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I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on janpatience@me.com (All work © Jan Patience)

Friday, 25 June 2010

Creative Spirit - Abigail McLellan

The following article appeared in the May/June issue of Homes & Interiors Scotland magazine, on which I am currently working as Acting Deputy Editor.

The life and work of Abby Mclellan is almost talismanlike. That's her painting at the top of this blog and it has come to represent more than just a beautiful image for me.

I met Abby and her husband Ali (the painter Alasdair Wallace) early in 2009. Abby was in a wheelchair by then and struggling to communicate speech-wise, but we instantly clicked and found a way to communicate despite this. Her fiercely creative spirit was firing on all cylinders, even thought MS was ravaging her body by then, and she was pressing on with finding ways to make the art which sustained her right to the end of her life just six months later.

I started up this blog not long after meeting Abby and Ally because it was a powerful reminder to me of how art is not just about making images or crafting something out of nothing. It goes so much deeper than that.

At her funeral, I remember feeling regret that I had not got to know her better or met her earlier, but researching this feature, I felt I went some way to readdressing this. Ali gave me a bunch of tapes to listen to which were recorded in 2006/2007 of Abby talking about her life and her key influences to an interviewer. It was part of a huge project carried out by The British Library and Tate Artists Lives Sound Archive.

For days, I went about with Abby's voice in my ears, having downloaded them onto my iPod. She was incredibly open and honest in the tapes, possibly because, faced with a life threatening illness at any age, you are forced to reflect openly and honestly on the forces which have shaped you and made you into the person you are.

I'm hoping that, together with my friend Sue Biazotti, who introduced me to Abby and Ali, we will be able to bring the work and effervescent vision of Abigail McLellan to the wider audience it deserves. Watch this space...

Pictures, from top: Me in Abby's studio, Studio Still Life - with Abby in Ardnamurchan, Ghost Flowers, Abby in Ardnamurchan in 2007

Abigail McLellan worked unflaggingly through ten years of ill-health, filling her studio with vibrant canvases and intricate sculptures that bear testimony to her enduring skills

Short of leafing through their sketchbooks, a studio visit is as up close and
personal as you can get to the inner workings of an artist’s mind. As a working, thinking and living space, it’s the place that reflects the spirit of the occupant.
Abigail McLellan’s vibrantly colourful, jam-packed studio in the WASPS complex in Dennistoun, Glasgow, is no exception. The only difference is that the artist, who died last October at the age of 40, is no longer here to make use of it.
Instead, her husband, the painter Alasdair Wallace, spends his days quietly flitting between it and his own adjoining studio, finishing off his wife’s last works. She may not be here in person, but the spirit of this highly original, deeply intuitive artist, who fought MS for ten years, is very much alive in her former studio.
On the day I visit, it is a bright spring morning. Sun is streaming in through the studio’s two large windows, throwing shards of light on to a couple of unfinished canvases. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Abby, as she was known to family and friends, was still here, determined not to miss out on the action.
Every surface is crammed with the stuff that made up her working life. The walls are festooned with finished and unfinished work of all shapes and sizes. Her trademark sea fans, built up with layers of acrylic colour of varying degrees of translucency, are everywhere. Abby returned time and again to these delicate sea creatures, as if the answer to the mysteries of the natural world lay within their complex structures.
Poking out from a stack of framed paintings is one of her distinctive figurative works. According to Alasdair, Abby had a eureka moment when out one evening, when she looked up to see her best friend Louise sitting at a little round table wearing a red dress. After much compositional experimentation, the finished painting went on to be included in the prestigious BP Portrait Awards at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Abby was thrilled to see it used as the image for the show’s posters on the London Underground.
Abigail McLellan was born in Middles­brough on 11 July 1969, the youngest of three girls. Her late father, David, was an engineer who was also keen on woodwork, while her mother, Ruth, is a retired teacher who taught all three daughters to sew.
The family moved to Dumfries when Abby was 13 and by then the youngster, who once memorably had a painting accepted by Tony Hart’s famous BBC TV gallery Vision On, was a dab hand at make and do, pestering her dad to assist in her latest production. This fascination with the process of craft never left her, says Alasdair: “For Abby, it was all about the concept and the making process.”
Poignantly, at her funeral, Ruth described how one year David had helped his daughter construct an Easter bonnet out of chicken wire, and her subsequent delight when she won a competition with it.
As the mourners’ laughter and cheers subsided, Abby’s sister Sarah spoke of her pride at walking into a “posh London gallery” to see her baby sister’s work hanging on the walls.
The Rebecca Hossack Gallery has represented the artist since 1996, including a final solo show in March last year, and she became one of its most popular painters. (Ironically, with so much success in London, she was not so well known in Scotland.) Plans are now afoot to hold a major retrospective of her work across three floors of the gallery in next summer, accom­panied by a specially commissioned book
As her illness progressed, Abby began experimenting with sculpture. In her last days, she was making what she called her “molecule sculptures”, in which the molecular forms she studied were reduced to sticks and balls.
The creative magpie also found an endless treasure chest of source material in the internet. Swatches of bright fabric which she found online are draped around her studio, along­side stacks of dog-eared copies of Golden Hands, a part-work magazine set from the 1960s and 1970s. The patch­work blanket on her day bed could have come straight out of its pages.
Despite being confined to a wheelchair and battling to make herself understood by the end of her life, she stead­fastly refused to “stay at home and watch Deal or No Deal”, as she once put it. Even when she was no longer able to hold a brush, her art sustained her and she continued to work with the help of Alasdair and two assistants, up until she went into hospital for the last time. She expected to be back, says her husband.
Alasdair, who was her main carer, is still very much involved in creating the work “under Abby’s direction”, he laughs. “There is a process to what she did and so although she wasn’t actually making it with her own hands, it was made under her express direction. She knew when to stop, whereas I still work away when I probably shouldn’t.”
Abby was diagnosed with MS in 2000, just before the couple visited Japan. Her work had always been suffused with a Japanese aesthetic, but this long-anticipated trip had a major impact on both of them.
“As it became more difficult for her to work, she extracted the essence of what she was doing and adapted it to a simpler, bolder style – a process many artists go through, in fact,” he says.
The couple met at Glasgow School of Art, which they attended from 1987 to 1991 (they married in August last year, just months before Abby died, after 18 years together). He jokes that her unpretentious approach to making and doing found an outlet at art school. “She went into the painting depart­ment in second year, but she’d do things like paint excerpts from Gray’s Anatomy on to old deck­chairs, or puncture raw canvas with a bristle of rusty old six-inch nails.”
They didn’t get together until their final year. “I think it was the stress of the degree show that threw us together,” he recalls. “We had been good friends up until then, so it felt very natural. I can remember us going out to the pub and finishing each other’s sentences.”
Finishing his wife’s work is now true labour of love for Alasdair, whose own softly reflective yet darkly humorous paintings are much sought after by collectors. “In a way, it’s a comfort to me that I can still work on her paintings,” he says. “It keeps me close to her. The only difference is she’s not here to tell me what colours to use and when to stop.
“In the end, her painting and sculpture continued to develop and feed off the inspiration she got from living life to the full. It was all about beauty, poise and colour.”

For more information on Abigail McLellan’s work, visit www.r-h-g.co.uk; Glasgow Print Studio (www.gpsart.co.uk) also stocks some of her screenprints


  1. Jan, I have just read this piece about Abby, your desire to bring her work to a larger audience and applaud that.

    Abby and Alasdair's studios are just next to mine and other than saying "hello" when passing in the studio, I never knew all that much about them. I remember a few days before Abby's death holding the door open for her and Alasdair and thinking that she was not looking so well.

    Everyone at the studios was saddened by Abby's death. Shortly afterwards, Alasdair exhibited some of her work at the WASPS Studios and for me, it was the most interesting and moving exhibition I have seen in my 5 years painting.

    Seeing an Abigail McLellan painting on the internet conveys the simplicity of some of the work, but it's only when you see one in the flesh and can appreciate the brushwork and genius use of colour that you begin to understand - they really got to me somehow.

    I didn't know that Alasdair was completeing some of Abby's paintings until reading above - simply wonderful and I am sure the resulting paintings will be fascinating.

  2. Thanks for that Joe. Yes, I agree with you about seeing the work in the flesh. The use of colour and brushwork is breathtaking.


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