The story behind a new art gallery in the Borders is nothing short of remarkable, discovered reporter Hilary Scott, who spoke to owners Thom McCarthy and Allan Wright.

ZENWALLS Gallery, on Peebles’ High Street, would not be here had it not been for the Vietnam War.

Serving in Vietnam in the late 1960s emotionally scarred Thom, but it shaped and moulded his perspective on life.

“Little did I know when serving in Vietnam in the late 1960s, the profound effect that horrific experience would have on the rest of my life.

“Strangely enough, if it hadn’t been for this, I would not be opening Zenwalls on Peebles High Street right now along with my business partner – the renowned Scottish photographer and adventurer Allan Wright.”

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Thom says the overriding memory of Vietnam has never left him. Ducking and diving amidst enemy and friendly fire, deafened by the constant screeching and whistling of the shelling taking place all around him in the midst of what was the notorious TET offensive. This was to become his normal for a full year.

Since moving to Peebles more than two years ago Thom has been an active member of Peebles peace group.

“There’s an obvious connection here between my military experience and my enduring life-long commitment to universal peace – it’s no local secret that I want to get rid of Trident – but what’s not so obvious is the powerful influence Vietnam has had and continues to have even now, on my creative, artistic life,” he said.

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On Thom’s return from Vietnam, he was bursting with pent-up creative energy.

“I travelled from my native New York to Edinburgh to start a new life. I set up what turned into Cockburn Street Market, Scotland’s Carnaby Street!”

But the trauma of Vietnam continued to haunt Thom. “I guess it was a form of PTSD and my interest in Buddhism, which also stemmed from my time in Vietnam, that drew me to seek solace from my constant inner turmoil.

“I found myself at what is now Samye Ling Monastery in Eskdalemuir and lived and worked there for 20 years.

“As part of my healing process I was invited to study art according to the historic Tibetan hierarchical practice of a medieval apprenticeship.

“Working under internationally renowned Tibetan artist Sherab Palden Beru, in the monastery’s art studio, I was taught how to produce and model many of the ornate temple decorations which are intrinsic to the Buddhism practiced at Samye Ling. I also painted in the Tibetan style.”

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On the first day the UK entered lockdown, memories of Vietnam came rushing back for Thom. 

“I vividly recall when the shelling stopped in the battlefields of Vietnam.

“A strange silence fell over everything, the prospect of great change hung in the air. 

“And, oddly, that’s the first thing that came to mind on the first day of the COVID-19 lockdown – the sound of silence was palpable and once again I could sense that significant change was in the air.

“During lockdown I noticed that we suddenly had a unique opportunity to press the pause button, to reflect on our priorities and to consider perhaps reorganising elements of our lives more in accordance with our inner fulfilment. Creativity was calling.”

Along with a friend, Thom revisited his life-long passion – painting.

“We began to paint together, using mixed media, squirting paint straight from the bottle, skooshing great swathes of colour about with a palette knife.

“We put them onto the Instagram site ‘Artists Supporting Artists’ and, to our delight, they sold almost immediately.

“Of course, when you sell a painting it creates an immediate vacuum. The only way to fill it is to paint some more – and then find somewhere to display and share them all with others.”

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Allan Wright, a co-owner of Zenwalls Gallery. Photo: Helen Barrington

Sadly, in common with towns all over the country, Peebles High Street suffered a number of virus-related business casualties.

When a unit became available for rent in the town, Thom consulted his friend Allan, an award-winning professional landscape photographer who recently relocated to Peebles.

“I sensed an opportunity when the property suddenly became available to rent, a creative outlet for ourselves and, importantly, an opportunity to help boost the vitality of our town’s famously beautiful street, which many agree is now dangerously close to becoming completely swamped with charity shops.”

Allan’s work has taken him to nearly every corner of the globe. On his recent expedition in Australia, he narrowly escaped the fires that ravaged much of the country.

He says the original plans were to create a “pop-up gallery” to sell his photographs and Thom’s paintings.

“When the former antiques shop came up for lease we took it on the spot,” said Allan.

“Modest expectations soon grew to an evolving and now fully refurbished art gallery.”

The creative duo say their artistic media differ. Thom paints on large canvases in the abstract while Allan creates deeply evocative photographs.

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“What we have in common is that we are both light workers,” adds Thom. “By that I mean we don’t paint or photograph an object, rather we capture the light that bounces off the object in one fleeting moment.

“I like to think of Zenwalls Gallery as a gallery-laboratory – where the emphasis is on experimentation and interpretation, while exploring art in its historical, cultural and social context.

“At a time when it feels like we’re reeling from one crisis to the next, we need art to be for everyone: a sanctuary, a safe place to explore and experience the pleasure of creation.”

Along with works from Scotland’s highest-earning artist, Lynn Rodgie, and other guest artists, the results of Thom and Allan’s most recent ‘light-lab-work’ can already be enjoyed, hanging on the freshly painted walls of Zenwalls Gallery.

Thom and Allan say they have been given a warm welcome by local business owners.

And appointing the gallery manager, Katy P. Swift, appears to have been a stroke of serendipity.

“Katy, who graduated very recently from Highlands and Islands University with an MA in Socially Engaged Art, called in to Zenwalls Gallery to see what we were up to – and there was an instant synergy.

“Completely in-keeping with our creative philosophy, we all recognised the wisdom of incorporating her particular skills and passions in the mix.

“Typically, in our gig economy, Katie already has a number of holistic and creative roles in the community, including teaching yoga to children.

“Now, as the newly appointed gallery manager, she has already proved a great asset to the team, perfectly rebalancing the energy should Allan and I step out of line!”