Tag Archives: Visual Art

In Memoriam in wood



A profoundly tasteful and artistic World War One commemoration is the series of wooden statues of soldiers of the period carved out of tree trunks and located within the woodland of Rozelle Park in Ayr.




The statues were carved by Iain Chalmers, Andy Maclachlan, Peter Bowsher and Craig Steele.






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The future of political activism


The political world has become more confusing and less understandable, so it is often argued, by such unexpected events as the election of US President Donald Trump and the vote for the UK to leave the European Union. 

So how might an informed and sensitive citizen respond? What ideas and actions might be appropriate? Inside or outside the conventional political system?

One of the more successful single-issue activism campaigns of the recent past in terms of media attention gained was Occupy. Micah White, a former leader, said on TV around the time of Donald Trump’s election that Occupy had once united right and left wing activists in a single issue but now the two camps had been split. He felt that activist groups now had to build towards the old-fashioned target of winning elections to legislatures and executives.

In turn, former US President Barack Obama, in his farewell speech in Chicago,  encouraged his audience to participate politically both through community organising and through elected office.

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair suggested that any social and political challenges might be best addressed by “the technology sector” rather than in “politics”. I interpreted his term “politics” as meaning in the party and electoral sense in which he had been so successful rather than in street protests. By “technology”, he may mean private technology companies, private-public partnerships or future life-transforming inventions.  

In the past, single issue campaigns often gained separate long-term and substantial support within electoral and party politics. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign  – I’m sure they all still lobby at political party conferences and other big events. We all remember the past cross-party celebrity-led campaigns against third world poverty and debt, against apartheid in South Africa.

Single-issue campaigns seem to have lost their profile in recent years. Organisations like Amnesty International do sometimes gain a media platform for their arguments, but equal if not greater attention seems to now go to the well-funded think tanks like the Resolution Foundation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Tax Payers Alliance, the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

How is political activity carried out now?  People often create new personalised political protest groups rather than join existing ones. The internet, especially the existence of Facebook and Twitter, has allowed events to be quickly organised but has also led to the phenomenon of “clicktivism”, by which people do little more than read a website or e-mail the promise of a donation. I have also long felt that users of Twitter express their political views in a particularly  aggressive and unhealthy way and have long felt alarmed by the way that the mainstream press and TV depend on it so heavily. 

 Although relatively young at 36, activist artist Ellie Harrison is part of an older tradition.  Her most recent project, The Glasgow Effect, got a huge amount of media attention when it was launched a year ago and rather less during its year-long progress. The talk she gave last month when the project ended  was thought-provoking in its analysis of the allocation of wealth and public resources within Glasgow and further afield and how people might work to improve it. .

A practitioner in the conceptualist tradition, Harrison sees the artist as being someone who can and should  channel his/her creative energies away from career indulgence, which merely adds “unnecessary objects to the world”, and towards efforts to create a more just society.  The personal qualities which artists possess and develop, like persistence, willingness to work hard, confidence, arrogance, flexibility and spontaneity, make them particularly suited to such activism.   

Following that dictum that artists should not merely create new objects, Harrison stated that, during the 12 months of her funding by Creative Scotland, she spent most time and energy in organising and participating in political events and campaigns, and her literary output consisted mostly of newsletters and e-mails and Facebook posts canvassing support for and reporting on these.  

Old fogies like me are used to hearing younger people exalt modern technology (just like we did to our parents) so I was especially interested that Harrison feels like me that social media is not a good forum for activism. It is good for organising public events, she agrees, but otherwise it is “a beast out of control” where people behave much more badly than they do in public spaces or in one to one contact. “It is not social in the slightest”, she added; the individual user is already usually in a private space and the technology tends to increase the sense of isolation. 

Harrison’s talk referenced an earlier project where she devised guidelines by which artists (by which she probably means everybody) might live their lives fruitfully in the modern world. These guidelines included: view the world objectively, analyse critically the way it works, develop ways of working outside established institutions, work collectively rather than competitively and resist career ambitions.

So it might be said that Ellie Harrison has reached similar conclusions as has Carol Craig –  mentioned in a Leaf Collecting post last month, if from a different direction and through a slightly different perspective. By further coincidence, Think Globally Act Locally –  a phrase recalled in that previous post – was an earlier working title of Harrison’s project. 


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The blessed tightrope-walker



The Basilica of the Annunciation, built in Nazareth in 1969. According to Christian tradition, the church’s location is close to the place where an angel appeared to Mary, telling her she would give birth to the son of God.


Although Christian churches celebrate the feast of the Annunciation in March, the event is an essential component of the Nativity and therefore of Advent. “Gabriel’s Message” is just one popular carol whose words focus on it: “thy son shall be Emmanuel by seers foretold, most highly favoured lady.”

When I was younger, the Christian approach to teaching about the Annunciation was usually from a female perspective, such as on the ideals of motherhood, the sort of image which only a woman was expected to empathise with fully.

In later years the Virgin Mary’s acceptance of God’s instruction in spite of her fear has been presented as a timeless example of courage and faith which applies to both genders. I really responded, for example, to the argument and language in an article written by Sally Read in The Tablet in 2012. 

 “(Although) modern women can often mistake Mary’s submission for weakness… her life is (actually) a courageous quietly hair-raising navigation of God’s will… Mary knew too well the tremendous discomfort of difference, and its agonising finale. Her earthly walk through maternity has the breathtaking dare of a tightrope walker, never taking her eyes from God.”

Radio 3 excellent Words and Music series once had a programme about Mary which featured  several engaging and profound poems which I had never heard or read before. One was “Prayer for a New Mother” by Dorothy Parker which looks forward and back between Nativity and Crucifixion in the same way as does her “The Maidservant at the Inn” . Another was the narrative of “Mary and Gabriel” by Rupert Brooke, which, although more old-fashioned, contains many strong images.  

The Annunciation has been the subject of some wonderful visual art down the centuries. For example, the classic Fra Angelico Henry Ossawa Tanner’s highly modern and physical Mary and Arcabas’ more sinister visitor.



According to the New Testament, Mary, after learning of her pregnancy, quickly travelled to her cousin Elizabeth who lived in “the hill country of Judea”. These statues of Mary and Elizabeth are in the forecourt of the Church of the Visitation, in the village of Ein Karim near Jerusalem.





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A particularly memorable night at work


Many fictional Christmas stories feature a character who is on the periphery of, or a witness to, the events of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.

One such is the poem, “The Maidservant at the Inn”.  It is by Dorothy Parker, more famous for pithy observations of contemporary behaviour than for reflections of older traditions.

The scene in Parker’s poem is reminiscent of Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur, where the hero twice encounters Jesus: first, as a young man as he is led to exile as a galley-slave, and then again, ten years later, at his crucifixion.

Paintings of the Nativity usually include only angels, shepherds and the Magi as witnesses. In “The Census at Bethlehem” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the birth has not yet taken place, but one of these figures in the crowd might conceivably be an employee at that particular inn.

As, at this open-air belen in Arrecife, Lanzarote, might be the single female figure at the house in the foreground, since it is closest to the stable.



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Joyce, Orwell and Charles Rennie Mackintosh


30 years after everyone else and prompted by the publicity associated by the recent Citizens Theatre production,  I got around to reading  Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark.

For some reason, I found myself treating it not as a 2015 reader but as if transported back to the 1980s period of its original publication. Therefore, liking it in the way that I might have done when I was closer in age to the art student Duncan Thaw and was gaining an empathy and experience of Glasgow akin to his. Perhaps this is because of the prose’s similarities to George Orwell whom I was reading quite a lot at that time in the run up to the year of 1984. Perhaps because I was reading from the 1982 paperback edition recently bought second-hand.

James Joyce  is more often quoted as an influence in Lanark, but it was definitely the influence of Orwell’s 1984 which I detected in Gray’s depiction of the dystopian Unthank in the first section, Book Three.  For example, the post-war youth social scene evoked by the Elite Café and arthouse films, the trams and horse-drawn milk carts in foggy streets, the references to 18 and 22 o’clock. Later in Book Four, we have references to the political structures of “council” and “assembly” and the Government posters with advice and photos of leaders .

Gray’s predictions of how society might develop after 1981 are intriguing. He anticipates libraries which prefer music and films to books, stronger health warnings on cigarettes, the increase in both the popularity and the social respectability of gambling, financial credit considered as valuable as cash, the use of human-like robots, a serious housing shortage leading to primitive public hygiene, political tensions between different levels of government.

Gray was long credited with the political rallying cry, “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation” (although he later clarified it was borrowed from Canadian poet Dennis Lee).  Lanark contains several other statements of similar challenging tone. Duncan Thaw’s father says, “ It isn’t the loud men on platforms but the obscure toilers who change things”.  The young Lanark himself hopes for a job where “(he) kept useful services working properly” and, later, older with some public experience, he is certain that “the world is only improved by people who do ordinary jobs and refuse to be bullied”.

Gray’s illustrations are a deservedly famous part of the book, and the text includes some informative references to art. Duncan Thaw’s unfinished mural in the Cowlairs church is said to be influenced by the “Trinity Altarpiece” by Hugo Van Der Groes and the work of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.




Alasdair Gray’s cover illustration for the original paperback edition of “Lanark”.



Another Alasdair Gray illustration from “Lanark”.




Duncan Thaw in “Lanark” is a student at Glasgow School of Art which “was on a quiet street along the spine of (Garnethill). The main part was an elegant building designed by Mackintosh in the eighteen-eighties.”



The Necropolis, Glasgow’s imposing Victorian cemetery, a location in “Lanark”.



Glasgow Cathedral is a place of accommodation for some of the people of Unthank in “Lanark”. These two photographs were taken on an unusually snowy day in 2010.




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Which arts centre took its name from Buddhist philosophy?


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the setting up of the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow.

A multi-purpose centre of art gallery, performance space and bookshop within Alexander “Greek” Thomson’s imposing Grecian Chambers, it was a formative location in my artistic education during the 1980s. Its shop-front space without an overbearing staff presence meant that you felt you could call in on a whim and stroll around for ten minutes at a time without self-consciousness.

Its front bookshop was especially enticing, crammed with newspapers and magazines covering all aspects of the arts, culture and politics as well as a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. This old photo ignites nostalgia.

I must confess that my clearest recollections of visual art shows there are of a couple of crowd-pleasers, one of Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets from Spitting Image, the other an exhibition of the new fashionable young Scottish painters like Steven Campbell and Adrian Wisniewski. But the online archive prompts recall of others from its eclectic history like Alexander “Greek” Thomson,  multi-media artist George Wylie, photographer Oscar Marzaroli and Glasgow pigeon lofts (yes!)

The music concert at the forefront of my memory is Richard and Linda Thompson, but Max Reinhardt on Late Junction has just prompted my recall of the wonderful acappella of the Mint Juleps one Mayfest.  I also remember the reading by Seamus Heaney which was preceded by traditional singer Ted Hickey, and a performance of another kind in the stand-up comedy of Simon Fanshawe and Jenny Eclair.

This was a golden age of touring theatre and the Third Eye was, alongside the Tron and the Mitchell theatres, an important Glasgow platform for small productions. While there were many I read about with interest and missed with regret, the only one I actually saw was a double bill of short Beckett plays by a tiny local company called the Great Western Theatre Company.

The Third Eye was a major partner in at least two Glasgow festivals of art and culture from Russia and eastern Europe as the continent redrew boundaries at the end of the 1980s. These events were successful artistically but not always financially, and this latter fact led to the closure of the venue around 1990 or 1991 – at the very time of the European City of Culture success towards which it had been such an important contributor.

When the building reopened a year or two later, its new name, the Centre of Contemporary Arts, sounded so plain, so half-hearted, that its future seemed unpromising. Yet, as it has turned out , the life of the CCA has been longer than that of the Third Eye Centre. Refurbishment included expansion into adjoining premises, arts events of varying kinds were presented and thrived. The spirit of the Third Eye Centre has lived on…plus it has an excellent cafe/restaurant  of the classic arts centre type with an arty name!

It was great to find further archive material from the web-site of the short-lived Glasgow Miracle Project.  More forthcoming from other sources one day, perhaps.


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Some colourful public art…


…to brighten up the increasing winter dullness.



In old Quebec – a trompe l’oeil painting of the historical town.




Belfast has many murals drawing attention to the differences in its religious/political  traditions, but this one in McHugh’s pub/restaurant brings them together.




A ceramic tile mural of Ronda in Spain  – a town atop the cliffs.




In the Hotel Nacional, Havana – a mural depicting some of the more famous who have visited since it opened in 1930.




In the former convent of Sant’ Apollonia in Florence, the dramatic fresco of “The Last Supper” by Andrea del Castagno.




A contemporary church painting which juxtaposes John the Baptist and the cross-channel ferry – in Dover.




The present Kelburn Castle in Ayrshire includes part of a 13th century building, although most of what currently exists was built in the 18th and 19th centuries. In marked contrast, a colourful mural was painted on the exterior by Brazilian graffiti artists in 2007. Reports have been published that the mural will soon be removed – but it is still there.




South of Kelburn, in Ayr itself, a part of an interior mural in the Maclaurin Gallery which refers to the county’s slavery past.  Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a leader of the abolitionist movement in the USA, was reputedly an admirer of Robert Burns and visited Burns’ Cottage when he visited the town as part of a tour of Scotland in the 1840s.


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When an orchestra is more dramatic than an electric guitar


Orchestras have often been employed by pop and rock musicians either to give some old-world timbre and gravitas to the younger, lighter style, or to expand its structures into classical dimensions. The  results have frequently been unhappy or at least have not aged well. However, for me, there have been two musicians in the pop-rock genre  who have used orchestras exceptionally successfully.

The first is Randy Newman. I don’t think he is classically trained, but his uncles were film music composers so perhaps that is where his aptitude for orchestral arrangements comes from.  They certainly suited songs which were composed on piano and constructed in a story-telling style which seemed to belong to an earlier pre-rock era. Except for one feature : Newman’s lyrics, underlined by his rough-edged, low-pitch delivery, have an irreverence and irony, and often cynicism, which certainly belongs to the social and political shifts and doubts of the 1960s and 1970s.

In recent years, Newman has become commercially successful by diversifying, in the family tradition, into film score composing, gaining Oscar nominations and awards. While gratified with this deserved fame, I do feel his more distinctive work came in his early albums.

A few examples from You Tube where the orchestration blends powerfully with song and voice :  “Sail Away”, where his uses his familiar lyrical device of the unreliable narrator, in this case  a slave trader encouraging Africans of the attractions of the New World;  “Louisiana 1927”, an account of the Mississipi river flood of that year, which seemed to gain a greater celebrity after Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and “In Germany Before the War” apparently based on a real-life serial killer.

The second maestro is almost totally forgotten. David Ackles recorded only four albums before he died in 1999.   My main acquaintance with him is through his third album American Gothic, which he actually recorded in the UK with the London Symphony Orchestra and which was produced by Bernie Taupin, whose career was zooming at the time as the regular lyricist of Elton John.

Part of my fondness for the album first time around derived from how it seemed to synthesise with other works with which I was becoming acquainted. The album sleeve included a homage to the famous painting by Grant Wood, and its subject matter evoked the poetry of Robert Frost and the paintings of Andrew Wyeth.

The album’s highlight is “Montana Song”: a story which combines both the personal and the epic,  with an air of the pre-1960s past which sounded even stranger when it was released in 1972 than it does now. 

Other favourites  are the bleak narrative of the title track and “The Ballad of the Ship of State”, a metaphor presumably about the Vietnam war. The Brecht and Weill influences of both these songs seem very strong to my ear now.

Although other samples of Ackles’ work on You Tube show blues and country influences more prominently, the Weill influence shows again, this time in a sparer form, on a track from the first album, “Laissez Faire” .


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The drama of Emmaus


The Gospel story of the two disciples travelling near a village called Emmaus on the evening of Easter Sunday who meet a stranger whom they eventually realise is the resurrected Jesus Christ has always made a deep impression on me.

Partly it is to do with seeing at an early age a reproduction of Caravaggio’s painting, where the startling chiaroscuro and the figures’ outstretched arms  made it so much more dramatic, so much more alive than more conventional, flatter biblical scenes.

Partly also it related to my early interest in historical fiction and drama, the genre where real life events and characters are readily mixed with the writer’s imagination. As a Christian child who was fascinated by stories, I was particularly intrigued by the occasional biblical examples, of which the best known is definitely the film of  Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur.

Perhaps a school holiday which combined brighter spring evenings with its religious feast helped me to imagine what it might have been like to have been one of the observers of that event taking place as the sun was setting on that Easter Sunday. 

The narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection during Holy Week and Easter was presented theatrically from the Middle Ages through mystery plays, and most Christian church services during this season have continued to employ some dramatic elements.  

The theory that the two disciples were actually a man and a woman, Cleopas and his wife, gives the familiar narrative a fresh perspective. In addition, Kenny Wordsmith’s analysis of Caravaggio’s painting offers one particularly insightful comment on the drama. Referring to the fact that Caravaggio’s youthful unbearded Jesus  was once controversial, he says this could be the artist’s way of depicting the moment when Jesus, to use Luke’s expression,  “was recognised when he broke the bread” : someone who looks totally unfamiliar and unbelievable at first is now identified correctly, both by the disciples with him and by us, the viewers.


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Images from Holy Week


As we move towards Holy Week, secular artists who use its distinctive setting or imagery to deal with ideas of suffering and redemption come to mind.

Rudyard Kipling uses Gethsemane as an image of suffering which cannot be avoided, and also, perhaps, suffering endured as a sacrifice for others.

Ted Walker’s  more recent narrator seems to be an agnostic who wishes to avoid the religious observance associated with Christ’s death and resurrection.  The image of the crucified fox leads to more great description : “like a coloured plaster Christ in a Spanish shrine”, “plugged with black blood”, “stretched on the banging barn door”.

And Walker’s image of the fox recalls for me the artist John Bellany’s similarly powerful use of marine life.


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