THERE is a small town in the north-east of Scotland that has become an exhibition in itself. Now, after 20 years of steady creative enterprise, Claudia Zeiske, the founder of its unique arts project, is taking stock – and thinking of new cultural legacies stretching decades into the future.
Huntly is a compact market town with a central square; a place of 4,500 souls in a rolling landscape of woods and fields in the heart of Aberdeenshire, halfway between Aberdeen and Elgin on the A96. And for the last 21 years, it is also been home to one of the more noteworthy ongoing art projects in Scotland and indeed the UK. This project is a body called, until recently, Deveron Arts, and now – perhaps more accurately given the eclectic nature of its work – Deveron Projects.
The company's founder and director is Claudia Zeiske, an energetic, restless, ideas-driven German, who landed in the town with her family in 1995 when her husband began working in Aberdeen's oil industry. Zeiske, an anthropology graduate who'd worked in the human rights field, wondered what she'd do next. She feared she had arrived, as she has previously said, in a "cultural backwater". So she set up Deveron Arts.
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"One day we just decided to do it ourselves, rather than wait for the council or others to provide us with more cultural activity," she tells me. "This was in a living room in 1995."
Some 21 years on, Deveron – which has brought more than 85 national and international artists to Huntly – has put the town somewhere near the leading edges of the arts world. At the core of the company's work are its residencies: every year, several artists live and work in Huntly. "I think we always have roughly a third Scottish, a third European, with English artists counted as European, and a third from overseas. There's quite a lot of emphasis on Africa, and we've had artists from Cuba, Uganda, India, China, everywhere," she says.
The artists live and work in the town – engaging with its buildings, people, schools and landscape in which it sits. And they leave their mark on it, in sculptures, drawings, events, songs, and even new paths.
If you visit Huntly, you can see the impact of their work everywhere: there are dozens of artworks in 65 locations. They range from first artist-in-residence, David Blyth, and his Pheasant Bomb in the Brander Building (the town's museum and library), to Jacqueline Donachie's plastic bottle and chalk work in Autospares (a shop selling car parts), to Alec Finlay's "Beyond Mountains" print in the Coynachie Guest House, to works by Kenny Hunter, Peter Liversidge and Nuno Sacramento.
Zeiske and her small team of three have helped to transform the town. One year, Huntly held a football match, the Art Cup, between Scottish and Danish artists. Recently, an entire wood was planted using saplings from seeds sown by the seminal German artist Joseph Beuys.
Perhaps most significant for Zeiske was the 2008 Room To Roam project, which set out to give the town a new identity. Led by South African artist Jacques Coetzer it was inspired by a poem, Room To Roam, by the 18th-century Huntly-born writer George MacDonald. The poem was set to music by Mike Scott, lead singer of the folk-rock band The Waterboys, and the song became the town anthem. At a final event, mainly driven by local musicians, the identity was "handed over to the community".
When we speak, Claudia Zeiske is in reflective mood. Her work in Huntly has brought honours (a Creative Place Award in 2013) as well as interest from other towns who wish to take her lead. "At the start," she recalls, "we were doing very traditional work – we did what rural arts organisations do: they bring touring theatre to a town. But that changed. In the last 21 years, Huntly has got used to us. They just sort of know us now, and you realise you have your place in the community. We are on literally every board in the town, we have now got local money to come up with an idea about how to regenerate the town – we came up with the branding of Room To Roam last time. And also, I think, Huntly realised that we are not going away. So many other rural services are packing up – there are fewer and fewer bus services, the square looks quite sad because the Post Office has closed, the building is empty, and so on."
Although Zeiske has grown-up children who live in Edinburgh and Glasgow, she has no plans to leave Huntly. "We are still there," she says, "I never got bored with it – I thought I would, but I never have. I thought I would run out of topics to deal with, but that is not the case at all. It's quite nice to be sort of embedded in a place."
Deveron Projects will continue this year with the arrival in March of the project's first Syrian artist, Manaf Halbouni. A visual artist, he studied in Damascus and Dresden and is now based in Germany. Zeiske sees his arrival as a chance to interact with Syrian refugees in north-east Scotland.
"I have quite an interest in Africa and the Middle East, says Zeiske. "I feel it's very, very important: we have so little understanding of the Middle East, culturally there is very little understanding, and perhaps art can help bridge that. Manaf Halbouni is Syrian, but he now lives in Germany – it is not possible to get an artist from Syria directly. We have also linked with the around 100 Syrian refugees now living in Aberdeenshire, but it is very difficult because hardly any of them speak English and I don't speak Arabic, nor do any people in my team. So in order to link with those people, I try to link with artists from the Middle East. He [Halbouni] is the first one."
To be called What If?, Halbouni's project is inspired by a counter-factual thought: what if the Arab world had colonised Europe in the 19th century and early 20th century? Zeiske says: "He is turning history around ... he has bought lots of maps and markers, and has rewritten history. He has also bought an outfit and made himself a general and will re-enact that in a Victorian hotel or house, somewhere in Huntly, and hold a conference to split up Europe. He is playing on the concept of divide and rule, and he will indirectly also play on the idea of Brexit."
To mark the 21-year birthday, Zeiske has made a film featuring 76 of the artists she has hosted over the years, an "important and very moving process for me", but she has also been "thinking of what we have achieved and how we want to continue". She adds: "We put the town a little bit more on the map of arts engagement in Scotland, I think. We won the Creative Place award. In the future I would like to concentrate on longer-term projects that really make an impact. In the past, I always felt it wasn't our role to make a splash, give people ideas. Sometimes people have picked up certain projects and continued them themselves, which is nice but beyond our control. Now we would like to have more of a look at how time itself plays a role in what we do. In the past, projects usually took three months, and it was quite rigid.
"We would like to be less rigid about that now, and maybe generate more projects that are sustainable, that have a big impact, that bring some change, that look at regeneration of the place, but also how the place sits with the rest of the world. And that is important to not forget, that it is not just about Huntly."
The Brexit vote came as a shock. As a European citizen, Zeiske is not sure how it will directly affect her. "Well, on the night ... I still haven't recovered," she says, half-laughing. "Everyone else seems to move on. The night itself was difficult, but I saw it coming, and I was very worried in the lead up to it, I couldn't see anything else in the media than anti-European sentiment. So it wasn't actually a surprise, but I was horrified. I also felt like I couldn't live with it. I have only met two people who voted for Brexit – one person who I met on a train, the other the father of a friend of mine, so it wasn't people who I am surrounded with."
"Of course," she adds with a smile, "people say, 'Well, you won't be deported'. I say, 'That's very kind of you!'".
She says that, even without the potential complications posed by Brexit: "With African artists and artists who are not from Europe there are already problems [with visas], so that will of course get worse. I have been dealing with this for years. People of Britain have no idea how hard it is to get into Britain, actually."
One projects close to Zeiske's heart is the White Wood – "a living monument to peace, created by the people of Huntly". It is being grown from dozens of acorns (which became saplings) from Beuys' landmark ecological artwork, 7000 Oaks in Hassel, Germany. The White Wood, its layout created by artist Caroline Wendling, is located in the nearby Forestry Commission Scotland’s Bin Forest in Aberdeenshire. It is an artwork that is very slowly growing to fruition.
"It is very well visited, by visitors and school children," says Zeiske. "It is a kind of community asset, and it won't go away, because it is made from oaks. And really the artwork will only be visible in 300 years time, when the oaks are big. These kind of works help you start thinking about long-term things."
Deveron Projects, which is funded by Creative Scotland, is now looking at similar long-term works: "We are so tuned into getting three-year funding – everything has to be done in this short period of time, but we must actually force ourselves to think longer term – that is what we are trying to do," says Zeiske.
So her work, and that of her small team, will continue in the town. And, Zeiske hopes, its effects will ripple beyond a small settlement in the north-east of Scotland. "Huntly is a good place," she says. "And if everywhere was a good place, then the whole world would be a good place. That's the thought behind it."