WHEN fire swept through Glasgow School of Art's Mackintosh building in May, 2014, final-year students stood outside in tears, watching as a year's hard work went up in flames.

They had been putting the finishing touches to their degree shows when the alarm sounded, and many were left with nothing to exhibit. As well as their work, they'd been robbed of the valuable opportunity to showcase those artworks to the public, possible employers or financial backers.

All was not lost, however. Scottish Government-backed Phoenix Bursaries were established to provide hope and a chance of rebirth for that lost work, offering 100 graduating students a £315 weekly allowance towards living expenses and a choice of locations around the world to work for up to 15 weeks, along with £1000 for materials.

Half stayed in Glasgow, working from studio space at the Whisky Bond in Speirs Wharf; the others ventured as far afield as Mongolia, California, Iceland and Mexico. The fruits of the bursary will go on show in a group exhibition opening at the Glasgow School of Arts (GSA) on July 24.

"We quickly established that one of the things they missed out on was the degree showcase opportunity, so the aim of the whole bursary was to keep the momentum and the energy and allow them to continue to make work, which would eventually become this exhibition," explains Sam De Santis, who managed the bursary programme at GSA. "Within 20 weeks of the fire we had 100 individual bursaries across 22 institutions around the world, 15 countries and four continents. Some people had been on exchanges already in these locations or they just had a real want to go there. The opportunity to work in New York at the Pratt Institute, for example, is quite unique."

The graduates dispersed over the summer and by autumn last year were using the bursary programme to create: many produced brand new work, others fine-tuned their efforts lost at the "Mac" building just a few months before. It was an incredibly exciting opportunity, they all agree: a lifeline that offered precious time to pick up the pieces and find a new focus.

"We want to offer a very different experience for the graduates than a degree show where it's not a case of everyone coming in and working in their own little space. We have a show where all the work speaks to each other," says Sukaina Kubba, who curated the exhibition, set up in 1600 square metres of studio space on the top floor of the GSA's Reid building.

"Groups from sculpture and painting have worked together and sometimes they have overlapped. There is a lot of humour in the work. Both in painting and sculpture there is quite a bit of light-heartedness. There is quite a bit of play with fiction and absurd narratives."

'I haven't felt the urge to reuse the bits of my installation that survived the fire. The things have a smell to them and I don't want to resurrect all that stuff. I think it's an innate instinct to want to produce new things.'

Isabella Widger, 25

Isabella Widger remembers feeling relieved as she finished installing her work in the studio next to the library in the Mac building when the fire alarm sounded last May. "I joked, 'We'll just ignore it, we've got stuff to do'. Then I heard people coming down the stairs and I could see the smoke billowing out of the room I was facing. It was quite surreal," she says.

Shocked at how rapidly the fire was escalating, the 25-year-old fine art painting and printmaking graduate from Manchester ran outside leaving behind her bag, containing her wallet and passport, along with all her work.

Parts of the sculptural installation survived but were affected by water and smoke damage. "I haven't really felt the urge to reuse things," she says now. "It feels like that happened. The things have a smell to them and I don't want to resurrect all that stuff. I think it's an innate instinct to want to produce new things."

Widger used the bursary to travel to New York with boyfriend Paul Brady, who was in the same class, and spend two months at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. It was the opportunity of a lifetime they would never have had, but for the fire.

"Paul suffered a personal tragedy straight after the fire and I think all these things combined to remind him of the transience and unpredictability of things. It made him realise that these kinds of opportunities are not to be wasted. He really convinced me to go with him," she says. "It was the right time for us to be in a place that had such energy and that unfaltering sense of possibility. It was a good place to be. It's funny and strange but that feeling is infectious. We wouldn't have been able to do it without the bursary."

Widger will show an installation at the exhibition featuring two digitally printed silk hangings, along with a bronze sculpture and a table. All made in Glasgow at the Whisky Bond, she believes she had the best of both worlds from the bursary: working at home and abroad.

It has been a frenetic year, she admits. "I feel I haven't latched on to any kind of routine. In a sense you're still connected to something you had prepared yourself to be moving on from. The Phoenix Bursary has been a supportive framework but it is loose enough for us to start to move towards more independent work. It's a good stepping stone between being at art school and graduating and then going into the real world," she says.

Will the lifeline thrown by the bursary define the graduates in years to come? Widger believes it is possible though she thinks individually they may try to avoid that attempt to categorise the group. "It doesn't necessarily say anything about your practice and we have all moved in different directions. Although this show is about giving us the opportunity that we didn't have, I think that's what it is. It's not necessarily about trying to remind everyone of what happened," she adds.

'It was great to have the time to put art at the forefront of your mind rather than immediately getting a job.'

Rae Yen Song, 22

For once, not getting her work in on time saved the day for Rae Yen Song, a 22-year-old sculpture and environmental art graduate from Edinburgh. She was running late to meet the degree show deadline and wasn't even in the Mac when the fire took hold. Instead she was across the road in the Reid building, pulling her presentation together.

Song actually had the chance to show her degree show work at an exhibition last year with YAKA collective, a group of like-minded bursary students who got together to share studio space. Her paper towel holder, unrolling from the finger of a seven-foot high bird-like creature, was a site-specific piece originally intended to be located in the Mac's museum and be pulled down from the basement. She finally showed it in Glasgow's Briggait with the paper towels coming in handy to soak up water dripping from the leaky roof at the time.

The bursary allowed the sculptor to work at the Whisky Bond and helped set up the collective at a studio in Cambuslang, Glasgow. "It was great to have the time to put art at the forefront of your mind rather than immediately getting a job. We focused on what we wanted to do. I feel that the most valuable thing we got from this bursary is time, as well as facilities such as the studio and advice. And the support; it was really nice to have that and to know that you are capable of doing a bit more of what you want," she says. The bursary has enabled her to develop her work and experiment with materials. It's offered the luxury of putting time on hold.

She has produced fingers curling around void spaces for the exhibition and a fingertip totem pole and will also show a collection of moulds carved out of foam for the original paper towel holder.

Reflecting on her experiences over the past year she says: "Initially the fire and not having a degree show was unfortunate. To be honest, you put so much effort in a degree show and from then on it is a lucky draw. Some people get stuff out of it but people still go on to do their own thing. With this bursary it has cut that out, we have just been able to do our own thing.

"It hasn't been stressful in the sense that I feel like I need to do work because I think I had the intentions to continue being an artist. It is enjoyable doing it on your own and knowing that you have the facilities like money and time to do it, it has just made it easier to continue with my practice."

'That day of the fire was such a blur. Obviously it was terrible what happened but I feel the things I have made since have been so much better than what I lost'

Sam Devereux , 24

Sculpture and environmental art graduate Sam Devereux is pragmatic about the last 14 months. "If someone asked me if I would choose a degree show or the year I've just had I would choose the year I've just had a million times over. I feel really lucky. It might sound paradoxical but I feel fortunate that I had the chance to go to an amazing place and have access to so much," says the 24-year-old from Macclesfield, who ended up spending nearly five months in Montreal at Concordia, a partner school with GSA.

He went there as a visiting researcher, with access to all the graduate facilities and the head of studio arts film programme, working from a studio near his new home in the downtown district. "It was incredible. You have a different approach to what you're doing because you're not in education, it's not course work. It's quite liberating."

Like so many of his fellow graduates, Devereux was in the Mac when the fire started. "Smoke started coming into the room and we realised this was the real thing. I started running around and telling people it was a fire. Some of them hadn't noticed," he remembers. "At first, standing outside, it didn't sink in what was happening. The moment when we heard the explosion and the windows were blown out, it was very real."

Large sculptures and two televisions suspended from the ceiling in his installation were eaten up by the flames. All Devereux could retrieve from the ashes were a few sketchbooks. He used the time in Montreal to make new films, one of which will go on show at the exhibition, along with sculptures produced on his return to Scotland.

"That day of the fire was such a blur. Obviously it was terrible what happened but I feel the things I have made since have been so much better than what I lost. I've moved on," says Devereux, who is also a member of the offshoot YAKA collective of bursary artists who got together after graduation.

'A few days after the fire it started to sink in that this was going to affect me quite badly. My answer was to go out and make more work'

Frank McElhinney, 50

Fine art photography graduate Frank McElhinney realised quite quickly last year that whether his work was damaged by the fire or not, it was gone. The 50-year-old former distillery worker and history graduate from Milngavie had planned his degree show around the timely 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in May 2014.

"When the degree show didn't happen it wasn't like I could remake it because the impetus was gone and the timing of it was all in the build-up to the referendum and the way people would look at history and think about that in relation to the national question. That opportunity was lost. A few days later it started to sink in that this was going to affect me quite badly. My answer was to go out and make more work," he says.

McElhinney threw himself into a new project, taking aerial photographs with the simple technology of a kite from the source of the River Forth to the sea. It won him first prize in the Jill Todd Photographic Award, with an exhibition last autumn at Glasgow's Street Level Gallery.

"Out of the disaster came something positive. The competition gets a bit of exposure but the thing it gave me more than anything was confidence. One of the things you look for from a degree show is feedback: from people who are not your tutors or fellow student but members of the public coming in and saying whether they actually think your work in interesting or not. Until then you don't get any sense of confirmation that what you are doing has either made any sense or is interesting," he explains.

"Doing that competition solved that problem for me. Being a mature student I was maybe a wee bit more unconfident. I have a wife and kids and had given up my job and career to come and do this course."

He used the bursary to focus on another Scottish project that also kept his fellow graduates at the Whisky Bond fed on crispy snacks for weeks. McElhinney used part of the bursary money for materials to go to Tesco and buy 200 tubes of Pringles. He needed his old classmates to eat them as fast as they could so he could then use the packaging to make pinhole cameras that were placed in the country's 45 most populated towns and cities.

From Glasgow and Edinburgh to Inverness, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Elgin and Musselburgh, McElhinney left the makeshift cameras in situ for up to six weeks, then went back to collect them and scan the images the collected.

Those lines of the sun tracking across the sky at various points around the country went on show at an exhibition last year and some can be seen this month at the Reid building, alongside a novel concept that gives visitors the chance to interact with a piece of his work.

"I had been doing wall drawings for the degree show and decided I was going to do something simple for this exhibition. I have wall space and imagine a little grid of lines - 45 one way and 45 the other. There are 2025 points of intersection and I think of them almost like either people coming together or votes being cast. If I make 990 of those drawings at that point I will have exceeded the number of points of intersection, well over 2million. It will have exceeded the number of No votes cast in the referendum. It's a way of finishing off that bit of work I started with the pinhole cameras," he says.

"It would be boring if I stood there and did them all myself so when people come into the exhibition they get a pencil and a ruler and make a grid. I give them one to take away, so it's an exchange. On the opening night it will just have started. By the end of the exhibition hopefully it will be complete and I will have more than two million points of intersection."

'People will see something completely different from what I would have showed a year ago because I have gone through that process and have had the opportunity to think about my work'

Melanie Letore, 24

For 24-year-old fine art graduate Melanie Letore from Geneva, the bursary took her to Iceland and gave her the chance to immerse herself in its stark and rugged landscapes. She went to the Iceland Academy of the Arts in Reykjavik with a fellow bursary recipient, based in the MA class.

"It was the first time I'd been exposed to people working with such varied disciplines. I shot a lot of film and there was a lot of thinking involved," she says. "What I'm showing for the exhibition isn't directly translatable from what I produced at that time but it has led on from the conversations I was having with people I met and feedback I got from people who had never seen my work."

This was the first time Letore had been given the freedom to produce work that wasn't assessed or graded by tutors and had no pressure to commit to a specific outcome. For her it was revelatory. "The bursary has definitely affected my work. People will see something completely different from what I would have showed a year ago because I have gone through that process and have had the opportunity to think about my work," she adds.

The 11 framed prints from Letore's degree show were saved from the fire-damaged building and she went on to use them in an exhibition in Edinburgh last year. The new body of work, moving on from her trip to Iceland, will be available in the form of a newspaper at the exhibition, with copies free for visitors to take away. It is the culmination of an exciting and fruitful year, says the photographer, who now shares a Glasgow studio with four other artists.

'I was in the library finishing up final research, when someone came in and said: 'The Mac is on fire'.

I can't remember hearing the fire alarm, I just thought, 'God, I hope not'. I came out and saw smoke billowing from the building'

Adam Quinn, 24

A buffer between leaving art school and moving into the real world is how painting and printmaking graduate Adam Quinn describes the bursary. The 24-year-old from Glasgow is focusing on the modular, minimalist, multi-function aspects between objects of art and utility in his work on show later this month. Producing it has been a natural progression from the pieces he lost last year.

"My work was in a studio directly above the basement that went on fire. I was in the library at the time finishing up final research, printing it off and binding it. I think I had just paid for the binding and someone came in and said: 'The Mac is on fire'," he says.

"I can't remember hearing the fire alarm, I just thought, 'God, I hope not'. I came out and there was smoke billowing out of the building. I got one painting back but I lost a big sculptural piece of relief work, some chairs I had made and various belongings. The painting is in my dad's garage but it is pretty scorched. I've hung on to it because it was the only thing of mine that came out of the fire."

Choosing to stay in Glasgow last year, Quinn made the most of the facilities at the Whisky Bond, going on to become a member of Glasgow Sculpture Studios, also based there, and using the time and space for vital problem-solving. "There were a couple of different projects I wanted to do and it helped me figure out how to do them. I wanted to make a large-scale concrete work and I used that time to solve the problem of weight and finish and how to make the moulds. It has allowed me to produce a large body of work and given me more opportunity to put money into it and not hold me back.

"It is a strange feeling because we didn't have a degree show. Knowing you didn't have that at the end of the year, the graduation felt a bit strange. Since then it has been good."

With a studio in the east end of the city, Quinn continues to work. Another phoenix unfurling his wings from the embers of the fire.

The Phoenix Bursary Exhibition runs at the Glasgow School of Art Reid building from July 24 to August 2