In thinking What If we are essentially thinking about the future.
In looking back North Light Arts are learning in order to move forward, gaining insights into how we can better generate a creative culture, one that cares about the ways we can live more sustainably.

We continue to invite artists to respond to themes that demonstrate the power of the arts to inspire new skills and a better awareness of the world around us – to provoke both individual and collective activities and creative thinking.

The John Muir Open Exhibition ‘Tide: Dialogues of Change 2019, attracted numerous artists who appreciated the platform we were offering for environmental artists to practice in our special coastal environment. Eleven artists were selected to exhibit, create workshops and conversations: They exhibited painting to sculpture, film and sound and dance with talks and walks on the John Muir Way.  Our Bursary was awarded to Jenny Pope who produced intricate site-specific works that were intriguing and also brought a rye smile: inspired by the nature of our coastal location, she transformed useless found objects into fo-useful objects for coping in our changing world of global warming. |

Bodies of Water was a touring contemporary dance and community participatory piece.. The company walked participants along Dunbar High Street, had a mini residency at the West Barns Studios and in collaboration with North Light Arts and the Brunton Theatre performed at West Barns Hall. |

The landscape takes a central role in the practice of Julia Barton who, supported by the harbour Master Quentin Dimmer, set up her workshop for two days on Dunbar Harbour – bringing into sharp relief the problem of coastal plastics. She writes of her experiences of engaging with the community and the role they played in the production of her major artwork ‘Litter Cubes’:

Julia Barton of Littoral Art – Thoughts on working in Dunbar 2019 |

Much of my inspiration comes from my love of coastal ecology and my passion to protect its future. My aim is to highlight marine ecological issues in engaging ways. Last year Dunbar Harbour and North Light Arts together hosted one of my five #LitterCUBES events that took place around the Scottish Coastline. #LitterCUBES is a project which involved collecting, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, seven of the most common types of beach litter, drinks bottles, box strapping, mussel pegs, cotton bud sticks, prawn boxes, rope and fishing line. I have now constructed #LitterCUBES from each type, 20 in total. My aim is to show the direct connection between plastic beach litter and the waste of finite resources (eg oil) that plastic litter represents.

Public engagement is at the centre of my practice and working at the Harbour, during the Dunbar Civic Week, brought residents and visitors to my temporary ‘Dunbar work bench’.  The washed and prepared plastic bottles and fishing rope collected from the local strandlines were threaded and stitched together with the help of volunteers each day, to make up two Dunbar #LitterCUBES. The process of threading and stitching provided an ideal opportunity to listen to hundreds of observations about the health of the local marine environment, discuss how different litter items bleed into the sea, and how we can prevent it.  

Volunteers helped weigh the Dunbar plastic bottle #LitterCUBE, which enabled us to calculate its’ Embodied Energy content (EEc), converted to crude oil was 9.84 litres. Conversations evolved from here to thinking about the amount of energy contained in the huge amount of plastic that is floating in the sea and is being dumped on our shorelines with each tide. While the items we find, show us we are all responsible, it’s sad that much of what is found on our Scottish coast lines continues to be from the commercial fishing industry. 

Discussions triggered at the Harbour and at the ‘Tide|John Muir Open ‘Dialogues of Change’ event showed me that many people are beginning to think about our Climate Emergency and the need to urgently change our habits. My experience at Dunbar strengthened my conviction that Art more than ever must reach out to connect people and bring about change. I look forward to exhibiting my collection of 20 #LitterCUBES in tandem with the COP26 Climate Conference in 2021.

What If and looking forward

Arts to Sow Seeds | 2010 to 2018 John Muir Artist in Residence Dalziel+Scullion HOMING

What If? 2020. North Light Arts have had the privileged to work with hundreds of amazing artists whose creative practices have in turn engaged with thousands of people. Each has used their unique processes to promote a sense of our place in the world, and talk about our need to be more aware of and our environment the  impacts of global warming.

Projects such as NorthLight and Walking a Line used short residencies for a number of artists. Working from the Beach hut on Victoria Harbour, each emerging artists generated a sense of place while developing their own practice. Some artists were to develop their environmental through further opportunities including the late Emma Herman-Smith who did a short residency in 2014, which included bringing a dragon boat, which arrived in the harbour on a huge low loader and a really successful exhibition at Dunbar Town House Gallery.

Hannah Imlach did a short Beach hut Residency on her graduation and later became a regular contributor producing a beautifully sculptured site-specific work for the Fertile Ground Conference and returning for the exhibition Floers in collaboration with Alec Finlay. This was the second of our John Muir Residencies and explored the sense of landscape, in the past and in a future grappling with adaptations in nature due to climate change. At the Floers Festival we walked to experienced the landscape, Alec’s poetry, Hanna Tuulaniki’s hauntingly lyrical soundscape and the site-specific installation of Hannah’s sculpture Dune Cradle: This beautifully crafted piece was later installed in Dunbar Town House Gallery, containing dune plants from the beach, which as they shrivelled mirrored the impeding issue of global warming.

In Katy Beckett’s residency Garden Lane, which helped develop the ravelling Plant Menagerie and the Backlands Garden community in collaboration with The Ridge, which shows the community how nature is reliant on us and how we are reliant on nature for the food we eat. Natalie Taylor’s project in 2014, the connection to the land and the community helped to create works that were inspired by their location. Natalie worked closely with people in local organic market gardens and also the community gardens, her focus on local soils led her to create a major work for her exhibition. In the form of a Mandela she illustrated our circular relationship the soil from with the smallest microbe all the way up to the supermarkets, – the delicate painting made in watercolour that was made from local soils.

In 2018 we were so pleased to welcome as artists in residence the established artists Dalziel+Scullion. They walked the John Muir Way and engaged with some of our really helpful local experts in the development of their well received exhibition Homing. This was to be an extremely personal exhibition where they used the opportunity to explore their own relationship to the arts and the environment and how they wish to work in the future.

The exhibition was made all the more personal with displays of their own special collections of natural finds, which visitors found fascinating, and a number of local people took part in their trademark photography providing a real sense of engagement with the community. To symbolise the heavy hand of man on the landscape of East Lothian they worked with a craft-maker who helped them design a corn dolly in the shape of a hand, speaking of the land it came from.

Keen to have as little impact on the environment as possible, the outcome of their residency was to be the launch of their book HOMING. This beautiful book explores how we experience the environment and seeks to bridge the disconnect and de-sensitisation to nature, that is sadly a consequence our of modern way of life.

HOMING in on Homing an essay by Euan McArthur

Homing in on Home by Euan McArthur

‘Homing” and essay by Ruth Brtherick

‘Homing’ by Ruth Bretherick

Arts to Sow Seeds

 Arts and Community | The fourth in our series for the ‘What If ?’ exhibition 2020

Growing a healthy community lies at the heart of the arts we develop; creativity for everyone to be part of and to benefit from. Dunbar is known as a creative and inspiring small town and we have contributed to this reputation developing opportunities through at least two projects in each over the last ten years as we know that creative thinking lies at the heart of a community rising to the challenges of a changing world and we have worked with thousands of people of all ages and hundreds of artists who have gained from opportunities through our projects.

Themes such as the Kittiwake Trail, Growing Arts Seeds, Garden Lane or Knitting the Harbour and also Knitting the Rainbow Garden have used the whole of our environment to invite people to discover – venues in the town from the Bleachingfield community centre to Spott Village Hall and Dunbar Town House – but essentially creating spaces within our landscape such as the Beach Hut on the Victoria Harbour, walking the John Muir Way or creating our Dyers Garden and new ‘Pavilion’ in the ‘Rainbow Garden’ at the Backlands and also Belhaven community gardens – taking the arts to people in the heart of the town .

Whatever the theme we want to help artists and volunteers to share their creativity so that everyone feels included and can learn new skills – gradually finding small ways to improve the culture of our area and their own lives. Knitting the Harbour brought people to the towns harbour for the first time in a long time or for many as a new experience, the little Beach Hut on Victoria Harbour was then inhabited by a succession of artists in the project ‘Walking a Line’ even becoming a mini cinema: each artist generating a sense of place while encouraging new ways of thinking about our environment and it’s sustainability.

This project led to the now established John Muir Residency and annual exhibition at Dunbar Town House, a showcase in the middle of Dunbar High St. a venue that invites people to share the outcomes of the artists residency but also to take part in free workshops and artists talks. As part of the exhibition ‘Tide: Dialogues of Change’ artist Natalie Taylor and Anna Canning le an amazing cliff top ‘Medicinal Walk’ and workshop that lots of people were able to benefit from. Insights into our work and our aims can be seen in the many videos made by numerous film makers and these can be seen at: Vimeo NorthLightArts

Working with the community to achieve positive change is necessarily a slow and incremental process and collaboration is at the heart of what we do: ‘Growing Arts Seeds’ reached out to those on the margins of our community. The project ‘Natural Magic drew the older and younger generations together culminating in a celebratory exhibition at the Bleachingfield Community Centre and this was also the venue for our two day conference ‘Fertile Ground’. We  have been able to reach more people through exciting collaborations; with community groups such as the Dunbar Harbour Trust, the Bleachingfield After School Club, the Beavers and Sustaining Dunbar we also commissioned some wonderfully insightful poetry from Hannah Lavery of CoastWord.


Gather in lowering sun
the Sunset and the Beauty of Moray.
That blush faced mum
starting the hide and sneak, in her own remembered way.

Gather the Fortune and Red Sleeves.
Those curly haired apple boys turning the apple press their laughter, a high from the honey bees
their cups of hard won juice and crumble mess.

Gather that girl with her just found stick.
The Charles Ross, Scotch Dumpling, Meridian, and Katy. Those gardening hands, the ready plums ready for the pick by the dead hedge, willow tunnel and comfrey.

Gather in at our long table and for a while just stay.
Gather in, bring your pie dish for the oven, on this, our apple day.

By Hannah Lavery

The covid pandemic has changed much of what we know and our ability to meet face to face is impacting on our way of working. However we are here online and as ever mindful of our environment we are testing the boundaries of creative thinking in new ways that are developing community ties and opportunities that will help us looking forward.

North Light Arts

Arts & Community


Arts and Sustainability | The third in our series for the ‘What If ?’ exhibition 2020.                  Image of Kathy Beckett on dunbar High St

North Light Arts develop projects that create a ripple effect – like when you drop a pebble dropped into a pond – leading people towards more sustainable ways of living in the environments we share and the global climate emergency we all face. Our projects encourage explorations and conversations that touch people in ways that act as a catalyst for positive change.

We work collaboratively to help our artist communicate imaginatively, their individual processes helping people to visualise new and more positive stories and actions that lead towards a more resilient future – addressing our collective needs and ideas in this fast changing world.

In collaboration with *The Ridge our Rainbow Garden in the Backlands Community Garden (which is now over looked by our new garden Pavilion) is the result of the John Muir Artist in 2016: Kathy Beckett talked to the community about what they would like to see in a garden by travelling the streets on her bike and creative trailer and then in the gallery – the result was a desire for colour and this inspired our Dyers Garden. In this man-made space in the middle of Dunbar town centre the wild planting was supported by the Grow Wild project from Kew Gardens in London.

We also work closely with **Sustaining Dunbar and these projects are designed to promote community growing and a better understanding of were our food comes from but they are also about wildlife and providing a home for the insect life which is so important for the whole food web – including the fertilisation of our food: The loss of insect life is a very real issue, one that we may have heard about but not know we can do anything about.

Our work has linked us with other local organisations like ***CoastWord, the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace and the Dunbar Schools; we plan to work with other creative and sustainability organisations using the power of the arts and creative thinking to inspire, educate and raise a dialogue and a culture of change.

Artist Karen Gabbitas developed a number of Sensory Slow Walks for us over many years as she engages the community in the performance, subtly re-connecting people to our landscapes; At our Fertile Ground conference in 2015 artists demonstrated the power of that arts  promote a sense of connection to the places where we live;

Hannah Imlach is an artist who uses her research to respond to the places she works, choosing  sustainable materials to create her beautifully made sculptures. On graduation she was one of our Beach Hut Artists and returned for the John Muir Residency with Alec Finlay, her film documents the process of testing her site specific work in the ancient limestone circles of Whitesands: ;

In our Town House exhibition Tide: Dialogues of Change eleven artists submitted works that ranged from the dance performance ‘Bodies Of Water’ by Saffy Sotohy; to the confusing and thought provoking 3D printed rocks; the work of Julia Barton who had a mini residency on Dunbar Harbour dealing with marine plastics waste; and the bursary winner Jenny Pope who used up-cycled found materials to ask questions about the local issue of green energy production and the psychology of change.


*The Ridge are a social enterprise based in Dunbar who work with the vulnerable.
**Sustaining Dunbar is a Community Development Organisation who works in collaboration with other organisations to promote better local resilience.
***CoastWord are a creative organisation that develops a festival of the written word.

Arts & Sustainability By North Light Arts


Arts and Environment | The second in our series for the ‘What If ?‘ exhibition

The environment we live in and share is the enduring focus of our work in collaboration with artists, specialists, volunteers and communities.

The landscape around Dunbar and the John Muir Way is our canvas, whether in a gallery setting or in the landscape itself – but more than that we work in and with our environment to leave a lasting impression on the people we connect with: We take people into local places they may never have been before, creating experiences and art works to delight, to question or to look at the world in a different way. Through our work we want people to develop a new visual language, one that expresses an understanding of their place in the world.

Dunbar is the home of the great environmentalist John Muir and these are the landscapes he trod as a boy. If you read his philosophies many are so relevant to contemporary thinking, He talked about:‘When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.’
My First Summer in the Sierra , 1911, page 110.

We now live in a world where the pace of change is huge and not easy to navigate or understand. With the climate emergency affecting our lives more and more it is even more important that North Light Arts have been generating a space where environmental arts can flourish: encouraging a creative culture where more people benefit from a stronger link to, and sense of investment in nature and the inextricable link of nature to the habitats we create for ourselves and leave to our children.

See more images in this short video here:

Arts & Environment by North Light Arts


Chris Fremantle

This is a short introduction written by the writer and cultural historian Chris Freemantle .
‘What If?’ on-line exhibition explores our environmental arts curating from 2010 to 2020

‘Gert Biesta proposes that we need to be ‘in the world, without occupying the centre of the world’ (2017 3).

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison (the Harrisons) regularly use maps putting somewhere (originally San Diego, but since then most of the places where they have worked) at the centre of a world.

Putting a place at the centre of a world opens up thinking at the domestic, settlement, national, continental and global scales. It invites considering how the place became what it is now, how it has been different, and what it could be in the future.

Biesta is concerned that the arts are either expected to be useful, or simply valued for their ability to enable us to express ourselves. If the arts are only valued for their usefulness, then if another tool is cheaper it will quickly take over. If the arts are only valued for their expressiveness we can quickly slip into narcissism. Narcissists occupy the centre of the world both for themselves and for those around them. Biesta points out that the world has an integrity of its own, and successfully being the centre can result in destroying that integrity. Equally failure to realise ambitions can destroy us.

Practices which imagine art and ecology as a hybrid have the potential to be in the world without occupying the centre of the world. The key is the focus on relations: between living things, and of living things with their environments. Ecological sciences are one way to understand this. Art is another way to understand, and also to imagine, these relations. Art has always been ‘in the relationship’. As Duchamp said, what is art is always decided both by the artist and also by the spectator – opinions can differ.

If art is a way of understanding and imagining relations in the world, then it might sometimes be useful and sometimes expressive, but never reducible to either. If art enables us to be in the world without needing to occupy the centre, it is because it enables us to imagine something different.

North Light Arts have taken John Muir as their Polestar, guiding their work in the east coast town of Dunbar. Aspects of his philosophy are very much in tune with Biesta and the Harrisons, saying as he did, “Most people are on the world, not in it. ” North Light’s work over the past ten years has enabled artists to be in the world, in a town which is trying to work out a different way of living. The artists have each turned their experience of the place, some aspect of their relationship with it, into something that can be shared and which speaks of the place. The value of this ‘going in’ cannot be underestimated.’


Biesta, G. 2017. Letting Art Teach: Art education ‘after’ Joseph Beuys. Arnhem: ArtEZ Press.

Compass Collaborators, 2012. Deep Routes: The Midwest In All Directions. Chicago: White Wire.

Duchamp, M., 1957. The Creative Act. Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas.

Harrison, H. and Harrison, N., 2016. The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon? New York: Prestel.

By Chris Fremantle


‘What If?’ on-line exhibition from 2010 to 2020 | June 2020 onwards to the end of the year
Written by Jo McNamara


North Light Arts aims to be a catalyst for change and connection. This urge drives our work that brings people together across ages, art forms and disciplines to share creative energies and experience and to explore connections with our natural and social environments.

‘ Taking a Line’ was our first major programme that brought these themes together in a series of projects and events over the summer of 2010.

Having launched the proposal we received enthusiastic responses from artists, creatives, an archaeologist, a geologist in the locality who wanted to  journey with us through time and space to connect the coastline and its geology  with the archaeology of settlements from past events across the landscape. Then we celebrated in the community woodland with nettle soup, fairy trails and artworks displayed in the landscape.

Thousands of people participated in walks, talks, exhibitions, workshops, shared poetry and songs, exhibitions plus the knitted the harbour.

For the people of Dunbar the harbour is fundamental to their sense of place and community. The notion of knitting the harbour swept through the community igniting the imagination and boundless creativity.

The Harbour Trust agreed that the Fishermen’s Store could be used a  focal point and so over the course of 2 weeks children, families, residents and visitors came and went and returned to learn and share skills, have tea and cakes, tell stories and reminisce. We brought them to the harbour and they made astonishing interpretations of the people who worked there – over 100 people helping to make the fishermen and lifeboat crew, seals and seagulls, the burger van crocheted in bright yellow wool and boats, houses, the castle, all instantly recognisable to the people of the place.

Projects rarely satisfy all expectations but Knitting the Harbour exceeded them all.  The buzz of creativity, companionship and connections across all ages and groups in the community, the sense of place and identity, confidence and pride were palpable.

These were to form the aims of the fledgling organisation North Light Arts

By Jo McNamara