Obituary: George Wyllie MBE; artist and sculptor

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Born: 31 December, 1921 in Glasgow. Died: 15 May, 2012, in Inverclyde, aged 90.

George Wyllie was unique. He was in a category of one. He was an artist and performer, but above all a promoter of questions, a Whysman in his own inimitable coinage.

He thought questions were what mattered, answers always likely to be suspect. The question mark was his chosen symbol, his signature almost. So he didn’t make sculpture, he made Scul?ture.

The poet Liz Lochead wrote:

Which Great Scot

(pronouncedly Scottish) pro-nounces


most Scotchly with a question

mark and a

glottal stop?”

Wyllie’s Scul?ture often involved performance more than the production of static objects and indeed he wrote and performed in an award-winning play about the iniquities of the world banking system, A Day Down a Goldmine, that was produced several times in the 1980s.

He could certainly make sculpture, too, however. A giant nappy pin, for instance, a Monument to Maternity, stands on the site of the former Rottenrow Maternity Hospital in Glasgow and the Clyde Clock, a clock on running legs, stands outside the Buchanan Street bus station. One of his most dramatic Scul?tural interventions was the Straw Locomotive. It was a full-sized replica in straw of one of the great steam locomotives once built in the west of Scotland.

It hung from the Finnieston crane for several months before being carried through the streets and ceremonially burnt at the summer solstice on 22 June, 1987, like a ship in a Viking funeral. It was a potent critique of the social and economic policies under Thatcher that were destroying Scotland’s industrial base and which were ultimately to land us in the financial mess we are in now.

Wyllie’s Paper Boat, built two years later, developed the same idea. It looked exactly like a fragile paper boat, but was 80 feet long. He sailed it on the Thames and in New York Harbour, where it delivered a message to the World Trade Center, symbolic centre of modern capitalism.

The message it carried was taken from Adam Smith’s other book, his Theory of Moral Sentiment, in which Smith tempers his economic theory with the idea that what holds us together is not self-interest, but sympathy. Sympathy is a function of the imagination and imagination is the province of art. It was a witty demonstration of the fact that art, at least as Wiley practised it, is central to the proper working of society.

George Ralston Wyllie was born on Hogmanay 1921 in Shettleston, Glasgow. He was still an infant when the family moved to the Craigton, where he described himself as “disadvantaged by a happy childhood”.

He wanted to be an engineer and trained in the post office before joining the Royal Navy at the beginning of the war. Serving in the Pacific, he visited Hiroshima soon after the city’s devastation, an experience that helps illuminate the underlying seriousness of his art.

After the war and marriage to Daphne, to whom he was devoted, he worked as a customs officer, a career he shared with Robert Burns, and also the Douanier Rousseau, another self-taught artist.

Wyllie retired from the customs in 1979. He had already decided in 1965, however, that “it was time for art”. He had always been known by his second name, Ralston, but when he became an artist he took his first name, George.

A born-again artist, he may have been a late starter, but he nevertheless had a career that lasted most of 50 years. Some of his early work was jokey and he once asked me whether I thought he should pursue this line in comic sculpture, or be serious. He didn’t need an answer as it was already clear that, like Burns, he could be most serious when he was most comic, that wit can be the vehicle of truth.

Josef Beuys, who visited Scotland several times during the seventies and eighties under the aegis of Richard Demarco, was a major influence on Wyllie, confirming the underlying seriousness of his purpose.

In his later work this was seen in his preoccupation with ecology, of the need for balance in our relationship to our environment, which he turned into an inimitable metaphor in his spires, sculptures that moved, balancing an earth-bound rock with a heaven seeking spire.

The way these spires were articulated also recalls the work of George Rickey, the Scottish-born American sculptor whom Wyllie met through the late Barbara Grigor and with whom he went to work for a short, but influential period. In 1990, Murray Grigor also made an award winning film about George Wyllie, The Why?s Man. Ideas poured out of George Wyllie like sparks from a steam locomotive. Some set the heather on fire. Some were plain daft. Others fizzled out, but were brilliant all the same.

He donated his archive to Strathclyde University. A selection was exhibited recently in the late lamented Collins Gallery. It vividly illustrated the richness of his imagination. He planned a Crystal Ship as a bridge across the Kelvin, for instance.

It would make a fitting memorial, but he is also commemorated in the ongoing year-long celebration of his art in the Whysman Festival and in a flotilla of Big Little Paper Boats, part of the Year of Creative Scotland, 2012, and its First in a Lifetime Creative Experiences initiative, which were to have been launched on his 91st birthday, Hogmanay 2012.

Wyllie was a past president of the Society of Scottish Artists and provided an award for an imaginative work at its annual exhibition. He was awarded MBE in 2005. He also stood as a list candidate for the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party for the West of Scotland region in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary Election.

His wife Daphne died in 2004. He is survived by his daughters Louise Wyllie and Elaine Aitken and by three grandchildren.