Cast alphabet letters from The Great Leveller, a sculpture from my degree show in 1994.
There’s a bit of magic in everything, and some loss to even things out. ~ Lou Reed, ‘Magic and Loss’
It was heartbreaking to see such a beautiful building as the Glasgow School of Art engulfed in flames.
So thankful no one was hurt. Grateful for the swift and skilled response of the fire service.
The previous day I’d visited the Duncan of Jordanstone degree show with friends – almost twenty years after I lost most of my work in the art college fire.
If any GSA students come across this then I hope it offers a frame of reference for continuing to be creative after losing much of what you’ve put so much of yourself into.
Here’s my experience of what it felt like to witness years of work go up in flames – and what happened next…
The Duncan of Jordanstone fire of 1994
With only a few months to go before my degree show I was working late in the college when the fire alarm went off and I realised the orange colours passing by my second floor window weren’t reflections of a passing canvas but huge flames rising up from the studio below.
My studio was shared with several other students who had left for the day so I ran next door and told another student it wasn’t a fire drill and we should make for the exit.
We got out safely then watched in stunned silence as the flames took out our windows and proceeded to burn down our studios and most of the art we’d been making for years. It was hard not to imagine myself trapped inside as the flames engulfed the building. I felt incredibly lucky, elated even, that we’d all escaped unscathed.
The firemen who arrived shortly after did an amazing job of containing the blaze and later reckoned it was caused by an exploding TV from an installation in the studio directly below.
In the following days I visited the blackened shell of my former studio to see what could be salvaged.
Amazingly a couple of my sketchbooks, filled with years of drawings, despite being soaked through and stained remained largely intact.
Sketchbook carefully preserved by the library conservationists. Somehow escaped with only minimal water damage.
Anything that could be rescued was sent to our library conservationists who did a fantastic job restoring artworks.
That’s why it was so heartening to hear that the Glasgow School of Art is making the conservation of student work and archives a priority.
Special bursaries for affected students to help them create new work is great news too.
Making art again
Without a studio and most of my art it was hard not to feel like a creative nomad – displaced and rudderless.
But within a week or two we were relocated to a temporary studio in the outer peninsula of the Town Planning department.
And the work began.
It’s a strange situation to be in, finding yourself back at the starting point when the race is nearing its end.
Should I remake old pieces or start on new ideas? Incorporate the events of the art school fire or stick with the original degree show plan?
I decided on a mixture of both – remaking some of my favourite pieces and using the fire experience to create some new work.
I didn’t know it at the time but the ashes of the fire were to prove fertile ground for creativity.
Photograph from the burned out shell of my old studio.
The first new work was a large scale photograph of a friend (and his son) playing a cello in the burned out studio. The following quote was displayed below it.
“if you were placed in a room from which all air had been withdrawn and a full orchestra (wearing artificial respirators) played at fortissimo, not a sound would you hear.” A.W. Pink, 1947
I wanted to capture the suffocating silence of the fire ravaged room yet attempt to create something of beauty in a location where beauty was stripped from it. Sunlight streamed through the small door window to counter the large boarded up windows behind.
The violin in the foreground had been part of a fire damaged sculpture (that was actually pretty rubbish pre-fire) so was good to give it a new life in this photo.
The Great Leveller
The Great Leveller, from my 1994 degree show.
I then got to thinking that if all the great artists’ studios went on fire their work would look no different than mine, a pile of black ash.
It was my one chance to reach their level.
So I made The Great Leveller a row of white wooden boxes (if my old mate Tom’s reading this, thanks again for the help!) with a famous artist’s name spelled out on top of each box using the letters above; Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, while the last one spelled out my own surname.
Inside each box I created a mini museum interior where piles of black ash sat on identical white wooden plinths.
For one brief fictional moment my work looked exactly the same as the great masters… and it felt good.
The Great Leveller, from my 1994 degree show.
It’s all too easy to look back on difficult situations long passed and proclaim how it was the best thing that could have happened to us.
The triteness of encouraging someone going through a traumatic life event that it will make them stronger, negatives can turn into positives etc…
They’re problematic because they’re often delivered through retrospective lenses that have the benefit of time passed – but lack the empathy to meet someone in their anchor-less present.
Yet they’re cliches because they’re usually true.
A seemingly random fire that destroys the very things you’ve worked so hard for can be the very thing that reminds you why you worked so hard on them in the first place.
There’s a touching passage from Julian Barnes Levels of Life where he relays others clumsy attempts to console him in the aftermath of his wife’s death.
But his favourite response was contained in a letter from a friend:
“The thing is,” she wrote, “nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. If it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t matter.”
As Barnes says himself “it’s not overtly a consoling line; but it is true. A truth like that is more consoling than ‘I’m sure she’s looking down on us from above’ or whatever.”
The GSA fire hurts so much because the school means so much to so many.
Every detail mattered to Charles Rennie Mackintosh while he created his masterwork. Now every detail matters to us.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh. 7th June 1868 – 10th December 1928
To the GSA students that lost their work I echo that sentiment that it hurts exactly as much as it’s worth.
The beautiful building you worked in. The degree show you worked so hard for. The belief and passion for creativity.
They matter deeply to you. The outpouring of support and generosity towards GSA shows how much they matter to us too.
Our work is at its strongest when it matters the most.
I have every faith your new work will be stronger than ever.
And the great Glasgow School of Art will be too.