KATE Downie’s paintings capture the dynamism and movement of modern life. Susan Mansfield learns how a year of pandemic confinement inspired her to look in a completely new direction, drawing from nature.

ONE particular work by Kate Downie always sticks in my mind. It’s a drawing of a landscape sketched from the window of a train speeding across Fife, done on the back of a cardboard sandwich packet. She didn’t use the sandwich packet for a conceptual reason, it was simply all she had to hand. The sketch was framed and later developed into a painting.

That drawing says so much about Downie’s energy and dynamism, her approach to her work. She is almost always in motion. Even while talking to me in her Fife studio, she is often moving around, pulling out things for me to see. She is known as an artist of human movement, a landscape painter of the modern world, of roads and bridges, gasometers and pylons, industry and infrastructure.

She has drawn and painted the Forth Bridge from a makeshift studio on Inchgarvie Island while the trains thundered past overhead. She has travelled the coast of Scotland on an odyssey in a camper van long before the North Coast 500 was dreamed of. Her last solo exhibition at the Scottish Gallery featured paintings of Route 66 through Arizona, and views of the Yangtze River Plain in China done from a high-speed train.

The world she paints is a world in motion. But, in March 2020, the world as we knew it stopped moving. The transport infrastructure fell eerily silent. Downie was poised to embark on a journey from Russia to China on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, using a carriage as a studio, then take part in a residency in Beijing and Qingdao, part of the UK-Chinese art collaboration, “Outside Edge”. Instead, she found herself at home, unable to leave her Fife village.

A project backed by Fife Arts to draw on ScotRail trains had to be cancelled too. “You couldn’t imagine a less appropriate, less Covid-friendly activity,” Downie says wryly. “But it would have felt so inappropriate for me to do pictures about roads and travel and bridges [in lockdown]. It wouldn’t be honest either, and I think the honesty of response is important.”

What does an artist of movement do when movement stops?

Downie took her work in a dramatic new direction, the results of which are now on show in a solo exhibition, “Between Seasons”, at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. The work will also be shown at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries from August until October.

During the spring lockdown of 2020, she began to notice the forms of trees, dead trees at first, standing out starkly as the others took on their green spring foliage. Then there was a gift from her daughter which came wrapped in paper printed with images of 18th-century engravings of trees.

Inspired by these, she produced a series of drypoint etchings, “Root Metaphors in Covid Times”. “I didn’t realise at the time that that was the beginning of a whole body of work,” Downie says. “I had been caring for my 93-year-old mum, but by early summer she was able to go home, and I realised I had been looking in a very focussed way at trees.”

Downie realised she was noticing movement and energy, the same qualities she found in travel and infrastructure. While human beings were staying home, nature was forging ahead. “It was about travel, but travel through time rather than physical space. Our ability to travel physically has been removed, but nature was cycling through its seasons. The dynamism in the drawings came from looking at the patterns of growth.”

The National:

She began to paint portraits of trees – an ash, a bird cherry, a paper birch, most of them within a mile or two of her home. A concept evolved: she would paint each tree six months apart in mirror image, working on linen woven locally in Kirkcaldy.

It was a project about staying put, being rooted (no pun intended) in place. “Ever since I moved to Fife in 2018, I had been looking for a language for the landscape. I could see that the next lockdown was going to happen, and I knew I had to get up close and personal with my environment.”

Downie realised that, for the first time in her life, she was painting trees in full leaf. “I love trees but I had artfully avoided painting them in summer. They relate so closely to an archetype of ‘nice paintings’.

“I’ve always been someone who has moved away from doing classical beauty. I am as far away from being a painter of pastoral landscape as you can imagine.

But I suddenly realised that I could paint these trees over time.”

THE tree paintings are, in one sense, visualisations of time. The mirror-image trees look like giant hour glasses: in the gallery, they will be turned every few days (“People have to come to see the exhibition twice!”) She calls them “time pieces”, “an equation for looking”.

At the centre of each is a densely worked horizon where paint has been added and removed, and slivers of colour shine through. “That horizon is the folded time that we have existed in – it represents human activity, layers upon layers upon layers, six months of not going anywhere. There are traces of physical activities, children playing, the sound of birdsong, a snowfall.

One of them has a little bit of Kate Downie road, with blurred images of cyclists going by. At first, people think it’s only about the trees, but it’s also about the fact that the trees can carry on and we are stuck.”

The contrast of the summer and winter trees is stark, as if the change happened in an instant. They are paintings of a time of trauma, of sudden, inexplicable change. But the message is ultimately one of hope. Downie describes them as “personal but sort of universal”.

A tree stands through different seasons and circumstances. It takes a long view. “People instantly understand the language of the seasons. In the winter tree, the living summer is actually underground. The future will re-emerge.”

Kate Downie: Between Seasons is at the Scottish Gallery, until 26 June, see: www.scottish-gallery.co.uk, then at Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries, from August 15