Last year I spent time painting various spots in The Three Sisters, a famous pub on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. The venue was named after the three Mackinnon sisters Cath, Kitty, and Maggie, famous in the 1740s for gracing Edinburgh stages with their singing, dancing and beauty. It is a large complex of bars, and inside this network of rooms is housed Edinburgh’s Student Union Bar.
The Three Sisters asked me back this year to further improve the Student Union. This time I took on a tired and bedraggled looking corridor which before I arrived, wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1970s office block. They wanted some new artwork that was very Edinburgh-themed, would energise the space, and had some relevance to the diverse university students who frequent the space.
The main wall in the corridor now has an impressionist vista of Edinburgh with the castle illuminated by the world famous bi-annual fireworks display.
I took the artwork onto the ceiling as well as the walls in order to give the area an immersive feel. As the scene moved further away from the firework end of the corridor, the idea was to give it a ‘starry night’ / Van Gogh inspired look. The ThreeSisters also had me paint the walls at the far end with notable university buildings from around the city.
On a completely different theme, The Three Sisters asked me to reflect the Cowgate location of the bar in another mural. The venue is surrounded by a maze of vaulted arches that hold the buildings of the area up, and so I painted a map to the vaults under George IV Bridge with a pop art/brightly coloured feel.
The whole job was done to deadline in under a week, just after the Edinburgh Festival finished but before the onslaught of students for Freshers Week.
Fingers crossed it will keep the students happy and ultimately lead to increased footfall through the door – always the mark of a successful project for me!
George Watson’s College Upper Primary School Murals
In 2016 Junior School Headmaster George Salmond and I began discussing a potential project at George Watson’s College; he was really keen to have murals in the school that reflected the energy and enthusiasm of the current children. The plan was to work with Primary Four through Seven, ideally with all the children participating hands-on in the project.
Drawing directly from the school’s curriculum, each of the year groups were given their own historic theme; the Primary Fours learn about Vikings, the Primary Fives study the Battle of Bannockburn and the Wars of Independence, Primary Six learn about the Jacobite Rising and Primary Seven approach World War II as seen through the eyes of evacuees.
I have previously done group projects with large amounts of children and I think it’s really important that all the children are involved and that they are empowered to express themselves as a small part of a bigger picture.
I created four illustrations that would provide clarity and focus to the project, and came up with a plan so that the mural could be built remotely in bite sized chunks by the children and then fastened to the wall at a later date. Working in a school staircase which is also a chief fire escape route had unforeseen complications; understandably strict fire regulations meant that I had to ditch my usual plywood support and buy magnesium oxide fireproof sheet material, and once finished a fire-rated varnish had to be applied. Every day is a school day!
The project was launched at two special assemblies where I introduced myself and my work, and I showed them my Hogmanay video. I emphasised the ambition and scale of the project but also underlined that the plan was to make all four murals in an incredibly short period of time. The aim was to have them built from scratch and installed in a three week period, dancing around the school timetable and the children were super excited.
In week one I was given the use of Mr. Briggs’ primary six classroom which was available while the whole year was away on a trip. Over the course of that week three of the murals had their backs broken. The children were shipped in class by class and though to the untrained eye the production process seemed slightly chaotic, in fact the children were incredibly productive. The focus of the drawings and my urgency for them to visually communicate as fast as possible helped drive the project forward. Throughout the project my studio manager Sheila Masson was on site helping to corral the kids and prep the paint and materials. She has an illustration degree amongst her many skills so is well versed in painting, though at times the energy and craziness of the factory we had set up proved a bit wearing on her.
The primary six students were due back from their trip at the end of the first week so we moved the production base out of Mr. Briggs’ classroom and into the art department with the help of a class full of strong-looking primary sevens.
During the second week we had the huge help of the art department staff. They had allocated two classrooms as a production base for the murals which was fantastic. It allowed us to have a space where one of the murals could be laid out in its entirety on the floor (so that we and the kids could literally see the big picture), and another that functioned as the main production base with individual boards laid on tables for painting.
By the end of the second week the children had nearly finished the murals, so much so that we had to start some smaller projects to keep them busy. With the help of the art department and a huge roll of white paper, we set up a large-scale drawing in the art department lobby plus four mural boards of self portraits by all the children sorted into their respective school houses.
By the time we reached the end of week three, all my anxiety was focussed around the difficulty of getting the mural hung. The stairwells are nearly eight metres tall so the initial plan was to source a boom lift to help with the hanging. In the end my assistant Charlie Savin and I managed to hang the pictures over three intense days from a scaffold tower – we were under something of a deadline as we had to complete the hang over the midterm break, while no kids were on the premises.
Sheila and I were there when the children came back to school on the Thursday morning and there was a huge amount of excitement. All the children felt the accomplishment and pride of being a part of a big community project. The project goals had been achieved and the children had left a legacy in the stairwell as testimony to their effort. As I had said throughout, not all projects grind at the speed of evolution. In this case change came like a creative tsunami. The stairwells are now resplendent in a new coat of vibrant age-appropriate artwork that will hopefully inspire generations to come.
As with all of my projects, every step was filmed and time lapsed. Click HERE to see the final video of the murals’ creation.
And finally – the finished murals, pieced together: