ONE of the first artists to capture the scale of the environmental disaster caused by plastic dumped in the sea was Robert Callender. A lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art for more than 30 years, he is now recognised as being ahead of his time in drawing attention to the detritus washed up on Scottish beaches.

Long before David Attenborough’s Blue Planet was even commissioned for television, Callender was combing beaches and creating works of art inspired by the objects he found there. The resultant creations provoked astonishment because of their skill but also concern at the fact that he was influenced by the rubbish that scars the coastline. Now there is an opportunity to view Callender’s art in Edinburgh in the first large-scale exhibition since his death in 2011. To accompany it, the City Art Gallery will host a number of creative family and adult workshops. Using a variety of recycled materials, these events will be aimed at celebrating the richness of Scotland’s coast while also making people think twice about the environmental impact of their actions.

CALLENDER took much of his inspiration from the north-west of Scotland. He and his wife, the artist Elizabeth Ogilvie, often retreated to their bothy at Stoer Point in Sutherland. There he was an avid beachcomber and once said that no matter where he was in the world he could recreate the coastline in his mind’s eye.

“I could be walking in the middle of Tokyo, or the middle of New York, and in my head, I can be walking along the coast path there [at Stoer],” he said. “And I can visualise every lump and bump or huge hill or stoat hole, or whatever, little markings that have become familiar to our way of life there.”

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In his working life at the college, Callender mentored and championed many students. To continue his legacy after his death, Ogilvie and the cultural trust Lateral Lab established the Robert Callender International Residency for Young Artists at their shared studio in Fife. Each year, they welcome young artists from Scotland and Japan, and more recently from the Netherlands.

AS a counterpoint to the Edinburgh exhibition, there will be a display of works by these resident artists, including Joseph Calleja, Kaori Matsumura, Niall Stevenson, Masahiro Kawanaka, Melissa Lawson, Chieko Terashima, Patrick M Lydon, Stephen Kavanagh, Lotte Bosman, Paul Meikle and Yulia Kovanova.

“He was always supportive of young artists and I work with them still,” Ogilvie told The National. “He gave a lot of his time to them and thought it was very important to support them, particularly at the point of leaving college when there is that void and difficulty in becoming a professional artist. He was very aware of this so we set up the residency in his name.

“We focus on young artists coming out of Edinburgh College of Art and have an exchange where they go to Japan for a month and work towards an exhibition there and then Japanese artists come here to work in the Fife studio and we provide exhibitions for them.

“Presenting their work to the public is very important and the residency also gives them time to reflect. There are 12 in this current exhibition and they really are top class.”

CALLENDER was driven by his interest in the craft of making and in the environment – particularly the coast, the sea and those who worked on it. His body of work includes a prodigious and technically accomplished output of paintings, work in three dimensions and printmaking, which are complemented by his writings – succinct prose and poetry on maritime and environmental themes.

Focusing on a selection of Callender’s work, this exhibition, called Robert Callender: Plastic Beach … Poetry Of The Everyday, addresses environmental concerns and ways and means of recycling.

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These are issues that underline the enduring relevance of the artist’s ideas, particularly his later work which took a distinctly ecological turn with his significant installation Plastic Beach. Plastic Beach and Callender’s artwork Coastal Collection will be included in the show. Both are composed of 500 objects, which are remakings of found objects.

Coastal Collection comprises a range of shoes, cups, stoppers and other items – reinterpretations of objects deposited from land or boats into the sea. It was made by Callender during the second half of the 1990s.

By the time he created Plastic Beach, only a few years later in the early to mid-2000s, all 500 objects were of plastic origin.

ROBERT Callender’s approach to creating art was aligned to Japanese and Chinese constructive traditions.

Ogilvie said: “He had a zen-like persistence in making the work. He reinvented the objects and it was his powers of observation that made them so real. Often people don’t believe that they are actually not the real thing.

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“In the studio, we hardly spoke to each other – it was a kind of zen-like practice with us both working away. And it is that attention and persistence over the years that built up his legacy.

“As artists we are all trained to look at what is in front of us, to really study and understand. He was a past master at that and his attention to detail was extraordinary. He caught the atmosphere of everything he was looking at.”

WHEN they first went to Sutherland it was mostly timber they found on the beaches but latterly there was more and more plastic washing up on the shoreline.

“That is what led him to a more environmental concern about the detritus of society ending up on the beach or in the sea,” Ogilvie said. “His work gradually became a real environmental practice which was a plea about the plastic being thrown in to the sea and ending up on our shores. He was definitely before his time. He was making works in the late 1980s and 90s so we are talking quite a few years ago when he was already focused on these things and showing his concerns.”

Ogilvie added: “This exhibition is actually very opportune as there is a focus on plastic now and what we are going to do about it. It is very relevant to what is happening at the moment.”

Robert Callender: Plastic Beach … Poetry Of The Everyday is on from now until July 8 at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Admission free