Born: April 1939;

Died: July 17, 2022.

JOYCE Laing, who has died aged around 83, was a pioneer of art therapy, whose work with psychiatric patients and long-term prisoners helped unlock means of creative expression that transcended lives. In the 1970s, she played a key role at Barlinnie Special Unit, the experimental Glasgow prison wing where violent hardmen were liberated by Laing’s techniques. The best-known of these was Jimmy Boyle, the convicted murderer who went on to became a successful sculptor.

“He was suspicious,” Laing told the Glasgow Times in 2017 of Boyle’s initial response to her. “He thought this was too good, it couldn’t be happening. He thought ‘this woman must be a spy’.”

Laing was speaking prior to an exhibition at Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery in Glasgow of work from the Special Unit, drawn from her own collection of sketchbooks, newspaper cuttings and photographs, as well as paintings and sculptures by inmates.

Prior to Laing’s death, a permanent exhibition at Kelvingrove was announced, borrowing from her collection of work by what she called 'artists extraordinary'. This was her term for what is more often referred to as outsider art or art brut. Her own term empowered the creators of the work with a legitimacy that went beyond any novelty value implied by the others.

“It means someone who is in touch with their subconscious” she said of her phrase during a 2004 interview with the Guardian. “And although you don’t have to have a mental illness to be an artist extraordinary, it is vanishingly rare outside of it.”

Laing classed William Blake and Gaudi as artists extraordinary, though she stressed during the Guardian interview that, rather than fetishising it, mental illness does not give anyone a particular gift in art. “It is rare, she said, “as rare as artists are in the general public.” Over 35 years, she said at the time, she had found around twenty artists extraordinary.

One of these was Angus McPhee, the Uist-born crofter and long-term resident of Craig Dunain hospital in Inverness, who made clothes out of grass, keeping his creations under holly bushes in the hospital garden. Laing was told about McPhee’s work by a taxi driver, a former nurse, while transporting her to Craig Dunain. It was a revelation.

Laing donated her collection of more than 1,100 works to the arts and museums body, Glasgow Life, in 2012. The permanent Kelvingrove display, also called Art Extraordinary, includes work rescued by Laing from hospital bins.

“You see artists at college sketching, then looking at their work, discussing it,” she told the Guardian. “Artists extraordinary never look at what they are doing. I’m one of the few people who have had access to work with extraordinary artists. When they finish it, they just get up and walk away, and if you say are you going to finish it, they say, I am on to something else. They know when to stop.”

Joyce Laing, who was born in Aberdeen, studied Fine Art at the city’s Gray’s School of Art, and was happily resigned to life as a garret-dwelling starving artist. Her life took a different turn after a friend recovering from a mild form of TB was employed by the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis to encourage long-term patients to paint. Laing took on a similar role, working as a ‘cultural visitor’ at Glen O’Dee tuberculosis sanatorium on Deeside.

“I began to notice that the most interesting paintings were produced when the illness was at its height,” she told the Herald in 1997. “Many would be intensely blood red – thundery, stormy landscapes with threatening skies. If the patient survived the crisis and started to get better, the paintings would show green, tranquil scenes, which were actually far less interesting from an artistic point of view.”

Laing’s observations led her to realise that art could play an important role in the treatment process, and she wrote a paper that was picked up by Professor Malcolm Millar, who in 1959 had opened the Ross Clinic, an innovative psychiatric unit in Aberdeen. Laing joined him, working for several years with patients suffering from schizophrenia and manic depression.

She went on to pioneer art therapy at Edinburgh’s Nuffield Clinic for the treatment of alcoholism, and a residential centre for maladjusted children. She later worked as a lecturer and consultant at the University of Edinburgh School of Art Therapy, and was a key figure in the drive to create a Scottish Centre for Art Extraordinary. A 1997 touring exhibition, Inner Necessity, highlighted this.

In 1981, she became a co-founder of Pittenweem Arts Festival, based in the Fife fishing village where she lived. This came out of an exhibition of vintage photographs of the village presented in aid of lifeboat funds. The first festival the following year featured work by Ian Hamilton Finlay, with local residents encouraged to open rooms in their houses to display artists’ work. Exhibitions by Will Maclean, Oscar Marzaroli, Joan Eardley and John Bellany followed. Laing remained on the Festival Board until 2007.

Laing wrote The Special Unit Barlinnie Prison: Its Evolution through its Art (1982), and Angus McPhee Weaver of Grass (2000) about her key experiences, and was awarded an OBE. She is believed to have been born in 1939, though she was as creative with her age as with everything else.