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Issue 89 - Artist In Residence

Scotland Magazine Issue 89
October 2016

 

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Artist In Residence

Roddy Martine visits Richard Demarco CBE at Summerhall

It must be almost 40 years ago that I was invited by a group of weavers to a barbecue at The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina, USA. In passing, one of them announced to me that she knew all about Scotland because it was the home of Richard Demarco and asked if I’d heard of him. When I replied that I had heard of him and that, indeed, I knew him, I was almost bowled over by his American fan club. “I can't believe you actually know him,” exclaimed one of them.

Reflected glory overseas is all very well, but the roller coaster ups and downs of Richard Demarco CBE, who in 2013 became the first and only UK artist to be made a Citizen of Europe, have been part of my life since I was a schoolboy and used to hang out at the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh's Melville Crescent.

Since then, Richard Demarco has continued to innovate, shock, and – more importantly – survive. As a patron of both the visual and performing arts, and having founded the Demarco European Foundation, he controversially brought the Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor to the Edinburgh Festival; imported the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys to Scotland; chartered a sailing ship to steer through the Hebrides; and produced Shakespeare's Macbeth in the open air on the island of Inchcolm, in the middle of the Firth of Forth. Such achievements provide only a snapshot of the achievements of this extraordinary man. In Richard Demarco's mind, all roads lead to Scotland. Inspired by his family's Italian origins, around the time I first met him he conjured up 'The Road to Meikle Seggie,’ a mythical 7,500-mile journey which connects Eastern and Western Europe with Scotland. Meikle Seggie has, over the decades, been the ongoing theme of every one of his solo exhibitions; his work comprises of astonishingly intricate pen-and-ink and watercolour excursions into the landscape of both the Scottish and European psyches. Today, the grand old man of Scottish art and innovation has his headquarters at Robert McDowell's Summerhall in Edinburgh, and remains as dynamic and active as ever. Following an Edinburgh Festival exhibition earlier this year, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, in tribute to his friendship with Joseph Beuys, and a second – at Summerhall – reflecting on their collaboration for ‘The Road to Meikle Seggie’ from 1970 to 2016, his next stop is an appearance in the programme of San Sebastian as the European Capital of Culture 2016.

Born in Edinburgh in 1930, Richard Demarco honed his illustrative skills at Edinburgh College of Art where one of the models in his life painting classes was a young, as yet unknown, Sean Connery. Having been a co-founder of the Traverse Theatre in 1963, Richard, three years later, created the Richard Demarco Gallery. Thereafter his energies were stretched in almost every direction imaginable – leading to his being awarded the Gold Orders of Merit from Germany, Poland and Romania; the Cavaliere della Repubblica d'Italia, and the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres de France. The British Government has also honoured him as a Commander of the British Empire (CBE).

However, he has never forsaken his first true love. “I'm a heavily disguised watercolourist,” he says. But why watercolour and not oil paint? “You don't have to wait until the paint dries,” he responds quickly. “I'm a pragmatist, a realist. I have Italian blood. I get impatient.” He continues: “Watercolour is a simple medium where you put paint onto paper, making marks to confirm that you exist... It's been around since the beginning of time. What I'm saying is, follow me and look and experience Scotland and you will find yourself experiencing the light, the colours of the plants of the earth and the four seasons. I'm saying, come with me to a place on the edge of Europe where things have been happening since the prehistoric time.” Even so, he concedes that watercolour can be a dangerous medium. “Every painting consists of thousands of marks. If you make one mistake; if the water is not consistent in its rhythm or intensity with the surface of the paper, the painting is destroyed.” That said, danger is compelling. “I don't paint pretty pictures of the sun setting over the Cuillin Mountains,” he explains. “I paint signposts in the middle of the High Street of Milnathort, ancient trails and tracks, and sacred wells. I love flagstones because I think of all the millions of souls who have walked on them through time.” He emphasizes that art is everywhere, measuring time. “The Standing Stones of Callanish were on the Island of Lewis 3000 years ago, long before the Royal Scottish Academy existed. Einstein should have visited them,” he reflects, before making a ‘Road to Meikle Seggie’ reference to the Perthshire hills where the 11 year old John F. Kennedy, future President of the USA, was taught to swim in Ledlanet Loch.

To date, works by Richard Demarco are held in over 200 private and public collections throughout the world. To name but a few: The Victoria & Albert Museum in London; The British Government Collection; the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh; the city art galleries of Edinburgh, Dundee, Leicester and Bradford; the Glasgow University Hunterian Museum; the national collections of Lithuania and Malta; the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen and Durham; and in the town collection of Picinisco in Italy, from where the Demarco family originated.

Further Information
The Road to Meikle Seggie by Richard Demarco, originally published in 1978, was re-released in 2015 by Luath Press. It is available in good bookstores and online via both Amazon and the publishers website: www.luath.co.uk