GLENROTHES TOWN ARTIST 1968-78.* part of an unpublished memoir
GLENROTHES TOWN ARTIST 1968 – 78
I returned to Edinburgh from four years in Nigeria, aged 30. The experience I had had there of running my own art department and the amazing work that the students had produced had made me decide that I wouldn’t, couldn’t, return to school teaching in the UK. I would have to have a go at surviving on my own art or failing that, do something else. I managed to secure a number of sculpture commissions mainly for housing developments, in Hamilton, Galashiels and Tweedbank, being built by the Scottish Special Housing Association. Being married with three children it was tough going. I was getting work but money was short. I had to think about another way to do the work I wanted to do – that being to make art for architecture which was, I suppose, the limit of my aspirations at that time. I had read that artists had worked for the architect’s department of London County Council and one or two new towns, so I wrote to several towns in Scotland suggesting that they employ me as their artist. Some towns replied saying ‘thank you but no thanks’ and others said that it was a good idea but there was no money for such an appointment. Others did not bother to reply. However serendipity took over when some time later Glenrothes, a new town in Fife, decided to seek out and employ an artist. The idea came from the Chief Architect and Planning Officer of the town, Merlyn Williams, and his deputy, John Coghill. They simply believed that it was a natural thing that an artist should work with the architects and other professions in creating a new town. I discovered later that some senior figures in Glenrothes Development Corporation did not share this belief but most, I believe, were won over as time went on. When I read the advertisement in ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper I had a feeling that this was ‘my job’ and that I would get it. I was interviewed with three other applicants and was offered the post, I think, because I was able to convince the interview panel through the work I had already done that I was very committed to the possibilities that the job offered. My contract stated that I had to ‘retire on the day before I reached the age of 65!’ But what was the job? That question has intrigued many people. Even today people talk about it being ‘progressive; ‘forward looking.’ The job description stated that the artist would, ‘contribute to the external built environment of the town’, but it also said that the artist would be called upon for other things such as graphic design (probably a concession to the doubters). I resolved not to do any graphic design work.
I became a member of the Planning Department and, later, was expected to attend planning meetings for new developments in the town. This meant I had a voice at the inception of planning briefs that were then passed on to the various design groups – housing, factories, offices, engineering and landscape. This was clearly an innovative, and possibly unique, role for an artist in the UK at that time and although I would not claim to have had a major influence at these planning stages, nevertheless the precedent had been set and, in time, a clause was inserted into all planning briefs which stated that, ‘the artist is to be consulted at every stage of development.’ In this and in other respects, that of creating precedents for artists to be directly involved in planning, urban design and architecture, the Glenrothes experience was important and, later, other towns took up these ideas.
I moved with my family from Edinburgh to Glenrothes and chose to live in a rented council house in the town. This was crucially important as it allowed me to experience new town living as most other people experienced it. A common criticism of architects was that, while they were quite happy to design council houses for others, they would never themselves live in one. My office/studio was originally in the Development Corporation headquarters but I managed to secure a large studio in the corporation workshops among the plumbers, joiners bricklayers and other trades. Later I was to become a member of UCATT, the building workers union. All of these things were connected to the notion I had of identifying with the people of the town and that the artist was not necessarily a special person, part of an elite. This was the artist as artisan. The bricklayers were skilled in one way and I in others.
As an artist I had already developed what could be described as a ‘contextual’ practice in responding to the local, be it social or physical, when making public art works. This was reinforced even more by my work in Nigeria, where I believed it would be wrong to impose European cultural modes of expression on my students. I certainly wanted to contribute as an artist to the developing built environment of the town but was also concerned to create opportunities for other townspeople to do so as well. The early new towns, of which Glenrothes was one being designated in 1949, were mostly built on greenfield sites with the citizenry imported. Thus new communities were struggling to form with little shared history and tradition and often with broken extended-family relationships. It seemed to me that one of the areas in which an artist could operate was in creating memorable landmarks within the fairly uniform housing areas and the incorporation of ‘marks’, however small, by local people. I organised groups of primary school children into modelling in relief their own individual ceramic tiles and signing them on the front. These were then fired and cemented by the children themselves onto walls adjacent to their local play areas. Secondary school pupils and adults painted murals and participated in other art projects. In one of these I contrived, with some necessary subterfuge, a situation in which tenants were able to choose the colours of their own front doors.
The routine maintenance of council houses included the painting of the front doors every few years. Tenants were not allowed to paint their own front doors in a colour of their choice. In Glenrothes the head of the Direct Labour Organisation, would simply repeat the existing colours or, would use a different set of colours if instructed by the architects. In the older areas of the town this had been going on for nearly 30 years. As part of a major environmental improvement project in one of those areas, the architects invited me to come up with a colour scheme for the front doors. Recent new legislation had allowed tenants in the new towns to buy their houses and I documented the way in which those who did so immediately transformed their properties by changing their colour, building balconies and erecting fences and pergolas among other things. They were exerting their own identity on the exterior of their homes. I had been to Paris to meet the architect/artist Bernard Lassus and was attracted by his research and writing on what he described as, ‘Les habitants paysagistes,’ literally, ‘dweller landscapers.’ This phenomenon, which seems to be more prevalent in France than in the UK, was the practice of people decorating their exterior walls, gardens and yards with colour, mosaics, sculptures and other artefacts. It was, Lassus believed, a serious and deeply fundamental activity for them and he had gone on to use these ideas in new housing developments for which he acted as consultant on the surface finishes. I went to see some of the results in Dijon and in Evry and featured them, as well as much other material, in a small book entitled, ‘Artist and Buildings’, published by the Scottish Arts Council. At the same time I was influenced by Colin Ward of the Town and Country Planning Association who had written extensively and passionately about the tenant control of council housing. He argued that a sense of responsibility could only be achieved when tenants shared in the ownership of their homes. Finally I had read articles by John Turner, an architect who had worked in South America on housing for the inhabitants of the favellas. His resounding message was that the word ‘housing’ was not a noun but an adverb; not an object, but an activity. For my colour scheme I armed myself with a colour swatch from a paint manufacturer and went knocking on the doors of every house in the area inviting tenants to choose a colour for their front door. This action was, in the main, met with incredulity. People thought I was joking and I had to prove that I was serious and was actually a member of the Development Corporation. One said that she had been living in that house for 25 years and no one had ever asked her about the colour of her front door. Apart from one or two who didn’t care what colour their front door was or said any colour except…. the rest made very specific choices. These were based on their favourite colours, the colours of their hallway, curtains and other such things. Armed with this information I ‘designed’ the colour scheme for each street on the elevation drawings and signed each sheet indicating that it was my colour scheme. It was approved and the details sent to the painters who duly painted all the doors. This was an unprecedented act at the time. If I had disclosed that the tenants had in fact selected the colours for their own front doors the colour scheme would not have gone ahead.
As the scale and scope of the opportunities for work increased the Development Corporation agreed to my proposal to set up one-year apprenticeships for graduating art students. Over the years six graduates came to work with me. They got a house and a reasonable wage. All of them were able to develop their own ideas which contributed enormously to the breadth of art works in the town. The first was Stanley Bonnar, a graduate of Dundee, who created one of the town’s most enduring works, the hippos. After his year with me he went on to become the ‘town artist’ of East Kilbride. Simon Jones graduated from Barnet College of Art and was employed by Stevenage after his year with me. Hugh Graham, an Edinburgh graduate, spent two years with me and has since worked as an artist for a number of different agencies in Glasgow. John Gray studied at Aberdeen and has been employed in the planning department of Dundee City Council since leaving Glenrothes. The others were George Legg from Edinburgh and Ian Swan from Dundee – I do not know what happened to them. I was also able to take on a number of 16 year old school leavers under ‘job creation’ schemes. It was so good to have these young people around. They were keen to learn and they learned so much that the studio became part educational and I wondered at the time if the two years they worked with us could not be taken into account as a preparation for further study in art education. It seemed that the studio of artists had become a centre of creative energy. It was like a stone being thrown into a pond and as the ripples spread out other creative practices began to be generated in theatre, crafts and writing.
On the departure of Merlyn Williams John Coghill became the Chief Architect and Planning Officer. We often discussed the possibility for the further development of the arts in the town. Having read in the press that there was a shortage of studio space for artists to work in, a 19th century stable block, in an estate that had once been the seat of the Balfours of Balbirnie, was converted into housing and studios for artists and craftspeople to live and work. Eight moved in with their families. One of the lodge houses to the estate was designated the ‘writer’s cottage’ and, in co-operation with the Scottish Arts Council, was offered rent-free annually to a different writer. Among these were the film writer Douglas Eadie, the actor and writer Harry Stamper, the poet and anthologist Alan Bold, the poet Alan Jackson and the actor John Bett. A few of them stayed on in the town renting council houses and, in the case of Bold lived and worked there till he died. This was a significant infusion of creative talent into a town of 35.000 people. When one compares this to some city housing estates with an equivalent population, one could conclude that Glenrothes was in fact well-endowed in this respect.
Around 1970 I attended a conference called, ‘What Kind of Scotland?’, organised by Bill Tait, editor of the contemporary literary and political magazine, ‘Scottish International.’ It was held in the George Square Theatre of Edinburgh University. The programme noted that there would be a reading of a new play then being developed by John McGrath and the 7-84 theatre company. I was to witness one of the most momentous theatrical experiences of my life as, John Bett, Dolina Maclennan, Elizabeth Maclennan, Alex Norton, Bill Paterson and the rest did the first public presentation of,’The Cheviot,The Stag and The Black, Black Oil.’ At the end of it the audience of 400 or so, including Norman and Janey Buchan, Fr Anthony Ross and a then unknown Brian Wilson, stood and clapped for what seemed like a very long time. The theatre had never seen anything like it nor would it ever again. We repaired to the Catholic University Chaplaincy across George Square for a ceilidh. The ceilidh after the performance became a major part of future presentations as the company went on a 17,000 mile tour with the play. I saw it in Kirkcaldy and again at the Lyceum in Edinburgh. But I was not at any of the last Lyceum shows when, with the demand for tickets being so great, the ‘gods’, which had been closed off for a number of years, had to be reopened to accommodate the numbers demanding to see it. The play was filmed in 1973 by BBC Television and, in the Abbotsford bar in Rose Street, in Edinburgh, Dolina asked me to spread the word around for people to watch out for the broadcast due in the coming January. I duly did so but January came and went as did February and March. Much later Dolina told me why. There had been a General Election that spring and the Labour Government had put pressure on the BBC to pull it from the schedules. It played later in the year.
7-84 were looking for venues in Fife so I liaised with them to come to Glenrothes to present a new production, ‘The Game’s A Bogey,’ a play centred on the life of John Maclean. There was no theatre in the town and I thought anyway that a working mens’ club would be a better setting to present the play. Little did I know what I was letting myself and 7-84 in for. I had to work hard to secure the venue and my friendships with so many tradesmen smoothed the way. One of them was an electrician with the Development Corporation who was the secretary of CISWO (Coal Industry Social and Welfare Organisation), the miners’ social club. He arranged for me to meet the social convenor who was much opposed to the idea as there had never been a theatre performance at the club and he did not think the members would enjoy it. Eventually I got him to agree to put on the play but the conditions were that the regular bingo session should precede the performance, that the number of tickets would be limited to allow everyone the comfort of remaining at their tables and that the lights would have to be on and the bar remain open throughout the performance! McGrath agreed to all the conditions except the lights and a compromise was reached. The tickets sold out quickly and I tried to persuade the social convenor to allow more to be sold. He adamantly refused. Crowds with no tickets turned up on the night but were refused entry including Sandy Dunbar the Director of the Scottish Arts Council. I got an urgent message minutes before the play started, ‘Somebody’s at the entrance demanding to see the management.’ I went outside to be met by an uncomprehending Sandy and told him of the ticket limitation and the reason for it. The social convenor was at the door still adamant, ‘I don’t care who he is, no ticket no entry.’ I had to get the secretary of the club to explain to him who Sandy was and why it was necessary to make an exception. The Scottish Arts Council was of course funding the production. He consulted other members of the committee. Though it was felt that it was unfair, discriminatory and that the Director of the Scottish Arts Council should know better and should have booked in advance, under the greatest sufferance Mr and Mrs Dunbar would be allowed in. The specific reason for Sandy driving from Edinburgh to see the show in Glenrothes was that he wanted to experience a 7-84 production in one of its much vaunted non-art venues. For 7-84 the stakes had been upped. The club members had turned up in their best ‘night out’ clothes and there was a palpable feeling of excited anticipation. It started badly as the noise from the bar and people getting up and coming back with drinks drowned out Bill Patterson’s attempts to grab the audience’s attention. It was only when Terry Neason came on and banged out a song, vamping it up mightily that the audience settled. From then on the audience loved every minute of it When it came to the last chorus attacking the bosses which went something like, ‘Get them out, make them work, They don’t own us, whatever they say. We’ll all stay together….’ the whole audience was up on its feet with glasses raised repeating and repeating this chorus led by the whole company. The cast knew they had won over the audience and at that point could get them to do anything they wanted. In his book, ‘A Good Night Out,’ (Methuen 1981) John McGrath says, ‘….the performance that will always stay in my mind was that in Glenrothes CISWO Club…. The reason I remember Glenrothes so clearly is that it was the very first miners’ club we had ever played in and the very first time we performed ‘The Game’s a Bogey’ to an audience in that situation. I was literally terrified: the consequences of failure to please would be direct and painful; the consequences of pleasing but failing to communicate would be indirect but even more painful in the long run. The company were also terrified, but heroic.’ I of course was overjoyed at how successful the night had been. The company came back to my house for a party. Back at work on the Monday I buzzed round excitedly to my secretary friend – ‘ Great night. We could have filled the place twice over. What did you think?’ ‘Well I liked it,’ he said, ‘but we had a committee meeting yesterday and some of the members thought that the play was a bit political!’ Well you couldn’t make it up. What would John have made of that response.
New Towns it must be stressed had very different structures to other towns. What happened in Glenrothes could not have happened in towns with a normal local government structure and certainly not at the speed with which it happened. New Town Corporations had the power to short-cut much of the lengthy processes of local politics and government and there was always central government pressure to expand rapidly by attracting new industry and businesses under favourable terms. It is important to describe and emphasise the political structure and climate within which I was operating since it allowed me an immense amount of freedom. On one occasion the Chief Architect sent me a memo saying that he had read in the press of sculptures appearing which he knew nothing about and could I take him on a tour of them! Of course these had been done in close association with the architects designing the area of housing in question. It was just that the proposals did not have to be approved higher up the chain. This trust was endorsed by the General Manager of the corporation, Brigadier Paddy Doyle, who stated in a press interview that appointing an artist was one of the most valuable things that the corporation had done. However I was not only getting this kind of support from the upper reaches of the corporation staff but also from elected politicians who served on the board of governors. Alex Devlin and Alan McLure, senior Labour Councillors on Fife Regional Council, became two of my most ardent supporters. Later when I began teaching in art schools I would advise students that if they wanted work in towns and communities and to get things done they must, ‘first find your councillor/politician’ supporter.
I have often been asked about the term, ‘Town Artist’, which became the way to describe my job. It was coined by an artist acquaintance of mine, Paul Millichip. He had written about the need for artists to play the role that I was now doing and ran an Environmental Design course at Barnet College in London. I had had difficulty in describing to people what I did. I needed a name for it. When I asked him what he thought it should be, he immediately said, ‘Why not Town Artist?’ I liked the sound of it and proceeded to promote it and, more importantly, to define it. A town artist I believed had to be a contributing member of the planning department of a town, collaborating with the various design teams and be engaged on a long-term and full-time basis. This was not the artist as consultant nor, what was soon to be described as, the ‘artist-in-residence.’ This was the artist as a fully-functioning member of the staff employed to design and build a town. In the book, ‘Art in Architecture in Great Britain since 1945′, Richard Cork’s assessment was that, ‘David Harding was able…. to produce a series of deliberately varied works for a community he grew to understand with exceptional intimacy…. they were all informed by a knowledge of the locality as it evolved and this sense of engagement compared very favourably with the suspicion which blighted other attempts at collaboration between artists and architects of the period.’
An important development for me took place in the early seventies when I first met John Latham and Barbara Steveni who had founded, ‘The Artist Placement Group’ (APG) in the sixties. They had spent much effort in trying to persuade the civil service and local government agencies that artists could bring their creativity to bear on policy and planning. This was best described as the artist as ‘the incidental person’. In this role artists could cross over the rigid barriers within institutions and bring new perceptions to bear on how these institutions operated. Barbara had been trying to interest new town development corporations in the UK in the ideas of APG. The Scottish new towns invited her to come to Glenrothes to address a meeting of senior figures from all the new towns in Scotland. When John Coghill had finished his address to the meeting on the role of the town artist and his own vision of what that could be, Barbara declared that what he had said was exactly what APG has set out to achieve. This was an important moment for me. I felt I had in some ways been working in isolation. APG had already organised a number of artist placements in settings such as British Steel, Broadmoor Hospital, the National Bus Company among others and, more significantly for me, had developed critical theory to support such work. A mutually supportive relationship with John and Barbara was formed at this moment which still continues today.
My work in Glenrothes began, intentionally on my part, slowly. I needed to feel my way around the place, the town and its people, but also the structure of the Development Corporation. I felt the doubters in the corporation were cynically waiting for some large statement of modernist abstraction and the inevitable ensuing controversy to be able to say, ‘I told you so.’ I had decided to go slowly and quietly and attempt to make my presence felt almost as an insinuation. As there was no budget set aside for art, I had to find out where I could fit into the different building projects that were going on and acquire money from them. To begin with I was able to use monies for play and recreation within housing projects which resulted, to begin with, in what could be termed ‘play sculptures.’ These began as rather safe design solutions but as time went on I was able to expand the concepts for these to become iconic markers and more meeting places for children to play around rather than on or with. This I suppose was a first breakthrough into something more profound and the architects were, in most cases, willing to co-operate. I wanted, as far as possible, to use the material of the building site so I limited my ideas to the use of bricks and concrete. I had begun to use concrete when I was at art school and through the years in Glenrothes I managed to expand the range of its possibilities for making art. Also using these materials meant that I was always in some way collaborating with the skills and experience of the workmen on the building sites. This was fundamentally important to me with regard to how I perceived my role. The main construction material of civil engineers is concrete and they were the most sympathetic and understanding of the design teams, coming to me early in the design stage. I created patterned reliefs for the large wing walls of pedestrian underpasses developing the use of colour and pushing the limits of what could be achieved in concrete casting techniques. I would subtly include political and social elements in the imagery and sometimes got the workmen on site to add their names to the moulds recognising their contribution to making the work. Eventually I gained the confidence of the senior architects, engineers and planning people to such an extent that I was more or less allowed simply to get on with it. I was working with design teams who would build money into the design specifications and contracts for my work and, as there was a time gap before any final drawings would be needed on site, I was able to allow ideas to fertilise over a longer period. This often allowed me to respond to the reality of what was being built.
|‘Work’, pedestrian underpass, concrete relief. 1970|
I used the pavement and road building budgets of the civil engineers to cast poems into paving slabs which were then placed at bus stops and telephone kiosks. In order to fit within a 2′x 2′ or 3′x 2′paving slab I decided to use short, contemporary poems by Scottish writers. The first group of poems were, Douglas Young’s, “The Last Lauch”, Sydney Goodsir Smith’s, “Loch Leven”, and Hugh MacDiarmid’s, “The Little White Rose”. I typed them out and sent them to each of the poets to ask for their permission and, if given, to get them to proof-read what I had taken from poetry books. Young I knew had taught at St. Andrew’s University so I sent his letter there. I received a reply from his wife, Clara, in which she said that Douglas was teaching at the University of North Carolina, where he was Professor of Classics, and that she would send my letter on to him. Some weeks later I read that he had died. Wilfred Taylor wrote a piece in ‘The Scotsman’ on Young in which he described the funeral service in North Carolina when “The Last Lauch” had been the poem recited and went on to say that I had been planning to use Young’s poem on the streets of Glenrothes. Without permission of course I could not proceed. Then I received a note from Clara enclosing a letter that Douglas had written to me the night before he died. He had begun by saying that he was delighted that I should use the poem and in a piece of ironic humour wrote, “They cast Pindar’s odes in tablets of gold and hung them in the temples so why not have the Fifers walk over mine!” He had typed out the way he preferred the poem laid out and, importantly, spelled.
Later I was invited to a memorial service for Douglas at his old university, St. Andrew’s. Douglas Young should have been awarded a professorship at St. Andrew’s but, being the most conservative of all the Scottish universities, Douglas Young did not fit. He was a founder member of The Scottish National Party, a pacifist and a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Not the kind of person to be rewarded by St. Andrew’s and so he had had to look elsewhere for his professorship. I could not therefore suppress feelings of, ‘too little too late’, by this institution which had done him such a disservice. Nevertheless a huge group of academics filed into the choir stalls of the medieval church of St. Salvator and the panegyrics were delivered with great feeling. At the end, the doors of the church were thrown open and outside a lone piper played “The Flowers of the Forest.” The hairs stood out on the back of my neck.
Hugh MacDiarmid readily agreed to my proposal with a simple letter. Later I took a paving slab of, “The Little White Rose”, to his cottage home of Brownsbank near Biggar. I was met by his wife Valda, a proud Cornish woman, and an impressive character with her hair dyed red. She immediately handed me a spade and instructed that I should straightaway set it in the ground at the doorstep to the house. In my stays in Edinburgh in the sixties I had been in MacDiarmid’s company several times in the poet’s pub, Milne’Bar in Hanover Street, but had not really got to know him. Mostly I had heard and read that he was a very ‘difficult’ person. On that day nothing could have accounted for that description. He was generous and friendly. A local worthy came in and one could detect that this was a frequent visitor with a tendency to bore. MacDiarmid was full of attentive charm. The poetry slab is still there and it recently featured in a play on Radio 4 about Valda after the poet’s death.
The Little White Rose
The rose of all the world is not for me.
I want for my part only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet and breaks the heart.
A meeting in Milne’s Bar with Sydney Goodsir Smith was enough to gain his approval to use his poem. Later I used two other poems; “Image O’ God” by Joe Corrie, the miner’s poet from Fife, and “Winter’s Here” by Bud Neill. Neill was, of course, a national icon, his strip cartoons in the Scottish ‘dailies’ had reached cult status. I was amazed to discover that he had lived a few doors from me in Glenrothes. He had moved there in an attempt to beat the bottle but had died before I had begun to do the pavement poems. In both of the latter cases the families gave me permission to use the poems.
Finally I collaborated with Alan Bold to make several works incorporating his poetry. After his time in the writer’s cottage he had moved to another cottage on the Balbirnie estate. Together we created the ‘Poetry Path.’ The neat right-angled paths created by architects around grassed areas are often subverted by people taking the shortest distance between two points – across the grass. These are beautifully described by planners as, ‘desire lines.’ In the winter they become muddy and begin to meander as people try to avoid the worst parts. Where I could, I paved them. As part of an improvement project in the oldest part of the town, I got the opportunity to pave a rather long one with 90, 3′ x 2′ slabs. I suggested to Alan that, by placing a word in the top left corner of each slab in both directions, half the poem could be read on the way to the shops and the other half read on the way back. Alan duly delivered. It is worth mentioning the technique I employed. I had the letters cut in black acrylicÉ.(this is going to take too long! A sketch would be better) On completion I said to the manager of the factory that I hoped that the process hadn’t held up his production. He replied that in fact the ninety slabs had been produced more speedily than normal production times!
|‘Path Poem’, with Alan Bold. 1976
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While on the whole I always had good and supportive relationships with the architects there was no doubt that they often saw me as a threat or as stealing their thunder. As one put it, I got all the ‘juicy bits.’ I do not yet know what he meant. Nevertheless one of my most successful collaborations was with the architect Jan Miezitis. He was from Latvia and, during the Nazi occupation of his country, had escaped using his skills as a gymnast to leap over the fences of his internment camp. He had had to struggle to become a qualified architect but was very clever, creative and a disciplined professional. We had a mutual respect and some of my most successful works were executed on his projects. ‘The Henge’ was for me the most significant. It is formed by 13 concrete slabs ascending in height from 1.5 to 2 metres, set in a spiral formation with a ‘diameter’ of about 3 metres. The inside faces of the slabs are in relief, each one referring to one of my 20th century heroes/heroines; Pele, Che Guevara, Gandhi, The Beatles, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa among others. It must be entered to experience it and it forms the major marker for entering the Pitteuchar neighbourhood. I was told that a detective inspector of police had said that every time he went into it he learned something new. I designed a large sand-filled play area with sculptures which won The National Playing Fields Association annual award for best new play area. Also in the area is the first group of the ‘Hippos’. I wrote a small booklet of 24 or so pages containing lots of photographs of the works entitled, ‘The Glenrothes Town Artist.’ It was edited by Nigel East of the corporation’s PR department. – a good friend and supporter of my work, It sold out and an updated edition was published. It has always been a regret of mine that it was not re-issued since, as time went on, my work became more and more conceptual.
There was a continuous and significant amount of press, radio and television coverage of what I was doing. One young girl wrote to the local newspaper to ask why other parts of the town were getting art works but not where she lived. I used the local newspaper as a tool to develop and extend an interest and an understanding of the work. While it was never a ‘rubber stamp’ for the work, often it would report controversies and ask the tired question, ‘wouldn’t the money be better spent on….’ in general terms the editor was very supportive. The Sunday Times, The Observer, The South China Morning Post, The Scotsman, The Guardian among many others carried articles. In the case of The Guardian, a full page was devoted to a well-researched and incisive article by Graham Hancock. I hope it has no bearing on it, but he is now infamous among historians and archaeologists for his books and television programmes and his assertions regarding the function of the pyramids, the existence of underwater cities of lost civilisations and the links between the ancient civilisations of all the continents. It is maybe significant that a few sentences from his article duly appeared in ‘Pseud’s Corner’ in Private Eye. Articles also appeared in a number of magazines mainly architectural, planning and landscaping. Not much appeared in art magazines. It simply was not the kind of work that interested contemporary art writers. In 1970 the BBC Scotland writer and producer, W. Gordon Smith, made a fifteen minute film on the work for his weekly arts programme, “Scope.” Again, regrettably, it was early days and the work had not yet evolved and matured. Although the work was covered often on TV news items and a few other programmes were mooted, particularly by London producers, (it seemed that the 400 miles was too much; had the work been in Harlow or Stevenage it would have been no trouble at all) no other serious documentary was made. However Dave Allen, the wry comedian, appeared with his research assistant and spent a day with me. He was doing a series on unusual people and what they were about. They were looking for eccentrics!
After six years in the job I was keen to find out what was going on in other countries in the field of art and architecture to see if I could find any situations in which artists were being employed in a similar situation as myself. Through the support of Bill Buchanan, Visual Art Director of The Scottish Arts Council, I was funded to make research visits to Spain, France, Holland and the USA during 1975-76. (later I was to work fruitfully with Bill at Glasgow School of Art). I found no equivalents to my own position but was enormously stimulated by the artists I met and the work that I saw. I visited architectural practices as well as artists and artist groups; the extraordinary buildings of the unique architectural practice, the Taller de Bofill, in Barcelona, Sitges, Calpe and elsewhere; the artist Bernard Lassus in Paris and particularly his work on his ideas of ‘les habitants paysagistes, (see above) had a profound effect on me; the social and political artwork of the ‘Provos’ in Holland; the community mural groups in the USA, particularly those in Chicago and Los Angeles. In the USA I combined my research with lectures at various institutions in New England, Chicago and Los Angeles. In LA I addressed the elaborately monikered, ‘The First West Coast Mural Graffiti Conference’. I made many friends on this trip with whom I still remain in contact. All of this material and experience formed the basis of a small book I wrote and illustrated which the SAC published in 1976, entitled ‘Artists and Buildings.’
Over the years the nature of my work changed from the object sculpture to a more fluid and more conceptual practice. To begin with, although it was not contained in my job description, I had a firm conviction that I should try in some way to involve the people of the town in making their own contribution to their own physical and cultural environment. I continued to pursue this ‘social inclusion’ in parallel with my ‘own work’ so that the two elements were fused. It must be made clear that the majority of my work was in new developments. There were no existing resident populations in the new housing developments and certainly none in new shopping centres and industrial estates. It was only when I was able to work in the older areas of the town that I could involve residents in the work. The tenants choosing the colours for their own front doors was one such work. This was such a simple way of creating a greater sense of ownership and individuality for tenant occupiers. The New Towns were in general good landlords but tenants were still tenants.
In the early years I had not been too concerned about the overall finishes on buildings. Latterly I did become involved. Most of the architects believed in a certain formalism in their housing designs. They married that to attempts to reproduce the white, harled, roughcast finishes of Scottish fishing villages. But white cement-based roughcast becomes over time dull grey and, with the uniformity of mass housing, they could never achieve the effect they were after. Coupled with the climate of Scotland the aspect of the town, with its lack of mature trees, was bleak indeed. I argued vehemently for colour, warm earth colours specifically, and in several new housing developments these colours were used. However two other proposals I made did not go ahead. The land for a new housing development was criss-crossed by dry stone walls. I proposed that as many sections of these as possible should be kept so that they would appear in the gaps between houses, on the edge of pavements and in public spaces. Also there was a natural spring in the middle of the site and I proposed that this should be retained along with existing trees and bushes. The second was for an industrial building with a vast blank wall that was about to be built. I proposed that the bricklayers should be supplied with piles of different coloured bricks and that they should decide which colours to use. The idea was to produce a rich, random configuration over the whole wall. Neither of these went ahead.
Inevitably I was in touch with other activist artists and groups in the UK. In Edinburgh I became associated with ‘Edinburgh Theatre Workshop’ and its then director, Neil Cameron. Neil had attracted a vigorous, creative staff around him among whom was the American Ken Wolverton. Through them I came into touch with Helen Crummy founder of the Craigmillar Festival Society; still the most radical and successful example of a community in a council housing estate taking over responsibility for social and cultural development. Through them I also came into contact with Jimmy Boyle. It seemed to me at the time that everyone and his dog in the art world were beating a track to the Special Unit in Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow to meet Boyle. Joyce Laing the well-known art-therapist had got Jimmy started making art work. Richard Demarco followed and began to take all his important visitors to meet Jimmy the high point of which was the visit of Joseph Beuys who subsequently made an art work about Jimmy and his predicament. When Neil urged me to arrange to visit Jimmy I was very reluctant indeed. It just seemed the fashionable thing to do, like part of the cultural tourist map. Jimmy had been commissioned to design a sculpture for Craigmillar. He came up with a proposal for a giant Gulliver figure strapped to the ground. It was built by local labour and officially opened by Billy Connelly. Jimmy made a secret visit to Craigmillar to see his work. One day my phone rang. It was Jimmy asking me to come to visit him. I relented. I was able to phone him directly in prison and he could phone me – a quite unbelievable concession to the prisoners in the ‘Special Unit.’ It had been set up by a remarkable prison service decision to adopt an entirely radical method of dealing with the most notorious prisoners in Scotland. Instead of locking them up in cages, in solitary confinement and with the constant aggression that this created between prisoners and prison officers, a secure special unit was set up within which there existed the freedom to run the place together. There were extensive visiting arrangements, inmates arranged their own menus and cooked their own food and all day was spent in the communal spaces or workshops. The prison staff were volunteers and were paid a higher rate for this ‘most dangerous’ work. However some could not stand the pressure of being familiar and friendly with the inmates and begged to be moved back into the normal system! I was profoundly moved by the visit. Jimmy welcomed me to the Special Unit, showed me around and in the kitchen picked up a large kitchen knife to set about preparing lunch. This was a symbolic gesture. No threat existed. After lunch I gave a slide talk on public art to several of the inmates. As Jimmy saw me out of the Special Unit I was hit by a very strange, but I suppose obvious, feeling; I could go out but he could not. I made further visits, met other artists there and became something of a friend.
Over the years numerous visitors came to Glenrothes from all over the UK and abroad to see at first hand how an artist could be fully employed in the development of a town. As well as other artists many of these were staff or councillors from other towns, old and new, and I was subsequently invited to visit several towns in the UK to advise them on the setting up of similar artist positions. Livingston, East Kilbride, Stevenage, Rochdale, Peterborough and Northampton were among some of the towns which proceeded to employ artists, often using the term ‘Town Artist’.
In 1981 the Australia Council invited me to undertake a two month lecture tour of Australia. The request was to lecture mainly on the ‘Glenrothes experience’ as well as other topics like artist/architect/planner collaborations and community arts in the UK. I visited all the major cities, and much more besides, giving talks to planning department staffs and professional associations, councillors and aldermen, arts bodies and groups, artists, schools of art and architecture and the general public. The organisation, and the publicity, by the Australia Council for my trip was extremely thorough and audiences were high throughout the tour. I arrived in Darwin and then spent a week or so in each town; Alice Springs, (taking in a visit to Uluru – Ayers Rock as was, a present from the council, coincidentally it was my birthday the day I climbed the rock), Brisbane, Sydney, (including suburban towns) Canberra, Melbourne, Launceston/Tasmania, Adelaide and Perth. I spent two weeks in Bowral, NSW, as the only non-Australian at a ‘training workshop’ for artists from all disciplines selected for their work in social settings and community groups. It was without doubt the most expertly organised and themed workshop I have ever experienced. The programme of the tour was extremely full and I think by Adelaide and Perth I was beginning to feel the strain. Some days would consist of lectures or meetings in the morning, afternoon and evening, at each being lavished by Australian hospitality a feature of the visit I have never forgotten. It was Andrea Hull (now Principal of the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne) of the council who extended the invitation and Deborah Mills who organised the details of the visit, both impressive and charismatic people. Undeniably I saw Australia through ‘rose-coloured spectacles.’ I never really met that right- wing ‘okker’ Australia that is so much part of the character of the place. I was met and handed on each time to even more wonderfully sympathetic artists, art officers and art lovers who showed me immense generosity. I was impressed by the active, radical cultural activities of the unions and town councils. I subsequently read in some Australian publication a reference to the time before David Harding’s visit and the time after it. The notion of the Town Artist certainly interested a number of town councils resulting in the employment of artists though not as far as I can gather on quite the same basis as I had experienced in Glenrothes.
After eight years with Glenrothes I began to feel that I needed to move on. I had for two or three years been a part-time consultant to the Department of Environmental Improvement of Glasgow City Council. Later the city, with the Scottish Development Agency, set up, along the lines of a new town development corporation, the Glasgow East Area Renewal – GEAR. I proposed directly to it that they should employ me as an artist. This time I proposed that I be employed as an artist/planner contracted and paid at the same level as the planners and architects. GEAR was very interested and we got as far as letters of exchange and very close to signing a contract when it all fell through. Glasgow City Council had heard about it and had objected to the appointment. Its argument was that art and employing an artist were outside of GEAR’s area of responsibility. The city council claimed that only it dealt with these matters. I was very disappointed as I felt that I had created a position which would have been even more ground-breaking than that of the Town Artist in Glenrothes. Art could have been built in to the renewal process at the very beginning and given a level of importance in such processes it had hitherto not achieved, even in Glenrothes. From my experience there, I had learned that when an artist is on the inside of planning and architecture one can achieve things that are impossible to do from the outside. Most of the towns that took up the idea of the Town Artist failed to realise this point and employed the artists in departments of leisure, recreation, culture, etc., from where the artists had to struggle, often without success, to make things happen.
In September 1976 I organised an exhibition entitled, ‘Building People Art’. It was housed in a large, new, empty, office space in the town centre. Part of the aim of the exhibition was to take stock of the work to date and to open it up to a wider public. It was not however an exhibition of the many public art works in the town. Its aim was more subtle and complex. It aimed to show the integration of the artist with the society of Glenrothes as a whole; how it evoked responses from the various professional disciplines, the building site workers and the people of the community; how it had influenced similar activities elsewhere in this country and abroad. It included working drawings, photographs, models, maquettes and six 8′ x 4′ tables topped in clear perspex under which were dozens of letters from people here and abroad, internal memos, small sketches from notebooks and a myriad other bits and pieces all of which attempted to show how the works came about and what response there had been to the whole notion of a town employing artists. Two excellent photographers, residents of the town, Aase and Peter Goldsmith, had committed themselves to a long term project of not only photographing the finished art works on site but also often, of the process of making them. These superb photographs, some in very large format, contributed much to the exhibition. The touchstone to the exhibition was expressed in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, ‘About the Way to Construct Enduring Works.’ It was suggested to me by Douglas Eadie, the writer/filmmaker, who had stayed at the ‘writer’s cottage’. When his year was over he and his family moved into a house in the town staying for a number of years. He made a film about the poet William Soutar using Balbirnie House as a location. Later Douglas wrote a film treatment on the story of the town artist in Glenrothes. But in the end it was shelved as the money to make it could not be raised. It is worth quoting from Brecht’s poem at some length. As Douglas had perceived, it seemed to sum up my attitude to my work in the town. Its provocative thoughts have remained with me and shaped my work since.
Do works endure? As long
As they are not completed.
Since as long as they demand effort
They do not decay.
Inviting further work
Their being lasts as long as
They invite reward.
Have room for art
Those devised for completeness
Are always about to crumbleÉ.
So too the games we invent
Are unfinished, we hope;
And the things we use in playing
What are they without the dentings from
Many fingers, those places, seemingly damaged
Which produce nobility of form;
And the words too whose
Meaning often changed
With change of users.
Never go forward without going
Back first to check the direction.
Those who ask questions are those
Whom you will answer, but
Those who will listen to you are
Those who then ask you.
Who will speak?
He who has not spoken.
Who will enter?
He who has not yet entered.
Those whose position seems insignificant
When one looks at them
The powerful ones of tomorrow
Those who have need of you
Shall have the power.
When I was interviewing one of the graduating students for their year with me I was asked by his head of department, ‘Will he get some time for his own work?’ This did not shock me as it was the same question that had been addressed to me on several occasions – ‘Do you ever get time for your own work?’ It bemused me to think that what I was doing could ever be construed as not being ‘my own work’ – it was, at the time, the only thing I wanted to do. Of course, I understood where these questions were coming from but it is interesting to note that it is probably a question that would not be posed today. Art had moved on.
In the mid seventies Tom McGrath had founded the Third Eye Centre in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow. It was a wonderful place in those early years, breaking new ground in all the arts. As a playwright and jazz pianist himself Tom was like that. His concept of an arts centre with a shopfront onto one of the busiest streets in Glasgow was entirely new. It is not surprising that he wanted to show what was going on in Glenrothes. We decided that we should show the whole spectrum of arts going on in the town. Work from the artists and craftspeople at Balbirnie; the photographs of the Goldsmiths; the illuminated poems of Alan Bold; my own work and that of my assistants. ‘View from Glenrothes’, took place in March 1977. 8000 people saw the show and it was covered by supportive reviews in The Guardian and the Glasgow Herald among others. The exhibition was also shown in Peterlee and in the gallery of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in Belfast. It was an excellent showcase for the cultural activity going on in the town and a tribute to John Coghill, the driving force and facilitator behind it all. As he said in a catalogue essay, ‘Dreams fade’ – a reference to Lord Reith’s hopes in 1945 for the UK new towns as, ‘an essay in civilisation…. and the means for a happy and gracious way of life.’ Coghill went on, however ‘….that was our goal. Hence the need to seek the involvement of the people in the arts for these are the visible and tangible and audible signs of a life that is above mere survival or the satisfaction of animal comforts or the mere acquisition of wealth…. Perhaps someday Scotland will follow.’