The Scottish art world has lost an original and creative force with the death of Selkirk artist Liz Douglas at the age of 76. Since she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 12 weeks ago, tributes have come from friends and fellow artists, many of whom have inspired Liz’s extraordinary talents.
Liz was born in 1945 at Fyfe-Jamieson Maternity Hospital, Forfar, to third-generation master carpenter James Bruce and his wife Elizabeth (née Abercromby), who worked as a code-breaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
Along with her younger siblings, Jean and Keith, she was educated at Aberlemno Primary and Brechin High School. Her talents were nurtured by the art teacher, who encouraged her to apply for a place at art college. Like many of her generation, Liz’s aspirations were thwarted by her parents’ insistence on a ‘real’ job, leading her to work as a teller at the Brechin branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
In 1963, Liz was invited to live in Canada for a year with cousins from Toronto. The 18-year-old loved the opportunity to experience a completely different culture and took every opportunity to broaden her horizons and absorb new ideas.
Back in Scotland, she resumed work at the bank, this time in Edinburgh, before training as a secretary at Stevenson College. Liz’s individuality and unique personal style began to manifest itself, most notably in a penchant for wearing very bold outfits.
A job as secretary to Scottish publisher Archie Turnbull at Edinburgh University Press further expanded Liz’s horizons. She was given the opportunity to travel to book fairs in cities such as London and Frankfurt, although for Liz the design of a book cover often aroused more interest than its contents.
She met her future husband, Edinburgh University sociology student James Douglas, after they both registered for the same local authority art class at Darroch School in 1969. The couple married on August 16, 1971 and in October of that year at Aberlemno Parish Church moved to Uganda where Jim had received a postgraduate scholarship to Makerere University in Kampala.
Liz was employed as a secretary by Professor Ali Mazrui, the well-known Kenyan academic and political writer. At some risk, Liz would smuggle out the professor’s personal correspondence to former President Milton Obote, then in exile in Tanzania.
She and Jim loved exploring the African countryside and its many game parks, but were forced to return to Scotland in 1972 following the displacement of 50,000 Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin.
Doubly determined to get a place at Edinburgh College of Art, by 1975 Liz had gained the necessary qualifications to enroll on the honors course in drawing and painting. That same year, Liz and Jim left Edinburgh to settle in Selkirk after deciding the town would be an ideal base for travel around the world.
Liz studied at Edinburgh College of Art for two years and then took a break to start a family. The couple welcomed the arrival of Erika in 1977 and Hannah in 1982. With Jim now a full-time primary school teacher in Selkirk, Liz became adept at juggling parenting with her painting. During this time she produced enough material to not only feature in local exhibitions but also to sell through outlets such as the Sunflower Gallery in Peebles.
Upon returning to Edinburgh College of Art in 1990, Liz completed her studies and subsequently secured scholarships which enabled her to pursue both a Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Fine Art (MFA) degree.
Early in her career, Liz worked primarily in gouache, her semi-abstract landscapes appearing regularly in galleries across the Borders. Nature in all its manifestations should be a lifelong inspiration. “She observed the natural environment very closely,” said Jenny Pope, Councilor of the Society of Scottish Artists and fellow artist. “Her exploration of lichens and mosses required extremely detailed research, and Liz was always willing to share the inspiration behind her work.”
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In recent years her paintings have become increasingly abstract and non-representational as she explores new methods and techniques. In the program notes for her latest solo exhibition, held in March at Edinburgh’s &gallery on Dundas Street, Liz Douglas writes about her ‘immersion’ in certain landscapes.
“These places are part of a conversation I have with the natural world through painting and drawing. My goal is to create a sense of simplicity in structure, shape and color. I sift and edit from myriad visual references… it’s the visual reinterpretation of the landscape that I find compelling.”
&gallery owner Avril Nicol said she felt privileged to have staged this exhibition. “I knew about Liz’s diagnosis so I had very mixed feelings. Everyone who visited the gallery loved Liz’s work and she was well respected by other artists. Liz will be greatly missed and our hearts go out to all the people Liz has touched with her wonderful life.”
Increasingly interested in “visualizing the unseen”, Liz took water samples from special wetlands such as Selkirk’s “Murder Moss” and the Ettrick Marshes to analyze their structure and patterns under a microscope. This brought her into contact with Frieda Christie, Head of the Microscopy Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
“I was introduced to Liz in the 1990s by fellow artists Mary Mendum and Eona Aitken,” said Frieda, who is now retired. “Over the next 20 years, Liz contacted me with new project ideas. She gave me botanical materials that interested her and examined them under the scanning electron microscope at high magnification [SEM].
“She was fascinated by the geometric patterns and the beauty that nature created. We sat at the microscope for hours while Liz pointed out interesting features while I operated the equipment. These SEM images provided inspiration for some of her artwork. I am proud to have known her, a generous and kind friend who I will miss dearly.”
An example of the exciting quality of her work came in 2012 when Liz and four other artists completed a residency at Heriot-Watt University’s School of Textiles in preparation for an exhibition entitled ‘Hidden Stories’ at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh .
When the exhibition curator arrived to select pieces for the exhibition, he was so impressed with Liz’s workspace that he stated: “I want this whole studio and its contents to be transported to Dovecot in its entirety so that the students can see what a really creative artist studio looks like.”
Liz’s children remember their mother as someone who would take them for walks in the mountains no matter what the weather, who would spend hours painting in the rain under a parasol with the family on holiday, and who throughout his life always followed his own distinctive path went .
Liz Douglas is survived by her husband Jim, daughters Erika and Hannah, and grandchildren Leo, Bruno, Rosa and Margo. The funeral service will take place tomorrow at 12.30pm at The Haining, Selkirk, followed by the burial at Shawfield Cemetery at 1.30pm.
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