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A voyage of discovery

'Home Sweat Home" reads the sign that has happily hung in my kitchen in the Highlands for the last 20 years, since the day my late dad, the artist, George Wyllie, made it.

ON SHOW: Setting up at the Mitchell, above, Louise Wyllie, far left, and George Wyllie, left. Pictures: Martin Shields, Chris James
ON SHOW: Setting up at the Mitchell, above, Louise Wyllie, far left, and George Wyllie, left. Pictures: Martin Shields, Chris James

It wasn't until last month I fully appreciated exactly what it meant. Having moved back to the family home in Gourock to prepare for the forthcoming retrospective exhibition of dad's work, it really did feel like a home sweat home.

For the last two years, my family and The Friends of George Wyllie, a group I set up in 2010, have been working towards the retrospective exhibition of my father's work which opens to the public in Glasgow's Mitchell Library tomorrow. But we're talking about George Wyllie here, so this isn't just about an exhibition. He was never one for keeping art in galleries.

My father was also never one to pass on the reins of responsibility, particularly when it came to his work, but in 2010, my sister Elaine and I realised the time had come to pick up these reins. Still with an inspirational and imaginative mind, albeit sometimes meandering and muddled following the onslaught of a rare form of dementia, for the first time in his life he needed some help.

When he moved to a care home for former mariners we knew we needed to keep his mind alert, so we decided to create a celebration of his work and life. For us it seemed a positive way forward rather than waiting until he died, as he too could participate and enjoy the programme planned for his 90th birthday year.

He died in May 2012, having lived to see five months of The Whysman Festival with an archival exhibition at the Collins Gallery in Glasgow; the publication of a book of his poetry, launched at the Aye Write! Festival; and on May 1 we had Some Questions about Govan: In Honour of George Wyllie as part of the Glasgow International Festival at the Pearce Institute in Govan. He also knew we were planning a major retrospective exhibition at The Mitchell Library.

Just a week before he died, The Friends of George Wyllie secured funding from Creative Scotland which enabled us to widen our plans to celebrate his life. At the time I remember saying it was as though midnight had come and it was time to go. He was happy that his work continued to be viewed as relevant.

Our plans included an exhibition in the Scottish Parliament's garden and an event at the Festival of Politics in August, an education initiative which would see school pupils in nine local authorities studying his work and making thousands of paper boats which we will launch in the River Clyde on Hogmanay; a community project making 30 question marks which now litter the coast from Langbank to Port Glasgow and an artist-based project which produced a 50-foot question mark hanging from the Finnieston Crane.

Using social media – which I don't have a clue about but like the fact our Twitter feed is called @ForTheBurds – and good old word-of-mouth, we have captured the public imagination as our plans mushroomed into a programme that needed managing – and it fell on my shoulders to manage them.

I had just retired and was looking forward to endless cakes and coffees, when I was confronted by a tsunami of events and exhibitions that made a year of full-time work with overtime on weekends and evenings. My background is in events management but I wasn't prepared for the onslaught which came with this position. Seeking out old family friends and knitting together the pattern of my father's artistic life has been a true voyage of discovery.

My dad started his artistic career relatively late (in his mid-40s), but he was prolific. In researching for the retrospective, we have rediscovered earlier pieces of work like those commissioned by footballer turned architect and interior designer Ron McKinven in the 1960s for Motherwell United Services Club.

We were not only digging into the depths of our memories, but into the cellar of the Gourock bungalow where I grew up, and where I foraged among rows of tools, machine parts and paint brushes on makeshift shelves from floor to ceiling and storage trays bursting with balls of twine, strings, leather and plastic bits, metal strips and rusty rods and then the endless toffee tins of metal hardware.

A weary workbench was piled high with unfinished objects, a buoyant puffer amid clamps, vices and drills. Outside the grass was growing around the anvil and the sign on the metal store was rusting towards a natural death.

A month ago, my dad's workshop was to open its creaking doors one last time as three strong men helped clean, repair, polish and move all the sculpture. Recalling how I'd been taught that using one's initiative was a skill, the strong men and I invented primitive means to do this, with bogeys, slings and everything in between. The memories of endless Saturdays learning to hammer a nail in properly under my dad's beady eye, sanding our dinghy down for pocket money and continuously straightening squint pictures on the walls came flooding back to me.

This celebratory year has been executed in true Wylliean fashion and as a family we can safely say we have celebrated my father's legacy through community projects and an extensive education programme – but we have lived it too.

Stepping back from the year still leaves decisions unmade and areas that are not quite black or white regarding his legacy.

Finding equilibrium, not just through the engineered science of the gimbal but through people's expectations and the needs of the family, has been the greatest challenge of all.

"I prefer miscalculations," my father used to say, "they offer more promising results."

George Wyllie Retrospective: In Pursuit of the Question Mark, is at The Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow, from tomorrow to February 2. Visit www.whysman.co.uk

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