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Meet the man behind Alasdair Gray’s mural at Hillhead station [Video]

Nichol Wheatley played a large part in the creation of the mural unveiled this weekend.

Artists: Nichol Wheatley (left) with Alasdair Gray.

When people gaze at Alasdair Gray’s new mural in Hillhead subway station for the first time, they will no doubt consider the artist’s vision and, some would argue, genius.

While reflecting on the mural, they may also wonder how Gray managed to put his painting on tiles, and then on a wall 7ft tall and 40ft wide. For this, Gray had help from his friend and fellow artist Nichol Wheatley.

Wheatley has had a large part to play in the Hillhead mural, the centrepiece of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport’s £287m modernisation programme which was unveiled on Sunday night.

The main section of the mural is based on one of his paintings of Hillhead which appears in Gray’s book Old Men in Love, and was a mural itself in the former Grosvenor Café - which is now Vodka Wodka - in Ashton Lane.

Wheatley also used new techniques to create the ceramics for Gray’s work in the subway station.

Wheatley and Gray first met in 2006 in Oran Mor while the latter was working on his unfinished mural at the Byres Road venue. The pair chatted and Gray realised he could use Wheatley’s company Perfect Circle Art in Maryhill.

Perfect Circle is a fine art studio which makes art to order and counts Glasgow club The Corinthian as one of its clients in a portfolio which spreads across Europe.

Since 2006, Wheatley and Gray have worked together in Oran Mor and - for the past three years - on Gray’s Hillhead mural at Wheatley’s studio in Maryhill.

At the early stages of the planning for the Hillhead work, both men knew that due to the temperature fluctuations in a subway station no painting would last very long. It was decided to create it on ceramic tiles. The challenge for Wheatley and his assistants was to make Gray’s vision a reality.

“Alasdair, when we were discussing this at the beginning, was intrigued about how we could make his vision into tile,” said Wheatley.

“One of the first things we did was look into if it was possible to do it on mosaic. That would have been a huge and very difficult job. We then looked at firing the ceramic pigment on to tiles. Most of the people that do this would do it in 30cm square tiles, which didn’t strike us as a good way to do it.

“Alasdair came up with the idea that as the drawing was of Hillhead, could we make tiles that reflected the drawing? The lines, the shapes of tiles, reflecting the lines and shapes of the painting?

“I said ‘Yes, no worries, it can be done’, then panicked for six months figuring out how to do it.”

Wheatley did figure it out. When commuters and art fans see the mural, they will not see tiny squares with Gray’s painting blasted on top of ceramic. They will a giant jigsaw, with tiles of different shapes reflecting the different buildings on show, from Glasgow University and the Kibble Palace to the Botanic Gardens and the Kelvin Hall.

“We have porcelain tiles running through the station,” said Wheatley. “Working with these polished, porcelain tiles, it allowed us to cut the shapes of the buildings out on the tiles. It is very, very difficult because porcelain is quite a hard material.

“Luckily, there are two or three emerging technologies that allowed us to find a way to do that. We then used transfer technologies to draw on to the tiles. Nobody has ever made the transfers to that size before, so there were quite a number of technological issues.

“Nobody has been stupid enough to try and put those transfers on to polished porcelain. I don’t think we would do it again!”

Gray and Wheatley will now work together on creating a work for the Western Baths Club in Hillhead.

But for now, all of the attention is on the subway mural. When commuters see the Hillhead work for the first time, what does Wheatley hope their reaction will be?

He said: “I am proud on three levels. Proud, as any craftsman should be, that a team was made that managed to do this. I am not naturally a ceramist. I am a painter. I am proud that a piece that I made 14 years ago has served as inspiration to what has been made. Proud to work with Alasdair, because he is a genius and it is quite good fun.

“I did a mural in Argyle Street about 12 years ago. I remember watching kids stop and look at it, and laugh, at this mural we had made. It is that thing, that as a kid, things delight you, like seeing the trees when the leaves all come back out in spring. I hope when people see it they will be delighted as it is a delightful thing.”

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