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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)

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Alasdair Gray & Joyce Gunn Cairns

This is an unedited version of a feature which first appeared in The Herald Arts supplement on 14/4/12.
I have to confess I'm a bit of an Alasdair Gray groupie. As a callow youth, his mingling of strong graphic imagery and surreal fiction drew me in like a moth to a flame.
Last Sunday, I went to the opening of this exhibition and was treated to the great man reciting TS Elliot's poem, The Hippopotamus in its original English form as well as Grays' Scots translation. 
A one -off. Truly.
As is Joyce Gunn Cairns. Lang may their collective lums reek.

Alasdair Gray & Joyce Gunn Cairns
The Smithy Gallery
74 Glasgow Road, Blanefield
01360 770551
Until May 13
I was recently asked by Natalie Harrison of the Smithy Gallery if I’d write a ‘sentence’ about writer and artist Alasdair Gray for the invitation card to her forthcoming exhibition featuring art work by Gray and his old friend, Joyce Gunn Cairns.
She already had a pithy quote in hand about Edinburgh-based Gunn Cairns and would I oblige for Gray, she asked.

How to nail a colossus of artistic endeavour like Alasdair Gray in one sentence? My mind raced back to an angst-filled few months in the late 1980s during which I wrote a 10,000 word dissertation in my final year at Aberdeen University on ‘Fantasy and reality in the fiction of Alasdair Gray with particular reference to Lanark’.

I found it recently and re-read it through spread-out fingers, cringing at the gaucheness of my younger self’s effort to pin down why Gray’s epic novel Lanark, published in 1981, made such an impact on me.
Lanark was a milestone in Scottish literary fiction and it also brought Gray to the wider world’s attention, although he had been working non-stop as an artist and writer in Glasgow since his graduation from Glasgow school of Art in 1957.

After Lanark (which he started writing at art school), he went on to write and illustrate many works of fiction, including Janine 1982 (1984), Poor Things (1992) and Old Men in Love (2007). Then there are theatrical works such as McGrotty and Ludmilla (1986) and Fleck (2008) as well as non-fiction works including Why Scots Should Rule Scotland and the sublime non-autobiography that is A Life in Pictures (2010).

He has also written books of poetry, short stories and created original work for radio and television.
Meanwhile, he draws and paints in such a precise, yet untrammeled way that it takes an enjoyable eternity to drink in the detail and savour the brain workout.

In this exhibition, screenprints from The Scots Hippo series, his adaptation of the TS Eliot poem, The Hippopotamus, made in 2007, present an excellent counterpoint to the visceral highly emotive work of Joyce Gunn Cairns
Teaming up Gray with Gunn Cairns, is an inspired pairing by Natalie Harrison, but like all such moves, she says it happened naturally.

Harrison first met Gray when he came in to the Blanefield gallery to see a three-person show featuring Gunn Cairns’ work in 2009.

“He signed the visitor’s book and in the address section wrote, ‘Joyce Gunn Cairns knows it’” recalls Harrison. “It was very Alasdair Gray. Since then, he’s be in a few times and Joyce told me he’d like to exhibit with her. Why didn’t I ask him to have a show here in Blanefield. So I wrote an old-fashioned letter and here we are...”

Like Gray, now 77, Gunn Cairns is a one-off; a maelstrom of endless creative energy which never stops probing and pushing. And probably never will.

Also like Gray, her twin passions are words and pictures. Over the years, she has drawn and painted portraits of many well-known writers, including Gray and the late Edwin Morgan (both drawings are on show in Blanefield). Other sitters have included, A L  Kennedy, Ali Smith, Lesley MacDowell, Richard Holloway, Colm Toibin and Alexander McCall Smith.

There is a an almost translucent  softness to Gunn Cairns’ heads and figures, although as her screenprints and large paintings in pencil and oil, reveal, she has a fine strong line which is as forthright on paper as her character is in person.
A Gunn Cairns portrait feels like it has been drawn from the outside in, using light-as-a-feather strokes, as though teasing out the subject’s psyche. 

As a case in point, she says the pencil drawing of the late Scots Makar, Edwin Morgan, ‘drew itself’ as she sat talking to him in the Glasgow nursing home where he eventually died. 
Her work never shirks from the big subjects of love, hope, ageing and death. 

On the back of one work in this show, a self-portrait of her sixtysomething self, she has written in pencil: “If you are beautiful at 60, it’s your soul’s own doing.”

Both Gray and Gunn Cairns do what they do – constantly create artwork and write incessantly – because they can see no other way to live their lives. 

In case you are wondering, I managed four shortish sentences about Alasdair Gray. 
Here they are: “If an author on search of a character invented Alasdair Gray, he’d be deemed improbable. Not only is he real, Gray is a one-off. Through his eyes we view the world afresh, be it through his words or his pictures. That is his gift.”

You could easily substitute the name Joyce Gunn Cairns in there and it would still make perfect sense. 
More power to their collective (not to mention creative) elbows.

Alasdair Gray & Joyce Gunn Cairns (pic courtesy of Julie Howden)

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