• Rachael Fulton

The Urban Foxes and Queer Fishes of Alasdair Gray's Mural

"Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing, to earn what we need to keep going, prevent what you once felt when wee - hopeful and free."

So read the words of Alasdair Gray's much anticipated work of public art in Hillhead subway station.


This mantra is set amidst depictions of the West End's sloping streets, flanked by Gray's own interpretations of 'folk of all kinds.'


These 'folk' are the revered artist's illustrated representations of human personalities in a menagerie of creatures, from backgreen puddocks to urban foxes to queer fishes.


Gray's mural is a collaborative work with fellow artist Nichol Wheatley, who was the ceramist in charge of transforming Gray's vision into an intricate mosaic.


The pair have been working tirelessly on the project for three years in order to create a piece of public art that Glasgow can be proud of.


At the official unveiling of the project, the invited audience wandered up and down the mural, identifying the places they knew and loved, proudly pointing out their own houses and commenting on the intricacy of the mosaic.


They ran their fingers through the grooves in the tile work, all specially cut to fit like a colossal jigsaw. The scene captures beloved landmarks with great detail, including the university tower and the wall mural on the Western Baths - creating a mural within a mural.

Each street corner or roof top in the art work triggers a memory, a personal anecdote or a realisation that something exists in the landscape that you've never paused to notice.

Familiar West End faces have been immortalised in the artwork, such as local MSP Sandra White and a local Big Issue seller.


David Fagan, vice chairman of SPT who helped arrange the art work for Hillhead and is championing public art within subway stations across Glasgow, is drawn in the foreground with a hand outstretched, welcoming the viewer to gaze across the striking West End landscape.


Although usually shy of the limelight, Gray took to the podium to say a few words about the unveiling of his latest project.


In a characteristically colourful speech, he praised his friend and colleague Nichol, apologised if he had anything to do with rising tube ticket prices and expressed his desire for Scottish independence.


"Yesterday I went from here to Buchanan Street station and found that the price has got up by 20 pence," said Alasdair to the assembled audience.


"If my mural work was the cause of that, or if the opening of this is only an excuse for announcing it, I apologise.


"I wasn't going to come here tonight, because I am always irritated by arts programmes on television in which you see lots of beautiful art and things about the place where the artist comes from, but there's someone standing in front of it like me here the now, waving their hands about and trying to make you enthusiastic about what you could just see and enjoy without them."


Alasdair spoke of how Nichol was mostly responsible for the art work before them, although he himself was the designer, and expressed his excitement and enthusiasm for the fact that SPT plan to have Scottish artists create public artworks in all of Glasgow's subway stations.

One of his reasons for reluctantly attending the unveiling was so that he could speak on behalf of the other, lesser-known Scottish artists who would be creating artwork for SPT in future.


"At Glasgow School of Art everyone who wanted to be a professional artist was told they had to move to London or they'd have to get a job as a teacher, preferably in an art school," he said.


"It would be a magnificent thing for Glasgow if it supported its own artists.


"I was watching a programme on Lewis, and they said that anyone who got a degree from a Scottish university never came back to Lewis. Why would they? There's no jobs there. I hope that intelligent Scots can get work in this country."


Before getting too involved in discussing his pro-independence views, Gray cut himself off with the exclamation 'Rave, rave. Shut up.'


He then briefly discussed the unique technology and craftsmanship involved in Nichol's ceramic work, before announcing that he was running away. He dashed swiftly from the podium, through the crowd and out into the cold Glasgow night. Nichol later told me that Gray was waiting for him in the pub, prepped for one of their regular chess games.


"I won't win," said Nichol. "He'll whip me. The man's a genius."


The techniques that Nichol employed in order to bring Alasdair's design to life is unique and, to the creators' knowledge, hasn't been used before.


The complex puzzle was made by taking sheets of porcelain, hand-cutting them into shapes and using anglaise transfers to put the design onto the ceramics. The mural was fired in the same medium as is used in the décor throughout the subway station.


When asked about the personalities that exist in the mural, Nichol associated himself swiftly with the 'Hard Workers' - a group of blue beavers that sit aside the Glasgow cityscape.

This is no doubt due to the three hard years it has taken to create the piece with Alasdair, from the sketching of local people on Byres Road to the last segment of tile work that clicked into place.


"The characters represent all the sorts of people you might meet," said Nichol.


"What makes this mural quite so clever is the depiction of the city, but also all the different types of people you get in it."


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