James Watt: Painter for the People

James Watt is a name synonymous with Scottish innovation, the Greenock inventor creating the steam engine.

But another Jimmy has shown his talents, in the form of a Port Glasgow painter by the same name. His recent exhibit at The Beacon Arts Center, Greenock, is his latest public display and his first in the newly built arts center.

Main Entrance - Beacon Arts Center

Main Entrance – Beacon Arts Center

The setting is more appropriate than your usual gallery. As a painter of an aquatic theme, the gallery sees the paintings overlooking the Clyde, the river which inspired the painter for half a century. The Beacons entire back wall is made of glass, giving for a majestic view of the water. One might think this would give visitors some small insight as to why Watt found it such an inspiring location; they would be wrong. It was the smog filled ship yards and dirty working men that lit the fire of creativity in this Port-born man.

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The man himself was in attendance on the Friday I visited, and the day before as well.Ā Watt said of the new local arts center;

“It’s a marvelous building, it really is. For the first time since the ship yards closed I feel we’re really making use of what the Clyde has to offer, if not in such an industrial sense. It’s a beautiful location and it’s wonderful to see the pictures all overlooking the water. It’s where they were all painted, after all.”

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Having come from a line of working class men, poorly educated with little prospect other than to go straight from basic schooling into the expected and predictable future of a trade, Watt found himself of school leaving age during a time of unexpected promise. Further education was no longer an unattainable dream for the working man, a lavish luxury of the wealthy. Scholarship and free further education were being offered to the working middle class and Watts father, being a clever man and self-educated despite his humble station, saw an opportunity to send his equally so ambitious sons on a path to a life he had no hope of attaining.

On workers his opinion was clear;

“Whether they were clever or not was irrelevant; this was what was expected of them. My father was a very clever man. He read books that most of the other men would never have heard of and the fact that he was even interested in what they had to say was strange to them, alien even. Something he would be mocked over. Now we can see that he was just a man with a mind more than his station but with no way to correctly employ that inherent brilliance. It’s very sad, really, because you just don’t know how many others were in the same position.”

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And so it was that James Watt found himself able to attend Art School and begin to create painted works from the scenes he saw growing up. Industry features prominently in almost all of his works and his paintings more often defy the quintessential ideal of pretty boats on sparkling water under a lightly dusted blue skies. They reveal the true rawness and unyielding mire of the yards and the daily toil of the men who worked there.

“It was a toil, that’s exactly the word. Those men had no prospects; they would never leave the yards once they sucked them in. They had no choice but to go straight from school and pick a trade, work at it all their lives and live the predictable, mundane life of a grafter, same as every other man in the yard.” he said, “Not to say that they weren’t extremely skilled, which they were, in their way.”

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Often painting these scenes of graft and Clyde creation in burnished tones, there is an almost sinister, otherworldly atmosphere from them. They depict relics of a bygone age as the shipping industry has since died out from the area, moving on to greener pastures in South Korea and other, offshore locations.

The artists favourite

The artists favourite

Taking great pleasure in speaking to admirers of his work he spoke of the largest in the exhibition being his favourite. Featuring on the main entrance wall of the gallery his fondness of it was clear;

“It’s not even that I think it’s my best painting,” he told me, “But it’s only now that I’ve lent it to the Beacon and it’s no longer hanging on the wall in my house that I can’t help feeling a little bereft in it’s absence. I think it’s more that I painted it at a time I now reflect upon as bring poignant… I’m actually feeling a little anxious with it hanging there, I quite want it back now.” he laughed, but there was a glint of yearning the kind, weathered face.

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My personal favourite was found at the back of the gallery. Consuming a massive expanse of wall, it was one of the lighter, more hopeful images in the show. TitledĀ ‘ARDBEG’ it was painted in 1980 and is oil on canvas.

Ardbeg

Ardbeg

Ardbeg

Ardbeg

There is a light and an optimism for the freedom of boating that struck me as being quietly beautiful, a relief in a collection of largely russet toned canvases.

Interspersing the work yard themed, brazenly painted boat scenes are pictures of a more traditional marine sort. Though one could hardly describe them as “bright”, they are several shades lighted than their harder edged kin. Depicting the cloudy Scottish weather, the waters edge in these smaller canvasses are often lonely feeling, quiet, muted tones showing the simplicity of beachfront life.

The inventor of the steam engine might be a national treasure, but I doubt he could depict his home the way this James Watt does, so many years later.

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I Brought My Own Coffee, Thanks

There is a major problem with office workers.

How the hell they expect someone to survive in an office environment with crap instant coffee is utterly beyond me.

This was the predicament I found myself in recently, when I had two days work experience at my local paper. Now this post is in no way to be considered poor reflection on those fine wordsmiths at the Greenock Telegraph – which, in case you hadn’t heard, is in fact the finest local newspaper in the West Coast of Scotland – no, in theĀ whole of Scotland! (and if that isn’t a claim worthy of the Sun then I don’t know what is) It is merely meant to reflect my utterĀ admiration for people who work under stressful conditions – without super quality caffeine on an IV.

When I began my two days I knew roughly what to expect since I had spent some time there before. I felt prepared.

So this time, when I walked through those double doors at 9:30, I did not feel such an amateur. I slid in front of my very own computer booth, tapped in my personal log-in and snapped on my secretary-come-secret agent headset. Reporters notepad on desk, pen in front pocket and handbag stocked with reporter-like things tucked at my side, ready to be grabbed at the click of my editors fingers.

Everything was going well as I spent the morning fashioning nibs from local ads (what we in the industry call those little fillers at the side of the page that tell you of local events and whatnot). It was only when my trust-me-I’m-a-journalist shirt began to feel just a little chilly, that I noticed the other warning signs. The thirst. The headache. The tightening around the eyes that seemed to spread to my jaw. Eventually using a slightly shaking hand to straighten my short-in-a-sexy-yet-sensible-way skirt I had to admit it – it was coffee time!

10:30am. Damn it. I had hoped to make it til at least 11 before I let the caffeine get the better of me but hey, strong coffee is a mark of a true journalist, right?

But when I get to the tea room, I was a little… disheartened. Not so much disappointed, that would be too much. But my heart swelled a little at the sight before me, and not in that joyful way it sometimes does, more in that way that tells you something awful has happened but that your too pumped with adrenaline to appreciate it.

There was coffee, sure. And it was instant, which is fine, more than fine, it’s great. But it was the second most intolerable instant coffee known to man. It was that dreaded fiend, Tescos own brand. Not even one of the decent ones that tasted just like the good stuff but a slightly more aerated colour in a different jar. It was that rubbish that takes two spoonfuls to have a taste, two more to just about bear some morose resemblance to coffee. And the worst part – it wasĀ decaf!Ā I know, I felt it too; theĀ horror.Ā I mean forĀ goodness sake, why even bother drinking something characterised by its potentially heart disease creating key ingredient in favour of a version whichĀ might boost you concentration a tiny bit more but has only been so far proven to do in mice!? I can think of other kinds of murky water that could well have the same effect and probably taste about the same!

This sad scene put something of a dampener on my morning, but I was not prepared to let it beat me; so I had three more before noon and by then, things began to look significantly brighter.

I have nothing against the humble instant coffee; I drink cups of the sweet brown nectar everyday (black, two sugars, if you’re interested), and I did feel so suave and journalisty sitting in front of my pile of half read dailys, shorthand notes and copy print-outs. The steaming mug to my right was the perfect addition to my completed look; keen young reporter at work, disturb and face her cutting wit. Even the glasses perched half way off the end of my nose since I wouldn’t see the computer screen from the ridiculous distance it was stationed away from me made me appear somehow like I fitted my situation. (whoever sat at that desk before me must have been the most long-sighted fellow ever to have lived, by the way, and I think they superglued that tower to the flippin’ desk because for all my efforts,Ā it would not move closer)

But be serious. I am only 19 years old and while yes, I may have acquired an unhealthy addiction to strong coffee at a young age, the rest of the people in that office were thereĀ every day.Ā Drinking that stuff.

I knew I would be flagging after two days of that. My means of remedying a potentially embarrassing situation?

I brought my coffee, thank-you very much.

That’s right, in a sandwich bag. I brought enough of my favourite from home to last me the day andĀ lowĀ and behold, my two days ended marvelously. I had a couple of pieces submitted for the paper for the rest of the week and went on my merry way, even with the promise of future days work to come.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the press, I would like to take this opportunity to impart these words of simple wisdom to you: If you work in an environment where concentration is key, make sure you are well stocked in whatever you need. Be that cigarettes for the nicotine addicts out there; biscuits and bananas for the diabetics, as I can only assume Eric, who had the desk next to me must have been since for all the time I was there the manĀ never stopped snacking yet was not fat; or in my case, decent coffee. Make sure you have what you need and it will give you the confidence and the focus to enjoy the experience more.

See you in the headlines!!

SSDD