A Story Restarted: Willie Sutherland at the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock

Willie Sutherland, ‘Tentacles’, oil and acrylic on canvas and 'Flora:fauna’, acrylic on canvas
Willie Sutherland, ‘Tentacles’, oil and acrylic on canvas and 'Flora:fauna’, acrylic on canvas

Willie Sutherland: Origins

Mon - Sun 10:00 - 17:00

From: 4 Mar 2023

To: 1 Apr 2023

Beacon Arts Centre
Custom House Quay
Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
PA15 1HJ

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On entering the Beacon my eye is soon caught by the painted image of a young cowboy in front of a desert cactus, and as I am soon to learn, that cowboy is Willie Sutherland.

Willie Sutherland is a self-taught artist from Glasgow. He began making his art in 2021, at age 50, arising initially out of a time of intensive therapy and rehabilitation for alcohol addiction. He has pursued his art vigorously ever since, having taken inspiration from the artistic career of the late George Wyllie (strongly connected with Greenock and Gourock) who also started later in life, making art with humour for everyone to enjoy.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Origins’, view of ground floor exhibition copy
View of ground floor exhibition

On show here is a collection of large scale paintings, all from 2022, mostly in acrylic on canvas, and two sculpted figures. The works are on both floors of the Beacon, and all the paintings are for sale.

By chance, the artist arrived in the gallery while I was looking at the show, and while in conversation kindly gave me his card – on it is a photograph of a very young Willie in his Christmas cowboy outfit – it is a memory that has inspired much of his work.

The show’s title, Origins, relates to the origins of behaviours and personality. There is a narrative given for each of the paintings by the artist, however he also invites the viewer to bring their own interpretation. Many of his paintings relate to childhood and youth – boy in a cowboy outfit, a soft toy, schooldays: I think the works will be relatable for many viewers. These are paintings telling the artist’s story, but also allowing for the imagination of the viewer. Willie Sutherland has said, ‘whatever they suggest to you, at any given time, is the correct response’.

The artist also says, ‘I’m inviting you the viewer to metaphorically wear these paintings as a costume, to project yourself into the scene and experience your own emotional response’.

Here are some of my responses on seeing the show, along with some insights in conversation from the artist:

On the entrance floor, Tentacles and Flora/fauna (see top) remind me of the forms and bold colours of Henri Matisse’s paper cut-out works. These two works make a good pairing on the wall. In Flora/fauna the daisies are reduced to simple bold forms, but in a convincing composition, you can imagine daisies growing in such a random cluster.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Luxury’, acrylic on canvas
‘Luxury’, acrylic on canvas

In Luxury – although not painted I think clothes ropes are implied. Is it a washing hanging on the back green?

Willie Sutherland, ‘A benefactor?’ and ‘Prickly’, acrylic on canvas
‘A benefactor?’ and ‘Prickly’, acrylic on canvas

A benefactor? and Prickly are shown as a pairing. In A benefactor? the woman’s handbag is prominent – is she going to bring forth a coin from her purse for a young person? I think this lady knows the cowboy in the next painting. In Prickly there’s a cowboy and a cactus – both the cactus and the cowboy’s gesture are prickly. Anyone who has ever imagined themselves to be a cowboy will smile.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Bunny’, acrylic on canvas
‘Bunny’, acrylic on canvas

On the stair to the upper gallery is Bunny – the artist tells me that the painting is ‘inspired by that lost soft toy you sometimes see in the gutter’ – it’s a very sad bunny but looks as if it has been well loved.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Wawa’, acrylic on canvas
‘Wawa’, acrylic on canvas

Works on the upper floor begin with Wawa – feeling like a sad clown. The real person is hidden behind the pink hair, red nose and big glasses.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Forest’, acrylic on canvas
‘Forest’, acrylic on canvas

In Forest – with simple tree forms – the atmosphere is mysterious. This is the forest that must be travelled through in the artist’s journey.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Cheerio’, acrylic on canvas
‘Cheerio’, acrylic on canvas

Cheerio shows two figures with a maritime look by a harbour, we have to imagine who they are: the paintings where the figures have blank faces, such as this one, have something of the photo-opportunity look about them.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Little fluffy clouds’, acrylic on canvas
‘Little fluffy clouds’, acrylic on canvas

Little fluffy clouds I think are like clouds above the American prairies, and the artist has created a clever optical effect of blurred movement. Reminiscent of a cartoon,  or perhaps a bit David Hockney-like? I particularly like this one.

Willie Sutherland, ‘A part, apart’, acrylic on canvas
‘A part, apart’, acrylic on canvas

A part, apart is like an isolated detail from the school class photo – the artist says this refers to his feelings of ‘not fitting in’ at that time.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Origin of Wa’, acrylic on canvas
‘Origin of Wa’, acrylic on canvas

In Origin of Wa, is the harlequin-costumed character juggling the many aspects of their life?

Willie Sutherland, ‘Jam Tomorrow’, acrylic on canvas
‘Jam Tomorrow’, acrylic on canvas

In the final painting Jam Tomorrow there aren’t many clues pictorially, although the artist’s note indicates his hope for the future.

These paintings are playful, colourful, sometimes joyful, bold, with simple strong shapes, humorous, evocative, very accessible and appealing: it is very easy to like them. I think everyone will find something here to capture their own imagination and to enjoy.

Willie Sutherland, sculpted figures, card and PVA
Sculpted figures, card and PVA

There are also two of the artist’s sculpted figures, to the side of the main entrance, made from paper and card, one with a wizard’s hat and one with a crown. About 4 feet tall, they are playful figures, looking like youngsters at play, in costume. Part of a series, the artist has said that they each represent elements of personality.

Willie Sutherland, ‘Origins’, view of first floor exhibition
View of first floor exhibition

I recommend that you get along to see this exhibition soon, and perhaps take a look at more of Willie Sutherland’s work of the last two years on his website, which is really quite inspirational – I didn’t know his work before – it made me happy to see what he has created. The artist has many projects ongoing too, and further exhibitions planned for this year.

Willie’s exhibition is part of a celebratory year-long 10th anniversary programme at the Beacon. A Summer Open Exhibition is planned for July and August, open to everyone living in Inverclyde to have their work shown. For details of forthcoming exhibitions see the Beacon’s website.

With thanks to Gordon Reid for this review, and to Lisa McRuvie and Willie Sutherland for their kind assistance. Visit Willie’s website for more information.

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