Remembering George Wyllie by Norman Bissell

I first encountered George Wyllie at the Burns, Beuys and Beyond event in November 1990 at which he was a major presence throughout the weekend. He had just completed an amazing run of public art projects including the Straw Locomotive, The Paper Boat and numerous other artworks and performances. The Straw Locomotive when burnt, and The Paper Boat when opened, revealed a huge Question Mark made of metal. With his self-styled title as a scul?tor, clearly George was a man who wanted us to question everything. 

The Scottish poet Kenneth White gave a lecture A Shaman Dancing on a Glacier in which he spoke about his childhood growing up in Fairlie on the Ayrshire coast and the rituals he carried out ‘up the back’ of the village which he later discovered were like those practised by shamans. It made a huge impression on George and many other artists present. So much so that George described it in The List magazine as one of his highlights of the year. On the Sunday we went on a bus run to a snow covered Rannoch Moor where we gathered round a prominent spot beside the road to witness George raising one of his kinetic spires in honour of the German artist Joseph Beuys whom he had met in Dusseldorff in 1981.

After that George would turn up at various Kenneth White lectures and always made his presence felt. I remember one in particular which was held in a backroom at Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens where the theme was the idea of North and White spoke about his long-standing interest in Hyperborean culture which took in Inuits in the Arctic and much more. As soon as he finished George got up on his feet at the front and asked, “But what about the South?” And once he got his answer, he was quite prepared to argue his case.

George joined the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics after I became its Director in 2002 and when we published the booklet Geopoetics, place, culture, world by Kenneth White in 2003, he liked it so much he ordered six copies to give to friends and other artists. When they ran out, he would phone me up and ask me to send him another six to his home in McPherson Drive in Gourock which he subsequently paid for by cheque. This went on for several years and clearly demonstrated his interest in geopoetics as a world outlook and creative practice. In an interview quoted in the book In Pursuit of the Question Mark he said:

I look out the window and see the sky, the mist, which is the river up in the air. You see the land behind it which the river is nurturing through the rain and the mist. You see the trees and the animals which are nurturing us, you see the houses. You see ourselves. It’s all out there, it’s completely geo. And if you look at it that way instead of in an analytical, scientific way, it’s poetic. 

And in another interview:

Ten years on from that (White lecture) I feel that I’m pushing along the geopoetical idea quite strongly myself.

The last time I met George was, appropriately enough, on a trip ‘doon the watter’ on The Waverley paddle steamer. It was a lovely sail downriver, out into the Firth and round the Kyles of Bute and back in fair summer weather. The steamer was rented in aid of a project to imagine the River Clyde as it could be in the future. On a lower passenger deck, George held court with lots of admirers who were much taken by him and his work. He spoke passionately about his latest project The Crystal Ship which would traverse the junction of the Kelvin and Clyde rivers and be Glasgow’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. On the way back he did a roaring trade in selling and signing posters he’d drawn of The Waverley to raise funds for the river project. I still have mine. 

Looking back, I can see now that George was a force of nature who combined an enquiring mind with a bold imagination to create unique art out of whatever he came across. His work was exhibited all over the world but the places which meant most to him were his birthplace Glasgow and the Tail of the Bank where he spent the last part of his life as a Customs and Excise man (like Robert Burns) before becoming a full-time artist. It’s fitting, therefore, that his work will find a permanent home in The Wyllie at Greenock Ocean Terminal in 2022. The River Clyde meant a great deal to George Wyllie. As his daughter Louise has said, “It inspired my father constantly during the course of a long and creative life.”

Norman Bissell, 2020