Alasdair Gray’s eagerly awaited mural at Hillhead subway station will be unveiled next weekend to mark the modernisation of Glasgow’s underground network.
The work will not be the first time the painter’s art will be on proud display in the West End of the city. Some of his most celebrated pieces to date are in the nearby Ubiquitous Chip restaurant and Oran Mor.
In ‘The Chip’, Gray’s art depicts everyday characters of the West End who have frequented the pub and restaurant since the 1970s. Three separate works are inside the venue - a painting of two regulars, a jungle scene and a large mural depicting other local characters on the stairway.
Colin Clydesdale is the owner of the Ubiquitous Chip. When his father Ronnie owned the popular eatery 40 years ago, a schoolboy Colin marvelled at Gray’s work.
Colin’s favourite is the jungle, which towers over a water feature in the courtyard in the middle of the venue. He said: “This is what I remember most vividly from being a kid. As Alasdair was creating this, I was about eight-years-old.
“Alasdair painted real creatures, half creatures, mythological creatures. We used to climb up the back of the fountain.
“When Dad started out, he needed some sort of decoration. Alasdair and Dad knew each other and Alasdair said ‘If I paint this, will you feed me?’ So Alasdair was fed and watered while working.
“There are stories of customers sitting here and Alasdair would be up on scaffolding, marauding about, falling into the water.”
Apart from the jungle, the murals in The Chip are all about the people who have made the venue one of the most revered in the city. They give a visual history of a place which encapsulates West End life.
He added: “These are all ‘well kent’ faces on the murals. There are people from 35 years ago, there are people who are there who you would see tonight if you came here.
“They all knew each other. ‘The Chip’ was very much a hub where these people would eat, drink, congregate and discuss the issues of the day. He (Gray) picked people he liked, and put them on the wall.”
The most spectacular work in The Chip is on the staircase which leads up to the toilets. Characters, including Colin and his Dad, are joined by others who have played their part - from the man who built it to the man who props up the bar.
“It is a mixture of old staff, new staff, friends, family, customers,” said Colin.
“There are people on this who aren’t alive any more and people on this who are still in the building to this day. It is time travel.
“There is a snapshot of the 1970s. When I was a kid, that is exactly how I remember everybody looking. Lots of hippy-looking folk, kicking about The Chip, very West End, very bohemian.
“This is the one that stops folk in their tracks. It is not finished yet. It is a work in progress. People often just stand here at the balcony and gaze down at it for ten minutes.
“The chip has always been about folk and Alasdair is very much about folk. If he was to work on it more, it would have to be a continuation of what Alasdair is about and what The Chip is about.”
A quote often associated with Gray, 'work as if you live in the early days of a better nation',is wrongly attributed to Gray himself, and even appears on a wall outside the Scottish Parliament with Alasdair’s misspelt name next to it.
It is, in fact, from Canadian wordsmith Dennis Lee and one the nationalist Gray certainly agrees with.
It appears on both the mural in the Ubiquitous Chip and just along the road in Oran Mor, and an amended version - replacing 'nation' with the word 'world' - is on a black poster in the subway station ahead of the big reveal.
Oran Mor mural
Gray’s art in the Oran Mor is in the large hall above the main pub. The room, used for weddings and other functions, is dominated with Gray’s mural on the roof, inspired by the signs of the zodiac, the night sky and the story of life and death.
Colin Beattie, the owner of Oran Mor, is thought to have spent in excess of £300,000 on the work, which also features common workers and others who made the Oran Mor what it is.
The mural is not complete, with Alasdair and his associates returning occasionally to complete different sections.
Colin said: “Alasdair and I have known each other for a number of years. The mural here took over Alasdair’s life for at least two and a half years solid.
“Since we opened it in 2006, he has been working at it on a regular basis. There is still an end game. While the ceiling is complete, the walls are complete and two of the gables are complete, there is more work to be done.”
The dark purple ceiling of the main mural is complimented by three dramatic panels at the end, depicting life, procreation and death.
Colin said: “If you were to look up your local newspaper and read the charts of your birth sign, by way of our ceiling it would be incorrect.
"There was a precipitation almost 2300 years ago that moved the charts, and Alasdair has reverted back to the old charts. There is an irony there. His work now is closer to what should be the signs of the zodiac.
“There is an absolute joy for people who look at the work, especially the fans of Alasdair. They know and expect the thinking that is behind Alasdair’s work. The general public are struck with the beauty, the symmetry, the grandeur of the whole effect.
“We get applauded from far and near, whether it is tourists or locals alike. So many comments have came into the frame over the years.
“We had a thing called the Sunday service, and we invited mothers, grannies, families for lunch up here in this area. I saw a wee baby that a mother had put on the floor on a shawl.
“The baby was lying on its back and it was looking up and the ceiling. It was just amazing. You could see a connection happening. It draws you in. It is not just the ceiling. It is other features of the building. The more you look, the more you will be interested, the more you will be satisfied. There is a lot of depth in the work.”
With both owners saying Alasdair is not quite finished at own their venues yet, it seems we will all have much more Alasdair Gray art to look forward to in the West End, where the artist lives. But what do they think of the Hillhead subway station mural?
Colin Beattie said: “I think it is all about public art. It is accessible. It is not in an ivory tower. I think the fact Alasdair’s work will be portrayed in the subway is spectacular. I think it lifts people’s spirits, the whole notion of public art.
“Alasdair should be celebrated. A lot of people do understand his work, enjoy his work. The more people who are introduced to it the better.”
Colin Clydesdale added: “Alasdair is very idiosyncratic. It is going to be a surprise. I figure it is going to reflect life in and around Hillhead and life in the West End.” We will all find out soon enough.
This week, STV Glasgow looks ahead to Alasdair Gray’s mural at Hillhead subway station. Keep logging on to check out our features.