Elizabeth Ogilvie leads me hurriedly down a path, through a side door and ushers me into Sea Loft, the home and studio she shares with husband Bob Callender, perched on the edge of the Firth of Forth in Kinghorn. White walls and warmth enclose us.
Twenty years ago we would have come for a night at the arcades; 40 years ago it could have been a dance; go back 70 and we could be looking forward to the latest movie. This old cinema, in this least likely of locations, was built in the 1930s for holidaymakers sunning themselves in Fife. Now, it is an artistic space of some vast and subtle proportion. The couple have shared a studio most of their working life. Their last base was in Leith, and they still have a bothy on the Point of Stoer in Sutherland—their home for two months of the summer. It was here that the old cinema flickered a trailer they couldn’t ignore. ‘We would take up newspapers for the fire. And as we were making the fire one day, we saw the ad for the cinema and came back early,’ Bob says. ‘It was just a shell, but as soon as we saw it we knew that was it,’ Liz adds. They bought the cinema in 1990 and it took two years to convert with their friend the architect, John Hope. To give some idea of the transformation, the metal girders supporting the roof, now gleaming white, were apparently, ‘Caked in bird shit and rust.’ Their modest living space is raised above in loft-style, and overlooks the hanger-like studio. ‘The studio has always come first,’ they agree.
Opposites in stature—Bob, a big barrelly man, Liz a fair, slight woman—their work is linked by a long-standing fascination and bond with the sea. Both are precise. Liz’s current show at DCA is concerned with rhythms and patterns in water and the ocean. ‘I was interested in the water cycle in general—that being one of the big rhythms, but I also wanted to look at smaller rhythms.’ she says. ‘When I was playing with mist in the studio I was very excited to discover that you could see the vortex in it. I was able to create the video installation which reveals how vortices move, layer up and behave. Water fascinates me, and I want to convey that fascination to people so that they respect it.’
Bob’s work has been obsessionally concerned with plastic debris washed up onto the west coast’s shore. His studio space is a workshop of forgery, producing thousands of models of the scraps he has collected on beach-combing expeditions.
The studio is a huge, cold, inspiring space, filled with evidence of past and present work. On a stage, wrecked hulls of boats stack up. They are, I’m told, models made from cardboard. In a corner sits Liz’s experimenting pool, a large rectangular structure. The water looks oily and black. Tubes run up a wooden post and above the pool—a strange cross between Japanese Zen pond and scientific lab.
Liz tells Bob to get out some of his remade flotsam and jetsam. ‘It grew as a notion,’ he says with some understatement. There are now crates and bin-bags full of replica debris, plus the original plastics. On showing me a jellybean shoe that could be the bright pink plastic footwear I loved as a kid, I am amazed that it is minutely sculpted from paper. A rusty-looking oil container is placed into my hands, light as a feather and all paper. ‘Bob is pastmaster at illusion,’ says Liz.
The couple has links with the sea that stretch back over long family histories. Liz’s family came from St Kilda, and Bob’s parents brought him up on the south coast before they died while he was still a child. His father built a sailing boat from wood, and upstairs balsa boats made by Bob can be found.
It is clear that the physical proximity of the sea feeds into the studio—there is a natural ebb and flow between sea and art. Even in the dark it feels expansive. ‘The studio is very special, it’s like a think-tank. You prepare yourself to go in mentally— like a sanctuary,’ Liz says. ‘It can also be a bloody nuisance,’ adds Bob. ‘It took me six years to do 1000 objects’.
Some things are less of a nuisance. You can see a bar out of the windows, the Carousel, where a few men take shots at pool tables. ‘Do you go there much?’ I ask. ‘Oh yes. I’m being taught how to play pool at the moment,’ Bob says. ‘There used to be a fish and chip shop down the road too,’ says Liz. ‘It used to be my dream to live between a fish and chip shop and a pub,’ Bob says with a smile.
Ruth Hedges is an art writer living in London