Aletia Upstairs performs ‘The Artist as Explorer’ in response to the Demarco Archives at Summerhall Edinburgh, August 2017
I haven’t written here in a while as I’m preparing for upcoming shows and a new series of paintings which I’ll begin in October. This time I’ll be responding to music rather than landscape – a direct visual response to music by composer Atzi Muramatsu. It will be a new challenge and I think a deeper exploration of the collaborative process.
In their small way, collaborative explorations such as these echo the approach of Richard Demarco; a watercolourist, arts impressario, teacher and, as some describe him, ‘champion of the avant garde’, now in his 87th year and still very active in the arts in Edinburgh and across many countries. (for a more comprehensive description of his work, see links at end of this post). I attended a performance by Aletia Upstairs yesterday (photo above) which has inspired this blog post.
After art college, I worked with Richard Demarco in 1999, and on several subsequent projects over the years. I could have folllowed the more conventional route of working with publically funded or commercial art galleries, but then I’d always been interested in a multi-disciplinary approach to the arts (my arts degree was in Fine Art and Related Arts, focussed on collaborative approaches).
Demarco’s work has always involved cross-overs between artforms, though far more profoundly it also explores collaboration between areas such as arts and science, health, landscape, sociology, history, politics – art interwoven with all aspects of life. This ‘spoke’ to me, it felt authentic, more in keeping with how I perceived the world of art, though at the time I was unclear of how that might manifest in my own life.
For Richard Demarco, who was undoubtedly unusually switched on to a sense of purpose from an early age, one manifestation of that approach was a series of projects, better described perhaps as creative adventures, which in the 70’s took the form of ongoing projects titled ‘Edinburgh Arts’. These involved creative people from all backgrounds – writers, artists, dancers, musicians, but also those people met as part of the journey who might be from any background or practicing any occupation or activity.
Through working with the artist Joseph Beuys (who Demarco had invited to Scotland in the 70s) this approach included working with prisons, which led to subsequent projects with Jimmy Boyle who had been imprisoned for murder. This was probably the most controversial approach Demarco had taken so far, which among other activities resulted in the Scottish Arts Council severing annual arts funding of the Demarco Gallery.
At the centre of Edinburgh Arts journeys was a concept Demarco described as ‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’. This was originally inspired by his walks in the countryside of Fife where he discovered a sign pointing to a place called ‘Meikle Seggie’ which was almost impossible to find, but in the process of searching and exploring he encountered magic and beauty in the landscape:
Discovering the Road was like opening a door beyond which lay the reality of my dreams of a world beyond the confines of the 20th Century. It promised a landscape I would wish to define with pen and ink and watercolour. Each bend and corner would be like another door opening up gradually more and more aspects of the landscape I had known in my childhood when every door and every road was an invitation to a mysterious space, forever desirable and forever new. It was the sacred threshold through which I had to pass which would reveal the space in which I would seek freedom from all restricting linear concepts of time…
… it is the space I would like to give anyone who valued or sought freedom. It is the space I should like to offer to all those who live and work in prisons where physical journeys are unthinkable.
Richard Demarco, excerpts from The Road to Meikle Seggie
‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’ became a metaphor for a way of seeing, or perceiving the world – and although it began in Fife it led Demarco all over the world, for example it resulted in projects that encouraged cultural dialogue between war-torn countries, particularly in Eastern Europe.
What resonance this has for any creative soul! It captures the essence that an artist in any form wishes to explore and show or communicate – the way they perceive the world around them – to express meaning and share that with others. It’s the essence of being alive, of being present to witness truth whether it’s in the lines of a landscape, a face we love, or the tragedy of conflict.
Which brings me to the point of this post – a performance I atended yesterday by a singer and performance artist known as Aletia Upstairs. Those maps that form her skirt and hat are enlarged drawings by Richard Demarco, they mark his journeys across Europe and the names of people he encountered and the meaningful relationships and art projects that were born from these journeys.
Aletia Upstairs is currently studying for a PHD at Leeds Beckett University, and as Richard Demarco is involved with the University she decided to focus on the Demarco archives as part of her PHD. She describes how, through interviewing Richard Demarco, she wanted to understand the essence of his work, or what he might wish his legacy to be. Richard Demarco’s answers formed the lyrics for the songs she sang during the performance. I was not alone in feeling deeply moved by these, not just because she has a beautiful voice, but the sense that these archives exist in part to honour the art made by the thousands of artists, musicians and writers Demarco has worked with over the decades.
Richard Demarco describing Edinburgh Arts journeys, with an image of ‘The Marques’ on which he was accompanied by fellow artist explorers.
As he’s now 87 it’s a stark fact that many of them are no longer with us – at one point of the performance Aletia unfolded a scroll and sang the names of some of these artists now gone. It was deeply poignant, I don’t think anyone there was unaffected.
Ultimately though, the essence of the performance, which included talks by Richard Demarco interpsersed with songs, was the legacy of a way of seeing; ‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’, and a reminder that as artists we must follow our instincts in seeking truth, and the beauty inherent in truth, rather than recognition, financial reward or success alone. It requires courage, since as Demarco might say it’s not always the easiest or most obvious path.
What I received above all from this performance was the sense of love and connections. It is a joy to understand that my path has touched at times on the same places as Demarco’s Road to Meikle Seggie – finding the meaning and magic in sacred places like the Stones of Callanish for example, or the landscapes of Iona and Lindisfarne, the wells of Arthur’s Seat, or discovering the traces of all the people who’ve been on these paths before us, in the stones of old buildings, or pathways and roads created organically by people who live with landscape, as opposed to motorways made simply to reach a destination! :
The Road to Meikle Seggie exists for me as a physical reality, but it works more importantly as a metaphor for all the roads which lie beyond it in our imagination. It also represents that land or space I should dearly like to see honoured and protected and extended in our own times, that particularly beautiful man-made landscape or townscape whether it be Giuliano Goris’s Fattoria Di Celli in Tuscany, Somserset, or the Villa Guoni-Mavarelli in Puglia, Cumbria, Sardinia, Brittany, Argyll, Pembrokshire, Venice, Salisbury, St Paul de Vense or the Trossachs.All are beyond the plans of any one generation of architects. All are about generations of farmers, fishermen and craftsmen, knowing instinctively how to use local materials to best advantage. Not one was built as an environment for tourists.
Richard Demarco, The Road to Meikle Seggie
The performance concluded with Richard inviting us to make our mark on a blackboard (no doubt an echo of Beuy’s blackboards used during his talks as part of Strategy Get Arts) to mark the place or places where we discovered art or a way of seeing; our own Road to Meikle Seggie…
In contemporary times we add these marks whenever we respond to landscapes or cityscapes with creativity and love, and when we connect with like-minded souls on the road to Meikle Seggie, which may lead anywhere in the world and in imagination.
Link to website of Aletia Upstairs: http://aletiaupstairs.com/
If you’re interested in finding out more about ‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’ you can buy the book on this link – http://www.luath.co.uk/the-road-to-meikle-seggie.html
I asked Richard to sign my copy and was deeply touched by his inscription …
This post has been a personal response to the work of Richard Demarco, there are of course far more academic explorations and essays about his work! Click links below to find out more, or if in Edinburgh drop in the see the archives at Summerhall https://www.summerhall.co.uk/ …
Demarco Archives online: http://www.demarco-archive.ac.uk/
General Wiki info https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Demarco