'Back to Mack' (The List, 644, 19/11/2009)

As Glasgow School of Art celebrates its centenary The List looks back over the history of the iconic building, and asks some well-known alumni about their experiences of studying at the institution.

Throughout December and January the Glasgow School of Art is commemorating the centenary of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed building, which was completed by the celebrated architect, designer and watercolourist in 1909. As part of the ongoing celebrations, the college is holding an exhibition, The Flower and the Green Leaf, which will show the work and social life of staff and students during the early 20th century. The exhibition takes as its starting point Mackintosh’s completion of the first half of the iconic building in 1899, widely regarded as the moment the school started to become truly international in its scope.

On display will be work from each of the four departments of the time: Painting and Drawing; Modelling and Sculpture; Design and Decorative Art; Architecture. Among the exhibits will be a set of drawings for the building by Mackintosh himself, dated 1910; a green linen bag designed by Grace Wilson Melvin (1892-1977), embroidered in green white and violet, the colours of the suffragette movement; photographs of staff and students in the early 20th century; life drawings by students of the time and the inaugural Bram Stoker Medal awarded for most imaginative work of the year in 1903.

The GSA was unique in the early part of the 20th century in its ability to attract applicants from overseas as well as highly regarded British artists. The school also pioneered a highly successful programme of teacher education, which influenced art teaching in Scotland for many years to come.

A quick glance through its impressive list of former students shows just how important the Glasgow School of Art continues to be in attracting and nurturing talent across the spectrum of the visual arts. The GSA has produced eight Turner Prize nominees (among them two winners, Douglas Gordon and Simon Starling), as well as other internationally renowned names such as the photographer Harry Benson, the late sculptor and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay and the painter Jenny Saville. The Mack is also the alma mater to a staggering array of well-kent faces, including BAFTA-winning actor Peter Capaldi, the playwrights Liz Lochhead and John Byrne, former justice minister Cathy Jamieson, and assorted members of Scottish supergroups Travis and Franz Ferdinand.

To mark the centenary celebrations The List has assembled a quartet of successful GSA alumni and asked them to share some of their experiences from their student days. Just what is it that makes the Mack such a great place to study and create?

The Flowers and the Green Leaf: Glasgow School of Art in the Early Twentieth Century, Mackintosh Gallery, Glasgow School of Art, Fri 27 Nov–Sat 23 Jan.

Michael Thomas Jones Photographer Studied Drawing and Painting 1995-1999

I’m from Glasgow originally, so that was a consideration when I was deciding where to study, but the thing that really attracted me to the Glasgow School of Art was all the history – it has been associated with so many great artists in the past. The Mackintosh building – which I wasn’t actually lucky enough to study in during my time at the college – has a real feel to it as a place to create, and really promotes that sense of creativity.

Glasgow was also a really thriving place for grassroots art at that point in the mid-90s. It was while I was studying at the GSA that I decided to become a photographer. Before that I’d mostly done drawing and painting, but where I come from you couldn’t really say to people, ‘I want to do drawing and painting for a living.’ I had shared a flat with a group of photographers, and the idea that photography was a practical application that could be used to make money that was really attractive to me back then.

Michael Thomas Jones’ photographic essay, Modernista: Gaudi and his Contemporaries in Modern Day Barcelona, runs at The Lighthouse, Glasgow, until Sun 28 Feb. It is presented in partnership with Glasgow School of Art and the Scottish Government to coincide with the Glasgow School of Art’s centenary celebrations.

Alasdair Gray Artist and novelist Studied Design and Mural Painting 1952–1957

I didn’t have enough Highers to go to Glasgow University, as my parents would have preferred, so I applied to attend night classes in life drawing [at the GSA]. To do that, I had to show a portfolio of work and the registrar suggested that I become a full-time art student. All my friends [at the GSA] were dedicated students, and a very useful source of instruction. We learned from each other, and from magazines. I now feel quite lucky that I went to art school at a time when there was a department of painting, even though the teachers were painters of an impressionist kind, who thought that post-impressionists had gone wrong. I went to a school where they thought drawing was an essential skill for a painter and allowed you to work at it (even though they didn’t entirely like my system of drawing).

As a building, the GSA was great architecture. The library that Mackintosh designed was the library that we used, with its nooks and corners and places you could sit in and read, and study, and think. You had the great big studios that have now been turned into mezzanines by putting extra floors in … I can’t really compare it with how the art school is now – all I know is that it was one of the most interesting and useful time periods of my education.

A Gray Play Book of Alasdair Gray plays acted between 1956-2009 is available now in hardback, published by Luath Press, £50.

Julie Roberts Painter and sculptor MFA student, 1988-1990; AHRB Fellow Visiting Lecturer and Research Lecturer

I wanted to study at the Glasgow School of Art because of the work of [the New Glasgow Boys] Adrian Wisniewski, Ken Currie and Stephen Campbell – that was the most interesting painting I’d seen in Britain at that time. I particularly liked the social and political dimension of the work. I didn’t even realise it at the time, but that was the real pull of the work for me: while studying at Glasgow my own painting moved in a more political direction, towards feminism and the representation of female bodies in art.

I was on the very first MFA course and there was an expectation that we develop the course as we went along. It was very macho and male dominated, but I think that’s not a bad environment to cut your teeth in. We had loads of space and freedom. There was much more action in Scotland than there was in Wales in the 1980s, and it always seemed that there was a lot going on in Glasgow in particular. We always thought it would stop after we graduated but it has kept going. Talent germinates at the GSA, and it still seems as though the very best artists come out of Glasgow.

Julie Roberts is preparing a solo show for Edinburgh Festival 2010 at Talbot Rice Gallery and is about to open a two person show with Moyna Flannigan at Galerie Akinci, in Amsterdam.

Toby Paterson Artist Student at the GSA from 1991–1995

I studied in the Department of Drawing and Painting and it was during this time that my interest in architecture and cities developed, becoming a central inspiration for me. I had a particular fascination with industrial architecture at the time, often using photography as well as painting to process my experiences.

Despite being a cynical teen amidst the ‘Mockintosh’ revival of the 80s, I was always aware it was something out of the ordinary. What is so fantastic about it as a piece of functioning architecture is that it continues to surprise and delight as I get older, no matter how much I think I know it. As incredible as it is, though, I’ve never been specifically inspired by the building in and of itself. What is inspirational to me is what it offers in terms of a mind-bogglingly rich context to those that occupy it; a real, living lesson in how to integrate sensibility into everyday life in a continuous way.

I do still visit, usually to participate in media-related things. I was amazed to be asked to speak at Graduation this summer. That was as much of a surprise as an honour; the best bit of which was the rare chance to have dinner in the Mackintosh Building’s library.