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'Glasgow School of Art fuelled a fire of inspiration that even last Friday's inferno could not match'

IT would be fair to say it was a place that dramatically changed my life.

Charred remains of the interior could be seen yesterdayPhotograph: Stewart Attwood
Charred remains of the interior could be seen yesterdayPhotograph: Stewart Attwood

Most who have been lucky enough to draw or paint in its light-filled studios, read in the cosiness of its magnificent art nouveau library or sit through lectures on those buttock-breaking mahogany benches of the Mackintosh theatre, would say the same. Glasgow School of Art is a life-changing kind of place.

On Friday, I watched the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed building burn. On hearing that it was on fire, I felt a compulsion to be there. As I watched the flames teared through the timber, blackening the stonework and blowing out those wonderful wrought iron windows, I felt my stomach churn. Like being with an old friend in their death throes, I was torn between a desire to stay with them through to the end or leave to avoid my own hurt.

I spent the best part of a decade at Glasgow School of Art. At first I trained as a painter and sculptor in what was to become the school's renowned department of environmental art. After graduation, I returned as a member of staff and taught art and design history.

Today, I'm often asked how, given this background, I ended up as a journalist who specialises in foreign affairs? It's an understandable question - but the answer would be obvious to any former GSA student or staff member.

Painters, sculptors, designers, architects are all what you would expect any art school to produce, but GSA isn't just any art school.

During his speech at our graduation ceremony, Professor Anthony Jones, a former director of GSA, made the point that we students had just had an opportunity never likely to be repeated. "Here at GSA you have had four years, not simply to become a painter or designer, silversmith or ceramicist, but to find out what makes you tick creatively," he summed up.

How right he was. Yes, I painted and made sculpture, but I also found myself using other mediums like photography and being given the opportunity to write, both of which led me ultimately into journalism.

It was the same story for many of my peers. They had come to study visual art but in this cradle of creativity found themselves becoming musicians, playwrights, actors, novelists and poets.

That former GSA students like Robbie Coltrane or Peter Capaldi went on to become actors, and members of the bands Franz Ferdinand and Travis studied there is well known. But there were many others who found themselves engaged in a diverse rage of creative pursuits. This newspaper and its sister paper, The Herald, have numerous GSA graduates on their staff who work as everything from picture editors and imagers to fashion stylists.

Much of this is to do with the liberal nature of the education philosophy that GSA fosters. Not only does its creative environment encourage you to realise what you want to say, but also how best to say it.

From the moment you push through those heavy swing doors at the top of the steps in the main entrance way into the Mackintosh Building, you are left in no doubt that you are in an engine room of creativity.

You also know that, talented as you might think you are, all around you are others who sparkle even brighter. Of the 800-1000 or so hopefuls who applied for a first year place during my years as a student back in the late 1970s, perhaps only 120 would be selected annually on the basis of their portfolio and qualifications.

Once accepted, I found myself surrounded by fellow students so gifted and able to think out of the box that my own efforts seemed mediocre by comparison. That such a climate generated competition is a given, but it is the ideas and experiences shared that makes GSA such a unique place.

Like previous generations of artists we found ourselves pushing the boundaries, becoming little groups and "schools" within the school where some of us might have a shared aesthetic or idea of what art's purpose should be. We argued, and even fought over such things, all of which fuelled a fire of inspiration that even last Friday's inferno could not match.

At Glasgow School of Art, I listened to art history lecturers whose passion for the subjects they taught made you feel you were right there living in the midst of the Italian Renaissance, or the political cauldron out of which came Russian revolutionary art movements like Constructivism and Suprematism.

In the students' union, I danced to Ian Dury and the Blockheads as they played live and saw punk makes its impact on fashion design.

I listened to Sorley MacLean recite Gaelic poetry, and with the arrogance of rebellious youth, argued with famous visiting pop artist Peter Blake that he had produced nothing of significance since co-creating the sleeve design for the Beatles' album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Many of my painting and sculpture tutors were enigmatic and inspiring characters in their own right. One was a wonderful Italian anarchist who had a penchant for scrawling relevant sentences on his studio walls, such as Gertrude Stein's "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose" to match the series of rose-coloured abstract works he was then painting.

Another was a former shipwright who made enormous mosaic relief pieces and wrote poetry at night while consuming large quantities of malt whisky.

My student days over and having produced a degree dissertation that examined the role of public art, I found myself wanting to focus purely on art history.

Later, back in GSA's historical and critical studies department, I worked alongside tutors who themselves had taught me as a student. Among them was Stephen Mulrine, the Scottish poet who penned The Coming Of The Wee Malkies, and who later learned fluent Russian to enable him to translate Chekhov from the original. Then there was art historian Ray McKenzie, the most captivating lecturer I have ever heard, who made work from across the ages come alive in his talks and seminars.

Just as my student peers, including painters Peter Howson, Ken Currie, Alison Watt and Fulbright scholar Steven Campbell had made their mark, so my own students went on to make theirs. Among these immense talents were artists including Roddy Buchanan, and sculptors Kenny Hunter and Andy Scott, creator of the much-loved Kelpies.

Ask any of them what was going through their minds when they saw pictures of the Mackintosh Building burning last week and their answers would have been unanimous. Like me, not only would they have been sickened to the core, but I'm sure each and every one of these former GSA students would have paused to reflect on their own right of passage through this wonderful institution.

London Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic, who previously directed Glasgow's year of architecture and design, described the sight of the Mackintosh Building ablaze as "like watching acid being thrown at a Rothko canvas".

That no-one was hurt or injured, and that the fire services did such a magnificent rescue job, is something to console us. Now the task will be to lovingly and carefully restore this iconic building and reassure students whose work was lost in the fire. That this will happen I have no doubt. Glasgow School of Art, my art school, our art school, is too special a place for it not to.

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