Fly 2016 – Visual Art Scotland

There is no longer an art college in Scotland that teaches a dedicated ceramics degree.   Which  makes the ceramics on show at this year’s Visual Art Scotland winter exhibition more emphatically interesting.

Susan O’Byrne graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in design and applied art in 1999.   Her wall of fantastical animal heads in the FLY 2016 exhibition, each with their own characterful family name, is staged as a metaphor for the extended family,  informed by her an early generation’s  memories of migration to Ireland from the Black Forest.

“The animal as metaphor occupies an extraordinary role in the imagination, and has colourfully populated myth, children’s stories and cultural tradition throughout history,”  notes the wall label.

O’Byrne’s pieces, faux animal heads in fabric patterns, were already scattered with red dots by opening time; a shame in a sense that they did not sell as a whole installation.   Pictures of this formidable artist’s work below.

  • Susan O'Byrne

Nearby, a table full of curiosities  – I don’t know why I like Dawn Youll’s ceramic dumpster, but I do.   Alright, call it a wheelie bin.


Visual Arts Scotland, the Scottish artists’ society, is celebrating its new partnership with Craft Scotland in its December show Fly and this year’s focus is ceramics, with different crafts to follow.   VAS President Robbie Bushe notes ceramics in art schools have gone out of fashion as drawing once did.   Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen is the only one in Scotland to offer formal training through its Three Dimensional Design Course, exploring ceramics and glass.


The standard of showcases by Scotland’s art societies have grown by leaps and bounds in past years.     Witness this exhibition, on until December 27th, which sheds any vestige of provincial feel, and offers plenty to see that’s both quirky and stimulating.

You could carp at too much change – complain, say, that good old fashioned members’ pictures don’t get the wall space.   The radical ceramics include James Rigler’s giant tassels and pillars.


The collaboration with Craft Scotland has a put a conceptual edge into this year’s show, said  Bushe.     “This is for us a major coup that Craft Scotland got into bed with us.  We have a mutual concept of showing contemporary craft in a contemporary setting.”

The other significant departure this year is on the tapestry front.   The backers of the Cordis Prize for tapestry, the biggest in the UK, have gone for a new look in it’s third year.   New rules limited the size of entries to 80 cm,  against a previous minimum size of about a metre, and artists were encouraged to push boundaries, with conceptual work which challenges the idea of traditional tapestry.

Foremost among those on the shortlist is the work of Rachel Johnston, who teaches fine art textiles at the University of Chichester .  She had two entries:  River Shoes, simple plimsolls fashioned of undyed thread, and most remarkably Cut Gloves, an eerie use of thread better suited to Halloween but to my mind one of the most memorable pieces in the entire VAS show, priced at £1,000.

Then there was Boris,  a disarmingly beautiful vision of Brexit in irridescent weave by Patricia Taylor, head of tapestry at Westdean College.   Nearby is artist Anna Ray’s playful take on bobbins, which looks like no tapestry you’ve ever seen; it’s all about warp and weft but might put traditionalist’s noses out of joint.

  • Boris

The Cordis Prize for tapestry is the only one of it’s kind in the UK.  It celebrates Edinburgh as the Britain’s centre for tapestry weaving, and is set to become a permanent fixture of the Scottish art scene, founder Miranda Harvey said.

Boris, a brightly woven portait of the gape-mouthed foreign secretary, is on sale for £2,000, which Ms Harvey described as “a really punchy piece”.

Ms Harvey, herself an amateur weaver, said the prize is to move beyond a three year trial into a new venue for early 2018 and continue as a permanent prize.   While its top award has been a modest £5,000 it has drawn entries from all over the world.

Last year’s winner was Black Timelines White Timelines by Susan Mowatt, which hung about one by two metres in size. “This year we deliberately went for pieces that were more sculptural, more three dimensional, not just pictures on the wall, tableau style,” Ms Harvey said.

At this point I’ll put in a plug for my best buy in the show, which would go to Elizabeth Stewart’s Many Moons,  a digitally woven cotton wall hanging from collage, which seemed in the most simple terms artistic value for money at £900;  her beach pebbles in the main exhibition room were similarly priced.

Many Moons by Elizabeth Stewart

Many Moons by Elizabeth Stewart

If ceramics is a dwindling discipline  it’s a different story for jewellery; Scotland’s art colleges have four of the best jewellery departments in the UK, and it shows, not just in the VAS but in places like Lyon and Turnbull’s Elements show, or at Coburg House.

The star act in this department was the work by Li Wanshu, in “moving beads, UV reactive nylon wire, UV light and fluorescent paints”, including her Go with the Glow Bangel.      The pieces are said to “explore the multi sensor experiences of vision, sound and touch”.  After graduating from Edinburgh College of Art Wanshu was named an artist in residence there this year.

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Other standouts in the same room were Bryony Knox’s Hoopoe and Hummingbird (her work also appears in my Coburg House Christmas studios blog) and Aiofe White’s The Heaths of the High Tops, with silvered bowls in irresdescent colours set in wood.    Emily Coulson’s Edge was certainly memorable but not perhaps what you’d want under the Christmas tree.


The VAS had about 1,100 open submissions this year that were culled back to about 160 works.   They included a canoe made of willow and plastic sheeting by Thomas Howson, poignantly titled Migrant Memorial.


One talking point are the two human totem poles by Stan and Rosi Bonnar, standing sentry either side of a main door, titled “We are – ourselves entangled”.   Stan Bonnar is the sculptor whose work has included furnishing Glenrothes with beloved concrete hippos, while Rosi’s sarong designs have found their way on to these  resin and acrylic pieces, (with Bushe’s own drawings on the wall behind)..


There was hot debate over where to place the works.   “They’ve grown on me,” said Bushe.   “They are beautifully painted and crafted.”

More familiar favourites range from Joanna Kessel’s  (In)visible Cities in golf leaf mosaic and cast concrete, at £3825, while the selection of smaller works on the wall include Susie Lieper’s Flight.   The fine work of artist Joy Arden, also at Coburg House, is represented with Blue Strip.

The crafted furniture on offer includes Clare Waddle and David Robson’s Yellow Broom, a lamp in Scottish oak with steam bent ash and sycamore, at £750.


  • Roland Fraser.