Art Extraordinary collection finds new home at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum

A unique collection of Scottish ’outsider art’ is being celebrated with its first-ever permanent display at Glasgow Life’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

The collection, called Art Extraordinary, was put together over four decades by pioneering art therapist and artist Joyce Laing OBE.

Laing collected paintings, drawings, sculptures and crafts created by the people she encountered during her career in places including hospitals across Scotland and the Barlinnie Prison Special Unit.

Many of the artists were experiencing periods of mental ill-health during the time they were creating their work. Laing was interested in the connection between the creation of art and the mental wellbeing of the artists.

Her collection was donated to Glasgow Life Museums in 2012. Since then, Glasgow Life Museums staff and researchers from the University of Glasgow worked together to research and organise the more than 1,100 pieces of art Laing collected.

The permanent display is the culmination of years of activities which aimed to bring the Art Extraordinary collection to communities across the west of Scotland, and to research the history and geography of the art and the artists represented by the collection.

Among the items on display in the new exhibit are:

  • Stone sculptures by Shetlander Adam Christie. Adam was a patient at Montrose Asylum from 1901-1950 and carved stones found on the hospital site with handmade tools.
  • The Mouse, an icon of the Art Extraordinary Collection created by an unknown artist. One of the earliest pieces in the collection, The Mouse was salvaged by Joyce Laing from a hospital rubbish bin.
  • Artworks by artist and musician Gordon Anderson. Gordon creates using everyday materials from cardboard to modelling clay.

The display is co-curated by individuals at the Leverndale Recreational Therapy Unit, Project Ability, and Gartnavel Hospital. The collaboration aimed to provide the participants, many of whom have experienced mental ill-health, with the skills needed to curate the display and add to our understanding of the collection.

Dr Cheryl McGeachan from the University of Glasgow worked to create ’geographical biographies’ of the collection, uncovering for the first time new details about where the artwork was made, how it was produced, and who had been involved in making it.

Dr McGeachan, a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical & Earth Sciences, said: "I’m proud to have been part of the effort to research and showcase Joyce Laing’s remarkable collection, and I’m delighted that the Art Extraordinary collection has found a home in Glasgow’s flagship museum.

"The work that Joyce collected provides invaluable insights into the creative lives of some of society’s most marginalised people. Unbelievably, some of the pieces now on display were initially salvaged by Joyce from rubbish bins. I’m immensely grateful to Joyce for recovering them, and to my collaborators at Glasgow Life Museums and beyond for their support to bring a new focus on the experiences of mental ill-health to Kelvingrove."

Dr Anthony Lewis, curator of Scottish history and the Art Extraordinary collection at Glasgow Life Museums and the display’s project manager, said: "This remarkable collection was developed by Scotland’s pioneering art therapist and I am sure Joyce will be happy that Art Extraordinary is being displayed at Kelvingrove. It is a display that recognises Mental Health art and care’s importance and is housed alongside other works in an area of the museum that focuses on the theme of expression.

"The display shows people expressing themselves through art and words to represent mental health as an issue for visitors to consider and discuss with friends, family and staff. The display also celebrates many earlier community events since the collection was given to Glasgow Life Museums a decade ago, and reveals the teamwork that has gone into the collection curation thanks to Claire and to Cheryl’s scholarship at the University of Glasgow.

"The result is that Art Extraordinary will be better understood and the wider collection, which is stored at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, will feature in tours on mental health and makes sure Art Extraordinary is seen and known by more people than ever."

Claire Coia, curator at Glasgow’s Open Museum, added: "The first time we took artworks from this collection, including plasticine portraits of the Beatles and embroidered hospital bedsheets, to a pop-up event at Leverndale Hospital, they sparked so much discussion that I knew it really was extraordinary!

"We started off knowing very little about many of the objects in the collection and it’s been a real journey to research them. Tony, Cheryl, and I have been facilitating the process - the community curators are the real experts. By putting the power of curation into the hands of the experts, new stories and perspectives have emerged. This is still the tip of the iceberg - with over a thousand artworks in this treasure trove, who knows what stories are biding their time, waiting to be told?"

The Art Extraordinary exhibit is on display now at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in the Expression Gallery.