LIKE most people Willie Sutherland planned to spend his 50th birthday on January 8, celebrating with friends.

Instead, he checked himself into rehab for alcohol addiction.

As part of the intensive therapy he was “privileged" enough to afford at the privately-run facility, he was asked to write a list of life goals.

The self-taught artist and sculptor vowed to have his first solo exhibition by July 1 and surpassed the ambitious timescale.

A collection of the work he created in therapy and later at home will go on display today at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA).

The standout piece in the show - The Evolution of Wa - is a doll’s house with each room and model figure representing a stage in his recovery. The cowboy figures he creates are modelled on a cherished picture of him as a young boy and he was nicknamed Wa by friends.

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Revisiting childhood was central to his recovery, he says, in trying to address the roots of his behaviour.

The Hamilton-born artist says the ideas for his George Wyllie-esque model figures “ have always been there” but addiction stopped his creative endeavours coming to fruition.

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His 50th birthday was spent in isolation, as part of Covid requirements, before going into Murdostoun Castle Rehab Centre in Wishaw in North Lanarkshire. He booked in for two weeks but ended up staying for four.

“I had had big plans for it (my birthday), there was going to be 20 of us going to a country house for the weekend. That was obviously cancelled because of lockdown.

“But (going into rehab) was the best thing I could have possibly done.

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“I had been trying to stop drinking for about five years but I didn’t  know how."

His mother passed away in August and he used some of his inheritance to fund the £10,000 rehab fees.

“Having the freedom to talk about things with other people who understood what you were talking about was really freeing. When I came out of isolation, my therapist saw something in me and said ‘I believe in you’ and I just thought, I’ll prove you right.

“I’ve learned that it’s (alcoholism) is an allergy, because for certain people you have a drink and it sparks something and you can’t stop.”

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He began making clothes from a young age, attending a textiles course and did some work in fashion illustration, which led to the creation of the figures that are central to his work.

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He says he is influenced by the “humour and humanity” of the late Scottish artist George Wyllie. A sculpture of a dragon’s head, created out of twigs and logs in the surrounding woodland of the rehab facility attracted the attentions of British sculptor Antony Gormley, in an online exhibition of art created in lockdown.

All the pieces in his exhibition are made from cardboard recycled from boxes used to empty the family home after his mother’s death.

“I was building the rooms as I was recovering so at each stage I was thinking, what have I been through. I put my emotions into it.”

One room is a clown representing the masks we wear in public and the “drunken bravado” of his former life. The man looking through his wardrobe is about having choices again, without the shackles of addiction.

“I try not to say too much and let the pictures tell the story,” he says. 

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He is already in talks with a publisher about creating a picture book based on his experiences, while his own therapist has already used “bits and pieces” in her work.

He believes in-patient addiction services should be freely accessible for all.

“I was very privileged that I was able to pay for private treatment. I don’t have family or kids or a partner or anyone that would distract me from recovery. I’ve put every waking minute into it for the past six months.

“Having a dream is important and having hope in yourself.

“Every day is a joy, even in there (rehab) I couldn’t wait to get up every day.”

The Evolution of Wa is running until June 26 at Glasgow's CCA in The Clubroom. No booking is required but spaces are limited to three people maximum per bubble.