Arts Editor Keith Bruce pays tribute to George Wyllie as we present a series of iconic images from a truly iconoclastic career.

Keith Bruce writes: George Wyllie was the West of Scotland prototype for the sort of multi-faceted artist that the city of Glasgow now dispatches on a seemingly annual basis to collect the major prizes of the art world.

A creator of musical theatre pieces and political polemic, he was best known for large scale works of public art and more intimate subtle interventions in the environment.

Unusually, he made work that was both popular with the public and which stood up to the more intellectual analysis of the critics.

Self-styled as a scul?tor, his creations always posed questions as readily as they amused. Murray Grigor’s film profile of him, The Why’s Man, punned precisely on his character in its title.

Although fiercely loyal to his native Greenock and its maritime heritage, Wyllie was the maker of emblems for every major arts initiative in the cultural regeneration of Glasgow.

His iconoclastic iconography of straw locomotives, paper boats, safety pins, robins, peacocks and Patrick Geddes-inspired spires  – demonstrating environmental balance – were an important part of the supporting infrastructure behind the city’s recognition as a European Capital of Culture.

Thankfully his 90th year saw the debt the city owed to him at last, in some measure, recognised with major retrospective exhibitions.

A career in pictures

Though he had a brush with fame when he was 17 and appeared on a radio talent show, George Wyllie was to follow several career paths including serving in the Royal Navy and working as a post office engineer and customs officer, before pursuing his interest in art in 1965, when he signed up for welding classes at his local college in Greenock.

In 1979, at the age of 58, he left the customs service and began to work full time as a professional, though untrained, artist.

1982: Wyllie’s play A Day Down a Goldmine is launched. The show, about the influence of wealth, was produced several times over the following decade, and Wyllie appeared in it as a character called His Assistant, alongside well-known actors such as Bill Paterson and Russell Hunter. The picture above shows Wyllie in 2011 with a bound copy of the script.

1986: George Wyllie’s work featured in Edinburgh Festivals on several occasions. He is shown above at Arthur’s Seat taking part in the ‘March of the Missing Tourists’ part of his Holyrood/Hollywood work at the Edinburgh Fringe.

1987: In May one of Wyllie’s most celebrated works, the Straw Locomotive, was hoisted into position on the Finnieston Crane, in Glasgow. It was later burned in a Viking-style funeral at Springburn Engineering Works.

The actor Alan Cumming, who lived in Glasgow at the time, said:  “I have admired George's work since 1987 when he stunned Glasgow with a straw locomotive hanging from the Finnieston Crane. It was an act of whimsy, bravado and passion that connected on an emotional level with the Scottish people. It changed my view of what art could be.”

1989: Paper Boat, a giant origami boat was seen by millions as it sailed around the world from Glasgow to Liverpool, London and New York and back to Scotland. Its arrival at the World Financial Center in New York in 1990 was reported on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

The film-maker Murray Grigor made a documentary about Wyllie entitled The Why?sMan, a soubriquet that has frequently been applied to him since.

1992: Always happy to engage with his art, Wyllie is seen here perched on top of a 12ft high 'paper temple' created to celebrate Stirling-based Weir Paper Products' third anniversary.

2000: One of Wyllie’s most familiar creations, this sculpture of a square clock on top of running legs is a permanent fixture outside Glasgow’s busy Buchanan Bus Station. The stainless steel Clyde Clock was commissioned to celebrated Radio Clyde’s 25th year as an independent radio station.

2006: A decade after its creation, Caged Peacock, which was originally designed for display at Princes Square shopping centre in Glasgow, was rediscovered in a welding workshop and exhibited in Inverclyde.

2009: George Wyllie’s archive was donated to Strathclyde University, which is also home to Monument to Maternity, a sculpture of a giant safety pin, at Rottenrow Gardens on the site of the old Rottenrow Maternity Hospital.   

2011: The artist celebrates his 90th birthday. Plans are announced for The Whysman Festival, a celebration of his work which will feature prominently in the Year of Creative Scotland in 2012, and as the focus of the last exhibition at the University of Strathclyde's Collins Gallery.

May 2012: Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop announces further investment in the Year of Creative Scotland at an event in Govan. The Big Little Paper Boats school project, inspired by George Wyllie's paper boat, will be one of the flagship iniatives. 

Children will create their own origami boats which will be exhibited in the artist's retrospective and launched on the Clyde from the Riverside museum at the end of the year.

The picture shows George Wyllie's daughter Louise Wyllie (back) watching as the Culture Secretary and children from Riverside and St Saviour's Primary schools launch their paper boats in Elder Park.