When Claudia Zeiske arrived with her young family in the market town of Huntly almost 30 years ago, missing the cultural hustle and bustle of London life, she looked around for a local arts centre and realised there was none.

Zeiske had studied social anthropology in Berlin and London before setting out in a career in human rights with the likes of the British Refugee Council in London. As she puts it, working in human rights wasn't an option while based in the north east of Scotland at that time.

She took a job as development manager at the National Galleries of Scotland's Duff House in nearby Banff, but still hankered after the cultural buzz of art on her doorstep.

After having various conversations over food and wine with likeminded friends, she decided to look into creating an arts centre herself. "At first my ideas were quite traditional," she recalls. "It was a case of bringing art created and shown in a city to a smaller version in the country."

Zeiske was informed by the funding powers that be that she should carry out a feasibility study to see if the town could sustain an arts centre. "They said my feasibility study wasn't feasible," she laughs over a Zoom conversation last week. "That is how what is now known as 'the town is the venue' emerged."

With no money in its first year (1995) and a £700 grant from what the old Scottish Arts Council in the second year, Deveron Arts – named after one of the rivers which passes through the town – steadily grew. Today, Deveron Projects, driven by Zeiske, is a model for socially engaged arts organisations the world over.

And tomorrow, after 25 years of engaging with more than a hundred artists, bringing 120 projects to fruition, interacting with the 4,400 residents of Huntly and walking 40,000 miles, Zeiske is set to hand over the baton to a new director.

This changing of the guard will take place during an online lunch for 150 people hosted by Zeiske and compered by long-term friend and collaborator with Deveron Projects, Anthony Schrag. The announcement of the new director will be heralded by musician John Kenny playing an ancient wind instrument called a carnyx. Entertainment will also be provided by the likes of long-term Deveron Projects artist, David Sherry, as participants feast on banquet, with a box of spices and menu instructions sent in advance from a Huntly-based "food-fusion" partnership, Neep & Okra Kitchen.

Schrag, who has worked on several projects with Deveron in the last 11 years, including Lure of the Lost, an "art pilgrimage", which saw him walk from Huntly to the Venice Biennale in 2015, describes Huntly as his second home.

"I have become part of the family – they can't get rid of me," jokes the Edinburgh-based artist, who is a Senior Lecturer of Arts Management and Cultural Policy with Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh.

"The beauty of Deveron Projects is that no one person has full control, be that the community or the artist. Claudia has created a place in which people believe that culture in all its forms; joyous, silly, wonderful, can change things."

Over the last 25 years Deveron Projects has brought hundreds of artists from the UK, Europe and beyond to live and work in the town exploring issues of both local and international significance. A cross between a cultural melting pot and a social enterprise, art may be the driver but food, the environment and walking is the glue which brings it all together.

Each artist has also left a piece of work which over the years has built up into a major collection. The Town Collection is not in a museum or gallery, but in keeping with Deveron Projects’ community focus, located in places where they can be seen and enjoyed in day-to-day life such as shops, schools, sports venues and pubs.

Artists – many who have come from all corners of the globe – have also left four key legacies. In 2008, the town’s Room to Roam branding was led by South African artist, Jacques Coezter in collaboration with Mike Scott of The Waterboys. This, after Coetzer discovered a poem by the Huntly-born writer George Macdonald (1824-1905) called Room to Roam.

The poem, he felt, expressed something of the town's attitude to life. When he realised a musical version had been recorded by The Waterboys, a band he had loved growing up and that Mike Scott lived in the area, it was too good an opportunity to miss. Soon the logo had a slogan, and thanks to Scott, a town song.

Other Deveron Projects legacies include; Slow Marathon – the annual artist-led 26-mile walk devised by Ethiopian artist Mhret Kbede; The White Wood (created from an initial idea by French artist Caroline Wendling) and The Weeping Willow, planted last year to mark the UK’s departure from the EU as a symbol of both sadness and healing. This idea was developed by Berlin-based artist Clemens Wilhelm.

Zeiske, whom Schrag describes as "wonderfully brusque", acknowledges that Huntly as a town still has its problems. All four banks have closed, as have many small shops, including the tourist information office.

Last year Deveron Projects acquired a property on the Square in the heart of the town with the support from the Scottish Land Trust and since taking possession of the shop, it has arranged a programme of community events in the space, including a pop-up Elves' workshop on December 16.

As German-born European, with three adult children who grew up in Huntly, Zeiske says she is devastated that Brexit is happening and considers planting the eventual planting of the Weeping Willow on Brexit Day in January this year by the banks of the Deveron a defining moment of her time as director. Fellow Europhile, Richard Demarco, unveiled a stone plaque inscribed 31.01.2020.

"At the end of the day, we are still here and we are still loyal to the town," she says. “Looking back on the many different residencies the thing that stands out above all is the generosity of the townsfolk in welcoming the artists into the community and making them feel at home, as well as the longstanding international friendships that have been made as a result.”

“We have also been privileged to see the world through the eyes of people whose experiences of it have been so very different to our own, and this has truly enriched us.”

Deveron Projects 25th Birthday Celebrations, https://www.deveron-projects.com/events/dp25-birthday-banquet/, Opening hours: see website for details

Critic's Choice

Artists are always first over the line with creative solutions when it comes to challenging circumstances. Dunfermline-based painter, Kelly-Anne Cairns, who appeared on Sky Portrait Artist of the Year earlier this year, has adapted with aplomb to a raft of personal challenges.

Having moved from Aberdeenshire with her family to Dunfermline in the summer of 2019, Cairns went on to set up a new studio space at Fire Station Creative, asking herself all the while: "What makes a place a home?"

"I asked myself what was it that I missed and what could I focus on to help make Dunfermline feel more like my new home?" she explains. "However, during lockdown Home took on a whole different meaning. My world shrunk. My vision became blinkered and our house became our everything; a home-school for our four children, a playground, a kitchen constantly in use, a makeshift art studio, a makeshift office, an exercise space to do our PE with Joe Wicks."

Now juggling painting with a job as a Pupil Support Assistant at Inverkeithing High, Cairns has also managed to stage her postponed exhibition, Butterfly Effect, at Fire Station Creative.

The butterfly effect – the idea that small things can have an impact on a complex system – has spread its wings into all the corners of her new body of work.

The result is an affecting suite of paintings based on everyday observations. The interior of her home, ornaments and paintings arranged to make beguiling tableaux, still lifes, spring blossom coming to life in a deserted town and masked staff in Fire Station Creative's cafe area all conspire to tell a bigger story.

A large oil painting, Unmasked, which depicts the figure of a woman lying on her back, will strike a chord with many. That familiar feeling of freedom mixed in with traces of tension. Painted in Cairns' trademark loose fashion, with strong colour and brio laced with tenderness, it encapsulates that feeling of relief on letting our guard down at the end of a long day.

Kelly-Anne Cairns: Butterfly Effect, Fire Station Creative, Carnegie Drive, Dunfermline, KY12 7AN, 01383 721 564, kellyannecairns.com, see http://www.firestationcreative.co.uk/home for up-to-date opening hours. Exhibition runs until January 3

Don't Miss

Scotland’s largest provider of studio space, Wasps Studios, has stepped into the void caused by Covid by launching an e-commerce platform allowing its creative community to sell directly to the public. In a rallying call to arms, its chief executive, Audrey Carlin said: “For those of us who think that this year is Amazon’s year, I'd like to encourage customers to explore other more ethical and ultimately more gratifying areas of online shopping. By supporting Wasps Shop you will be connecting with individual makers from across Scotland and investing in unique and inspired works created with personal care, attention and expertise.”

Wasps Shop, https://www.waspsstudios.org.uk/, Open all hours until January 11, 2021.