Pittenweem Arts Festival review

Alasdair Gray, Pittenweem Arts Festival
Alasdair Gray, Pittenweem Arts Festival
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AS HIGHLIGHTED in these pages last week, Auld Reekie’s not the only eastern Scottish burgh currently en fête, with the 31st Pittenweem Arts Festival, across the Forth on the coast of Fife, having kicked off on Saturday. And as a hugely enjoyable, richly inspiring model of community arts and professional arts so thoroughly and happily integrated that any such divide effectively vanishes, the smaller event would be hard to beat.

Pittenweem Arts Festival

Various venues, Pittenweem, fife

Pretty is certainly the word for Pittenweem itself, with the festival’s remarkable total of 87 venues – including locals’ living-rooms, kitchens, gardens, garages and attics – encouraging visitors to explore all the town’s myriad nooks, crannies, wynds and closes. The window of Barnett’s Bakery on the High Street proudly proclaimed “We have art AND cake” (the former being Kirsty Thomas’s winningly simple but effective sea-themed prints), while the stairs up to painter Lynn McGregor’s alluring semi-abstract, semi-collaged landscapes, on show at the harbour office, led you past posters identifying types of deepwater fish, advising on rabies prevention, and listing the dos and don’ts of potting and creeling.

With a good many of those venues hosting half a dozen or more artists’ work each, the full festival programme comprises no fewer than 126 exhibitions, attracting some 25,000 visitors over its nine-day duration – behind which stands a resident population numbering just 1,800 or so. The extent to which they’re behind it is visible in multiple ways, notably the 20 or 30 flower-decorated bicycles currently scattered around the place, originally an idea tying in with Pittenweem in Bloom, but which has spontaneously grown legs to coincide with the festival.

After Saturday’s opening ceilidh at the harbour, the popping of pyrotechnics could be heard from all directions, it being a tradition for locals to let off fireworks in their gardens to celebrate another year’s launch. In the church hall complex showing a wonderful profusion of work by native Fifer Jonny Hannah, one of four invited artists in the festival’s “official” line-up, another room houses a likewise enchanting array of portraits by P6 and P7 pupils at Pittenweem Primary School, who worked with local artist Tim Cockburn to paint one another wearing sundry silly wigs, hats and glasses.

Like much of the featured artwork, Hannah’s too dwells fruitfully on the emblems, lore and associations of the sea, combining text and deceptively playful, sometimes cartoonish or childlike figuration via a mix of printing and painting techniques, across objects as diverse as plaques, books, bird-boxes and watering cans.

Among the other invited artists, both Alasdair Gray and Brigid Collins also fuse words and imagery, Gray in characteristically elegant, black-edged (literally and metaphorically), multidimensional narrative constructions, such as the marvellous Scot’s Hippo screenprint series; Collins in an intricately interrelated selection of wall-mounted works, responding to lines from authors including John Donne and Kathleen Jamie, and extraordinarily delicate, intricate, 3D “poem houses”, combining miniaturised fine craft techniques with material from nature.

Nature more directly inspires the last of the official quartet, Keith Brockie, who specialises in understated but stunningly detailed, vividly characterful portraits of seabirds and other local wildlife.

Also exhibiting by invitation are the 2013 winners of the festival’s two annual bursaries for up-and-coming artists. John Kelly’s meticulously crafted, intensely detailed ink drawings bring a fantastical, Escher-like perspective to semi-imagined depictions of the East Neuk coastline, while William Middleton’s folklore-influenced, darkly surreal yet impish drawings and prints delve into his own subconscious.

Further attractions among the majority of registered artists, who’ve arranged their own shows, range from Derek Collins’s unique fire-finished paintings to sumptuous knitwear and covetable jewellery; from Frances Wilson’s fragile fusions of ceramics and lacemaking to Keny Drew’s ingenious, evocative merger between photography, screenprinting and stained glass.

Overused phrase it may be, but here’s another festival that really does have something for everyone.