Issue 221
May/June 2022


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May 21, 2022

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Pop-up goes professional

Producing artists get together in South West Scotland

FORTY committed artists have come together recently to sell their work in shops in Kirkcudbright, Castle Douglas and Gatehouse of Fleet. They call themselves PA Popup, as that's how they began, when in 2015 textile designer, Morag McPherson took over an unused shop in Kirkcudbright. It became a fixture and two other shops run by artists sprang up in Gatehouse and Castle Douglas.

PA stands for 'professional artists'. PA Popup members see themselves as professional. They have a commitment to their art or craft and although they might not be entirely financially self-sufficient, the bulk of their working life is spent practising their art.

In each shop is a display of artwork ranging from ceramics, glass, illustration, jewellery, metals, paper craft, photography, textiles, wood, painting, prints and cards. The aim is to create a coherent display in each venue.

Ken Smyth ©Pam Kelly

As a collective, PA Popup must cover its costs. Each artist pays a monthly fee for rent and utilities. No commission is charged and members set their ticket price. Artists' co-ops can be positive, resulting in thriving partnerships, interesting collaboration and shared responsibility. In this respect, PA Popup asks members to take charge of the shop for two days each month. And if a member wants to show their work in more than one venue, they can do so, if the balance of work on display is reasonable.

Sales fluctuate according to the season; summer of course, brings in the shekels, but there can be a flurry of buying in the run-up to Christmas. In Gatehouse, the shop, open from late March to the end of October, is in a large gallery space on the top floor of the Mill on the Fleet, a restored cotton mill on the banks of the Fleet.

Artist, graphic designer and film-maker, Ken Smyth, who is chairman of the Mill on the Fleet board, is one of PA Popup's most innovative artists.

He sees no conflict between commercial commissions and his own art. "One bounces off the other," he says. His style varies from traditional pictorial, bright colour, Expressionist and sometimes it drifts into abstraction.

For Ken, partnership is important, whether it's taking part in the PA Popup collective or participation in multi-disciplinary art.

A recent work-in-partnership involved collaboration with composer, Kat Gillham and Galloway/London-based Chrys Salt. Kat wanted to put the latter's poetry to music as she was moved by her poetry on the Iraq war. Chrys Salt is a pacifist, who was affected by the fact that her son, in the Territorial Army, went to fight in the conflict.

Working with the words and music, Ken created images and brought all three mediums together, to form 'Seascape: a poem-film'. With the voice of Freya Wynn-Jones (soprano) and Martin Neill on piano, this 5-minute elegiac work is exquisitely haunting. To mark the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War next year, Ken plans a performance piece and/or film of Chrys Salt's poetry accompanied by Richard Ingham's music and Ken's visual images.

A more ambitious poem-film is 'Shookum Jim & The American Dream', based on Chrys Salt's 28 poem sequence on the US Klondyke Gold Rush. A different approach was needed for this work and it took a long time to complete. After visiting the Yukon, Chrys composed poems that told stories. To illustrate them, Ken employed imagery that resembled travel posters, cartoons and abstract illustration.

Ingham composed the music for each poem and after recording the pieces, Ken brought together the words, music and illustration to make a film. His concern was its length. At 40 minutes, it was much longer than the previous poem-film. Could audience-interest be sustained for that length of time?

Shookum Jim & The American Dream's first outing as a digital offering will be this month at the Dumfries & Galloway Arts Festival (May 20-29).

Enjoying the challenge of working in multi-media, Ken Smyth found Chrys Salt's poetry accessible and her themes compelling. He is drawn to sombre subjects like the Iraq War and the environmental chaos caused by the Gold Rush. "Artists get more mileage out of tragedy," he says. "Maybe because it deals with a greater scope of emotions in a wider range." He takes Rubens's majestic scenes and portrayal of cataclysmic events as an example, not to mention Goya's portrayal of war.

You could say that PA Popup is the 21st century's equivalent to the artists' colony, like the St. Ives and Kirkcudbright communities at the turn of the 20th century. The PA Popup collective challenges the power of the gallery owner who charges commission on artworks sold, and avoids the alienation of showing and selling online. Most importantly, it enables artists to work together, learn from each other and innovate.

As Ken Smyth points out, there's often an element of risk in any creative endeavour and the nerve-wracking moment when the artist must 'pull the rabbit out of the hat', and make things work. Hopefully, the PA Popup collective can provide support for those who are committed to this kind of high-wire act.

MARY GLADSTONE





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