Shutters’ exposure: Brightening up Leith

Jamie Johnson at work on the Games Exchange on Leith Walk. Picture: Jayne Wright
Jamie Johnson at work on the Games Exchange on Leith Walk. Picture: Jayne Wright
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SMALL business owners on Leith Walk, which connects Edinburgh city centre and Leith, have been hit hard by the trams fiasco, suffering years of disruption and lost trade before being told “sorry – we won’t be sending all those wealthy foreign tourists in your direction after all”. Under the circumstances, providing modest funding for a community arts initiative like the Shutter Project seems the least the denizens of Waverley Court should be doing by way of recompense.

Under the circumstances, providing modest funding for a community arts initiative like the Shutter Project seems the least the denizens of Waverley Court should be doing by way of recompense.

Dreamed up by Sarah Woodford, town centre co-ordinator for Leith and Portobello, and brought to life by rising arts impresario Morvern Cunningham, the Shutter Project will invite six artists to decorate the steel security shutters of six local businesses in the coming months, transforming stark, utilitarian bits of street furniture into colourful installations.

First up is 23 year-old Duncan of Jordanstone graduate Jamie Johnson – a man with a very personal connection to Gamesmasters, the video games exchange he’s been asked to transform.

“I grew up just across the road from here,” he says, gesturing to the other side of the Walk. “When I was about eight or nine my mum bought me a Sega Game Gear [a hand-held games console] for Christmas. I was so pleased with it, it kind of instilled in me a real liking for platform games. Then when I was older I would always come here because it has such a good selection of old-school games – all the early Sega stuff and the early SNES [Super Nintendo Entertainment System] games.”

“I really like the fact that it’s a little bit of a time capsule,” he says of the shop. “There’s all these old games cartridges glued to the ceiling and they’re not in any desperate rush to keep up with the times and get all these hyper-real PS3 [Playstation3] games.”

The design Johnson is painting on the shutters of Gamesmasters is still a work in progress when I arrive, but it clearly pays homage to the classic platform games like Super Mario Bros and Sonic the Hedgehog he played in his youth, with large blocks of colour in the background representing a stylised, cartoonish landscape and foreground details layered over the top.

Perhaps the most striking features of the painting are the clusters of hieroglyph-like symbols that populate certain areas. Johnson makes these marks almost instinctively while talking to me, as if the part of his brain that deals with language and the part that deals with mark-making are completely separate. I’m reminded of something Alan Davie said in an interview a few years back, about how he was constantly trying to “bamboozle” his conscious mind into letting his unconscious take over. For Davie, Scotland’s undisputed master of magical symbolism, unleashing the unconscious was clearly an ongoing struggle, but for Johnson it seems to come naturally.

“Symbolism is quite an apparent theme in a lot of my work,” he says. “I use it to kind of suggest narratives that I have in my head.” He’s not giving any clues as to what that narrative might be in this case though: “It’s open to the viewer’s interpretation – it’s not laid out for them.”

Johnson’s Gamesmasters mural will be officially unveiled tonight as part of Leith Late, the annual gallery walk masterminded by Cunningham that first took place last summer to great acclaim. Starting at 6pm at the Whitespace Gallery on Gayfield Square and winding its way down the Walk over a leisurely three hours, this year’s event will have a total of 15 stops, including venues hosting exhibitions, live music, film screenings and more. Featured artists include Kevin Harman, Katie Orton, Ross Fraser McLean and Stephen Collier and art lovers will be serenaded by the likes of Blueflint and the Black Diamond Express. An afterparty at Henderson Halls will be headlined by Remember Remember and Paul Vickers and the Leg.

“We’re going to have the launch of the Shutter Project as part of Leith Late,” says Cunningham, “and then after that we’re going to try and have one shutter going up every four to six weeks – maybe a bit faster, but it depends on the collaboration between the artist and the business.

“The difficulty with this is it’s not just about the artists slapping a piece of their artwork onto any old business, it’s about them working together with the business owners and having some sort of compromise where the artist feels that the work that’s on the shutter is exemplary of their practice but it’s also something that the business feels represents them in some way.”

Even in its half-finished state, Johnson’s shutter painting has been attracting a fair bit of attention: “Lots of people have been asking what I’m up to, some folk have been giving me strange looks and a few folk have been suggesting ideas,” he says. And inevitably, perhaps, a young guy in skinny jeans and a baggy T-shirt spraypainting a shop front in broad daylight quickly came to the attention of the boys in blue.

“I had the police down asking me a few questions about myself and my background,” he says. “They eventually understood what it was all about though. I had some other business owners come out to speak to them and back me up so it was fine in the end.”

• Leith Late takes place tonight in various venues around Leith, see www.leithlate.co.uk