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In The Making: Fife artist Celie Byrne’s brand new mural welcomes readers back to Cupar library

Cupar-cupar-cupar-chameleon! Artist Celie Byrne included the Duncan Institute's mascot in her mural.
Cupar-cupar-cupar-chameleon! Artist Celie Byrne included the Duncan Institute's mascot in her mural.

The Duncan Institute opened its doors today, welcoming back visitors after a long lockdown with a brand new three-storey mural by acclaimed artist Celie Byrne.

And the first through the door will know already that Celie doesn’t do things by halves.

“I’m always one for telling people: ‘Don’t start something and then never finish it and go on to something else’,” she says. “Start it and resolve it to the very end – whether it’s good or bad.”

When the 2020 lockdown saw celebrations for 150 years of Cupar’s landmark Duncan Institute scrapped, plans for Celie to paint an occasion-marking mural went with them.

But when cultural body OnFife approached her “out of the blue” in February this year asking if she was still up for the challenge, she said yes – and upped the ante.

Celie Byrne on top of the scaffold at the Duncan Institute. Pictures supplied by Celie Byrne.

“I said it had to be the full staircase, not just one wall,” she explains. “So the whole thing changed from a ‘150 years celebration’ mural to a more general mural encouraging people to come back through the door.”

No small feat, the ambitious project involved Celie scrambling up towers of scaffolding – “about 10m high at one point” – and transforming “three floors of salmon pink gloss” into an airy, vibrant landscape of stars, ribbons, and even a chameleon!


“I’m pleased with all of the mural’s different elements,” Celie says of the reimagined work.

She hopes it will help draw people back to the historic library after lockdown, “just to see a little bit of fun – because there’s an oil painting, a portrait, there’s a little bit for the kids”.

Honouring daughter of Cupar

One of those elements was a striking portrait of the 19th Century building’s benefactor, Miss Elizabeth Duncan.

In 1867, Miss Duncan left £5000 – worth around £600,000 today – for the building of a ‘Mechanic’s Institute’ in her hometown of Cupar. Seasoned portrait artist Celie wanted to “give her a nod”, so the new mural features a replica of an oil painting of Miss Duncan that the Duncan Institute had kept in storage.

“Painting Miss Duncan’s portrait allowed me to capture the essence of someone who was dedicated to the wellbeing of her community,” says Celie.

Miss Elizabeth’s Duncan portrait is featured in the mural.

OnFife libraries supervisor Susan Allan welcomed the tribute, saying: “We’re so pleased with the joyful work that Celie has created.

“After 150 years, this iconic building is still serving people in a way that would surely have pleased Elizabeth Duncan.”

And each other element of the mural has the same careful thought behind it.

All tied in

For example, the winding red ribbon which ties Celie’s mural together across the three floors is drawn following the shape and flow of the River Eden, which runs through the town and is, like the library, at the heart of its community.

In fact, Celie was so dedicated to following the river’s flow that the painting runs right across the library window.

“When I was drawing it out, I got to the window and realised that typically, the most interesting bit of the river went over that window,” Celie explains.

“So I just thought, ‘hmm, I wonder if they’d be up for me painting on the window, that’d be really nice, to continue it’. And they were up for it, so that was cool!”

A little thing like a window won’t stop Celie’s paintbrush.

Beautifully inscribed on the ribbon is a quote by Turkish writer Mehmet Murat Ildan: “The bright stars of the skies are far to touch; but there are other shiny stars that you can touch easily: the books of the libraries.”

Celie didn’t pick the quote but it was a serendipitous remit for her since, she explains, stars have become a bit of a calling card in her large-scale pieces.

A star in the making.

“I usually have stars somewhere in my mural artwork. There’s stars in Kelty, I did a wall of stars for Young’s diner.

“And there’s hand-painted stars on the background of the mural I did to commemorate (Kelty boxer) Connor Law. I do like a star, I have to say!”

Method in the madness

But that’s not to say a working artist’s day is all shine, no shovel. In fact, Celie points out: “Stars are harder to draw out than you think because there’s not a true middle point!”

And though her murals, like her renowned small-scale portraits, are drawn entirely freehand, they involve a lot more planning and meticulous work than some may realise.


“Maths was my favourite subject at school, believe it or not,” laughs Celie. Perhaps unexpected for an artist, but in taking on big projects like this, her artistic imagination has to negotiate with practicality.

“You’ve got to work it out,” she says simply. (To talk to, Celie is refreshingly straightforward and entirely without pretention. When at first she misses my call, she rings back ten minutes later, apologising that she “popped out for milk” and is “not very good at this bit”.)

She goes on: “My spatial awareness is pretty decent, so I can plan it. I just draw out where I want stuff and how it all fits in. And just go about it methodically.”

She makes it sound easy, but admits working as an artist is often less than glamorous.

“You’ve got your extreme highs and extreme lows,” she says.

“You’ll have a great day painting, or you’ll have a really bad day painting, but it’s always a day painting to move you further towards your end product. But it really is that kind of flatlining for a long time in the middle, and a lot of the time you really don’t know when you’re going to finish.”


Asked what helps to motivate her during that “flatlining”, her answer is characteristically down-to-earth.

“Wu Tang Clan!” she exclaims joyfully. “Or Beastie Boys, that always gets you going. I had a 12-hour shift of Sleaford Mods actually, when I painted the ribbon for the Duncan Institute.”

Breaking long lockdown silence

But of course, Celie jokes, she couldn’t have her music up too loud – it is a library after all. And she hopes her mural helps people to engage with this beloved building again after so long locked out.

“I always remember the library when I was tiny, and the excitement of getting a book out,” she says.

“Actually, I think I’ve still got a book out from Renfrew library from ’71 or something like that! And I keep forgetting about the amnesty day…”

Perhaps her public service to one library will cancel out her debt to another.

The library celebrated 150 years of service last year.

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