Caledonian Mercury: Spring Fling provides an artistic showcase for south-west Scotland

6th March 2012

By Matthew Shelley

Joan McAlpine has her eye on a big fish – a metre-long willow-woven John Dory. The spiny predator is the work of the renowned artist Trevor Leat. It features in a “taster” exhibition promoting Spring Fling, an annual open studios event which showcases some of the best arts and crafts from Dumfries and Galloway.

McAlpine, who officially opened the exhibition at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries last Friday, was clearly taken with what she saw. “I’m so impressed by the quality of the craft and arts here,” she said. “Some of the ceramics are gorgeous, really, really gorgeous. And then there was that John Dory. I was so impressed – I don’t know if it’s been snapped up yet, but I’m going to see if it has.”

The artist and the politician have something in common beyond an appreciation of sardine- and squid-eating oceanic hunters. Both understand the role that art can play as a focus for social and economic activity. Indeed,Leatfrequently sees his own works – which have included a huge representation of the pagan spirit Herne the Hunter – put to the torch as the ritualistic climax of communal celebrations such as Scotland’sWickerman festival.

In an age where chain-store blandness has undermined the individual character of towns and cities across the country, and throughout western Europe, McAlpine sees the arts and crafts as a providing an opportunity for communities to restore their distinctiveness. “One of the things that concerns us about Europe and the UK is the rise of the clone town. For ten, 15 years people were consuming stuff that everybody else was consuming and the recession is a judgment on that.

“It’s quite interesting that people are looking to consume in a more unique way. The rise of the craft and maker movement is a part of that and I think that’s really encouraging. People want to reconnect with skills. One of the things about clone towns, mass-marketing, was the way that skills disappeared. History teaches us that people have incredible potential and I think that this is us revisiting that past.”

McAlpine believes that events such as Spring Fling, which will see 75 studios open their doors to the public from 2–5 June, have far-reaching benefits, beyond the temporary tourism boost they build the profile of the region. “Dumfries and Galloway is a magnet for the arts,” she said, “and people associate it with creativity and want to visit it. I think there’s a snowball effect. Creativity attracts all sorts of people – it attracts companies, because if you want young and talented people they will want things to do and to feel they are living somewhere interesting. So events like Spring Fling are enormously important in the long term.”

A few facts about Spring Fling’s development help illustrate its burgeoning economic value. Back in 2003, it attracted around 1,350 visitors who spent £57,500. By 2011, 66,500 people made 194,000 studio visits and spent £781,500. Their money didn’t just go on arts and crafts, but meals, drinks, accommodation and trips to other local sites. Indeed, to help this process along, each of those taking part in this year’s event have been asked to recommend somewhere to eat and a place to visit.

Hazel Campbell, painter and chairman of Spring Fling, says its appeal is that for a few days of the year people can bypass the galleries and go straight to the studio or workshop. “They can come to an artist in their room, garage, studio, garret or whatever and be welcome. They can see the paints and the brushes, or the loom or the potter’s wheel. And if they want to buy something they know it has come from that place, and they have spoken to the artist or maker – that’s very important.

The range of arts and crafts embraced by Spring Fling is impressive – from painting, photography and sculpture to jewellery, textiles, ceramics and furniture. Many of the studios are worth seeing in their own right. There are former farm buildings, a converted riverside weaving mill and a house with a huge clock tower where the bell tolls on the hour. One is a part of art history itself – Dungalston Farmhouse which was the subject of three paintings by “Glasgow Boy” James Paterson.

The event has knock-on benefits for cafes, B&Bs and other places. And because the brochure lies round all the year in people’s houses and hotels and libraries, and I think people follow up in quieter times – let’s go back to Galloway and see if we can stay at that nice hotel again,” says Campbell.

This year is Spring Fling’s tenth birthday and, as a trial run, it is being extended from three to four days (coinciding with the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations). It is part of ongoing efforts to expand and broaden the event’s appeal. This, according to Campbell, is about more than Spring Fling itself: “It has achieved so much, it’s encouraged us to value Dumfries and Galloway and I’m hopeful that this will be passed on to the younger generation, who will see the value of coming here to work and live.”

Original article to be found here.