IF you want to thrive in further education you have to be in possession of the correct set of tools. Mostly this means buying the recommended text books, owning a decent laptop, having plenty of notepads to take into lectures.

Sometimes the tools required are more specific. For example, I happen to be walking through a certain student’s workspace when I spot a pair of wind-up false teeth. The comedy kind, much favoured by agents of anarchy such as Dennis the Menace and the Bash Street Kids. The teeth haven’t been sneaked into the room for a giggle. They’re a vital part of the learning process. Though what’s being learned here is how to be windswept and interesting.

I’m on a tour of Glasgow School of Art, a place that is best described as a botanic garden for the hot-housing of bohemian types. If there’s a box lying around some place, these guys want to think outside of it. On a matter of principle.

In that context the chattering plastic teeth make a lot of sense. They are art. Or are waiting to become art. When your uninspired layman spots a cheap and tacky toy from a joke shop, he thinks to himself: “Oh, look. A cheap and tacky toy from a joke shop.” But when an artist spots that self-same trinket, he or she starts to count the possibilities. And there are many. Those rattling teeth become a metaphor for the rictus grin of our dying society. Or perhaps they are tragically symbolic of the fake, plastic, disposable lives we are all forced to endure under the yoke of 21st century capitalism. (Capitalism always gets a good kicking from our artist buddies.)

So the plastic teeth are not just plastic teeth. They are a textbook, a laptop and a bunch of notepads, all rolled into one.

Get creative

It isn’t only the set of joke shop chompers that prove to be out of the ordinary on my tour of the Art School. There’s also some sort of metal, car-like machine that has been welded together from what seems to be rusty fragments of scrap iron. Elsewhere, a student has hung up a painted sign on which is scrawled the statement: ‘My world’s on fire. How about yours?’

Painted images paper the walls. Some are pretty striking. (In the same way that a fist in the eye is pretty striking to the eye in question.) One image is a close-up view of flayed flesh. The kind of thing I imagine Hannibal Lecter might sketch in his spare time, in between snacking on human hotpot.

There’s plenty more way-out and wacky work on display. Which is all to the good, as far as I’m concerned. If you can’t breach boundaries and tickle taboos when you’re a young, ambitious artist, when else can you do so? I actually feel very privileged to be strolling through the open minds of some seriously creative students. To grab a ringside seat as they blossom into badass. The Glasgow School of Art has a legendary alumni, after all. Robbie Coltrane. Muriel Gray. Fran Healy. Peter Capaldi. Some of them, just to be perverse, even become artists. (Peter Howson, take a bow.)

My guides for the tour are Martha Stefani-Bose and Maja Tacchi, both in their third year at Glasgow School of Art, where they are also student ambassadors. Each Friday they take a group of prospective students round campus, to show them the delights contained within these walls of wit and way-out wonder. Members of the public aren’t invited on these guided tours, though I’ve managed to sneak along using my Access All Areas Scotland Pass. Actually, I don’t really have such a pass. I’m just a pushy journo who manages to go places I’m not invited. (Don’t try this sort of thing if you’re a rank amateur, by the way. You need a neck as brassy as a trombone to pull it off.)

One of the genuine would-be students on the tour is Sandra McWilliams, who was previously a successful accountant. She even had her own business for 19 years, but ultimately found it less than fulfilling. So she decided to get creative with her life.

“My husband said to me, why don’t you see if you can do something with art,” she explains. “So I went to Clyde College to see if there was anything they could offer.”

Sandra was already adept at embroidery, crochet and knitting, which allowed her to be accepted for an HND in textiles. Now she wants to take the next step in her creative journey and is hoping to be offered a place at Glasgow School of Art, starting next year. “My eldest daughter came here to do a media course,” she says. “And I felt it was such a lovely community. I was always at home when I visited. I thought it was such a small and intimate setting.”

The tour has changed Sandra’s opinion, regarding the size of the school. “It’s much bigger than I thought,” she marvels. “It really is quite a layout.”

Ping pong table

It is, indeed. People with only a passing knowledge of the school probably assume it’s essentially the ill-fated Mackintosh building, with a few minor buildings surrounding it. Not so.

The Reid Building, for instance, which was completed in 2014 and stands opposite the Mackintosh, is where our tour begins. It is a large, multi-floored, modernistic space, open plan and awash with light. Various disciplines are studied here, including textiles and printing. In many ways it could be any further education building. It has a canteen, rows of desks, computers. There are a few more unusual elements, however. Looms for the textile students to work on. And a print room that contains numerous shelves of small metal blocks with raised letters. Such things were once used by typesetters in newspaper offices, before digital technology replaced them. It seems that this archaic way of forming words still retains its appeal with the creatives of tomorrow.

Painting and fine art is studied in a building that was formerly Stow College. Although this is the place for creativity with few boundaries (it’s where I spotted the joke teeth) it’s actually a rather brutalist environment. The corridors, grim and grey-walled, have the sort of chill feel that would be familiar to anyone who has visited an ancient swimming baths. At a push, I could be strolling down an endless passageway in KGB headquarters, circa 1970 something-or-other, waiting nervously for a bullet from behind to finish me off. But then I peek into the artists’ studios, and I’m hypnotised by a technicolour trance of anarchy turned into artifice.

No hierarchy

I also visit the school of architecture, where everything is symmetrical, systematic and very well organised, as you would expect. There’s also a ping pong table, which you would not expect.

Of course our group doesn’t get to visit the Mackintosh building, which was almost destroyed by fires in 2014 and 2018. An extensive restoration programme is still being attempted, and the entire edifice is cloaked in a porcupine like framework of scaffolding. It’s almost impossible to see what lurks beneath.

“There could be a giant inflatable bouncy castle under there, for all anyone knows,” I say to one of the guides, Martha Stefani-Bose, who was brought up in the west end of Glasgow and is studying painting and printmaking. “Now that would be an artistic statement,” she says drily.

On a more serious note she adds: “Everyone is mourning the loss of that amazing building. Obviously it was a work of art itself. But space-wise we’re actually doing fine. It doesn’t seem cramped at all, and the new arrangements allow us to work even closer together, which really helps with the collaborative process.”

This collaborative process is one of the key selling points of Glasgow School of Art. “There’s no hierarchy between disciplines,” says Maja Tacchi, who is from Bristol and studies architecture.

“It’s an incredibly unique environment and we’re lucky to be here. People from all different courses pull together and use their different areas of expertise to create new and interesting work. The art school really is a community of like-minded souls. It doesn’t matter what year you’re in, how old you are, where you’re from, or what you’re studying. We’re all one big family.”