The following is an unedited version of a feature which I wrote for The Herald Arts section on 31/12/11.
I found it quite difficult to write because I have made the fatal journalistic mistake of getting too close to my subject - or at least his family and his legacy. Just ask my husband...
In November 2010, my journalist friend, Fiona Black told me about her good friend Louise Wyllie, who was looking for help in establishing the Friends of George Wyllie. Louise's dad George, had at that point, just gone into a care home and the family were faced with the task of looking after his artwork as well as his welfare.
Of course I knew about George Wyllie - or at least I thought I did. I remember all too clearly my first glimpse of George's work. It was 1988 and, fresh out of Aberdeen University and having just passed my driving test, I was working for a business magazine in Glasgow.
The brother bosses of the company foolishly gave me one of their fancy motors - a GTi or sommat - to go out to jobs and I was driving down the Broomielaw when out of the corner of my eye I spied a Straw Locomotive dangling from a crane.
The sight almost made me crash the car. It made perfect sense. Even to a callow 24-year-old. Later that summer, the Straw Loco was transported from its elevated perched and after the birds' nests were removed, burned at a former engineering works in Springburn. Inside was a question mark which would not be consumed by the flames.
Too many people feel alienated by art, but George Wyllie never made people feel that way. George's art comes from an honest and thoughtful place. He mixes everything into his artwork. Music, word-play, philosophy and the truest line imaginable.
On Hogmanay, the day of his 90th birthday, George's artist grandson Calvin, asked him if he had any pearls of wisdom to share. "Yes," said George. "Never share your pearls of wisdom with anyone."
Amen to that. Happy Birthday George! And onwards The Risorgimento...
GEORGE WYLLIE @ 90
THE WHYSMAN FESTIVAL - THROUGHOUT 2012
EXACTLY 90 years ago today, George Ralston Wyllie was born in Shettleston, Glasgow; the first of Andrew and Harriet Wyllie’s two sons. It would another 50 or so years before Ralston, as he was known, became the Maverick bunnet-wearing artist called George Wyllie, who would dangle a Straw Locomotive from the Finnieston Crane and launch a Paper Boat on a global journey from the Clyde via New York and back to Scotland for an ignominious end.
Wyllie’s Straw Loco and Paper Boat both had a profound influence on all who saw them. Recently, the actor Alan Cumming who lived in the city at the time said: “It [The Straw Locomotive] was an act of whimsy, bravado and passion that connected on an emotional level with the Scottish people. It changed my view of what art could be.”
Following Martin Boyce’s Turner Prize win at the beginning of this month, there has been much chattering in the art world about how Glasgow has managed to produce so many leading contemporary artists.
David Harding led the Environmental Art course at Glasgow School of Art from the late 1980s until the late 1990s, which hot-housed figures such as Turner Prize winners Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce. He is in no doubt Wyllie exerted a profound influence on his former students approach to making art.
“George's risk-taking and commitment were the things that exerted influence,” he says. “I brought George in to the department to work for a wonderful week around 1986 with the year group of which Douglas Gordon, Louise Scullion, Roddy Buchanan, Ross Sinclair, Craig Richardson were a part.
“At the beginning of it, George came in and asked if anyone had a book. A book was produced. Then he asked one person to open it and another to find a page in the middle. The next person was to pick out a line in the middle of the book. Then someone had to find the middle to words in that line. The words were ‘and I’ and that became the theme of the week, which concluded with a big dance in the art school to raise money for our student trip to New York.
“One of the students made a Berlin Wall out of cardboard boxes. At the dance, George jumped up to it and wrote and I in huge letters on it. Recently, at a gathering at Martin Boyce’s, I asked one or two of the artists there if George had influenced them and the answer was a resounding ‘yes’, especially with the Straw Locomotive and The Paper Boat.”
For Wyllie, now living in a care home in Greenock for ex-mariners, the sound of heavy engineering formed the backdrop to his early life and forged the man he would become.
His father was a rate fixer for a machine tool engineering company on the Clyde while his mother was a housewife with a talent for drawing, painting, music and dance, who later ran her own business.
In 1922, the family moved to the Craigton district of the city. Wyllie, ‘disadvantaged by a happy childhood’, recalls making the best bogies [carts] in town, spending hours constructing Meccano cranes and model airplanes and being taught by his mother how to draw, paint, dance, and play the ukelele.
Harriet also taught her boys to dance and in the late 1930s, Wyllie and his younger brother, Banks, had an early brush with fame when they were winners on a popular radio talent show, Carroll Levis and His Discoveries, which routinely drew in 20 million listeners.
Somehow, it seems entirely appropriate that George Wyllie, given the Dadaist approach he took to all his art in later life, used to dance unseen to millions of listeners.
He started his working life early as an office boy in the docks, which led to an engineering apprenticeship. He then joined the Royal Navy. His war ended with a visit to Hiroshima two months after the H Bomb was dropped in 1945.
Back home, and married to his lifetime soul-and-help mate, Daphne, he became a customs officer, maintaining his link with all things maritime and forging the mantra, ‘Be suspicious’, a line he later used to great effect in his memorable play, A Day Down A Goldmine, which ran in various guises throughout the 1980s. John Bett, Russell Hunter and Bill Paterson all starred with Wyllie in this multi-media spectacle, which took a sideways swipe at the absurdities of the global monetarist system.
By the end of the 1980s, a sixtysomething Wyllie, who had started his ‘career’ as an artist in his 40s, was making grown men weep by torching his Straw Locomotive in a disused engineering works in Springburn. It was a Viking funeral for Glasgow’s past glories.
In 1990, the writer Naomi Mitchison launched his flagship of the Origami Line, The Paper Boat, on the Clyde as thousands looked on. It was eventually seen by millions as it went on its journey from Glasgow to Liverpool, London and New York. When it sailed into New York and berthed under the shadow of the mighty World Financial Center, it even made the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
Although George Wyllie has been creating thoughtful work during the last two decades, there is now a generational gap in terms of his audience. Next year, under the banner title, The Whysman Festival, his family and friends hope to change this by mounting a series of exhibitions and events, with the overall aim of promoting and protecting his legacy.
The Whysman Festival will include the first ever retrospective of Wyllie’s work in his home city, to be hosted by Glasgow Life at The Mitchell at the end of 2012.
Wyllie’s old friend, filmmaker Murray Grigor, who has just issued a DVD version of the 1990 Channel 4 film he made with his late wife Barbara, The Why?sMan, thinks it is about time.
“The Straw Loco was as much a potent symbol of the city’s industrial decline as a promise of Glasgow’s reawakening in the arts. ‘The context is half the work,’ as the great conceptual artist John Latham once said. Yet no gallery or museum thought it worth preserving Wyllie’s internationally acclaimed requiem for Glasgow’s lost engineering prowess.”