Nicky Bird Residency

Since October 2019, Nicky Bird has been working on an artist residency called ‘The Decorators,’ part of Art Walk Projects ongoing 'Land Mark' programme about Portobello’s working and material land.

Her residency is based on the former site of the Buchan & Co Thistle potteries, Bridge Street. As it now draws to close, she reflects here on four months’ work which culminates with the celebratory Decorators’ tea party on 29th February and the artworks installed in the kilns and surrounding area.

Nicky focused on women who worked as decorators for the potteries in the late 1960s. Mostly in their teens, the women painted thistles, among other motifs in workshops near the present-day kilns site. Each decorator had her own mark that she would put on the bottom of any pottery she decorated. In 1972, Buchan & Co closed the Portobello site and moved to Crieff. Some of the women ceased to be decorators at around this point, either through redundancy or moving onto to married life. The kilns are the only physical traces of the pottery on Bridge Street. On her site visits, Nicky was struck by how the history and work of the decorators was invisible.

Margaret Munro of Portobello Heritage Trust had interviewed Mairi Fortuna, one of the decorators in 2018. With Margaret’s help, Nicky met Mairi late last summer. Along with sharing her memories, Mairi showed photographs that captured herself and others at work and at play. She quickly spread the word about the residency, which led to meetings with three other decorators, and a wealth of memorabilia that included personal photographs, union cards, redundancy notices, and of course, examples of their work. Each decorator had her own vivid memories of her time at the potteries, with friendships as well as working conditions being recurring themes including detailed descriptions of painting thistles. Irene Kozok, who worked at the pottery from 1966 to 1972, spoke about, “…now, if I close my eyes I can still do it. So, I’ve never forgotten how to actually paint the thistles on the pots…”

Nicky’s residency has attempted to make visible this social history through the final artworks on location. Interview extracts from three decorators can be heard in the kiln over two weekends (29 Feb/1 March & 7/8 March). Artworks in the area include one of Mairi’s photographs as a large photobanner on Bridge Street, and a large banner wrapped around the kiln under restoration, including the names and signs of all the decorators, who have either taken part or been remembered by Nicky’s interviewees. The residency’s events have proved the enduring interest in the decorators, including those who have a strong family connection to a decorator, and other pottery workers. By paying attention to voice, image, pattern and marker associated with Buchan pottery, the artworks show how the decorators have left their marks on the Portobello landscape.

Special thanks to: Mairi Fortuna, Irene Forbes, Irene Kozok and Barbara Naughton Margaret Munro (Portobello Heritage Trust)

Image credit above: courtesy of Mairi Fortuna



To hear extracts of the Decorator interviews that were played inside the kiln during March 2020 and full project images
view here


Nicky Bird was interviewed by Genevieve Fay about her project 'The Decorators'. They discuss how the project evolved, the inspirations behind it, and what we can expect from the upcoming events that mark its completion, read here

Other Related Resources:

Porty Podcast 'The Decorators' –
Art Walk Porty Residence, November 2019

Porty Podcast 'The Decorators' – Part 2, 29 February 2020
‘The Decorators of Portobello’ residency with Nicky Bird, a-n The Artists Information Company, February 2020
The Afternoon Show, BBC Scotland, 5 March 2020


Sat/Sun 29th Feb/1st March 2020
& Sat/Sun 7th/8th March - 11am to 3pm
Kilns, Bridge Street, Portobello EH15

Kiln opening featuring the voices of three Decorators with accompanying outdoor visual artworks.

‘The Decorators’ Tea Party - Sat Feb 29th 3.30-5pm
The Wash House, Adelphi Grove, Portobello EH15

Opportunity to share pots, stories & other memorabilia.
Welcome Introduction from Margaret Munro, Portobello Heritage Trust.

Kiln Artist Walks with Nicky Bird
Sun 1st 12noon & Sat 7th March 2pm



Nicky’s work investigates the contemporary relevance of ‘found’ artefacts, their archives and specific sites through collaborative art processes with people who have significant connections to a hidden history. She is interested in how such artefacts, archives and sites carry both social and personal histories. This leads to a key question: what is our relationship to the past, and what is the value we ascribe to it? She has explored this through photography, bookworks, sound, the Internet and New Media. Dialogues with archivists, archaeologists, local community members, local history groups, and museum volunteers are instrumental in her practice. This means the collaborative process, and the physical site, shape the form of final artworks.


Special thanks to Portobello Heritage Trust with the help in delivering this project, and to Print Vision for printing the 38 metre long wraparound banner.