How Kate Downie prepared Road Bridge Diaries

Kate Downie unveils her commemorative print in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge. Picture: Neil Hanna

Kate Downie unveils her commemorative print in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge. Picture: Neil Hanna

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FOR the past two months she has sat, with her paints, paper and pencils, listening to the noise of the traffic overhead, feeling the vibrations shake her makeshift studio as she captured the heart of one of Scotland’s most important structures.

That is, of course, when she wasn’t scaling the 156 metres to the top, or examining it from underneath or even hanging over the edge to get the optimum view.

Renowned landscape artist Kate Downie has spent day upon day conducting “an in-depth interview” with the Forth Road Bridge to gain the knowledge needed for her latest exhibition which examines the relationship between bridge and commuter.

Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries celebrates the 50th birthday of the bridge through a series of drawings, etchings and paintings, alongside an 
audio-visual presentation and Kate’s visual diary.

She was officially appointed the bridge’s first artist-in-residence last December, and has spent the months of June and July in a makeshift studio beside the old boat house directly under the bridge on the Fife side.

She says: “My residency has been like an in-depth interview with a very large object, from which I have gained a sense of the important part bridges play in everyday life. I have seen the bridge from above, below and even hanging over the side and I realise it may be spun from steel, but it is also spun by stories and it is where human life meets engineering.”

She adds: “It’s quite a scary structure. I have been all over it. The first time I went up to the top it was a bit frightening because it was windy and I couldn’t relax. But the second time I was there for an hour and a half – I was so relaxed I didn’t want to leave. It was like being on top of the world.”

But while spending every day with her subject has – quite literally – had its fair share of ups, Kate says there was one particular aspect that took its toll on her.

“I could hear the traffic pounding overhead constantly,” she explains. “I had thought about sleeping there but it was just too noisy.

“I didn’t really get used to the noise – no-one normally has to put up with that level of noise all the time.

“I don’t miss that part of it. I’ve got enough material to keep me going for ages. You need to be in your own studio to contemplate.

“Although residencies are great, they are not really natural. You can imagine putting a bank manager in a glass-sided office and inviting people to come and look over his shoulder.”

Kate’s fascination with the Forth Road Bridge has been running far longer than her time as artist-in-residence.

In fact, she can still recall her first encounter with it, back when she was just seven years old and the bridge was still new.

“I was born in the States, but my father is an Aberdonian and my mother a Londoner,” says 56-year-old Kate, who lives near Goldenacre.

“I arrived in this country aged seven. We got off the boat in Southampton and made our way north to Aberdeen.

“This was in 1965 and I didn’t click then that the bridge was only a year old.

“When my dad left Scotland, he left via the ferry and when he came back with his family, he came back via this new bridge.”

The exhibition features 35 pieces, most of which were completed during her residency, but some which go much further back than the past two months.

“The oldest work goes back to 1999,” she explains. “I borrowed a few pieces back from private collections.

“One of the problems every time your work gets sold is it loses the connection with the other work so this gives people the chance to see it altogether.”

The exhibition, which is a key part of the Forth Bridges Festival programme, also features Kate’s limited edition commemorative print, The Art of Crossing and the innovative audio-visual installation, Below, which is a soundscape filmed and recorded directly underneath the bridge on the maintenance deck.

And Kate’s visual diary – a collection of pictures and texts – tells the story of the bridge’s relationship with the people closest to it.

“I have collected stories from people working on the bridge and people who have worked on the bridge. It’s unstructured and not even sequential in time.

“I’m interested in the way the stories hold the bridge up as much as the cables do.

“If you think about your own relationship with the bridge . . . it’s a bit like a part of your body. If it wasn’t there you would really miss it but you kind of take it for granted. I have learned a lot about how important it is.”

She adds: “There’s still something of a thrill when you go over the bridge. “It’s not that people are indifferent to it. It’s a part of their everyday journey – but it’s not insignificant.

The Forth Bridges Festival takes place from September 4 to 13, with a full programme of events to celebrate three centuries of bridge building on the Forth, including a series of tower-top trips and a torchlight procession across the bridge on the final day of the festival.

Councillor Lesley Hinds, convenor of FETA, which operates the bridge adds: “The appointment of an artist-in-residence is a first for the Bridge Authority and forms a particularly important part of the 50th anniversary programme.

“We hope Kate’s work will encourage us all to look at the bridge from a different perspective, beyond its everyday function as a piece of transport infrastructure, or even as a great piece of engineering.

“This exhibition is a fitting finale to Kate’s residency and a unique opportunity for young and old alike to visit the exhibition and get their own sense of what the bridge is all about.”

n Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries is a free exhibition running daily from 10.30am – 5pm from 9 August to 13 September.For full details of the festival programme, visit www.forthbridgesfestival.com.