Despite having spent 10 years ruminating and writing at length about the life and work of George Wyllie, I still find myself surprised by the energy and output of this most singular of Scottish artists.
Wyllie, who died in 2012 at the age of 90, began his career as a full-time artist at the age of 59, when many people (in non-Covid times) are considering booking a cruise around the Med.
Not for George Ralston Wyllie, the pull of the garden centre café or the push of signing up to look after his grandchildren two days a week. No, siree. When Wyllie left his job as a Greenock-based Customs and Excise officer in October 1980, he launched himself full pelt into Being An Artist. And he didn’t stop.
This year marks the centenary of the birth of George Wyllie, best known for his monumental temporary artworks, the Straw Locomotive (1987) and the Paper Boat (1989). Both works live on in archival material and in the collective memory of all who saw them in Glasgow and, (in the case of the Paper Boat), on tour to locations such as Dumfries, London, Antwerp and New York.
The Paper Boat even made it onto the front cover of The Wall Street Journal, when it sailed up the Hudson and into the World Financial Center in New York.
These “social sculptures”represent the tip of the Wyllie iceberg in terms of artistic output. He was a prolific maker, performer and writer. In today’s terminology, he was also an influencer; regularly appearing on air and on our screens.
Had social media been around when Wyllie was at his peak, who knows what he’d have done with it in a bid to spread his seriously playful and unpretentious art-for-all message?
On Hogmanay, on what would have been his 99th birthday, Wyllie’s family launched a new project called Mapping Memories – The George Wyllie Art Trail. The virtual art trail is now live and his elder daughter, Louise Wyllie, is calling on anyone who has a story about her father and his work, to post their memories online onto two different online noticeboards created for the centenary year.
Louise Wyllie explains: “The first board is called Mapping Memories and we are asking people to add a story, photograph, video, audio or link relating to my father and his work, while the second, Just For Fun, is exactly that. We’re asking for stories and pictures of wonderful, weird and wacky things which dad inspired people to do.
“We’ve had some great tales. These include pictures and stories about dad’s Monarch of Auchmountain Glen stag sculpture in Greenock, the saga of the big question mark sculptures along the Firth of Clyde at Langbank, erected as a tribute to dad in 2012 by artist Alec Galloway, and a terrific ‘wally dug’ audio tale by Graham Ross who, as a young architecture student at Strathclyde University, worked with him on The City as a Living Room project at The Arches in Glasgow.
“The Wally Dugs tale shows how ahead of the curve my father was… remember, this was almost a quarter of a century before architect Kengo Kuma said he wanted V&A Dundee to feel like the city’s living room.
“Dad got these architecture students from Strathclyde University to create two 15-foot high Wally Dugs – a staple of every Scottish hearthside at one point – out of white, backlit fabric – off-cuts from the Paper Boat and fluorescent strip lights powered by a generator. The ‘chain’ was my mum’s old garden hose! Then they toured the ‘dugs’ around the city.
“In Just For Fun, we’ve had some brilliant contributions. I love the A Bird is Not a Stone tattoo in tribute to dad’s Berlin Burd, which he sited beside the Berlin Wall in 1988.
“There’s also a letter which dad wrote to Sean Connery asking him to help pay for thousands of Saltire-themed Destiny plastic bags, which dad then gave away, as well as the drawing which The Herald cartoonist, Steven Camley, made the day after dad died and which I liked so much, I asked him if I could buy it to hang on my wall.”
Although he didn’t start getting well-known in the art world until the 1980s, Wyllie had been making music, boats, gadgets and fancy footwork (as part of a dance act with younger brother, Banks) all his life. He trained as an engineer with the Post Office, but was always drawn to the creative side of life.
In the mid-1960s, inspired by an exhibition of the Italian Arte Povera movement at Kelvingrove in Glasgow, Wyllie signed up for a welding course at a local college and turned the basement of the family home in Gourock into a workshop.
It was, as he told his long-suffering wife, Daphne, Time For Art. He embarked on what he called a Ten Object Plan and his first sculpture was Mortgage Climbing the Wall, an intricate piece of metalwork which appeared to represent a creeping presence.
A blizzard of metal sculptures began to emerge based around odd bits of metal he found in scrapyards, the shipyards, the beach, the dump…you name it.
In 1967, Wyllie met a young Glasgow School of Art-trained architect, Ron McKinven. A former professional footballer, McKinven specialised in the design of commercial premises such as pubs, nightclubs and restaurants. Wyllie went on to instal a huge peacock and a Scottish pipe-band in Motherwell Services Club, and created the interiors of the Birds and Bees pub in Stirling, La Bonne Auberge in Glasgow and many other restaurants, bars and clubs throughout Scotland.
A scrap metal merchant he knew gave him old chrome car bumpers and a series of bumper creatures and palm trees started appearing in local cafes, nightclubs and pubs. One of them – a dragon originally made for Bumper’s disco in Prestwick – was eventually moved to the Dean Park in Kilmarnock, where it remains to this day.
Today, there are Wyllie art works all over the country, from Caithness to Campbeltown and from Lewis to Motherwell. In non-lockdown days, thousands of people a day file past his Running Clock outside Buchanan Street Bus Station in Glasgow.
Wyllie, a wordsmith as well as an artist, called himself a “scul?tor” because he said he wasn’t sure if he was an actual sculptor. The Question Mark became his calling card and was at the heart of all his work. His Paper Boat, a commentary on the demise of heavy industry, even had the letters QM emblazoned on the side. When it opened up, a question mark rose up.
A curious childlike zest for life permeated the life of Wyllie. In a short film by the artist’s friend and collaborator, Kenny Munro – now posted on Mapping Memories, it’s clear that even in old age, he was always questioning things.
Munro’s 15-minute film contains snippets from the early 1990s on, of Wyllie out and about; in Ireland making a film of his 32 Spires installation with filmmaker Murray Grigor, on Lewis creating his bright red Post Box Palm (and posting a letter in it) and his Stones of Scotland permanent installation at Regent Road Park in Edinburgh.
Touchingly, we see Wyllie in his Aladdin’s Cave of a home in Gourock, by then in his late 80s, reading from a letter of encouragement sent to him by his friend, the influential kinetic US sculptor, George Rickey, who spent his childhood in Scotland.
Towards the end, his old friend and sparring partner, Richard Demarco, is seen at the opening of an exhibition of Wyllie work. “There is only George Wyllie,” says Demarco, and we were not ready for him…”
Mapping Memories – The George Wyllie Art Trail, to contribute your photographs, films, audio and memories, go to georgewyllie.com
Jan Patience is the co-author, with Louise Wyllie, of Arrivals and Sailings: The Making of George Wyllie (Birlinn)
The Stafford Gallery in Wimbledon has been flying the Saltire for Scottish artists for the last decade and this 10th anniversary proves this with flying colours. Alongside most small private galleries, the Stafford has had a testing year and this first show of 2021, featuring the work of around 30 Scottish artists, has been forced online thanks to restrictions around Covid-19.
One of the highlights is a painting called White Cloud VII by the late James Morrison, who died last September at the age of 88.
The oil painting, painted by Morrison in 2000, has been donated to the gallery by a couple called Richard and Susan Halls, with the stipulation that proceeds from the sale will be divided between Doddie Weir’s My Name’5 Doddie Foundation, which helps improve the lives of those affected by Motor Neuron Disease and The Trussel Trust, which supports a nationwide network of foodbanks. The painting is priced at £3,950.
It’s a timely intervention as the Montrose-based painter is the subject of a forthcoming documentary called Eye of the Storm by You’ve Been Trumped filmmaker Anthony Baxter, who also lives in the north-east town. The film, featuring interviews with Morrison carried out in the last years of his life, also features animations by Catriona Black. It will be premiered at the Glasgow Film Festival, which starts at the end of next month, followed by a showing on the BBC Scotland channel.
Morrison, who attended the Glasgow School of Art in the 1950s, was an acclaimed artist and influential teacher who has been credited with helping to reinvigorate landscape painting in Scotland. In a career spanning seven decades, he became known for painting the vast horizons, huge skies, hedgerows and rivers of Angus. The islands and icebergs of the high Arctic also held a perennial fascination.
Other Scottish artists whose work features in this 10th anniversary show include; Charles Jamieson, Muriel Barclay, Robert Kelsey, James Tweedie, Pam Scott, Lachlan Goudie and Helen Tabor.
If your are pining for art, this exhibition, which can be viewed online, is pulsing with vigour and joie de vivre.
Exhibition of Scottish Artists 2021: Stafford Gallery in association with Wimbledon Fine Art, 41 Church Road Wimbledon Village London SW19 5DQ, 07939 048 436 or 07836 296 737, http://www.staffordgallery.co.uk, January 17 to February 7. Gallery is closed in line with Covid-19 restrictions but open for online enquiries.