Set sail with the Whys Man
Clydeside children are paying homage to sculptor and artist George Wyllie by building an origami fleet of boats and launching them on the River Clyde on Hogmanay
On Hogmanay, hundreds of large, small and tiny paper boats made by primary and secondary pupils - the Fleet of the Origami Line - are to be piped in procession through the streets of Glasgow and launched on the River Clyde.
The boats, presently housed in a life-sized boat shed at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, are a homage by pupils from more than 90 Clydeside schools to the life and work of the sculptor and artist George Wyllie, who was born on Hogmanay 1921 and died in May this year.
Glasgow born and bred, Wyllie first came to international attention in 1987 with the Straw Locomotive, a full-size replica of a steam locomotive that hung from the Finnieston Crane for several months before being ceremonially burned at the summer solstice that year. In 1989, he went on to create his famous 80-foot Paper Boat, an ironic tribute to the past glories of the Clyde Shipyards and an emblem of economic fragility that he sailed down the Thames and once moored in New York Harbour, close by the World Trade Center, which was at the time a symbol of world capitalism.
The launch of the Origami Fleet in his honour is part of a landmark - very much ship-shaped - George Wyllie Education Initiative and marks the culmination of a year-long celebration of the artist’s life and work: “The Whys Man Festival”.
The initiative is also a vital part of the definitive Wyllie exhibition “In Pursuit of the Question Mark”, currently running at the Mitchell Library.
“Questioning is at the heart and soul of George’s work,” says the Wyllie Education Initiative’s co-ordinator, Angela McEwan.
“It was the film-maker Murray Grigor who christened him the ‘whys man’ and George even described himself as a ‘scul?tor’. He was a ‘Renaissance Man’ and very much a Curriculum for Excellence Man, creating scul?ture, art, music, drama, poetry and prose. So, all the pupils taking part are being inspired to do the same in art and design, drama, English, music, social studies and technology.
“We are working with schools in the nine local authorities clustered around the Clyde, because George’s work was so centred on the river and the traditional industries it gave rise to,” she says.
At the exhibition’s opening reception for schools, Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, read from her poem “A Wee Multitude of Questions for George Wyllie”, telling the 200 pupils present that “the wise man is the one who asks a lot of questions, not the one who has all the answers”, while poet, musician and film-maker Donny O’Rourke noted: “All teachers are learners and all students are teachers.”
S2/3 pupils from St Andrew’s Secondary in Glasgow then staged a short drama of their own devising, “The Whys Man”, while a blend of S2 and S5/6 pupils from the city’s John Paul Academy performed their own arrangement of Wyllie’s “Paper Boat Song” with 10 boys playing ukulele, an instrument much favoured by Wyllie.
“The Paper Boat Song has brought different year groups together and is giving the pupils the opportunity to perform in public to people they have never met before, which fits perfectly into Curriculum for Excellence,” says their principal teacher of music, Cathy Taylor.
“It’s also given them the opportunity to look at the structure of the song and to come up with their own ideas to write, compose and perform their own material based on the Paper Boat song.
“It’s a great confidence-builder and I think George Wyllie would be delighted at their creativity,” she says.
All the schools involved in the project have been given access to the Wyllie archives in order to pursue their own chosen projects; and they are now firing off in many different directions.
Pupils at St Fillan’s Primary in Renfrewshire, for example, are currently working on a giant question mark to be installed in the river at Langbank.
The Higher geography class in Wyllie’s old school, Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow, is investigating industrial change on Clydeside, using Wyllie images as visual guides and reminders. While its class boat is made of an Ordnance Survey map of the area, Braehead Primary in South Ayrshire is making its boat from sheet music for Auld Lang Syne, acknowledging the influence the Bard had on Wyllie.
One of the quirkiest - and most Wyllie-esque - responses to date has come from Eilidh Johnson, an S6 Advanced Higher art and design student at Strathaven Academy in South Ayrshire, who created a set of false fingernails with painted images of scul?tures by the artist, including the Paper Boat en route to New York, the Clyde Clock (the clock with legs outside Buchanan Street Bus Station) and the Monument to Maternity (the giant nappy pin which stands on the site of the former Rottenrow Maternity Hospital in Glasgow). All of these can be viewed on the education initiative’s Blipfoto website.
Many of the schools have also been creating “Wyllie Walls” adorned by poems and paintings. The one done by Kilbowie Primary has been “rebuilt” in the Mitchell Library as part of the exhibition.
Wyllie was interested in walls as boundaries and barriers, and in 1988 he created a five-metre sculpture of a bird that became known as the Berlin Burd, as it was positioned to peer over the Berlin Wall a few weeks before the infamous barrier came down.
“I’ll always remember the sculpture of the Burd keeking over the Berlin Wall - it was so striking and unusual,” says Kilbowie P7 pupil Kieran Foster who has found his involvement with Wyllie’s work nothing if not inspirational.
“Sculptures are fun and his are enjoyable because they’re so different - like the Running Clock on legs and the Berlin Burd. They’re unusual.
“I’ve learned how good he was and what inspired him, because he talks a lot on the videos we’ve seen about his work and about environments like Loch Lomond and the Clyde where he worked.
“It’s inspired me. I’d like to be an artist, a sculptor. That would be fun,” he says.
The creative inspiration that the pupils are demonstrating so clearly through the Wyllie Education Initiative is, for co-ordinator Angela McEwan, its most rewarding aspect. “It’s entirely fitting that while the pupils are looking at George’s work they are creating their own. George is humorous and accessible,” she says.
“I’m proudest of the fact that all these pupils from over 90 schools along the banks of the Clyde are making their own creative work and that they are so enthusiastic in doing it.”
CASE STUDY: A HANDS-ON APPROACH TO HAIKUS
Hillhead High’s Advanced Higher creative writing class has been inspired by George Wyllie’s engagement with Japanese art and culture to create a series of haiku poems to decorate their three-metre paper boat, which is part of the Mitchell Library exhibition.
The pupils, who also acted as guides for younger ones at the exhibition’s schools reception, have recorded their poems, which can be heard on the audio guide to the exhibition and on the Hillhead High website.
“Haikus are so different to write, but not easy,” says S6 pupil Noor Jan.
“George Wyllie wrote some himself because, as we learned, he had a lot to do with Japan. To be honest, before we started on the project most of us had only heard of his Straw Locomotive.
“But making our big boat and studying George Wyllie’s work has been fascinating because he was so abstract, symbolic and eccentric and could turn ordinary things into bizarre things,” she says.
Fellow S6 student Victoria Keel adds: “What fascinated us was his use of question marks in his art. He always raises questions but leaves the viewer to figure things out for themselves. We’ve tried to do the same in our poems.”
Noor Jan adds: “The way he puts big questions behind sculptures such as the Berlin Burd is intriguing.It symbolised curiosity as well as defiance of the whole purpose of the wall.”
HILLHEAD HAIKU: A SELECTION OF SIX
The wise whys man dies
Soft subtle sorrow ensues
Questions, his muse
He built strength from straw
But commented on weakness
With a question inside
Set fire to the surface
And ask the questions
No Scottish hail could
Extinguish the flames of the
A question in straw
And a question in paper
And a question here?
A big cheeky burd
A who knows why it was their burd
But a powerful burd
CASE STUDY: ‘THEY ALL GAINED CONFIDENCE’
Sarah Connolly, P7 teacher, Kilbowie Primary, West Dunbartonshire:
“The George Wyllie Education Initiative dovetailed perfectly with our planned P7 Art Appreciation Week, which became an inter-disciplinary project exploring Wyllie’s work while celebrating the pupils’ creativity.
“It involved poetry, painting, sculpture and ICT with the pupils producing an e-book of their poems. Focusing on literacy, the pupils wrote reports on Wyllie’s life and art and we created a ‘Wyllie Wall’ and painted pictures for it. We also created a class sculpture of a paper boat.
“The project involved history and geography through Wyllie’s interest in the decline of shipbuilding and traditional industries. Here, in Clydebank, this led the pupils to research into the Singer Factory, once a major employer in the area, and the Titan and Finnieston cranes.
“I’d say the children gained a lot of confidence through the discussion and teamwork involved.
“Everything we did was a whole-class decision but it also became a whole- school project as other classes became intrigued with what we were doing.
“This gave the P7 pupils the opportunity to share their learning with other classes, which now means that every class is making a paper boat to be launched on Hogmanay.
“The project fitted our cross-curricular ethos. But, more than that, through the Blipfoto site and Facebook pages associated with the initiative, they have been able to communicate and share their work with other schools.
“The whole experience has been exciting and stimulating for the pupils; an absolutely worthwhile project in so many different ways - I’d do it again at the drop of a hat.”
The George Wyllie Education Initiative: www.whysman.org.uk
Glow blog: http://tinyurl.com/WhysMan-Glow
Photo: Inside the George Wyllie Retrospective exhibition. Credit: Alamy