For nine days in September the artists, craftspeople and makers in the North East of Scotland open their doors to the public. It is a widespread, highly organised and volunteer run festival where the public can venture across this scenic landscape to find unique workspaces, converted mills, chapels and and magestic castles-turned galleries displaying no less majestic and unique work. The rich artistic tradition in this seemingly remote part of Scotland is laid out, waiting to be discovered.
A comprehensive book and clear map become your exhaustive guide to the festival– there is so much to see and do, that even if you have a plan and are highly organised, you probably won’t be able to see it all. At least, I wasn’t able to make it to all the venues I wanted to. The book makes a lovely catalogue guide to artists and makers in the area, even after the festival is over. (I used the one from last year to become acquainted with the creative landscape of the area).
Highlights for me were visiting Lynn Pitt at the Mill of Nethermill whose small stone built studio is nestled in lush, wild bay– a few steps from the studio wrack-covered stones jut out into the sea. Lynn also runs award winning, self-catering accommodation on this site. I purchased a beautiful pit-fired urn which I hope to use as a spirit box. It feels alive in the hand– marvellous. Her studio is full of sturdy, elegant pieces that one could use everyday– mugs, plates and vases– in deep blues and greens that no doubt get their colourings from the shifting moods of the sea outside the studio door.
One of the closest venues (to my own home studio) in the festival is also one of my favourites, Watergaw Ceramics. Watergaw is the Scots word for a shimmering, indistinct rainbow and it suits the otherworldly glaze of Fiona’s work which utilises “glaze reduction lustre”. The light in the converted-chapel studio brings out the luminous and nacreous surfaces of her work brilliantly.
Brian Cook Shand, Fiona’s partner, was demonstrating making round, perfect things on the wheel on the day we visited. Also at the studio was Woodwork of Neal Graham as well as the intricate Picticish and Celtic carvings of Jamie Fergusson of Pictish Designs. I was able to talk to Jamie for quite some time about his process and what it’s like to be a jewellery maker here, including the interesting potential development of a silver-smithing co-operative in Banff in a newly renovated listed building, but that is a topic for another time.
Another highlight was visiting the studio of icon painter Maria Guerreiro of Portsoy. The intimate scale of the paintings allows her faith to shine out. She uses medieval materials and techniques in traditional yet accessible ways. I fell in love with the profile of an angel on paper which I purchased.
We also met Mary J. Torrance, painter of cats. Her sunny studio outside of Fraserburgh was open to the public. I enjoyed hearing about her wide-ranging process and the kind of creative explosion that happens when women decide to stop giving away their ideas and energy and instead employ it to service their own vision. On the whole NEOS impressed me particularly for the women participating, all at the height of their creative powers. I thought perhaps it is no mistake I have ended up here.