafaring history and folklore as Pittenweem.
Among the more notable nautical artists in this year’s programme is illustrator and printmaker Sophie Demery, winner of the festival’s 2019 bursary. Her recent work includes a series of prints of islands of the Firth of Forth, which combine sea charts with elevations of the islands drawn from sea level, and a zine on Scottish fishing folklore. She has also created a book entitled Lost at Sea, in which she looks at what happened when 28,000 plastic ducks fell off a cargo ship somewhere in the Pacific Ocean in 1992. The illustrations have a wonderful, tongue-in-cheek quality to them yet the book also makes some serious points: the ducks’ movements were used by oceanographers to learn more about ocean currents, and their “ducks overboard” moment was a prelude to the present-day marine plastic crisis.
After a few years of visiting Pittenweem, one painting of colourful fishing boats lying at anchor in the harbour can start to look much like another. However, clichés are made to be subverted and this year’s festival promises a few interesting variations on the theme. Painter Colin Jack is celebrating his 30th year at the festival with local scenes rendered in the stunning Japanese ukiyo style, while Caroline Blackler paints evocative watercolours of local seascapes in which tiny, isolated fishing boats chug their way pluckily across huge, empty expanses of water. And look out for paintings by Faye Alexander MacLeod, who zooms in on harbourside details: tangles of ropes, nets and buoys and a dead crab lying amongst rotting seaweed.
A few of this year’s artists find innovative ways of including flotsam and jetsam in their work. Karen Trotter, for example, incorporates pieces of pottery she’s found washed up on the beach into atmospheric assemblages, while David Behrens makes kinetic sculptures which animate pieces of seaglass.
And if none of the above sounds salty enough for you, how about an exhibition in a lighthouse? In January, Scottish Natural Heritage, who have responsibility for the Isle of May, approached the organisers of the festival and asked them if they would like to stage an exhibition in the island’s 1816 Robert Stevenson lighthouse. As a result, two rooms have been filled with work by local artists, all of which is linked in some way to the lighthouse and the island. The lighthouse is open on weekends only until the end of July and then all week from August to the end of September, and is accessible from Anstruther Harbour via the good ship May Princess.
The Pittenweem Arts Festival runs from 3-11 August, www.pittenweemartsfestival.co.uk