The Pittenweem Arts Festival: An Interview with Barbara Fleming

Editor’s Note: Every August, the village of Pittenweem in Fife’s East Neuk hosts the Pittenweem Arts Festival. Transpositions Associate Editor Joel Mayward recently interviewed Barbara Fleming, one of the Festival’s board members (and St Mary’s postgrad secretary!) about the Festival’s history and distinctive features. Later this week, ITIA Artist in Residence Dan Drage will be sharing some of his reflections in response to visiting the 2018 Festival.

Transpositions: Can you share a brief history about how the Pittenweem Arts Festival came to be, as well as your involvement in it? What kinds of forms and mediums are on exhibit at the Festival? Are you an artist yourself, and if so, in what medium(s)?

Barbara Fleming: Pittenweem in the East Neuk of Fife is home to around 30 artists and craft designers. The arts festival was started in 1982 by a few of these resident artists, who opened their studios to visitors and the rest of the village. Each August since then, it has grown to include 100 or so artists and makers from all over Britain who exhibit in houses, studios, galleries and public spaces throughout the village. Viewing art in these surroundings makes a refreshing comparison to the constraints of conventional galleries. Seeing a painting in the setting of a charming cottage gives encouragement to those thinking of buying for their own home.

Viewing art in these surroundings makes a refreshing comparison to the constraints of conventional galleries.

This large number of artists who want to show their work brings a range of styles and media. The exhibitions are not a juried selection in an effort to keep the event inclusive for all exhibiters. Our visitors have a whole range of tastes, budgets and art education so this variety suits everyone. The work of silversmiths, ceramicists, blacksmiths, wood workers, graphic illustrators, textile artists as well as painters and printmakers are all enjoyed by an enthusiastic public.

I became involved in the organisation of the festival nearly 12 years ago, and my husband and I have a small studio all year round in the village. I show jewellery and hand knitting, using semiprecious stones and freshwater pearls, and luxury yarns, hand spun and dyed to make unique accessories.

As well as local and Scottish artists, we invite three guest artists each year to exhibit. They are the best professional artists working today and are exhibiting, not just in top Scottish galleries, but in London and beyond. These ’stars’ attract the press and television whose reports help promote the art and the event.

T: What are some of the tasks and responsibilities for creating and sustaining a local arts festival (people, locations, details)? Can you describe a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what all goes on to make it happen?

BF: The work of organising a complex event goes on all year. The board of organisers is small, though we have expert help from our accountant, legal secretary, web master and infrastructure team. Planning the art usually goes smoothly, but planning for parking for up to 25,000 visitors and the facilities they need, takes grit and determination. Pittenweem is a small village of around 1000 homes with very few public buildings, so we need homeowners willing to open their sitting room or garage to host an exhibition.

We have help from volunteers too, as year-round there is a variety of administrative and practical tasks that needs doing. We have had to employ local temporary staff for the office and the infrastructure team as the festival continues to grow.

The festival is a registered charity with an unpaid board of directors. The considerable costs to hold the event are funded by the artists themselves via their registration fee. We are aware of the importance of the festival in our area and a recent survey showed it is worth an impressive £2m to Fife‘s economy.

To secure the work of high status guest artists (who have very full diaries), we sometimes work with them two or even three years in advance. We meet each one in the village to show them the venue where their work will be held. Plans and measurements, transport arrangements, accommodation, setting up, etc follows after that. Sculptor Jake Harvey had several heavy carved stone pieces to be brought over a hundred miles by lorry and then lifted and placed exactly as he wanted by a team of very strong volunteers. Internationally renowned installation artist Christine Borland had to have special glass covered plinths made to hold her work. We did not know what work she was bringing until she unloaded the courier’s van.

We will be forever grateful to Carol, the widow of the late Steven Campbell, for loaning us several previously unseen objects and work from his studio for a retrospective show. She arranged for a master class to be taught by Steven’s mentor Prof Sandy Moffatt, and for herself to be interviewed by her friend Edie Stark, a BBC presenter, for one of our evening events.

We also offer a bursary to an emerging artist from one of the Scottish Art Colleges. This opportunity to show work to such a large audience and talk directly to the public has proved to be an invaluable experience. Several of our past bursary winners have gone on to exhibit successfully elsewhere, as well as returning to the festival itself as regular exhibiting artists.

The daily events are also an attraction, with stories for children held in St Fillan’s cave, workshops held by craft artists, master classes for working artists led by a well-known colleague, jazz concerts, and a hugely popular geology walk which has young and old searching for fossils around our local coastline.

T: Pittenweem is a small but significant hub for local artists. What draws artists to Pittenweem, and how does the Arts Festival particularly celebrate local artists?

BF: Pittenweem sits in a south facing location looking over the Firth of Forth to East Lothian. The East Neuk area is well known for its sunshine and clement weather, thus it has enjoyed visitors from all over Scotland, and traditionally from the west coast city of Glasgow, for a good number of years. The wonderful light, sky and seascapes have ensured artists have wanted to come to paint in the area, from early Victorian times, to the Scottish Colourists, on to contemporary artists.

A good number of our exhibiting artists are resident in the village or close by. They must be able to have nearby accommodation or travel each day, so most will be from Fife. The board does not select artwork for show, so once an artist has a venue and is registered with us they may exhibit. Some people may be passionate amateur artists, or not have enough work for a full show, nor a suitable venue. To give them the ‘gallery experience’ there is an Open Exhibition too, and this August there were over 170 entries! A healthy number of these were sold, much to the delight and encouragement of the exhibitors. The Open Air painting competition is another favourite where all ages can enter, find a quiet spot in the village, and paint the scene during a full day. A generous sponsor provides art-related prizes. When the festival is not taking place the box office premises can be hired by an artist for a solo show, or by a small group of friends showing a few pieces each. Workshops, courses, poetry readings, yoga classes, anything which would be attractive to local people will be considered.

The resident artists are working all year round, of course, and to remind our enthusiastic visitors, we have smaller events at Easter and just before Christmas when doors and studios are open once again.

T: How have artists featured at the festival involved theological or religious dimensions in their artworks? A few local churches were the venue sites for artists and presentations this year. How have the churches been involved in supporting the arts? What do you think are ways other churches can be supportive of artists and arts festivals?

 BF: I cannot recall a religious subject or theme to the work displayed in our festivals. The religious aspect has, to be honest, been purely practical. Music events are staged in churches and church halls as they are fairly large venues for seating. The rent we pay for these spaces is welcome income helping to maintain costly buildings. The Episcopal church has a renovation project requiring major funding. We are able to facilitate the fundraising by donating ticket money for any event organised by or for the church. The Coastline Community Church has been a welcome addition to the village in recent years, certainly for its parishioners but also as a valuable venue for events and provision of facilities for visitors. One of our exhibiting artists is the Rev Richard Kidd, who donates all revenue from sales of his paintings to his chosen charity.

T: What have been some personal favorite exhibits or artists involved in the festival over the years, as well as your favorite artists / artworks in general?

BF: I studied art history here at St Andrews, and after each lecture, the featured artist became my new favourite. Among them are Rembrandt and Holbein, who were wonderful draughtsmen. I love the artists of the Italian Renaissance, and my Frederick Hartt book on the subject is a favourite. I admire the medium of engraving, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun for the beauty of her portraiture, and the undervalued work of Scottish impressionist artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, Anne Redpath in particular, who lived and worked in the Borders. Selkirk High School had a few of her still life studies and I recall my art teacher telling me that she had died (1965). This meant her work would have to be taken down and kept in a bank vault as it had become valuable overnight. Favourites among past invited exhibitors are Elizabeth Blackadder, Dave Cohen, Alison Kinnaird; resident artists Georgie Young and Hilke MacIntyre; and my sister Jeanie Laub.

When I sum up my enthusiasm for Pittenweem Arts Festival, one of the major art events in Scotland, I say that for 37 years I have seen the best of Scottish art brought to my doorstep for free.



  • Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, theologian, and film critic. He is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews researching the intersection of film, theology, and ethics. For his film reviews and essays, check out Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.

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