Thursday, 21 July 2011

New residency at Leith School of Art

For the last week I have been artist-in-residence for Leith School of Art in Edinburgh. This is a four-week project running the summer. Housed in the only remaining Norwegian Seaman’s Church in Europe, the Art School has been a catalyst for cultural renewal in Leith since it was founded in 1988. Since the school has independent status it can teach a syllabus that the staff actually believe will benefit their students. And benefit the students they certainly do. In contrast to the wider corpus of art school education, Leith holds to traditional values of drawing, painting and making that really do set up their students for a rigorous and considered creative practice. I can say that because I was a student here myself in 1998. In an otherwise cynical and hierarchal arena for arts education Leith is like a breath of fresh air. It really is good to be back here.

LSA was founded by Mark and Lottie Cheverton (interestingly former UCCF staff workers) who wanted to establish an Art School with a Christian ethos for community, education and creative excellence. In 1991 the Chevertons were tragically killed in a car crash and the future of the school looked uncertain. However, Philip Archer, a colleague and friend of the Chevertons was appointed as Principal and the school has grown under his headship.

The church is still consecrated and continues to be used by the Norwegian community for special services and events.

Surrounding the college, Leith is the industrial heart of Edinburgh and the historical home of Scotland’s merchant and naval base. Like many of Europe’s city dockland areas Leith continues to pose social needs. The monuments to Leith’s past celebrate its shipbuilding and whaling legacy but no one wants to remember its history of gang related violence and drug abuse (think Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting). In the early 1980s, Leith was the AIDS capital of Europe – a situation made worse after the council banned hospitals from giving out free needles to drug addicts in an attempt to root out the drug problem. In effect, users simply shared needles and AIDS spread like wildfire.

In recent years Leith has been subject to urban generation. Alongside the historical wharfs and dilapidated council flats rise shiny new apartments for city workers and a brand new shopping mall that wouldn’t look out of place in the suburbs of Americana. They even have a Thomas Kincade franchise.

Here in this curious juxtaposition of old and new, historical, industrial and commercial I’ll be making drawings and painting about the changes in Leith. I’ll be blogging throughout my residency on my studio blog.
You’d be very welcome to follow my progress and I’d value your comments.

Here though and for now I am struck by the role Leith School of Art is playing in the urban generation of a troubled area. In contrast to the capitalistic solutions presented by the multi-national corporations and investors, LSA offers hope for renewal through the development of community and artistic renewal. If the act of creativity is indeed a wholly human experience there is much of humanity in the ethos and teaching of this little Art School that nestles amongst the debris of Edinburgh’s historical and industrial fallout like redemptive seed of hope.

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