The Pittenweem Arts Festival: An Artist’s Reflection on Art, Church, and Place

One may be forgiven for questioning the theological value of art festivals; after all, they can be known for their unbridled commerce and questionable aesthetic taste, not to mention chaotic parking. Then again, so can churches. As a vision of ecclesiological possibility, the 2018 Pittenweem Arts Festival displayed something different this past August: hospitality.

As an artist and a viewer of art, I have become more aware over the past few years of the limitations and benefits of showing art in gallery and museum spaces. The artificiality of a museum dedicated to various ‘important’ works of art is, after all, still relatively new in the human project. I won’t deny the joy, the usefulness, or the egalitarianism of places like the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh or the Tate Modern in London (both free to the public) where anyone can gaze upon magnificent and significant works of art. Likewise, galleries provide spaces for artists and the public to gather, to share fresh artistic ideas on a more intimate level. Yet both these contexts carry a certain artificiality with them: as we look from one work of art to the next we have a lingering hunch that the pieces displayed were not made with the intention of being shown in such a setting (exceptions such as installation art notwithstanding). Even so, it can be difficult to imagine otherwise— we tend to think of these spaces as where art ‘belongs’.

With this awareness in the recesses of my mind, this past August I made the twenty-minute drive south of St Andrews to one of the small fishing villages on this lovely corner of Scotland known as the East Neuk (‘Neuk’ being, as it happens, a local variant on ‘corner’). The town of Pittenweem is itself a postcard; art festival or not, one could be content to wander its cobbled alleyways, catching glimpses of the North Sea. With such a picturesque context, it’s no surprise that not a small number of artists have made Pittenweem their home and studio. It is this community of artists whose work I’d come to see, along with works by what seem to be at least a hundred more artists from out of town, gathered for the annual festival. So big has the festival become that the whole town seemed to have opened their arms in welcome to the flood of visitors. All the logistics were in place, from well-directed parking (indeed!) to a thorough 73-page booklet covering each artist, every venue, each and every talk and workshop, including the essential map of venues.

The artwork on display in Pittenweem was not, generally speaking, the same kind of work one would find in the Tate Modern or Scottish National Gallery. One possible avenue of critical engagement with the works here would dismiss many pieces outright, stamping them as untrained or tourist art, and long for the sophistication of the city (I admit, my own judgements leaned this direction at times). There is perhaps no fault in acknowledging that some pieces didn’t interest me; that’s to be expected with such a wide representation of work. More importantly, however, I found the works of several artists quite interesting, whether in their technique (Paul Bartlett limits his image-making, mostly of waterfowl, to what he can do with ripped up recycled magazines) or subject (Derek Robertson, one of the honoured invited artists, showed watercolours from his recent Migrations series, which incorporated depictions of migratory birds into images of his recent encounters with refugees throughout Europe and the Middle East). The Behrens family of artists were among my favourite, with at least three family members showing completely different styles of work. Reinhard Behrens has devoted one room of their house to his mythical world of Naboland, a conceptual land he has explored in his oil paintings for nearly 45 years. His is a straightforward approach to painting exotic landscapes such as the Sahara or South China Sea, but there is a twist: somewhere central to each scene he has incorporated his signature toy submarine. Kirstie Behrens, in contrast, has eschewed the exotic and mythical for the local and mundane. Her evocative, minimalist etchings of trees and stumps from a nearby woodland were stunningly beautiful. Elsewhere in town one might encounter paintings of animals, village-scapes, shorelines and more shorelines; there was jewellery, turned bowls, a great variety of ceramics, and more. The lighthearted and joyfully eclectic; the works evocative of Pittenweem itself— painted as if in homage to the place—the random and the weird; the bright, bright colours (how could it be otherwise in Pittenweem?). All this to consider, but I want to return in this article to the festival booklet itself, and specifically to the map of venues, for I believe my interest in the context of art might yet provide us with some theological reflection.

The Pittenweem Arts Festival this year had no less than eighty-four separate venues. On the booklet map these appear as a veritable constellation of dots, as if some action-painter splattered the page with yellow acrylic. Artwork was shown everywhere in town! I stepped into private homes and gardens, working artists’ studios, galleries and cafes, and warehouses… the Harbourmaster opened his office as a venue, as did the local brewery. There were works being displayed in the town primary school, in both the old and the new town halls, the Old Men’s Club, several local churches, garages, pubs and catacombs. For a few days in August the whole town was transformed— as works of art were hung in the not usual places, in places where art doesn’t typically belong, we engage the town differently. Surely we engage the works of art differently as well. The works left the museums and galleries and, at least temporarily, entered into the spaces of daily life.

As I witnessed works of art illuminating the real spaces of life in Pittenweem, I couldn’t help but entertain a nagging comparison to the Christian life. How often the gallery or museum, where the art is displayed with a sacred reverence, is compared to a church. But might not the Church likewise be accused of being a kind of museum, as we funnel the whole of the life of faith into what happens within church buildings, neatly on display? Some might be tempted to say the church building is where our faith ‘belongs’.

In Pittenweem this past August I witnessed the possibility of the porousness of boundaries between art and life. I relished seeing art in such un-gallery-like places, and was especially grateful to be able to talk to the artists in person. The festival embodied a kind of hospitality I hope the Church can learn from. Alongside that, surprisingly, it sparked me to imagine the possible porousness of boundaries between faith and life as well, to consider how the Christian life belongs in the wider world.

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