The Courier & Advertiser (Perth and Perthshire Edition)
Celie Byrne, the people’s painter
Michael Alexander speaks to Kelty-based portrait painter Celie Byrne about what inspired her to become an artist, her recent Cupar project and how no matter what work she is doing, every job is her best!
Fife artist Celie Byrne has been busy recently, whether that’s been preparing to burn a naked effigy of sculptor David Mach on the beach or creating a brand new three-storey mural in Cupar Library. But by her own logic, the best thing she’s working on, at least at the time of this interview, is a portrait of the famous fiddler James Alexander. “The latest project is always the best project because it means I’m still working, and somebody, somewhere out there, likes what I’m doing and wants me to keep doing it,” laughs Celie.
“So that’s really nice, along with that wee prod of encouragement to keep doing what I’m doing. Saying that, I’m always on the hunt for things to paint or make, whether someone wants me to or not!”
Celie, the daughter of Scottish playwright and artist John Byrne, describes herself as predominantly a portrait painter. However, she also finds herself going off on many tangents, from fine art on furniture to singing in a band and painting the odd mural.
Celie has been based in deepest darkest Kelty for 26 years and is very much part of Fife’s rich tapestry of artists and creative types. But it was while growing up in the west of Scotland that art, perhaps inevitably, became her career path of choice.
“My family is from Paisley — I grew up in a wee bungalow on Paisley Road, Renfrew, opposite the Glynhill Hotel,” she says. “My brother and I would shoot short films at Renfrew and Glasgow Airports or go back and forth to Clydebank on the Renfrew Ferry. Paisley Museum and Art Gallery was a regular haunt, as well as Renfrew Library.
“My mum, Alice, loves live performance and we would go to the Citizens Theatre virtually every Sunday. There was always an excitement about the Citizens — it was full of energy, slap bang in the middle of the Gorbals.
“Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was another great regular haunt. The visits would usually end with either a round on the putting green or the best vanilla ice cream at the cafe across the road. On the odd occasion, I would get a tiny jigsaw from the gift shop.
“My summer holidays were always at the seaside. Day trips to Troon or Saltcoats,
weekends on Millport or the whole summer on the Isle of Arran.
“I would often sit in my dad’s studio — whether it was the one in the garden or in Glasgow — drawing. So yeah, I guess becoming an artist was eventually the only career choice.”
Celie says that having the parents she has has been “crucial”.
Describing them as “the funniest people” she knows, and with Scotland being full of the “funniest people” she knows and loves, she likes to inject a little bit of her “inherited humour” into her art.
“I’m all about the people on my doorstep,” she says. “I love painting them and I love painting for them.
“My style is figurative, straightforward, sometimes incorporating a bit of graphic design depending on project and subject matter. But I’ve never really thought if I had a certain style — you’d need to ask a professional! Ha ha ha!”
Celie says Kelty and its mix of landscaped woodland and industrial history is perfectly situated for her as she’s never more than 40 minutes away from the city, seaside or lush countryside.
The village of Kelty itself is now a little street art hot spot, which she likes to call “Murals in the Rurals”.
There are over 20 hand-painted public artworks, created by the Kelty Street Art team — herself, Donna Forrester, Vanessa Gibson and Ben Gibson, making up the small group of artists bringing colour to the village they call home.
Kelty has a wealth of talent on its doorstep, she says.
However, Celie is also a great admirer of a wide and varied range of artists and creators, known and unknown.
“I’m obsessing with make-up artists, dressmaking/tailoring, drag, interiors and all things arts ’n’ crafts right now,” she says.
“I just love watching that process, from the beginnings of a concept to a tangible bit of work, their dexterity and what can be really accomplished pieces.
“When it’s done, well, in my opinion, it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I just love watching people do things and how they do it. I guess that’s why I love painting people.
“I’m a tough audience but now and again, I see a true master, particularly with life drawing – it catches me off guard and can bring a tear to my eye.
“Which is some mean feat. I have cold wet cement coursing through these veins of mine and when that happens, I’m filled with joy to know there’s a true artist living among us.” Celie is no stranger to Cupar.
In 2019, she was an invited guest artist at Cupar Arts EDEN alongside other artists including the town’s Mark Small, and stand-up comedian/artist Phill Jupitus, who at that time had not long moved to Pittenweem. As recently featured in The Courier, she’s been working with Phill and Mark on The Big Mach Burning Man installation.
Symbolising transformation and change, and “closing the circle” of Largo-based artist David Mach’s recent return from London to Fife, David will, at some point it’s hoped, be given the opportunity to strike a match that sends up in flames a semi-naked effigy of himself on his local beach.
Celie created a triptych of the Turner Prize nominated sculptor “hanging around” in his pants. The three panels hung in the foyer of the Lochgelly Centre before moving to the foyer of the Corn Exchange in Cupar for Cupar Arts 2019.
It’s reimagined versions of this work that David will commit to the flames — when Covid rules and artistic motivations allow it.
Mark will score the music for it and Celie visualises the finished piece being projected onto a wall somewhere.
Celie, Phill and Mark all have plans to collect and “re-purpose” the ashes to make new art.
Celie was back in Cupar again more recently, however, to create a brand-new three-storey mural ahead of the reopening of the town’s Duncan Institute at the end of April.
The 2020 lockdown saw celebrations for 150 years of Cupar’s landmark Duncan Institute scrapped, and plans for Celie to paint an occasion-marking mural went with them. But when cultural body OnFife approached her “out of the blue” in February this year asking if she was still up for the challenge, she said yes – and upped the ante.
“The Cupar Library mural came about after a meeting with Dan Brown, Partnerships & Creative Development Manager at Fife Cultural Trust [OnFife],” she says.
“Looking at the space and getting some intel from the local studies supervisor Andrea McMillan, who told me the history of the building and its benefactor Miss Elizabeth Duncan, I started to form some idea to utilise the whole stairwell rather than just a wall or two.
“I wanted to connect the levels with a red ribbon representing the River Eden winding up the walls.
“The red ribbon was a nod to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre dome design, which was the first large-scale mural I was involved with, albeit at apprentice level.
“It was Dan who came up with [Turkish writer] Mehmet Murat Ildan’s quote: ‘The bright stars of the skies are far to touch but there are other shiny stars that you can touch easily: the books of the libraries!’ which runs through the ribbon.”
One of the elements was a striking portrait of the 19th-Century building’s benefactor, Miss Elizabeth Duncan.
In 1867, Miss Duncan left £5,000 — which is worth around £600,000 today — for the building of a “Mechanic’s Institute” in her hometown of Cupar.
Celie wanted to “give her a nod”, so the new mural features a replica of an oil painting of Miss Duncan that the Duncan Institute had kept in storage.
The portrait allowed Celie to capture the essence of someone who was dedicated to the wellbeing of her community.
“I wanted to combine fine art, graphics and fun, ergo a framed portrait of Miss Duncan in oil, large text, pointy fingers and the library’s mascot Cupar Chameleon,” she adds.
“The painting of Miss Duncan is a copy of the original portrait of her that’s stored in the archives. It was only fitting that she had to be ‘on show’ in the library!”
Libraries supervisor Susan Allan welcomed the tribute, saying: “We’re so pleased with the joyful work that Celie has created.
“After 150 years, this iconic building is still serving people in a way that would surely have pleased Elizabeth Duncan.”
I’M ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE ON MY DOORSTEP. I LOVE PAINTING THEM AND PAINTING FOR THEM