23 Mar 2011

Will Maclean in conversation with Sandy Moffat

Will Maclean in conversation with Sandy Moffat

This conversation with Will MacLean has been published by The Fleming -Wyfold
Art Foundation on the occasion of the exhibition: Will Maclean: Collected Works 1970 - 2010 at the Fleming Collection, London March 8 - 26 April 2011

SM Will, perhaps we should begin by focusing on your student years at Gray’s
School of Art, Aberdeen (1961-65). This was a time when painting, especially Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, proved all conquering, even in Scotland. There was little interest in pursuing subjects closer to home - indeed little interest in subject matter at all. How did you find your way through these powerful influences and establish some kind of personal voice ? Were there helpful tutors or fellow students you could discuss your own ideas with ?

WM I should explain that I came to Gray’s from the Merchant navy and I had no formal art education. I left Inverness Royal Academy for HMS Conway, North Wales in 1957. The first two years at Gray’s, the general course, offered a broad range of skills from woodcarving and silversmithing to calligraphy and printmaking. In retrospect this training was to provide a creative platform for my future as artist and teacher. Gray’s was a small college, the tutors were all approachable and supportive. Fred Stiven, David Fowkes and Frances Walker were for me, the most influential. Ian Fleming was Principal, a kind man who like a ship’s captain kept watch on his crew. Later at Hospitalfield House in Arbroath, there was the influence of David McClure.
I struggled with oil paint and the academic rigour of life painting. It was the relative freedom of the figure composition class that led me to the subject of Highland history and culture.
In my post graduate year I was free to experiment in ‘abstraction’ as it was called, but it did not work for me. The American painter Ben Shahn published a book called ‘The Shape of Content’ which was a real turning point and his capsule notes to the young artist are still relevant. Yes, the current thinking at that time was, as the critic Edward Gage commented “Any vernacular is normally anathema or dismissed as incomprehensible”. It was not until I saw the work of R.B.Kitaj at the British Art show that I began to see my way through problems of form. My childhood friend Stephen Lawson from Inverness was a Sculpture student in Edinburgh and through him I was introduced to students in Edinburgh.
Ian Macleod, a Burntisland shipyard worker who became one of the Scottish Realists group, yourself, and John Bellany all found ways to use their personal narratives to inform their work. With Bellany I shared the background of a fishing community.

SM That the subject of Highland history and culture occurred to you
in the figure composition class at Gray’s is something I’d like to return to.... as well as your initial contact with the work of John Bellany. Given the important influence on John at that stage by the poetry and ideas of Hugh MacDiarmid - especially his use of the Scots language - takes me straight to Sorley MacLean who was to have perhaps, an even greater influence on your work. When did you first discover Sorley’s poetry and how did you respond to the fact that he wrote in Gaelic ?

WM I knew Sorley from my early teens. Sorley maintained that our families were related through my maternal grandmother who was a Nicholson from Portree. With regard to the language issue Murdo MacDonald put it perfectly in his essay for this publication.

My father, John Maclean, a native Gaelic speaker from Coigach encouraged and educated me in other aspects of the culture, but Gaelic was not the language of our home. At that time Inverness Royal Academy in the Highland capital offered Gaelic to native speakers only, continuing the educational policy of isolation and marginalisation of the language. This was something else that Sorley fought against. Of all MacLean's poems Hallaig had the greatest impact on me, here was a blueprint, a visual essay encompassing aspects of tradition, narrative, surrealism and the vernacular.

John Bellany I feel, follows a tradition that has its roots in David Allan and the lowland vernacular poets; the language of the Gaelic to English translation has a very different resonance.

SM You rightly stress the influence of your father here, who I believe also
handed down a written memoir of his childhood. I imagine many will think we’re simply talking about history, about things which have no relevance in today’s world, but as my own experience of Sorley indicates, that when he spoke of the past, it was a living past. When he talked about his ancestors for example they were “ not remote figures in a history-book, but as part of one’s own flesh and blood”. The impact of Hallaig, as you describe it...your experience of it as a visual essay seems of huge significance. Can you say something about how you began to transcribe the specific ideas of narrative, surrealism, and tradition, you found in Sorley’s poetry, into your work.

WM As I said earlier my father did pass on to me a knowledge and a passion for the culture. As you rightly say ‘part of ones own flesh and blood.’ The transcription of ideas - it is a huge question. I suppose that it is the sum of parts that include - the collections of the Highland folklorists, JF Campbell, R.C. Maclagan and Alexander Carmichael, the poetry of MacLean, George Campbell Hay and Angus Martin, the painting of Giorgio De Chirico, William McTaggart, Amselm Kiefer, and the sculpture of Joseph Cornell, Fred Stiven and H.C.Westermann. Then the Art of the Sailor, and the people of the seaboard tribes. Alexander Mackenzie’s ‘History of the Highland Clearances’ (A book my father said should always be, with the bible at my bedside ), Donald Macleod's ‘Gloomy Memories ‘ and later James Hunter’s ‘Making of the Crofting Community’. Then the landscape its self. In Skye, Dun Caan, Camus Mallaig and Suisnish and in Coigach, Stac Pollaigh, Badentarbert and Achnahaird.
So I can give you ingredients, but as an artist Sandy you are well aware that the way they mix and the way they finally evolve is the great mystery of our trade. I can say that whatever the final image, it is a balance between the story and the making. Edward Gage described it as ”working poetically, dauntlessly pursuing the telling metaphor”. Perhaps these days, doggedly would be more appropriate ! I should refer to the importance of the sketch book /note book at this point. The relentless insistence of life drawing in art school made me feel that drawing was a narrow journey towards Renaissance perfection. It took some time after art school to develop drawing as a research tool, as a means of navigation through the process of constructing and refining an idea. In common with many artists, notebooks are a treasured archive and source of ideas. The narrative varies, sometimes as in the case of Window Visitation North Uist or Alignment Receiver/ Calanais the way is clear from the start. But often as in Star of the Sea or Composition from High Latitudes the narrative reveals itself through the found object or the process of making. I don’t make many works in a year. I try to move on and not be caught in a circle of repetition, but some events like my time at the Herring fishing are always present.

SM Now you’ve given me a lot to think about ...and we should try to explore a number of the important points you make, but there is something we have to tackle sooner or later, and that is the combination of William McTaggart and the Highland Clearances. The notion that McTaggart was a late Victorian who painted rosy cheeked wee lassies and pretty landscapes persisted for long enough....rather than the great proto-modern painter of The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship. Duncan MacMillan sees in McTaggart’s work “ the possibility of a truly Highland art “. I’d like to hear from you about your thoughts on first coming across McTaggart and how his paintings effected your own work about the Clearances.

WM Duncan is absolutely correct. I came to McTaggart ‘s work from several different directions. When I was collecting material for the Ring Net Herring fishing project in 1971, I spent some time in Campbeltown with the writer and poet Angus Martin. Part of project was the study of fishing craft. This led me to McTaggart’s drawings and studies of Loch Fyne skiffs.
These studies reflect a knowledge and understanding of how boats work and how they work with the sea that is unrivalled in Scottish Art. With my own family involvement in the Highland Clearances ( my paternal family were cleared from Coigach and my maternal great grand aunt was the Portree Post-
mistress who defied Sheriff Ivory during the Battle of the Braes in Skye). The great series of The Sailing of the Emigrant Ship has long been an inspiration.
Lindsay Errington in her catalogue notes for the McTaggart exhibition of 1989 gives us the story of an unseen piper playing a farewell on the stern of the departing ship, and Per Kvaerne introduces his book with the tale that the McTaggarts, sons of the priest, had alone, command of an eighth colour of the of the seven known colours of the prism. These stories bind the man to his culture. McTaggart’s early career was not an easy one, his family minister's advice to his parents was that art was a ” dravelin trade “of vanity and wickedness connected with the church of Rome, a land of fiddlers, painters and such like . On the other hand, local patronage and, crucially, access to a private library were the keys to his future, as it was with other Highland artists such as Munro, Mackenzie and MacKinnon.
It is tragic that such a significant figure, one of the fathers of modern painting has no dedicated national collection or study centre.

SM There's a great deal of work to be done in Scotland in terms of
properly recognising and promoting our great artists - unfortunately we've inherited a legacy of shameful neglect, especially with regard to the artists of the Highlands - which I know that you personally are actively addressing.
I've just returned from a visit to Lochinver where I took part (with the poet Alan Riach) in the centenary celebrations for Norman MacCaig and where I took the liberty of speaking on the subject of
Highland Art. McTaggart, of course, but I included William Dyce, before showing slides of your three great memorial cairns erected in Lewis in the mid 1990's, commemorating episodes in the struggle
between crofters and landlords at the end of the 19th century. One of the questions afterwards was about how a strong sense of history and identity seems to be the defining feature of the Highland artist
and that your work exemplified this. With this in mind I'd like to bring up your collaboration with a number of local craftsmen in the building of the cairns and it would be good to know how you went
about this...how your ideas progressed from pages in a sketch-book to
the completed public monuments.

WM Yes, McTaggart is not alone in the catalogue of neglect. Take for example Alexander Munro an Invernessian at the centre of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and friend of Gladstone, or The McIans, who were the first artists to use the clearances as subject matter in their work - they regularly dined with Charles Dickens. Where was their work to be seen during the recent Year of the Highlands celebrations?
It is a great privilege to be part of The Lewis Land struggle memorials project Cuimhneachain nan Gaisgeach. It came about with an invitation from Roddy Murray of An Lanntair Gallery and Malcolm Maclean of Proiseact nan Ealan to submit some proposal drawings for memorials to the 19th and early 20th century land raids in Lewis. I was introduced to the Chairman and driving force of the project Angus Macleod MBE, to the local historian and stone mason James Crawford, and to John Norgrove, civil engineer, who made sense of my initial drawings.
Just as the history of the raids was researched by Angus and by Joni Buchanan in her book 'Na Gaisgich’, so Jim's knowledge of archaeology and building techniques informed and gave substance to the sculptures. The communities of Balallan, Gress/Coll and Aignish each came together for the opening days, three of the most memorable days of my life as an artist. The opening celebrations in the mid 1990's were an integral part of a project that gave continuity to the history of the island and its people. A fourth structure is underway at Reef on the west of Lewis, again led by the local community, It is designed jointly with Marian Leven RSA, this time celebrating the return of the land to the people of Uig. Angus and Annie Macleod have sadly passed away, but their vision and their memory will live on in these land works.

SM So far, our discussion has centered around your roots within Highland culture, but I’d like to return at this point to an earlier period in your career and ask about how you got started as an artist in terms of exhibiting work. I remember one of your very first exhibitions - in the New 57 Gallery in Edinburgh in 1968 - but what happened after that and how important were these early opportunities to show work.
At what point did you think that painting would have to be replaced by different processes and methods in order to fully realise your ideas ? Was there a dramatic turning point ...or are we really talking about an evolution of form and content over a period of several years ?

WM My first solo exhibition was in Edinburgh in the New 57 Gallery. Marian was a student in Edinburgh at Moray House and Ian and Mary McLeod, Barbara Rae and Gordon Bryce were her fellow students at that time. Gordon was Chair of the 57 committee and Marian brought my work to his attention.
Richard Demarco came to the exhibition and liked it enough to offer me a show at his gallery at Melville crescent in October 1970. Richard has played a big part in our lives - he discouraged us from emigrating to Australia for a start! At Melville Crescent we were introduced to Arthur Boyd, John Schuler and many other international artists. When I worked as a fisherman and we were bearthed at Mallaig, I used to visit John in his Romasaig studio.
It was through Ricky that I was funded by the Scottish International Education Trust to undertake a project to make a visual record of the West Coast Ring Net fishing. I had worked on the Kyleakin {Skye} boats with my uncle, Willam Reid and cousins, so I was familiar with the industry. One important event at this time was the response that I had to these early exhibitions from the art critics Edward Gage and Cordelia Oliver. These reviews contained constructive and encouraging comments. By the early 1970’s I had become increasingly dissatisfied with my progress with oil painting on canvas and I began to make small constructions.
Two exhibitions were crucial to the future direction of my work. Both were mixed exhibitions at the Fruit Market Gallery in Edinburgh - A choice Selection 1975, selected by Jack Knox and Inscape 1977, selected by Paul Overy. Both selectors chose constructions and that gave me confidence to continue to work in 3 dimensions. In 1973 I was elected Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy. The Academy is an artist’s collective and my association with it and with the artists in it, has been central to my life as an artist for the past forty years.
At this time Marian and I were school teachers in Fife with a young family and time to work was at a premium. I found that constructions could be formed in part at some points during the working day and assembled later in the studio. Marina Vaisey, the art critic of The Sunday Times gave me my first introduction to Joseph Cornell, another defining moment and confirmation of the validity of contemporary narrative in the form of box construction, collage, and the found object. Construction and printmaking both share a craft element that allows time for reflection - a process that seemed to work for me .

SM We should pause to recollect that both Edward Gage and Cordelia Oliver were practising artists as well as critics... and both were deeply cultured individuals. Thanks to their encouragement, you had, by the late 1970’s come to regard working in 3 dimensions as your natural voice as opposed to painting on
canvas. With your constructions, however, there is more than often a painted element...I’m thinking specifically of works like Star of the Sea, 1983 and Bard McIntyre’s Box, 1984, where your use of colour, where painted surfaces seem hugely significant. I suppose what I’m suggesting is that although you moved away from conventional methods of painting, so-called “painterly” aspects of making art continued to play a crucial role in what we might call your visual language.

WM I keep coming back to Gray’s to try to answer your question. The staff offered us such a range of influences. Fred Stiven, who became a friend and mentor, introduced us to Ravilious and Bawden, David Fowkes to Piero Della Francesca and Masaccio, and Leo Clegg in sculpture, to the carvings of Barlach. So perhaps this mix gave us a breadth of influence that allowed us to cross the notional boundaries that existed at the time. If anything, for a few years, the surfaces of my work were too rich and textured. With drawing, however, the art school experience was not so positive. The insistence on life drawings that were returned with grades ( marked out of 20 ) was a narrow and proscriptive experience and took little account of drawing as a research tool or a language for visual thinking.
It took years to put that right mainly through the use of pen and ink and a sketch/note book. I know that this is a very different experience from your own Sandy, and I have always admired the freedom and confidence in your drawing . Etching too was helpful in this respect. Colour plays a less important part in current work and the colour comes from the process of developing a surface through the process of painting, rubbing back and re – working.

SM Life Drawing was central to the course at Edinburgh in the early 1960’s Will, but thanks to teachers like Jimmy Cumming, John Houston and David Michie it was possible to relate it to the bigger picture. Every now and again Robin Philipson would blow his top about falling standards and impose a ‘drawing exam’... but we were always encouraged to use drawing in the widest sense to realise ideas, etc. and you are right in saying I had a very different experience of drawing during my student years.
Again, it’s interesting to hear of the varied influences which came your way from the staff at Gray’s, allowing for the crossing of boundaries. I wonder if such enlightened teachers still exist given the current situation in our art schools.
Which brings me to the developments your work embraced in the last decade...develoments that included the introduction of what might be described as ‘new technology’. I’m referring of course to Cod Requiem (2001) where the use of digital animation and sound made such an impact in the big spaces of DCA. How did this come about and how did you approach these very different ‘tools’ ?

WM The ‘new technology ’- new for me that is - came about in several ways. Firstly the merger with the University of Dundee brought with it a research culture, for want of a better term, and the establishment of the Duncan of Jordanstone Visual Research Centre at Dundee Contemporary Arts. The centre allowed new synergies to develop that were not previously possible. Andrew Nairne, then director of DCA invited me to show in the Gallery and a Creative Scotland award helped to fund new ways of developing my practice. I began to work with the artist and designer Andy Rice and it was with his skills and understanding of the potential of new media that two works, Cod Requiem and Crux were completed for the Driftworks exhibition in 2002. Katrina Brown curated the exhibition. This was a vital component and another new learning curve. I learned a great deal during this time but the creative process is still the same whatever the media .

SM Throughout our conversation I’ve gained the strong impression that you
have enjoyed and benefitted from working with others....Arthur Watson, James Crawford, John Norgrove and Andy Rice...to name but a few. Might we regard your long standing connection with Art First in London as a collaboration ...or is an artist’s relationship with a gallery something entirely different. And on my recent visit to Tayport, Marian was kind enough to show me her studio...can I ask if Marian is an important collaborator in matters pertaining to art...with the notable exception of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, art history hasn’t given us much clear evidence of how these things work in practice. It would be valuable to hear a little about your creative relationship at this point.

WM There are many strands to this question Sandy. Working with others who have a particular skill began with my involvement with printmaking and the skills of the masterprinters, continuing with Andy Rice and Jim Crawford as you suggest and Eden Jolly at the Lumsden Sculpture workshop.
Since our marriage in 1968, Marian and I have lived and worked together. We have our own studios and different forms of practice. Often when a work is nearing completion we seek each others comment and opinion. Recently we have worked together on larger projects, installations in Lewis and Aberdeen, and this has been a new form of partnership that we both enjoy. Our sons, John and David are fine art graduates and their views are often sought when they visit us.
Marian and I have been fortunate to have had support from galleries in the private sector in Scotland and Germany. In particular, Cyril and Jill Gerber, the Compass Gallery, Glasgow, Tom and Pam Wilson, the Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh, and Rainer and Karin Herold, Galerie Herold in Hamburg.
Although I had worked with Arthur Watson at Peacock Printmakers, it was not until Crannghal on Skye and the Cairngorms A Northern Viewpoint that we worked together as artists on a large scale bronze sculpture. Working with artists such as Marian and Arthur, who share a passion for Scottish landscape and history is a key factor and again I return to our shared education at Aberdeen.
I have been represented in London by Art First since they opened in Cork Street in 1994 with Clare Cooper and Geoffrey Bertram, and now with Clare, Benjamin Rhodes and Matt Incledon. This has been as you suggest, a partnership and an important and fruitful one. I continue to appreciate the work that they do and the contribution that they make to all their artists. I would like at this point to express my gratitude to Flemings for their continued support - to Bill Smith and to Selina and to Briony.

SM Looking back over your long career as an artist and reflecting upon the main themes you have pursued during that time - emigration, artic exploration, whaling and fishing, all related to the mythologies and epic tales of those who live and work by the sea. As an artist/mariner do you plan any new voyages in the foreseeable future....and as a Scottish artist who has successfully exported his work beyond these shores (a rare enough achievement), not by merely following fashion... but simply by being yourself....have these experiences encouraged you to dig deeper into your own history, including the history of your own people, and at the same time the history of art in Scotland ?

WM New voyages (travel) are always hoped for. Our last voyage was to St Kilda , Iceland and the Faroes. Greenland, North Norway and the Lofoten Islands would be at the top of a future wish list.
New voyages in the work ? It is time for me to trust the vocabulary that has evolved over the years - as the poet Novalis puts it ‘impulses that come from the material its self transforming it from object to subject.”
New work that as you suggest, digs deeper into the narratives that you have outlined.
Researches that began with the Window to the West project have made me aware of the shocking neglect of the visual in the cultural history of the Highlands in particular. Duncan McMillan, himself a Glen Urquart highlander has laid the groundwork for us and Murdo Macdonald of Lewis descent is
in the process of further research. Mary Miers, Malcolm Maclean, Donnie Munro, Georgina Coburn and Lindsay Blair among others, continue to publish and support the visual culture of the Highlands, and so I feel very positive about the future of visual art in the North.

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