In our latest #ArtUnlocks article, writer Chris Sharratt finds out more from Deveron Projects Director Natalia Palombo about connecting artists, community and places through research and creative engagement.
Most arts organisations strive to be connected to the people and places in their local community. But for Deveron Projects in Huntly, this isn’t an aspiration – it’s an absolute need, its reason to exist. The 25-year-old organisation’s motto is ‘The Town is the Venue’, and as director Natalia Palombo explains, this day-to-day reality shapes everything that Deveron does.
“We don’t have a space or a gallery or an arts centre that we create content for, so that really dictates our relationship to placemaking. We work across the town, and to do that we have to work really closely with the communities that are here; essentially it’s a co-programming approach – if we don’t have harmony, we can’t exist here.”
Huntly is a market town in rural Aberdeenshire with a population of 4500. Despite (or perhaps because of) its remote location, since Deveron Projects was founded in the town in 1995 it has worked with artists from all over the world – as well as those much closer to home – who in very different ways have connected with the town and its inhabitants.
One of those artists is the South African Jacques Coetzer, who was based in Huntly for six months in early 2008. Deveron Projects had been approached by the Huntly Development Trust to collaborate on creating new branding for the town, and Coetzer was chosen as the project’s artist. Following extensive one-to-one and group meetings with local people, Coetzer designed a new town logo based on a deer antler, while the phrase ‘Room to Roam’ (the title of a poem by Victorian writer and Huntly resident George MacDonald) was chosen as the new town slogan.
While the project took place more than a decade ago, its legacy can still be felt today, and will continue to be felt well into the future – the phrase ‘Room to Roam’ features on the town sign, for example. Palombo, who took over from Deveron’s founding director Claudia Zeiske at the beginning of 2021, describes it as “a project that answered a need in the Huntly community and created something with longevity”. It’s a clear example of co-design between a visiting artist and Huntly’s residents, and as such a great example of Deveron Projects’ approach.
Palombo explains that Deveron Projects’ relationship with the town also informs how it works with the artists it commissions. “I think for us there’s a much more collaborative approach to projects with artists than there perhaps is in other arts organisations,” she says. “And that’s partly because we’re the constant in the town, we’ve been part of the community for 25 years. So we need to work really closely with the artist so they can utilise the relationships that Deveron Projects has already made; there’s an element of us working alongside artists to make sure they get the most out of it, but also to make sure that it’s not repetitive for the people in Huntly, that conversations aren’t being repeated.”
While it’s the town and its people that is always the ultimate arbiter of success for any project, Palombo believes that artists and their ideas are the catalyst that brings the community together. “Artists activate or reactivate conversations in the town, sometimes creating longstanding collaborations,” she says. “They create a context to bring people together who might not otherwise have come together.”
A more recent example of this process is ‘Flax’ by the internationally recognised Scottish artist Christine Borland, who is based in Kilcreggan, Argyll and Bute. ‘Flax’ began in spring 2019 and involved a two-year research and production cycle to develop a flax growing project in the town. Huntly once produced a third of Scotland’s linen, and through growing, discussion and storytelling Borland explored the historical and colonial aspect of the linen trade in Scotland. “Christine has been in residence on and off, working with local spinners and weavers to process the flax into line,” says Palombo. “During the project over the first lockdown she brought together over 30 people in a Whatsapp group, sent flax seeds to all of them, and shared stories of growing.”
‘Flax’ also involved working closely with Deveron Projects’ ‘The Town Is The Garden’ project, which Palombo describes as “a process of engaging local people with practical approaches to gardening and local food production and growing”. Like most of what Deveron Projects does, the important thing for those involved wasn’t to create a new garden or green space, but to encourage and develop new thinking and activity. “‘The Town Is The Garden’ doesn’t necessarily have a physical legacy, but it created new connections and communities of people who are still working together to develop projects.”
This legacy of action and ideas is crucial to Deveron Projects’ work. Everything the organisation does is wrapped up in the relationships forged between the people in the town, relationships that remain and continue to grow long after an artist has completed their time in Huntly. Not that the organisation is averse to creating a physical legacy, too. Recently, in fact, Deveron Projects purchased a property on Huntly’s historic town square with funding from the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Fund. This isn’t, however, a case of a light-footed and responsive arts organisation becoming building-based. As ever, the reason for the move is bound up with the fabric of the town, reflecting both the current cultural and economic climate and the historic importance of place.
“We recently bought a building on the town square but it’s not a building we [as an organisation] use specifically, it was bought for the local community,” explains Palombo. “We made that shift because like in many places the town centre has declined a lot in the last two years; a lot of shops and businesses have closed down. And as these changes happen we’re responding to them.”
The building was previously home to a shop called Square Deal, a name that has been adopted for the project and which carries with it local history and recent memories. The premises have played a part in the town’s life for around 200 years, having been a tin smith’s workshop, a bank, and most recently a small department store/chemist. Working with Aberdeenshire-based architect Jill Andrews, quantity surveyor John Pascoe, and social architect-designers Drassana, Deveron Projects is turning the building into somewhere it hopes can work as both a space for the local community and for visiting artists’. As ever, the involvement of local people in deciding what should be done with the building is paramount.
Currently two social enterprises that began life as food-related initiatives with Deveron Projects are operating from Square Deal: Neep & Okra Kitchen founded by artist/chef Kawther Luay, and Honesty Bake House, which was originally the Heritage Bakery project by artist Kate Taylor Beale. Both have clear, tangible benefits for Huntly – and not just in the form of delicious and healthy food. As Palombo concludes: “The way we do things at Deveron Projects has always been about contributing to the wellbeing of the town.”