Artist, writer, and scul?tor
Born: December 31, 1921
Died: May 15, 2012
(Appeared in The Herald, May 17, 2012)
By Jan Patience
|George Wyllie and his first mate, Daphne|
George Wyllie, who has died aged 90, will be forever associated in the public’s mind with what his ‘social sculptures’, The Straw Locomotive (1987) and The Paper Boat (1989-90).
When asked in his last ever interviews late last year what his personal favourite was among the thousands of artworks he had created during a five-decade long career as an artist, he declared: “I like my little spire. My little vertical wand responding to the earth and the air.”
As a young sailor, Wyllie walked among the charred ruins of the city of Hiroshima with some shipmates, and it sparked a lifelong concern for environmental issues. His subsequent friendship many years later with the German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys, also founder of the German Green Party, cemented his approach to creating all his art.
Wyllie erected his spires in the most unlikely, yet apposite places. Locations include The Lecht (Cosmic Reach) and the site of the old Rottonrow Maternity Hospital in Glasgow (Monument to Maternity). He even had his own portable spire, which he wore slung over his back like a rifle.
In 1990, he placed a spire on Gruinard Island in the western isles of Scotland to mark its official ‘decontamination’ from deadly anthrax spores after 50 years. His plaque at the bottom read: “For air, stone and the equilibrium of understanding. Welcome back Gruinard.”
George Ralston Wyllie was born to Andy and Harriet (Harry) Wyllie in Shettleston, Glasgow, on the last day of 1921. It was, he said many years later ‘a good year’. He was named after his grandfather and for many years, his family and friends called him Ralston. In his artist persona, he was just ‘George’.
Encouraged by their mother, who had artistic leanings, Wyllie and his younger brother Banks, were taught how to play the ukelele, how to draw and paint and how to dance. “People liked ‘our Harry’, Wyllie said many years later in a recording made for the British Library’s Artist Lives series. “She was full of vim and zest and I was her bright-eyed boy.”
Music and art was always in the background for George Wyllie. The family moved to the Craigton area of Glasgow when he was a little boy and he grew up in the shadow of the shipyards. His father was a rate fixer for a machine tool engineering company on the Clyde and the young George was much enamored of cranes and model aeroplanes.
While still at school, he was offered a job by Sir William Arrol & Co in the crane building department on the strength of drawings of model planes and cranes he had built in his spare time. His father, however, forbade him from taking the job on the grounds it was an’ airy job’ and he would be vulnerable should another slump in the economy happen.
Instead, his first job was a ‘safe’ one designing man-holes in the Post office engineering department. He escaped this safe job by joining the Royal Navy. He went to war in 1942 and it was during a spell of leave that he met his wife Daphne Watts at a dance in Gosport. They married in September 1944. Their lifelong romance lasted until her death in 2004.
Wyllie remained at sea until 1946 and when his war ended, he sat a civil service exam and became a customs and excise officer in Greenock. A promotion saw him moved to Northern Ireland, where he worked on the land boundary patrol across the border.
The family, which by 1954, consisted of daughters Louise and Elaine, returned to Scotland and the Wyllies set up house in Gourock.
Music had always been in the background for Wyllie and he played double bass with his band Clubmen with Pauline around pubs and clubs in the area. In 1965, he decided it was ‘time for art’, which had always been ‘an extra thing’ in his life.
He often joked that being accepted by Glasgow School of Art’s jazz band was the closest he got to an art training, but despite the humour in his work, Wyllie was deadly serious about schooling himself and finding his metier.
He attended welding classes in Greenock and one of his first sculptures from this period was bought by Ferguson’s Shipyard. It seems commonplace now, but he recycled materials in a way which no artist had done before. A pile of old car bumpers became a series of fish, for example, many of which have come to light during a recent search for a forthcoming retrospective of his work.
He left the customs service in 1979, at the age of 58, and entered into a four-decade long career as an artist, writer and scul?tor. The question mark entered into his own personal lexicon because it was ‘too important to be left to the end.’
In the 1980s, through the late Barbara Grigor, a champion of many a Scottish artist, Wyllie met the American kinetic artist, George Rickey, who invited him to work with him in America.
He later described this experience as a ‘great art release’. He was also hugely influenced by the German artist, Joseph Beuys, after meeting him through Edinburgh gallery owner, Richard Demarco.
Wyllie’s award-winning play about the iniquities of the world banking system, A Day Down a Goldmine, was produced several times throughout the 1980s. The two-handed play featured Wyllie as a character called His Assistant (Goldbunnet) alongside acclaimed actors such as Russell Hunter and Bill Paterson.
In 1987, he attracted international attention with his Straw Locomotive, which hung from the Finnieston crane in Glasgow before being burned in nearby Springburn in a Viking Style funeral.
Two years later, his Paper Boat was seen by millions as it sailed around the world from Glasgow to New York and back to Scotland. It even made it onto the front page of the Wall Street Journal when it berthed at the World Financial Center in New York in 1990. Wyllie had even added a raft of moral quotations from Adam Smith specifically for its US trip.
As one commentator said yesterday of his art, ‘You didn’t need to be an art critic to get it - everybody got it.
Wyllie was creating work well into his 80s, but in recent years, a combination of factors, including failing eyesight and mobility problems, led to a series of falls and he moved out of his Gourock eyrie overlooking the Firth of Clyde and into The Mariners, a nearby care home for retired sailors.
Faced with the twin challenge of what to do with their father’s treasure trove of artwork and how to celebrate his legacy, Wyllie’s daughters Louise Wyllie and Elaine Aitken, set up The Friends of George Wyllie in 2011.
Friends, or ‘Chums’ of George include his old friends, artists Dawson and Liz Murray, Neil Baxter, of the Scottish architecture body, the RIAS and filmmaker, Murray Grigor, whose award-winning film 1990 film about Wyllie, The Why?s Man, has recently been re-released on DVD.
This year, 2012, sees a year-long celebration of Wyllie’s artistic legacy under the banner The Whysman Festival. Just last week, it was announced that his work was set to inspire a new generation, thanks to a major £158,510.00 award from the Year of Creative Scotland, 2012 and its First in a Lifetime Creative Experiences initiative.
Knowing that so much effort and work was going into celebrating and promoting his work gave George no end of pleasure at the end of his life.
As his daughter Louise said just after he died in hospital in Greenock on Tuesday night, “It was as though midnight had come and it was time to leave.”
George Wyllie was predeceased by his wife Daphne, and his younger brother Banks. He is survived by daughters Louise Wyllie and Elaine Aitken, as well as grandsons, Calvin and Lewis, and grandaughter, Jennifer.
|Bill Paterson, George Wyllie & Tony Gorman in A Day Down A Goldmine|