The visual memory bank is a cabinet of curiosities which can confound and lift a person up in equal measure. There are some visual memories in my own cabinet, for example, which have lain dormant for decades and then, in the blink of an eye, buzz into life.

Take Littlewoods floor in Paisley. I didn't know I had this shop floor of this defunct high street department store imprinted in a corner of my brain until a recent visit to The Secret Collection in Paisley's High Street.

The minute I spotted the L-shaped grey and terracotta patterns on its floor, I was transported to 1970s shopping trips with my mum and gran, who lived in the Renfrewshire town. To a day-dreamy child, hopping around the Littlewoods floor from tile to tile provided more entertainment than most shop floors.

Littlewoods may have gone, but a virtue has been made of its distinctive terrazzo flooring grid in what is now the first publicly accessible museum store on a UK High Street. The Secret Collection contains more than 300,000 objects and artworks from the collection of Paisley Art Institute (PAI) and the nearby Paisley Museum and Art Gallery, currently undergoing a four-year-long £42m transformation.

This £3.7m state-of-the-art basement storage facility, sandwiched between Bargain Buys and Thomas Cook, was designed by Glasgow-based Collective Architecture in collaboration with ISO Design and artist, Toby Paterson. It opened last year and regular free guided tours take place by appointment deep within this labyrinthine-like 2100 square metre state-of-the-art facility.

The Secret Collection paints a portrait of a town once famous as the home of the world's thread industry. Visitors will find everything from Buddy the stuffed lion (a perennial Paisley Museum favourite) to looms, to Paisley pattern shawls, plaster casts, sculptures and paintings. Many, many paintings, collected for the town during its heyday as an industrial powerhouse fuelling the global thread industry.

The jewel in Paisley's cultural crown is Paisley Art Institute's collection, which contains work by leading artists of the 19th and 20th century. Paintings by Glasgow Boys, John Lavery and James Guthrie sit side by side with those by European masters such as Courbet and Fantin Latour.

I was shown around this art trove by Susan Jeffrey, Research and Collections Co-ordinator with Renfrewshire Museums and colleague, Victoria Irvine, who has been immersed in the history of Paisley Art Institute during the cataloguing process. Seeing racks of paintings being pulled out is any art lover's dream and we were all gasping as painting after painting revealed themselves.

I found myself drawn to a cracking self-portrait by one John Blair called The Exile. A young man gazes at us unflinchingly. He is wearing a scarlet eastern-style turban and a green fur-lined coat. An almost abstract sunset glows in the background. Victoria Irvine tells me John Blair was a star pupil of Paisley Government School of Art and Design whose life was cut short – we know not how – at the age of 21.

The Secret Collection opened in 2018, a few months after Paisley narrowly lost out on securing the title of City of Culture 2021 to Coventry. The Paisley bid, which had been years in the planning, was part of a wider strategy by Renfrewshire Council and partners to transform the town's future using its heritage and cultural back story.

When the announcement of Coventry's win was made, Paisley's bid director, Jean Cameron, said the team was "heartbroken" but "bursting with pride" at what had been achieved. The bid was not in vain. Today, a "2021 bid legacy plan" is bringing together local, Scottish and UK groups to harness the power of culture.

Cameron, a Paisley Buddy raised in the town's Ferguslie Park, is still heavily involved in Paisley's creative community. At the end of last year, she was voted in as President of Paisley Art Institute, the artist-run collective which has been a key player in Paisley's cultural story since 1876.

Keenly aware of the legacy of PAI as an "unsung cultural asset", Cameron is working with fellow committee members to future-proof the organisation, currently "homeless" because of the closure of Paisley Museum, its regular base since 1882. With the Museum due to open in late 2022, Cameron and her PAI colleagues are looking on the bright side by shaking things up.

Recently, a call went out to artists asking for entries for the organisation's 131st annual exhibition; one of the biggest open exhibitions in the country. "The annual" is being moved from its regular June slot to September and it's also on the move physically, to the Piazza Shopping Centre in Paisley town centre, which Cameron describes as an "industrial and raw space with wider public access".

She explains: "Since the Paisley 2021 Bid, more funding is going into the town. Both the museum and the town hall are undergoing major refurbishments. This is the time for PAI to join the charge and not be Paisley's untold story."

When we talk, Cameron is also buzzing about the fact that acclaimed London-based multi-media artist John Walter, who has been researching the global appeal of the Paisley pattern, has been confirmed as this year's guest artist.

The story of PAI tells the story of Paisley as a hub of textile design and manufacturing with its own government-run art school. PAI has its roots in this art school. The Institute was founded in 1876 by leading entrepreneurs in the town whose businesses relied on the creativity of emerging and established artists and designers.

Paisley Museum's main gallery and sculpture court were funded in the 1880s by thread magnate, Sir Peter Coats for PAI's exhibitions and by 1915, a further four galleries had been built for PAI thanks to Coats' largesse.

According to Caroline Gormley, recently elected vice president of PAI, there is now a real demand for a cultural offering in Paisley.

Gormley, who was born in Dykebar in the town, and still lives in the council house where she was raised, says the Institute may seem like "establishment" but "in reality, it's for everyone."

A firm believer in art for all, for the last nine months Gormley has run the not-for-profit venture, Made in Paisley, with her partner and fellow artist, Alexander Guy. Based in a former interiors store opposite Paisley Museum, they offer affordable art tuition for all ages and stages, as well as a pop-up gallery space for hire. As someone from a working-class background who began studying for an art degree in her forties, Gormley says Made in Paisley is aimed "at someone like me when I was younger."

The 2021 Bid and business collaboration initiative, Paisley First, gave artists the opportunity to submit proposals, she adds. "They gave someone like me more drive. Knowing that support was available meant you could make your dream a possibility.

Over its 143 years in existence, this creative flair has run through Paisley Art Institute's like a fine spool of thread. Paisley may have suffered as the thread industry declined, but as Benjamin Disraeli once wrote, "keep your eye on Paisley…”

For more details about how to book tours of Paisley: The Secret Collection, go to

For more details about submitting work to Paisley Art Institute's 131st annual open exhibition, which takes place this year at The Piazza, Central Way, Paisley from September 5 – October 20, go to

Critic's Choice

Following on from her exhibition, The Burn and the Tide, at the Lillie Gallery in Milngavie last year, Karen Strang continues her exploration of the witchcraft trials which took place across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries with a new show in Dunfermline.

Elen, Salt and Stone is currently at Fire Station Creative, in Dunfermline and when I say it's a tortuous mix of figurative and landscape paintings, I mean that in a wholly positive way as Strang has an intuitive eye for incorporating feeling and texture into her work.

Scotland was a hot bed of witch trial activity and it is estimated that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were publicly accused of being witches; a much higher number than south of the border.

The area around West Fife continues to fascinate and disturb Alloa-based Strang, who studied at the Glasgow School of Art and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.

Years of intensive research in and around locations in central Scotland where witch hunts took place have produced visceral and poignant drawings and paintings. Absorbing the past and present through ancient rocks, natural formations and the human archaeology of mines, quarries and salt panning, she has cast her acute gaze over settlements around the “powerhouse” of Dunfermline, Culross, Torryburn and Crossford.

All these places, she says, tell stories of enchantment and the occult, of standing stones and hellfire orgies. The torture and execution of local women lay alongside the sophistication of the Scottish Court and its knowledgeable burghers.

Strang has observed that many witchcraft trial locations fall on a line from the Firth to Dunning, and that others have described this phenomenon as the "Belinus Line" of two entwined energy lines.

Inspired by local mythologies, a new large-scale painting, On Berrylaw, is set in the late Baroque period some 50 years after the last trial, while focusing on the legacies of magic, power games and sexual energies.

Karen Strang: Elen, Salt and Stone, Fire Station Creative, Carnegie Drive, Dunfermline, KY12 7AN, 01383 721 564,, until June 30. Open Wed-Thur, 10am-5pm, Fri & Sat 10am-12am (Closed Mon & Tue)

Don't Miss

If you like your art to be a simultaneous puzzle and a pleasure, then feast your eyes on the paintings of Glasgow-born and bred artist, Alasdair Wallace. In Wallace's world, nothing is quite as it seems. Perspective is slightly askew, landscape an organised guddle of trees and high-rise flats. Finding beauty and hidden stories in the abandoned or the overlooked, Wallace's show at Glasgow Print Studio is a must-see in Scotland's summer art calendar.

Alasdair Wallace: OSCILLATE, VACILLATE, ORBIT & REVOLVE, Glasgow Print Studio, 103, Glasgow, G1 5HD, 0141 552 0704, June 7 – July 28. Open Tue – Sat, 10am–5.30pm, Sun, 12pm-5pm. Free