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Submerged: Art Exhibition

I recently had a signficant birthday (that's right, 29). To celebrate I decided to do something I'd never done before. I decided the thing I most wanted to do in the whole world was to go on a submarine. I managed to get my family on board with this (no pun intended) and we booked a trip to Hamburg, Germany, which has several submarine-viewing options nearby. Then Covid hit, and our holiday was cancelled.

Yet, even though I can't visit a real submarine, I can still enjoy them through the exhibition currently on at Custom House Leith, hosting the work of the fabulous Ross MacRae. He agreed to talk to me about his art, his influences, and life as an artist under Covid.

Tell us a bit about yourself – who you are, where you are from, where you trained etc.

I was born in Stirling and raised in a small country village in the Scottish Borders. Art was by far my favourite subject at school and was what I focused on most of all. Biology was a close second. The natural environment always fascinated me and I loved to combine both the subjects together and would often spend hours drawing bones, plants, animals and other organic materials. I went on to study at Edinburgh College of Art where I graduated in Illustration in 2012. I was part of an art collective called the Too Much Fun Club which helped me progress onto larger projects where I became comfortable working on a large scale as well as working in large groups with other artists. I still to this day feel I learnt far more through the experiences of the art collective than I ever did at college.

Throughout college I mostly worked with pencils as it was what I was most comfortable with. It wasn't until recently within the last couple of years that I started experimenting with acrylic paints and spray paints. After graduating I slowly managed to transition from working in a kitchen at a restaurant to becoming a full time freelance artist taking on a range of jobs from small individual commissions, community art projects, large scale murals, as well as selling prints and original artworks in local shops and exhibitions.

What are the key themes in your work?

Currently the key theme has been the underwater nautical vibes which I have been playing with for the Submerged exhibition. The Submerged series contains a blend of nature and the machine. The series of work is also an important reminder of the ongoing struggle against climate change. In the past the issues of waste, global warming, deforestation and pollution have all been hugely impactful within my work. I also love figurative work which I used to do a lot more of. I'd like to get back into the routine of life drawing again but due to the lockdown restrictions this has been on hold. Fantasy and sci-fi have also always played a huge role in the way I work. It seems to be my method of escapism where I can get lost and absorbed in a completely different world.

To me, your paintings look like they could be drawn from a fabulous fantasy novel! Does literature have any influence over your work?

Unfortunately, I'm not the biggest or strongest reader and it has often been an area in which I struggle to stay focused. It was always the illustrations in books that captivated me. The covers of Josh Kirby's illustrations for the Discworld novels, for example, are some of the books I would stare at and try to copy as a child. I still haven't read a single one of the books! It was more films, comics and games such Warhammer where I would pull most of my inspiration from. In short, I'm a massive geek… goblins, trolls and all manner of mythology is where my heart truly lies.

Has living so close to the sea been an influence on your work? Are there any other Leith/Edinburgh influences?

I've only been living in Leith for the last couple of years as well as having the studio down by the shore which has definitely had a massive impact on the recent Submerged series. It was after a collaborative exhibition at the bloc gallery on Ferry Road which was about the merging of Leith and Edinburgh in 1920 that my latest obsession with the Shore began. I visited the Maritime museum at Trinity House in Leith, which is where I got lots of my ideas for the exhibition. I think this nautical theme is just a passing trend though. I reckon after the exhibition I'll want to move onto different ideas and concepts, I like to keep mixing things up. Who knows though? Maybe I'll be painting submarines for a few years yet. I don't want to be known as 'that artist that does the submarines'... I have a feeling I’ll be moving onto plants next.

Tell us about your working day and your working environment.

I'll normally work 10-6 at the studio Monday to Friday and try to work a few hours on Saturdays if I've got a lot to get on with. In the evenings I'll sometimes do a bit of drawing or digital painting, mostly for practice and fun. It really depends how the day has gone though, sometimes the flow just isn't there. If I'm not at the studio, I'll be working on a mural on site or if it is design work I'll sometimes work from home. There's a great group of artists and friends who are also in the studio, so it is always good to have a bit of company and be able to ask second opinions and bounce ideas off one another. I still get strange feelings of anxiety and mood swings if my art isn't going well. It seems to be part of the way I exist. If I'm not happy with the way I'm painting or working I'm generally not in my best mood and vice versa, if the art is flowing I feel happy and can relax more.

How has Covid impacted on you as an artist?

At first I was quite concerned as pretty much all jobs dried up, and all sales in the shops I sell work in dropped drastically. I luckily got a grant which helped pay for the studio as well as keep me afloat during the lowest points of the lockdown. Things have started to pick back up again, though, and I now have a steady flow of work, so I am really thankful for being in the position where I can keep working. The lockdown did, however, give me a chance to work on the paintings for the exhibition. It gave me something to stay focused on and work towards which really helped keep me stay positive. I hope that the exhibition gives people something to look forward to. There isn't much in the way of events at the moment, so I'm hoping If I can give people an excuse to get out the house for an afternoon I'll have made a bit of a difference at the end of the day.

The Submerged Art Exhibition is on at Custom House, Leith until 24 November.


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