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'I didn't play football, I wasn't the classic high school kid'

The thing about Chicago, Fraser Taylor says, is that it's flat.

There are no mountains, no hills. There's hardly a bump in the road in the whole Midwestern US. That's part of the reason he wanted to come back to Scotland for a while. A longing for a different landscape. "A return to a more rugged, raw geography," is how he puts it.

That's why he ended up on Shetland last June. "It's much more dramatic than I had anticipated. It had such immense potential for making art and that struck me immediately."

Taylor has come home for a year to make some art. And maybe, in the process, remind us he is a Scottish artist, even though he left Scotland for London at the start of the 1980s.

Back then he was almost immediately feted by the style press as part of the art and design collective The Cloth, working with fashion designers like Paul Smith and Betty Jackson and commissioned to do covers for bands like The Bluebells, Friends Again and even Paul Brady. For the last 12 years he has been teaching at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago (his official title is Adjunct Professor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies).

But right now he's more than halfway through his sabbatical, dividing his time between three Wasps studios, the one on Shetland, one in Glasgow, and one in Newburgh in Fife, which is where we meet. He's been here a while now. His drawings, sketches and paintings surround us as we sit talking. Bold, graphic images in black and white. Bowie is playing on the computer and there's a postcard of Renaissance master Masaccio's The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden stuck to the wall.

He seems at home here. It took a while, though, he says. "It was a shock, especially coming from Shetland which was so raw. It's so lush here. So many trees, so much farmland. Shetland to some extent is really brutal. It's quite ugly. That's something that visually charged me. So coming here and finding this gorgeous rolling landscape was tough."

The idea of this sabbatical, he says, is to make a lot of work and make some new connections. And maybe some reconnections. "I left Scotland in 1981. It's a long time ago. I really do feel I'm re-exploring it.

"I left Glasgow when there wasn't really a contemporary art scene, so it's really different. There's a lot more going on, it's much more relevant and Glasgow does have a big reputation now. People in Chicago are obsessed with what's going on in the Glasgow art scene. Students are talking to me about exhibitions that are happening in Glasgow and that's a recent thing."

Taylor is from Kirkintilloch originally, the middle child of an engineer father who would build boats in the backyard. He says he always knew he wanted to be an artist. He got a place at Glasgow School of Art on the back of his portfolio at 17, made new friends, mixed with future pop stars, drank in the Rock Garden. "It was an alternative life I suppose. You weren't looked at as being a weirdo."

Had you felt that before, Fraser? "Yeah ... yeah, growing up in Kirkintilloch I didn't play football. I wasn't the classic high school kid."

He'd gone to the art school intending to study painting, but the department was too traditional for him. Another teacher suggested textiles. He couldn't understand why, but he went and had a look and loved it. "That department gave me the freedom to experiment. I was into fashion at one point. I was doing set design."

The idea of applying fine art ideas to printed textiles was key to the success of The Cloth, the collective he set up with his friends Brian Bolger, Helen Manning and the late David Band at the Royal College of Art in London. They were still at college when they launched it. "It was just the right time and the right place. People were looking for these large-scale textiles we were designing. We thought they would be appropriate for the interior home furnishing market. We never thought the fashion world would be interested in it."

Within days of their Master of Fine Arts show at the Royal College opening they were working with Paul Smith and Betty Jackson. "It was insane."

It helped that Band, who had worked with Altered Images before they left Glasgow, was the perfect networker, "He could walk into a room and within five seconds would have met the person you absolutely had to in that room. He was very charismatic." As a result he was soon designing record covers for Spandau Ballet.

Taylor, meanwhile, used his organisational skills to take on a lot of the day-to-day running of the company with Bolger. But all four worked on design. Sometimes, Taylor says, he looks at their work now and he can't tell what he did and what the others did.

The Cloth's impact was huge - something recognised in the V&A Museum's show on 1980s fashion, Club to Catwalk, which finishes today - but relatively short-lived. Six years in all. "The first three years were brilliant. We were going to America and Paris. We were 23. What was there not to enjoy? But the whole business side began to kick in after that. The success was good but the success overtook things and we probably grew too quickly. And David went off to Australia for a holiday, never came back."

When fashion went off printed textiles, the remaining trio turned back to interior design, which required sourcing a manufacturer in Japan. "I was sitting on the flight back and I had my year planner out in front of me and I suddenly had this panic attack, basically. There was no time for anything else. I suddenly realised I just can't do this any more."

It was a big step. They had a 4000 sq ft studio, staff, there was a commercial pressure on them, but they pulled the plug and Taylor returned to his original goal, being an artist. "I didn't anticipate how hard that would be. We closed the studio really quickly but suddenly removing that whole world was really hard. The phone stopped ringing. I wasn't on a plane to New York every two weeks. All the things I had started to hate I initially missed them."

It also had a huge financial impact. "My career financially is in reverse. I made more money when I was 24 than I do when I'm 54. I mean, much more money. That was difficult. I never thought about the money. How stupid of me. I didn't consider that."

It's why he teaches. Financial necessity. Before he went to Chicago he had six different teaching jobs. But he loves teaching too.

He arrived in Chicago two weeks before 9/11. He was in school that morning, remembers the whole Downtown being evacuated. "It was terrifying." But moving to a new country gave him permission to develop a new visual language. "My paintings used to be bright and colourful up until that point. I decided 'I can't do this any more, it's become too formulaic', so I stopped. I started making black and white work."

People told him it was commercial suicide. To start with they were right. Galleries dropped him. But it was a chance to reinvigorate what he does. And that matters.

That's what he gets from collaborations too. He regularly worked with his friend until just weeks before Band's tragically early death.

But this Scottish sabbatical is all his own work. Looking around the studio, I say, I can see echoes of the work on the cover of the Friends Again EP I bought back in the day. Maybe it's because he's back in Scotland?

"I think it is. The V&A show forced me to look back at that time, so there are definitely echoes. At one point I'd have been really against letting myself do it but now I'm just going with it."

It's your language," I say. "It's my language. It's okay to hang onto that." Another homecoming, you might say.

Figure/Ground, an exhibition by Fraser Taylor, opens to the public next Monday and continues at the Briggait Project Spaces, Glasgow, until January 31.

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