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Freeing the Spirit: Part One

Freeing the Spirit or Causing Chaos: 35 Years with a Scottish arts’ organisation

Our former Programme Manager Susan Davis has had quite the career with Fife Contemporary! After curating an exhibition of historic Scottish silver in 1986, Susan was employed as the Touring Exhibitions’ Administrator (the TEA lady…) in 1987 for the Crawford Centre for the Arts. The following year, the organisation became independent from St Andrews University (as the Crawford Arts Centre) and her role, as the only member of staff to remain in post, broadened to become Exhibitions’ Assistant. For the next 35 years, as Susan’s job title, remit, and the rhythm of the organisation changed, she was given wonderful opportunities to work on between 400 and 500 exhibitions, residencies, projects and events, meeting artists at all stages of their careers, working in a wide range of media, and also members of the public from all walks of life.

We asked Susan to summarise some of her favourite experiences and memories…

Part One: Exhibitions

I was under no illusion, when asked to write a blog post about some of my favourite exhibitions and projects over these decades, that this would be a hard task. Many people spend their working lives with colleagues they have scant respect for, toiling in a profession they hardly like. My experience has been the opposite. Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to be part of an organisation that has flourished in the face of change, and whose present characteristics were formed in its early years and refined over the decades.

Art or Craft? 

Much time has been spent trying to pigeonhole artists and their work in terms of media. An abiding feature of the Crawford/Fife Contemporary’s programme which I have always liked was an exploration of the work of artists at the intersection of visual and applied art. Rather than sticking to definitions, exhibitions and projects celebrated the blurring of media and the exciting work it produced. 

Freeing the Spirit – Contemporary British Abstraction was the first exhibition produced for the Crawford Arts Centre in September 1988. Curated by postgraduate Art History student Catherine Wallace, it included work by well established artists like Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Bert Irvin and Philip Reeves, but also work by recent graduates like Graham Fagan and Lisa Gribbon, using diverse materials like railway sleepers, slates, and mixed media on board. 

Cover of Freeing the Spirit publication (I well remember watching Cath Wallace creating that on the office floor with marker pen and a can of spray-paint…!) and installation view of Freeing the Spirit  

Ring of Alder (summer 1991) – Valerie Pragnell took woven alder/willow to a large scale with her statuesque sculptures and evocative drawings that filled the main Crawford gallery. 

Cover Story: A New Look at Bookbinding (Mar/April 1994) – many designer bookbindings are sculptural objects as this exhibition, curated by postgraduate Museum & Gallery Studies’ students, University of St Andrews, showed. I had seen an image of the beautiful binding by Faith Shannon of The Book of Job – a single garnet for a drop of blood as the end point of the initial ‘J’, cut into cream leather, with the slit backed in gold; so very simple yet impactful – and felt bookbinding could be an interesting exhibition theme. The exhibition encouraged St Andrews-born Derek Hood, then working in the university bindery, to study and develop his bookbinding career. (He was featured in our Craft Pods’ tour 2019-20.) 

Presence and Absence – Contemporary Lettering (Oct-Dec 2003), curated by Manny Ling, University of Sunderland, looked at the many ways lettering was used creatively – from an installation of poetic letters on acrylic by Valerie Coffin Price (also featured in the 2020 StAnza Poetry Festival exhibition Berlin Water), and the delicate calligraphy on ceramics of Mary White, to Gurpreet Singh’s exploration of Sikh language through digital artworks.

The Dangers of Sewing and Knitting (with the Collins Gallery, Glasgow, 2005) highlighted the many textile skills of artist Deirdre Nelson, and also her great knowledge and understanding of the history of making and makers. Her artworks demonstrated the unseen suffering that went on in the production of clothing and textiles – as much a social history lesson as an example of excellent techniques.

Cycling up the hill with my dad (St Andrews Museum, 2007) was a lovely examination by textile artist Claire Heminsley of the artistic stimuli she and her late father, ceramicist David Heminsley, shared. Though working in different disciplines, drawing underpinned their work.

The Marzee Collection (2009) was an ambitious project with Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen. It comprised an event at House of Falkland, an installation at St Andrews Museum of contemporary European ‘wearable sculptures’, with photographic portraits by broad daylight (Ross Gillespie & Tricia Malley) and filmed interviews of the jewellery wearers. CPD was organised for teachers, workshops with 3 Fife high schools, and a Curator’s Day organised with Scottish Arts Council (Creative Scotland) with a highlight being a Q&A session between Dorothy Hogg (then head of Jewellery & Silversmithing, ECA) and Marie-José van den Hout (creator of Galerie Marzee). Altogether a truly memorable experience!

Nexus: Meetings at the Edge (2018, Kirkcaldy Galleries & Ruthin Craft Centre, Wales), curated by Dr Elizabeth Goring, in partnership with Ruthin Craft Centre, looked at contemporary artists working outside the traditional boundaries of their medium. In the spotlight were the fields of silversmithing, ceramics and textiles – but not as you’d expect to see them!

Read Part Two of Susan’s Fife Contemporary retrospective: Creative Opportunities for all

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