My Co-Editor, Sorcha Dallas: 2015
This weekend, Sunday 12th March, will see the press announcement in the Sunday Herald newspaper of my next project, a book called The Essential Art of Alasdair Gray, which is a joint venture with Sorcha Dallas. This will be published by Freight Books in October 2017. Soon I’ll be featuring it here, and we’ll be using it as part of a public call out for people to get involved in what is designed to be a public conversation as much as a book which both interrogates and celebrates this remarkable artist’s visual archive. But what is the book, where did it comes from, who is Sorcha Dallas, and why make this book now?
Alasdair Gray’s ‘Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties’
A CREATIVE RESPONSE TO AN OLD IDEA
The idea for The Essential Art of Alasdair Gray came out of initial discussions over whether I should do a sequel to my biography of Gray, published by Bloomsbury in 2008. And I did consider it. After all, it has been a decade now, and it’s been a hugely eventful one for the artist, writer and political activist – the early 2000s were interesting to me as part of Gray’s story because those were the years when I was close up to my subject, but in truth, the decade following that has had much more in the way of a compelling narrative, as well as genuinely exciting new work.In this time he has developed the Oran Mor Auditorium, his life’s largest and possibly most important project; there has also been the Hillhead Underground mural, as well as all the attention, scrutiny and downright controversy that came along with the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, for which Gray wrote Independence: An Argument for Home Rule (Canongate, 2014). Meanwhile, he has published a slew of books collating together all his various different forms of work over 60 years, from A Gray Play Book to the remarkable A Life in Pictures to the mammoth, completists dream Every Short Story. On a personal level, the years have been challenging. Alasdair lost his wife Morag, who died in 2014, and had a fall which very nearly killed him in 2015. This led to time spent in a coma. In 2017 he is wheelchair-bound, but back home, and back at work. The fact that he has survived at all is nothing less than remarkable.
During that last decade, my own life has changed greatly. I am no longer in Alasdair’s pocket or constantly bugging him with questions, as I used to be – working for him, with him, seeing his creative process and observing his life, learning from him and trying to get his voice on the page in my own book. Back then I lived in Glasgow. Now I live in England, some 200 miles away. Then, I worked for him as full-time secretary. Now I’m a full-time academic and novelist. Then, I was young. Now I’m not so young, and a family man. My voice and views are different. My perspective on his works is different. I thought it would seem fake (and be fake) to attempt to jam on a new chapter, a decade later, summarising what’s happened in Gray’s life since my initial biography. Perhaps this meant that it was best to let others update the story. But then, my work on Alasdair Gray felt unfinished, and having had the best part of ten years to move away from obsessing over Gray and his work, I felt I now had enough distance to return to it afresh. Was there some other kind of contribution I could make? And if so, how? There was one clear, dynamic development from the last decade which had not been properly dealt with, I thought. I couldn’t tell it on my own, but suddenly it made me excited about returning to Alasdair Gray, in a new way. The last decade has seen a genuine mushrooming of interest in his art. This, I’d like to suggest, is greatly down to the contributions made by Alasdair’s art agent, who has organised his archive, publicized it, made coherent sense of it, and dedicated much of the time in the years since I stopped working with Alasdair to building a genuine artistic reputation, piece by piece.That person is Sorcha Dallas.
Gray, in front of his ‘Jonah and the Whale’ mural
IN SEARCH OF A TRUE EXPERT
I am not, and have never pretended to be, an art critic, or art expert. My education was a literary one, literature is my passion, and it’s how I came to Gray’s work in the first place. But I have developed an interest in art, and have sought to learn about it, particularly given that so much of Alasdair Gray’s literary output is a combination of word and picture, with each responding to the other. Also, the cyclical nature of both his literature and art mean that certain motifs, certain images, characters and emblems continue to reappear in new contexts – some artistic, some literary. Still, in writing my biography of Gray I was hyper-conscious of my own limitations when it came to making sense of the art, and in the chapter ‘Yes Yes But Is It Any Good?’ I wrestled with the fact that I was finding it difficult to find informed others who could help make sense of the artistic output for me. I suggested also that perhaps someone else should write another biography entirely, focusing on the art alone. At that time, there were those interested in Alasdair’s artistic output, but they were a relatively small band, or that’s how it seemed to me.
Panels from Gray’s Oran Mor Auditorium
Thanks to Sorcha’s determined support and singularity of focus, the landscape is now radically different.She not only managed Alasdair’s visual archive but accessioned them into a system which then allowed her to create The Alasdair Gray Season, a city-wide festival celebrating Gray’s visual practice in Glasgow, his home city. There were several exhibitions, but a highlight was the large retrospective which Sorcha curated at Kelvingrove Art Galleries and Museums in 2014/15, which saw over 20,000 visitors. Okay, so nobody took me up on my suggestion of writing an alternative biography of Gray as a visual artist – but Sorcha did something more valuable, which was to make the visual archive live and breathe, allowing it to reach many more people than Gray had been able to achieve alone over the previous five or six decades.That genuine growth and impact is something this book seeks to acknowledge. Sorcha’s eye is much more sophisticated than mine when it comes to the visual archive, so her input is invaluable. And she has been able to bring exciting names to the project I would never have even known to look for. For that reason among many others, I think this book will be far better for being 50:50.
‘London Road In-between Templeton’s Carpet Factory’
SO WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL ART OF ALASDAIR GRAY?
The Essential Art of Alasdair Gray will be a truly joint effort – not just a collaboration between myself and Sorcha, but between Alasdair and many others who will write pieces on various different examples from his visual archive – to be accompanied, of course, by the images themselves. As ever with Gray this business is complex, and varied, and multifarious. So far we have selections from his murals, portraits, landscapes, books, some emblems and recurring motifs, also some uncovered as-yet-unseen sketches which have been dug up and which are to be shown as part of this book for the first time. We aim to show the breadth of Gray’s visual practice, and will be doing so by commissioning 100 of these pieces from folks representing many different walks of life. These include fellow artists, writers, musicians, academics and critics, also family and friends, and collaborators too. Alongside these, we are also putting out a call for members of the public to select their favourite Gray visual works, and write to us to say why they have chosen these. As well as creating an online presence for these contributions, we also want to include 10 of the best of these in the book itself. This is part of the reason for the Sunday Herald article – to put the word out as far and wide as we can, and encourage fans to come forward with their favourites, and tell us why. These responses may be critical, or personal, or a mixture of the two. Part of the fun of putting this book together will be to see what people select, and why.
To nominate your favourite of all Alasdair Gray’s artworks, please email a 250-word selection to firstname.lastname@example.org You can also contribute via Twitter at our new Twitter account @essentiallygray.
The deadline for all contributions is the end of May.