It was once the domain of female art students with the stomach to succeed in a male-dominated institution – and bladders to match. As late as the 1950s, the students would have to dash during breaks from the studio to the only women's toilet in the building.
Decades on, Dr Sarah Lowndes snuggles into one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's beautifully crafted cubby-holes to talk about curating a new exhibition, Studio 58: Women Artists In Glasgow Since World War Two. It features art by 54 women who made their names and carved reputations in Glasgow.
Nearby, 11 of the featured artists chat after having their photograph taken in the Mackintosh Library. It is a couple of days before their works are brought together, and the sense of excitement is palpable. For the past hour or so they have created a buzz that has echoed down the corridors and stairwells of the Mackintosh Building at the core of the art school.
Among those featured in Studio 58 are Joan Eardley, Hannah Frew Paterson, Carol Rhodes, Sam Ainsley, Christine Borland and rising star Romany Dear. Some are more widely known than others, but all are innovators who have left their mark as artists, educators or mentors.
"Until the 1950s, Studio 58 was a designated women's studio," explains Lowndes, who lectures at the art school. "Studio 58 is at the west end of the building and the only women's toilet was at the east end, so the 'hen run' – a corridor – was the way women students would hurry to go to the loo during breaks."
Lowndes, who wrote Social Sculpture: The Rise Of The Glasgow Art Scene, is passionate about her latest exhibition. Put crudely, the show is payback time for an array of female artists, many of whom never received the recognition they were due. The exhibits, gathered from private and public collections, have in some cases been collecting dust for decades.
"A lot of these kind of works haven't been shown before, and that's quite moving," says Lowndes, 36, whose bright-green jeans and mop of wavy blonde hair belie the stereotype of an academic. "You go to Glasgow Museums and they unwrap this plaster head and it's an Ivy Proudfoot piece, and it hasn't really been shown before."
It all began two years ago when Lowndes was asked to curate an exhibition for the Mackintosh Museum at the school of art. "I'd been working here for 10 years and had been in and out of this building all the time," she says. "I felt it was such a specialist space, such a loaded space, that it just wouldn't make sense to curate a show of minimalist sculpture or something. It had to respond to being in the very particular circumstances of the Mackintosh Museum. There was this history of the Glasgow Boys and the New Glasgow Boys, and I thought it would be good to redress that balance and have a show by women artists."
Lowndes, who is married to the Turner Prize-winning artist Richard Wright, has her own theory as to why women artists have often received less acclaim than their male counterparts.
"Some people have questioned the need to have this kind of exhibition," she says, "but in wider society, the median pay gap in the UK is one of the worst in Europe." The gap between full-time men's and women's earnings was 9.1% in 2011, according to the Office for National Statistics.
"If you look at the art scene, that kind of inequality is replicated in things like the Turner Prize," continues Lowndes. "Only four women have won it since it started in 1984. In the Tate Modern [in London], 83% of the works are by men.
"There is a kind of innate sexism and I suspect women operate a bit differently. The things women do are invisible. Things like teaching other people, keeping together communities, making connections between friends and relatives, and taking care of people are not necessarily going to win you any prizes or coverage in newspapers, but the world can't work without those things."
Cautiously, she cites her own domestic situation, although stresses she is happy with it. She and Wright have two children: Violet, nine and Raymond, six. "It's a challenge," she says. "I quite often work at night or get up early in the morning and work. As much as I would like to say people can have it all, you can, but it would be very difficult."
Lowndes explains that a significant number of artists featured in Studio 58 didn't marry, or married late in life, to make room for their work. "It's largely women who think about whether there is any milk in the fridge," she says.
Does her husband think about it? She explains that Wright works abroad for three- or four-week stretches, four times a year, with many shorter trips away.
"I like to feel in control of things and that everything at home is OK, there's something for dinner and everybody's clothes are clean," she adds. "Richard is wonderful and so supportive, and as much as I moan about running the house, I also get a lot of satisfaction out of it. Hospitality – having people over and cooking a meal – that's really important socially. It doesn't necessarily translate into an output, but working here at the art school has been really important to me."
The art school, perched on Garnethill close to Glasgow city centre, is the thread that links the exhibitors. Among the women meeting today is the acclaimed artist Carol Rhodes, 53, who teaches painting at the art school. Born in Edinburgh, Rhodes spent much of her childhood in Bengal before returning to Scotland during her teens and beginning art school in 1977. Her aerial landscapes take their influence from Indian miniatures, which have the effect of flattening out people and objects, giving them the same priority on the canvas.
Glasgow's contemporary art scene is often associated these days with the Turner Prize-winners Wright, Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce, along with nominees Christine Borland and Lucy Skaer. Rhodes has some concerns about the effect of this success on current students, who fail to look further afield for inspiration. "A lot of the students now look mostly at Glasgow artists and I think that's fairly damaging," she says. "They don't look outwards. The Glasgow scene is so powerful, and for a student, it can be quite overwhelming."
Rhodes describes being a painter as "a bit lonely at times". She recently opened a gallery, 42 Carlton Place, in the Gorbals, at the flat she shares with her partner, the artist Merlin James.
Adele Patrick once shared the same concerns as Rhodes about a dominant art movement threatening to obscure other innovative work. She began studying a BA in embroidered and woven textiles at the school just as the New Glasgow Boys, including Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Steven Campbell, emerged.
Patrick, 50, describes a post-punk era when conventions were being challenged in society – and in the art world.
"The New Glasgow Boys were starting up and there was a lot of critical attention. A lot of women were saying, 'Hold on, there's another type of aesthetic and sensibility out here.'"
After graduating, Patrick co-founded the design company Graven Images with Janice Kirkpatrick and began teaching at the art school. Two decades ago, she helped launch the Glasgow Women's Library as "a place and a space for women's art, culture and writing".
Patrick tells how she and her fellow art students drew inspiration from female artists such as Margaret Macdonald, the wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This was, she says, before the Glasgow Girls, who flourished from the 1890s to around 1910, had been "excavated" from obscurity. "We grabbed on to these women for dear life," she says. "We didn't know very much about them but we knew they'd survived the art school."
Like so many of her fellow students, Patrick was heavily influenced by the artist and lecturer Sam Ainsley. She describes Ainsley, who co-founded the master of fine art programme, as "striding through the art school with bright red lipstick and fabulous hair". Patrick continues: "She was unequivocally a feminist figurehead. She was on the teaching staff, so seeing that woman around was really important."
Ainsley's influence echoes down the decades and the acclaimed artist's screenprints are being exhibited in Studio 58.
Another name being talked about today is Hannah Frew Paterson. Unable to join her fellow exhibitors at the art school, the 81-year-old speaks to me at her home in Broomhill, Glasgow. An embroiderer whose work illuminates churches across Scotland – including St Margaret's Chapel in Edinburgh Castle – she pushed the boundaries of a traditional art form until it squeaked.
Encouraged by her mentor and lecturer, Kath Whyte, Paterson went on to teach at the art school for 22 years. The walls of her home are decorated with the work of former students, and she points to a piece by Whyte, which will be shown in the exhibition. On the stair landing sits her own work, Motivator, also being exhibited. An embroidery work almost like a sculpture, it was inspired by the burned-out motor of a food mixer sent for repair.
Brought up in Chapelton, South Lanarkshire, Paterson is the daughter of a blacksmith and a grocery shop worker. Like so many of her generation, the young Paterson stepped aside to allow her brothers an education while she went out to work. "We weren't very wealthy and my two brothers wanted to be architects, which was a long training," she says. "It was never discussed – I just decided I should get on with it." At 19, she began working as a designer for J&P Coats in Glasgow, but soon discovered a brave new world when the company sent her to the art school on day release.
"Initially I was trained as a diagram artist, showing people how to do the embroidery and writing instructions," she explains in a clear, steady voice. "Then J&P Coats decided I would benefit from training in crochet design, and they sent me to the art school."
There she was tutored by Whyte, who asked why she hadn't applied to art school. "I decided overnight that's what I wanted to do and told them at J&P Coats," remembers Paterson. "The great thing was they encouraged me, and after I left and went as a student they gave me part-time work."
Paterson describes art school during the 1960s as daunting, but also exhilarating, since there was a sea change in teaching methods. Her section of the year group became known as "the inventors' club", due to their experimental work under inspiring tutors such as Whyte.
A decade later, Whyte was to be bitterly disappointed when Paterson married and began teaching part time so she could bring up her three-year-old stepson. "She thought I was going to be dedicated like her and take over the department after she retired in 1974," says Paterson, laughing affectionately. "She didn't approve of my husband and son, but I loved her dearly. She was a wonderful woman."
Paterson also felt the domestic pressures Lowndes refers to – and gladly embraced them for her stepson, John, and husband, Tom. She tells a story about working on Cardross Church's giant embroidered panels. "I was spending weekends working doing the Cardross panels. They're 12ft by 6ft and took three years to complete. I'll never forget John coming in to the workroom one day and asking, 'Mum, are you coming to the park this time?' It broke my heart and I knew I had to finish this piece. You lose them so quickly."
She took early retirement to spend more time with Tom, who died shortly afterwards from cancer and heart problems. Awarded an MBE in 1992 for services to embroidery, Paterson has continued to make waves in the art world and through her church embroidery work. In the past few years she has experimented with three-dimensional textile forms "inspired by surfaces and objects in nature".
Almost 60 years her junior, Romany Dear is explaining how her work, March Your Legs Up And Down, will be performed live at Studio 58 by six dancers, including herself. At 23, she is the youngest artist in the exhibition.
Cited by Lowndes as one to watch, Dear won the Gillian Purvis prize after her work impressed the sculptor Martin Boyce, and graduated from the Glasgow School of Art last year. More recently she won The Skinny and CCA Award for another live piece, The Art Of Hanging Around.
Given she is white-hot, Dear is refreshingly grounded and surprisingly candid.
"I do not earn a living out of my work," she says plainly in an accent that hints at her Lancashire roots. "I work in a bar." She explains she works in the art school union, describing it as "just a job – it covers my materials, travel, that kind of stuff". Her work – which uses video, audio and performance to explore the way people move in different contexts – is what drives her.
"This is something I do and I enjoy it," she says. "If I make money from what I do, that's great, but I'm very happy to do this as long as I can - I'm not focused on trying to make money. I appreciate you can't buy a live dance piece, but I do what I do because that's true to me. Maybe that's idealistic because I'm young, but I don't have a mortgage or a child or a car, so it's easy enough to work in a bar and live quite cheaply."
The name Romany, pronounced Rumnay, was chosen by her parents simply because they liked it, and has nothing to do with her father being Irish. "I don't have travelling in my roots," she says. Even so, she has it in her blood and would like to live abroad. "Maybe next year I'd like to go away for a little time," she says. "I'm craving something else, some time away. I'm trying to save at the moment."
However, before that, she will join her fellow artists to bring Studio 58 to life in the Mackintosh Museum. The exhibition will be a reminder to the art-loving public of a time and place when it was perhaps more difficult for women artists to cut loose and take flight.
THE NAMES IN THE FRAME
Artists participating in the Studio 58 exhibition include:
GILLIAN STEEL (48)
After graduating from Glasgow School of Art (GSA), Steel was instrumental in running the city's Transmission Gallery. Works with film, video and animation, and is developing a graphic novel.
CHRISTINA McBRIDE (49)
Graduated from GSA in 1990 and now teaches on the master of fine arts and photography programmes. McBride uses analogue photography and film, travelling widely for her research and artistic work.
ANNETTE HEYER (52)
A graduate of GSA, Heyer staged her degree show in the original Studio 58. From Hamburg, she teaches painting and printmaking at GSA. Her piece, Holz, will be exhibited in Studio 58.
SHAUNA McMULLAN (40)
The artist graduated with a masters degree from GSA and now lectures in the school's department of sculpture and environmental. She created Travelling The Distance, commissioned for the Scottish Parliament after a year's travelling around Scotland.
SARAH LOWNDES (36)
An academic writer and the curator of the Studio 58 exhibition, Lowndes graduated from the University of Glasgow with a degree in film and television studies and English literature. She studied for an MPhil at GSA and began lecturing there in 2002.
ADELE PATRICK (50)
After graduating with a BA in embroidered and woven textiles at GSA, Patrick co-founded Graven Images design company in Glasgow while a postgraduate student. Helping launch the Glasgow Women's Library 20 years ago, she continues to champion the work of female artists and writers.
HANNELINE VISNES (40)
The Norwegian painter studied for a BA and master of fine art at GSA, where she was taught by Sam Ainsley, whom she describes as "completely inspirational". See her work at the Equals exhibition at Paisley Museum this summer.
JACKI PARRY (71)
A founder member of the Glasgow Print Studio and former head of printmaking at GSA, the Australian artist has lived in Scotland since 1965. She works with paper and print – her piece The Book And The Rose, created from handmade paper, will show at Studio 58.
SARA BARKER (32)
The Manchester-born artist represented by the Glasgow gallery Mary Mary is a graduate of GSA's painting department. She will be exhibiting at Modern Art gallery in London from July 4.
ANN VANCE (47)
The artist was trained at GSA and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. She works with film and video, and is developing an archive of experimental artists' work in those media.
ROMANY DEAR (23)
Graduating from GSA last year, Dear works with experimental dance and choreography. Praised for her work by the Turner Prize winner Martin Boyce, she won the Gillian Purvis Trust award, and The Skinny and CCA Award. She works in a bar to fund her work and plans to travel.
CAROL RHODES (53)
A teacher in painting at GSA, Rhodes is renowned for her aerial landscapes. She and her partner, the artist Merlin James, have launched a "casual" gallery, 42 Carlton Place, in their Glasgow home.
Studio 58: Women Artists In Glasgow Since World War Two is at the Mackintosh Museum, Glasgow School of Art, July 7-September 30. Visit www.gsa.ac.uk/life/gsa-events.