After an affliction by the recent storms, the statue of May Donoghue was reinstalled back in Paisley near the location of café that the actual May took to court. The tale of May goes that after discovering a snail at the bottom of her ginger beer bottle, causing much illness and discomfort she took the manufacturer to court and persisted until eventually winning the case four years later in 1932.
Mandy McIntosh‘s statue of May Donoghue was only unveiled in Paisley in September this year, a first for Mandy in terms of permanent classic sculpture. This is a reflection of the more contemporary practices in Paisley, the juxtaposition of the classic with the experimental.
Mandy spoke with The Fountain about her background and the process of creating a sculpture, as well as her thoughts on where Paisley fits in the Scottish art culture scene.
TF: Mandy, this is your first sculpture, what was it about May Donoghue that influenced you to choose her as your subject?
When I proposed the project, I had no idea who May Donoghue was and I had never thought about actually making a sculpture of her. I had thought about making a sculpture and I had no idea what the sculpture was going to look like. It was not until I was already into the work that I started to focus on her as a person and to actually really think of her as someone that could exist as a sculpture. This had to do with what other things were influencing me and what I was thinking about, during the whole process. It’s been two years since getting the funding and unveiling the sculpture and it has been a great big long thinking process where the outcome completely changed shape several times, and there was quite a lot of discourse around where the work could be, there was a lot of nervousness on the Council’s part on actually taking on or adopting a sculpture because of the responsibility of actually being the custodian of a physical object. Also the budget wasn’t huge, but I knew quite clearly that I wanted to make something that had a longer life span and that was at the back of my mind driving everything.
TF: Can you elaborate on your background in the art world?
I trained originally in fashion textiles as my first entry point into art and design was through knitting and handknitting in the seventies when punk had just happened and new wave was kind of around. It was mid-eighties when everything was really visual, in fashion and dressing up, and I really kind of bought into all that, and was dead excited by it. I really got into making my own clothes and selling what I made as well. Through that I went on to study fashion and textiles and then I went to work for a Japanese designer in Paris called Kenzo and whilst I was there (I was there for two years), after the first six months I realised I could not stand this, it was just to do with the commercial environment and the distinct lack of creativity in that world because it is a commercial world. I came back to Glasgow and did a Masters at Glasgow School of Art and through that Masters, which was actually in Design, but it was really interesting because it was at a really early stage of people starting to think about multi-disciplinary working, so I basically jumped from being a textile person to actually being a film person and using film as a textile. The first films that I made were incredibly abstract and lots of it was about juxtaposition of imagery. When I look back on it now it really makes me think about Kenzo and Japanese visuals, the kimono for example, where you combine very different things. I was always really interested in somethng jarring when you place it next to something else and film is a really good way to experiment with that. So I started making fine art films and then I started to collaborate with a sound artist called Kaffe Matthews and we started to make non-permanent sculptural installation together. Through that, I just started to work across different social contexts, sometimes working collaboratively but always in self-generated projects so really not being involved in the world of the gallery, not being involved in the world of the studio as the space where the work happens, for me the work was always happening out and about in the world. I was either making experimental or animated documentaries or sight-specific reactions to things, or social diorama. There has been this dot-to-dot journey that has led to actually making a sculpture which is almost like a backlash against all of this experimental, precarious artmaking. It’s really interesting for me now to essentially make something that is quite classic and permanent, and made in a precious material. At the same time using a precious material in a way that is very gestural and quite slapdash.
May originates out of my love of fashion, what women wear, even down to something as simple as what accessory May is wearing. Her hat is really important. I was deliberating over whether to actually give her a hat because she was a working class woman and there was a certain point where I almost eliminated it because it made her look too wealthy. So there was all of these things going on but it was very much like a fashion drawing. May originated as a fashion drawing. And when I first looked at the photograph of her, before I was anywhere near making the sculpture, I drew her and drew her and drew her. Those shoulders and that silhouette was always very important and also the way she looks like also compares to my 3D computer generated animations, in virtual space. The way I build human beings in virtual space is how I built May. I don’t have a technically robust sculptural language, I had no idea how to make a sculpture, so I just made it how I thought it might work. The history of the sculpture is quite interesting as the body was made and then there was a different head and then I cut the head up and put another head on. It’s almost like I got to work digitally with a classical object because I could chop and change it in the same way that I can edit and change things in Photoshop and things like that. I did exactly the same thing with that sculpture which I think was slightly unorthodox. Right up until the last minute things were changing, which obviously in sculpture, is not usual. It’s often pre-determined and exact.
TF: That’s a very interesting approach, and also that you incorporated the snail from the tale with the swirls.
Yes, that was very interesting as well, because of the whole issue of responsibility of making something that is going to sit in other people’s worlds, that they might walk past every single day, that was actually quite a big burden in terms of making the work, because I do have a social consciousness around that. And I don’t want to impose on others. It was always at the back of my mind when making it was thinking about that because actually there is a functionality here as well. This isn’t just about my expressionistic response, this piece of work has to tell a story and so the snail is in it, but it is there symbolically as a spiral because the spiral in a universal symbol, it is the first man-made mark to represent the universe. At the unveiling I had said, “if it had been another creature or another entity that had been found in the bottle, the narrative might have gone a different way, if it had been a mouse, a spider or a finger, there is something around the snail that people really like.” There’s a poetic element to it, there’s a question around the poetic and whether it added buoyancy to it somehow. Denise Mina had actually said a really interesting thing about it, as there was a previous case where a mouse was found in a Barr’s ginger bottle and we were talking about that and the difference between the mouse and the snail. The mouse has it’s meat and a skeleton, how visceral and grotesque that is. The snail is equally as grotesque but somehow not quite, as we always see snails are sort of caricatures. So that is really interesting.
TF: And what is your connection to Paisley, Mandy?
My mum was born in Paisley, she grew up here, I lived here for a while as a child and there is a whole great big extended family that lives in Paisley that we were always seeing. So that was one thing but I also have worked in Paisley over the last few years. Initially I worked for the NHS as an artist in mental health, and when Paisley 2021 was happening Jean Cameron was bringing me in to work with groups, working quite extensively and for a long time in Ferguslie Park, working with the Star Project in Wallace St, next to Love St, and also at Glenburn.
TF: And what is the premise behind those projects?
The Star Project is a befriending and support project that exists, it has an open door policy, anyone can come. The cultural and heritage department at Renfrewshire Council are putting together portfolios of different heritage projects that can be distributed among different groups in Paisley. So I am working with the Star Project to look at the legacy of Jessie Newbury who was born in Paisley and who was an exquisite embroiderer. She actually set up the embroidery department in Glasgow School of Art, she was around at the same time as Mackintosh, and was part of a whole body of people, not just Mackintosh, that created the Glasgow style. So I am working with two groups to look at basic embroidery skills but also to think about the relevance and the application of those methods now, what does embroidery mean now? What’s it for or what do we do with it? Is it necessary? Is it redundant? So I have been doing all that and thinking about all that in really quite simple ways, asking people to think about functionality and decoration and all that. And also just celebrate her as someone from Paisley.
TF: I would be interested to get your thoughts on where you see Paisley going culturally within the art world. It has a rich heritage when you consider who is from this town. Where do you see Paisley manoeuvring itself in terms of Scottish Art culture?
I really think about Paisley in terms of a psyche, and in terms of it’s actual tangible difference to Glasgow, it’s an extremely different place. Vastly different considering it is only nine minutes away on the train. When you come here it doesn’t feel like a small town next to Glasgow, it just feels like an all-encompassing kind of environment. One of the things I really really like about Paisley is that there is space for almost anything to happen, anything can spring up out of here. In Glasgow there is a very pre-determined expectancy of what art might get made, what literature might be written, or what films might get made. I think in Paisley it is a completely open platform, it just feels like things are quite maverick, but still rigorous and important. I think what Caroline Gormley and Sandy Guy are doing up at Made In Paisley is really interesting as they are bringing this contemporary painting practice, located right across from Paisley Museum with all of that classic approach to painting. Sandy obviously has his history of being an art teacher and his approach to painting is just really the elevation of low culture, painting Kentucky Fried Chicken and all of that, the fact that it is happening right across from the museum just feels really special, and where is this gonna go? What is going to be the impact of them being there and all the people around it that might participate in their workshops or might see that work for the first time. So that’s really interesting. Also, Andrea Kusel at the Paisley Museum is a very interesting curator as she is very tuned in to contemporary artmaking throughout Scotland and she actually made some really interesting acquisitions to the Paisley Museum Collection. Out in Ferguslie I was involved in a community arts festival out there, I discovered some new visual art talent out there that is being nurtured. It’s like chemistry almost. What’s going to happen if you put that with that, and it is going to make something that we didn’t expect. I think with artists like John Byrne and Gerry Rafferty, I think there is a model there, we have already seen it. I think it is going to happen again, it’s dead exciting here. That’s what is wonderful about Paisley is that it is completely under the radar and that’s when things can be really fertile.