Colony of artists sparks urban regeneration

IT is something you might commonly associate with a village on a rocky outcrop of south of France coastline.

Or, closer to home, somewhere like Kirkcudbright, in Dumfries and Galloway.

But if anywhere in Edinburgh is to be home to a cluster of artists, it has got to be one of the almost a dozen housing ‘colonies’ scattered around the city, built by artisans (the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company) for artisans during the 19th century.

In 2005, several homes in the Abbeyhill Colonies, near the capital’s Easter Road, were turned into pop-up exhibition spaces for nine local artists.

Sixteen years on, and the work of the founders – artist, Gill Smith, and her partner, Bob Giulianotti – has grown considerably.

The Coronavirus pandemic resulted in a modified version of the 2020 version of what is now an annual festival.

But in 2019, by way of comparison, it involved 66 artists (ranging from first-time exhibitors to professionals), 40 pop-up spaces, food and drink stalls and a live music stage.

The 2020 edition went ahead, over a September weekend, with a ‘garden party’ theme – all completely outdoors, with central track-and-trace registration, along with venue tracking. There was no outdoor food or drink and group activities were cancelled.

But it turned out better than expected and visitors were willing to queue, socially-distance and wear masks outdoors. 

The exhibition’s driving forces today are artist, William Mazur, and his partner, Kat Chisholm, who are both local residents. Chisholm – who describes herself “more of a historian” – has been involved since the start.

Begins Chisholm: “Gill had been exhibiting at the Pittenweem Arts Festival [in Fife] for many, many years. And because everyone knows their neighbours in the Abbeyhill Colonies, and feels like a village like Pittenweem, she thought of doing [a similar festival in the Colonies].

“I’d say at least 90 per cent of the exhibitors live in the Colonies or at least have a connection with them. The Colonies, in their uniqueness, lend themselves to people who want to live somewhere a bit different.

“It is extraordinary just how many artists do live in the Colonies, and I think it’s because there is a sense of openness to having something like this [annual exhibition] and the new project that we’re now working on.

“After every exhibition, everyone is buzzing, talking about the next year’s event and how to make it bigger and better. All the local pubs and cafes say it’s their best weekend of the year, in terms of business.”

That ‘new project’ is a response to the ‘tagging’ graffiti that Chisholm and many others feel has become something of a blight on the area.

“I’ve been living in the Colonies for 25 years and seen the changes, both good and bad, in the area. And an increasing bugbear has been the level of tagging graffiti, both across the city and here, specifically, in the Abbeyhill Colonies.

“It’s being driving me crazy for quite a while, I think it brings down the area and is depressing to look at. It’s been on my mind for many years; I’ve spoken to lots of people about it, including the council.

“And I was inspired by the [arts charity] Leith Late, which got artists to do some work on the shutters along [nearby] Leith Walk. I thought: if it can be done along Leith Walk, it can be done here.”

It began with two murals on Colonies streets, Rossie Place and Waverley Place, with the materials paid for out of the advertising taken out in a brochure accompanying the 2019 exhibition. Four more murals are in the pipeline.

And it has graduated to tackling shop shutters – each and every piece of work having first received all the necessary consents – beginning with a shop, Easter Greens (pictured), on Easter Road, and continuing with another set of shutters on neighbouring London Road.

So, it’s not ‘guerrilla re-generation’, even if it sounds a little like it, at least in spirit.

Adds Chisholm: “You first need the participation of the community, and its businesses; I don’t think you should be going under the cover of darkness and painting a set of shutters. It helps that we are established; if you like, have paid our dues.

“We had well over a 1,000 people come to the 2019 exhibition. We give back to the community in different ways, so I’d say there is a level of trust that’s been built up.

“You can’t plaster every single wall with art, because that might just be annoying. But it would be good every business and every stair got as involved as possible in cleaning up their little patch.”

And it speaks volumes that every art intervention thus far has been left untouched by the vandals.

Mike Wilson is a member of the PlaceDesignScotland team.

Photo courtesy of the Colony of Artists

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