|Biography from Lyon & Turnbull:|
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In the beginning, I thought I knew George’s work, but it turns out I knew nothing.
Before getting involved with helping to cement the Wyllie legacy as an artist of international importance (as one of the organizers of the award-winning Whysman Festival), I knew George had created the Straw Locomotive, a life-sized straw engine which hung from the Finnieston Crane in Glasgow for six weeks during the summer of 1987. I also knew about a huge Paper Boat which he launched into the River Clyde with no little fanfare from beneath the same crane two years later. Both these events received an enormous amount of press and publicity. George, a retired Customs and Excise officer, turned full-time artist, had a knack for masterminding big events. He was articulate and he was a showman.
After it was taken down from the crane, George’s Straw Loco was paraded through the streets of Glasgow on the back of a lorry (with its boiler-suited maker inside). It was then ceremonially burned at the site of a former engineering works in Springburn. A lone piper played a lament and grown men, who had worked on that very site making engines, which were sent all over the world, cried. Our Makar (or national poet) Liz Lochhead has spoken about how important the Straw Locomotive was to her as a writer and artist. Actor Alan Cumming, living in Glasgow at the time, describes it as ‘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’.
Two years later, George, then 68 and a decade into a full-time career as an artist, turned up for the launch of The Paper Boat in a white boiler suit and wearing a sailing captain’s hat on his head. He conducted a choir that sang a jaunty ditty he’d penned called The Paper Boat Song; an industrial chaplain from the nearby shipyards blessed the boat and then renowned Scots author and social commentator, Naomi Mitchison, launched it on a journey which took it all around the world. It even sailed down the Hudson and into the World Financial Center in New York. For the US leg of its journey, George had added texts from Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments inside the boat. George – and his Paper Boat – ended up making a splash on the front cover of the Wall Street Journal.
George Wyllie’s definition of public art was ‘art the public can’t avoid’ - and there was no avoiding George’s sculptures. He started calling himself a sculp?tor, and his work sculp?ture in 1976 because he said the question mark should be central to all things. His constantly questioning approach to making art had a major influence on a generation of young artists. Leading contemporary Scottish artists, such as Douglas Gordon and Roderick Buchanan, have spoken about the impact George’s work made on their own approach to making art. George felt that art should be taken out of art galleries and into the wider public realm. He believed artists should think BIG and that they had an important socio-political role to play in society.
George Wyllie was born in Shettleston on Hogmanay, 1921. Art and music played a part in his life from a young age thanks to his creative mother, Harriet, who taught her elder son and his younger brother, Banks, to draw and paint, to play musical instruments and to dance. In the late 1930s, the two brothers appeared on the X-Factor of its day, a wireless programme on the BBC called Carroll Levis and His Discoveries, which had an audience of millions.
George, who played in bands all his life, would have loved to make a career in music, but he started his working life as an engineer for the Post Office in Govan. This safe and ‘dull’ job ended when the war took him to sea as an engineer with the Royal Navy in 1942. He met his wife Daphne at a dance in Gosport during a spell of leave. While serving in the Pacific, he paid a visit to the ruined city of Hiroshima with some shipmates after the atomic bomb dropped, and it sparked a lifelong concern for environmental issues. After the war, George 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.
Although music was a constant throughout his life, he only ‘made time for art’ from the mid-1960s. By then he was settled in Gourock with Daphne and two daughters; Louise and Elaine. He initially took lessons in oil painting, but it was only when he attended welding classes at a local college that his imagination was fired by the possibilities.
The rest is the stuff of contemporary art history. With the energy of a man half his age, George began to create magical works of art in the basement cellar of his bungalow high above the Firth of Clyde. He started with a Ten Object Plan and this included a selection of what he later called his ‘crusty objects’; a dancing lamppost, a mortgage climbing up a wall, a bishop which gave the viewer a blessing when rocked back and forth. A crucifix was accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy and sold to a church in Barrow-on-Furness, attracting the interest and friendship of the Queen’s sculptor, Benno Schotz.
During this period, he continued to work at the Customs Office in Greenock, spending every spare moment drawing, planning and welding. In 1976, three years before becoming a full-time artist, he mounted his first solo show, Scul?ture, at the Collins Exhibition Hall, (which became Strathclyde University’s Collins Gallery). Wyllie was on his way as an artist. His work, much of it made from scrap metal materials, found its way into churches, pubs, clubs, restaurants and other public spaces.
By the early 1970s, through Edinburgh-based artist and promoter Richard Demarco, his horizons began to expand and he came into contact with the wider art world, which in turn led him to the front door of American kinetic sculptor, George Rickey, who had grown up in Helensburgh. He also met German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys and during the 1980s
spent time with him at his home in Germany.
During the 1980s, through an ongoing association with the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow, an exhibition called A Day Down a Goldmine, morphed into a play, starring George and a variety of well-known actors, including Russell Hunter and Bill Paterson. This award-winning play, with words, music and props all by George, played throughout the 1980s in venues around the UK.
From the early 1990s until 2008, George continued to work like a man possessed; making, writing and creating. His output was prolific. His last major exhibition in 2006 was called The Cosmic Journey and drew together material spanning some 40 years to illustrate his constant search for balance – or equilibrium, as he called it.
His wife Daphne died in 2004 and by 2010 he was living in a home for retired mariners in Greenock. In early 2011, his elder daughter, Louise Wyllie, asked me to chair a group she’d set up called The Friends of George Wyllie. The idea was that we would celebrate his work and make him feel that he had made a difference. George died in May 2012, just a week after we secured Creative Scotland funding to make sure his legacy was celebrated and shared with a new generation.
The first time I met George Wyllie properly, in 2011, he demanded to know: ‘What’s your passion? The best thing you’ve ever done?’ The thing about George, I have come to learn, is that he asked direct questions: of you as a person, your heritage, your creativity, and your whole philosophy on the world in which you find yourself living.
George Wyllie made things happen. He did it with passion and with humour. When you use humour as a weapon, po-faced people occasionally mistake it for a light touch. What lies beneath is the key.
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