The Herald 18/8/14.

Free Workshops from Absent Voices

Members of the public are being invited to take part in free workshops which draw on Greenock’s rich industrial heritage. For the last 10 months, the Inverclyde-based Absent Voices collective has been busy working on creating an archive which talks out the creative story of Greenock’s once mighty sugar industry. By focusing on the Sugar Sheds, the group is creating a permanent record of the sugar industry in words, pictures and song, which will culminate with an exhibition in Greenock’s McLean Gallery in November. The following free community events will take place under the banner of Absent Voices. • 11am-4pm, Saturday 30th August: FREE Figure Drawing Workshop at Greenock Art Club. Led by Rod Miller. • 7.30pm-9.30pm, Monday 8th, 15th, 22nd & 29th September: FREE songwriting workshops led by Yvonne Lyon at The Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock. Limited numbers but all ages and abilities welcome. All songs written at the workshops will be added to the Absent Voices archives Lead Absent Voices artist, Alec Galloway, said: “The tours and workshops are all free and open to anyone with an interest in drawing, photography or songwriting. “We supply all the materials and the feedback from past Absent Voices workshops has been extremely positive. This is a great opportunity to get creative and to get involved in an important project which is seeking to tell the story of sugar in Inverclyde.” You can sign up to the tours by leaving a message on, or emailing at or

Rod Miller

Greenock-based Rod Miller has worked as a professional photographer for over 20 years and runs the photography department at Glasgow Dental Hospital & School. He also teaches photographic techniques at the Glasgow and Edinburgh Post Graduate centres for dentistry. In the mid-1990s, Rod started painting again, returning to a passion which he had nurtured growing up in Greenock in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a key player in Watersongs, a project established in 2007 as a response to the changes in Inverclyde’s traditional industrial waterfront. Rod continues to be inspired by his surroundings, especially the history of his home town, the wider Inverclyde area and as the people within it.

Yvonne Lyon

Yvonne Lyon is an experienced singer-songwriter and teacher based in Greenock. She recently graduated with a Masters in Songwriting and Performance from the University of the West of Scotland. Her most recent album, These Small Rebellions, produced by Wet Wet Wet’s Graeme Duffin was Iain Anderson’s album of the week on his late night BBC Radio Scotland show and has received extensive play on national radio. Her music combines poignant lyrics with strong, creative melodies, demonstrating a voice that can be both fragile and intense. Yvonne has shared the stage with artists such as Patti Griffin, Karine Polwart, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Boo Hewerdine, Luka Bloom and Eddi Reader. She won the Burnsong International Songwriting Competition and subsequently sang her winning song, All Is Not Lost, at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. She has appeared on BBC 1, BBC Alba and has had two sessions with Bob Harris on BBC Radio 2.

About Absent Voices

Absent Voices has been devised to explore and preserve in words, pictures, song and sound, the legacy of Greenock’s once mighty sugar industry. According to lead artist, Alec Galloway, by telling the story of the sugar sheds, hopefully a fitting creative use will be found for this Category A-listed building. The artists are: Al Carlisle Alastair Cook Alec Galloway Ryan King Yvonne Lyon Kevin McDermott Anne Mckay Rod Miller This vast red-brick and cast-iron former sugar warehouse sits in the shadow of Greenock’s Titan Crane. A local landmark with its distinctive zig-zag exterior, it not been used for sugar-making since the 1960s. Prince Charles is a known supporter of retaining the former sugar warehouse and even visited the building in 2002 to add his voice to a campaign to save it from demolition. Absent Voices activities taking place include: • Working with local schools to educate and inform young people about the area’s history in sugar-making • Recreating physical markers of sugar making in the sheds – such as plaques and pillars – in glass • Songwriting workshops based around the songs sugar workers sang at work • Recording the ambient sound of the sheds and photographing former workers in the sheds using traditional wet plate photography. Built between 1882 and 1886 to designs by Walter Kinipple, the 700-ft long sugar warehouse was constructed in four red-brick sections with arches and pilasters in yellow brick. It is widely recognised as a prime example of early industrial architecture, with an unusual feature of a colonnade of cast iron columns forming a sheltered unloading area next to the quayside. Currently owned by Clydeport, the warehouse now operates as a storage facility in tandem with the James Watt Dock Marina. Absent Voices is supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, Inverclyde Council and Riverside Inverclyde It will culminate in November 2014 at an exhibition at The McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock.
©Anne McKay

Anne McKay

Anne has been extremely busy with Absent Voices projects.  Here are some pictures taken at Your Voice Community Crae Mural project and at her recent drawing workshops.
Yvonne Lyon

Yvonne Lyon

” I reckon the kids have learned more about the history of their local community in 4 songs and a mural or art than any textbook or lecture. Not only that, as they paint those lives into being and sing the songs, they live the characters a wee bit themselves!” Strong, inspiring words from Yvonne Lyon as we talked about her involvement with the Absent Voices project. Yvonne is on board as a singer songwriter with the project mainly exploring the role of ‘work songs’. These ‘work songs’ are not only beautiful but also cover a whole range of genres when it comes to songs and music. A piece of music sung while carrying out a working task, usually repetitive, back-breaking work, these songs not only detailed the work, maybe included a narrative but were also used to keep the field hands, factory workers and slaves moving in the process. Yvonne is very much interested in process as she adopts a flexible approach to what she individually as an artist will produce at the end of the Absent Voices project.  As she said herself, “I’m allowing the process to guide the product. I am much more interested in the processes going on. I am extremely interested in how we can enter into the process of making art to re-imagine the sugar industry: the legacy good and bad. Re-imagining is important for me. I am keen to help people see through song. The process of writing a song can open up your eyes and ears to so much more than just reading about history and really does bring aspects to life for people, whether it’s in the act of writing or listening.”
Yvonne, Nicole and Kevin at Whinhill Primary ©Anne McKay

Yvonne, Nicole and Kevin at Whinhill Primary ©Anne McKay

So far Yvonne has worked with Whinhill Primary School, to write and record four songs. She is also on board to compose the music for three filmpoems with Alastair Cook. In terms of further local community involvement, Yvonne is keen to engage with local choirs, offering songwriting and performance workshops, hoping to culminate in some sort of performance in the Sugar Sheds themselves.

Yvonne’s practice from the beginning has been to embrace the collaborative aspect of this project and pursue a cross pollination of disciplines. For example, very quickly Anne McKay and Yvonne sparked an idea to work together at Whinhill bringing together visual art and songwriting in one mini project. It has been fantastic so far and extremely inspiring. They’ve  worked with P4/5 throughout March for two hours a week, splitting a group of 40 pupils in half. They gave them four characters to bring to life through visual art and song, people who would have worked in the sheds around 1900. Anne’s group would decide what they looked like, wore, their environment and they Yvonne’s group would decide what voice to give them. So through this collaboration, they have literally given these Absent Voices a face and voice. The pupils loved both aspects. They’ve written songs based on Gaelic Waulking songs fused with African Slave songs and spirituals, canons (songs in a round), jigs and laments with Gaelic lyrics.
There was a taster of their creations as six of the children sung their very own songs at the pop up event at The Beacon last month. The audience were in awe! Some education people who were there suggested rolling out the project out as a fuller educational initiative! From this, Yvonne hopes to record the children singing with fully produced arrangements of the songs.

The collaborative aspect is so exciting within the group, whether it is composing for Film and poetry with Alastair, recording vocals for Al and Ryan or working with Rod and Kevin, they seem to spark off each other. The pop up event was a real ‘high’ for that. They were beginning to see how each artist of the project was responding to the subject. Creativity begets creativity.

Yvonne recently toured with Eddi Reader. This was a very significant moment in Yvonne’s career to be part of this tour. “So many tiny and massive moments of meaning that an artist can wait a lifetime to experience, ” were part of this experience says Yvonne. However, she has enjoyed coming back to Greenock and realising that she is part of a community of artists, who work and support each other.  These artists operate within and for he local community also.

The final words from Yvonne are, “Community responses have been fantastic (as above) but we need to get the word out more. We have such a wealth of artists in Inverclyde and amazing stories to tell. I really hope we can just keep building relationships and ideas and that AV will be a catalyst for more.”


Rod Miller

I managed to catch up with another artist involved in the Absent Voices Project: Rod Miller. Rod’s been working on the walking drawing tours with Annie as well as working at All Saints School. Rod mentioned that the children really understood and related to the importance of sugar to the local area and were fascinated at just how many things are made from sugar bi-products. So a good job done there.


But Rod’s role in the project doesn’t end there as he is also exploring how the local sugar industry was represented in the works of such artists as Sir Stanley Spencer and Joan Eardley. These two artists recorded the local shipbuilding industry in their works, an industry that no exists except in the remnants of the Sugar Sheds at James Watt Dock and the Glebe refinery building. Rod is therefore talking to the community, gleaming stories and memories from the people about the sugar trade and it’s impact to inspire his paintings. So he is always on the look out for more people to talk to. So please just get in touch if you have anything to share about both the sugar and shipbuilding industries. Thank you.


Through talking to Rod I came to realise there is much more to his artist practice than just research, compose and paint. As Rod said himself, “Painting is non of your leisurely relaxing airy fairy routine. It’s hard work and graft and feeling.”

Painting is a solo effort and is pretty intense. First, he works things out in his head, often going from ideas straight  to canvas. Sometimes he might work about with the composition on paper and draw some of the parts out with pencils and charcoal but these always seem to change a bit when he starts to paint in oils.


When Rod gets into the painting itself more often that not things start to change again. It will end up looking quite different from what he had in his head when he started out. But that’s just the creative process, the part where the painting is creating itself. It take’s on it’s own life force and energy and dictates to the artist how it wants to look.
Rod mentions a struggle at this point between him and the painting. Between how he wants the painting to look and how the painting itself wants to be seen. In the end the painting always wins.

I found it fascinating talking to Rod about his artist’s process and the energy that exudes from the final art works. Thank you for sharing Rod, it was a pleasure.
©Anne McKay

Drawing Event on 30th May.

Brush up your drawing skills with Anne McKay, graduate of the Glasgow School of Art.
Drawing Event in the Greenock Art Club on 30th May.
This event will be the first of three 4 hour workshops, in May and June, where you can learn new techniques in a friendly and productive environment,

All levels of ability/experience are most welcome and there is a maximum of 10 places for each class, which will allow for indepth tuition and encouragement.The further two workshops will be in held in RIG Arts, Greenock, on 6th and 13th June at 1pm until 5pm. To book a place, please go to Facebook Absent Voices Community Page, and “join” whichever workshop(s) you would like to attend.
A big thank you to The Greenock Art Club and RIG Arts for supporting Absent Voices.
©Alec Galloway

Glass with Alec Galloway

Alec Galloway will be holding FREE glassmaking workshops as part of the wider Absent Voices project to tell the creative story of Greenock’s once-mighty sugar industry. Alec has booked the Pirrie Hall at the Old West Kirk, in Greenock for the stained glass classes. The first group of three run  for three Fridays; 9th,16th and 23rd May. The next will be held on Saturdays; 31st May, 7th June and 14th June. Each class will run from 12.30pm till 3.30pm. Alec is asking for people to commit to the block of three Fridays and three Saturdays as separate blocks. If you are interested, please contact Alec on Alec will also be doing mini talks in the church as part of the classes to highlight some of the techniques in painting and staining.
©Graeme Nichol

Walking Drawing Tours

For the past few months now, artist Anne (Annie McKay) has been facilitating walking drawing tours around the Sugar Sheds. The tours involve walking around the sheds inside and out, sharing the history of the buildings as well as looking into the details; the fabric of the sheds themselves. Along the way, it’s important that the participants become familiar with the environment, it’s history and significance, as well as learn and develop their drawing skills. Mark making, tone, lines, textures and shapes are all explored as they gain confidence in their drawing abilities. Annie hopes to continue with further drawing tours throughout the year up until November. Not only is Annie involved in these tours but she is also working with a number of primary schools in Greenock to create artworks for the Absent Voices project as well as finding time to concentrate on her own art work.  After being brought up just down the road from the sheds, Absent Voices as a project feeds into Annie’s desire to interact with the community around such themes of their shared heritage and history.
©Graeme Nichol

©Graeme Nichol

I managed to catch up with one participant from the series of walking drawing tours, Graeme Nichol. A self-motivating artist, he joins each tour with three aims; to have fun, to learn new techniques and to be inspired through the practice to observe, conceptualise and capture future ideas. The last tour Graeme joined was useful for providing new insight into the buildings.  Different details where picked out in the shadows. This particular session, Graeme became interested in the shadows of the cranes and the reflection of the sheds in puddles outside. The group setting is very supportive and enjoyable, as well learning from each other reinforces the value of these events, events that are  worth repeating.   Graeme has passed the Sugar Sheds for years going on holiday and hadn’t really understood the industry and history of the place. Having a love for the sea and all things maritime, Absent Voices is providing Graeme with the fascinating opportunity to experience the Sugar Sheds and explore the contact between the sea and the sugar industry.
©Graeme Nichol

©Graeme Nichol

  Graeme was kind enough to share some of his work produced during the walking drawing tours. For one particular session, they were experimenting with working with templates to build up drawings. The drawings started during the tour are used as a reference archive. This archive Graeme has utilised as he works up some of his charcoal drawings to exhibit at the Seagull gallery in Gourock. One of the first drawings he developed has now been sold through the Rig Gallery. This is excellent news and demonstrates one of the many ways in which this project, and Absent Voices as a whole is touching and changing the local community’s lives.
©Graeme Nichol

©Graeme Nichol

Life Drawing ©Rod Millar

Figure Drawing: Saturday 26th April

Come along to Greenock Art Club and join Absent Voices artist Rod Miller in drawing periodic clad workers from the sugar refineries. Following on from the Drawing Tours of the Sugar Sheds, come along and draw some character workers from the sugar industry. We will start with ‘syrup girls’ in period dress and go on from there if demand requires. All materials and refreshments will be supplied. Places are limited and can only be booked my contacting Rod directly on : or on 07765419421.
Whinhill Primary School P6 ©Anne McKay


Have you met the syrup girls? Those young female workers who were only allowed into the Sugar Sheds come 1902? They were wee lasses brought in to pour the syrup. The young children at Whinhill Primary School have met the syrup girls and are getting to know them better as they bring them to life through the Absent Voices school projects.
Yvonne, Nicole and Kevin at Whinhill Primary ©Anne McKay

Yvonne, Nicole and Kevin at Whinhill Primary ©Anne McKay

Yvonne Lyons and Annie McKay have been spending time in Whinhill Primary School reimagining life in the past for Greenock with the younger  generation of the present with the aim of creating a more flourishing future for everyone in Greenock. The young children are working across the creative genres of art and music to visualise as well as  vocalise the variety of characters who came into contact with the Sugar Sheds. You can hear more about the project here: What this project achieves, along with Annie’s school project in All Saint’s last year, is the next generation learning about their history but not in the usual, sometimes boring straightforward kind of way.
Anne McKay with artwork produced by P6 at Whinhill Primary School.

Anne McKay with artwork produced by P6 at Whinhill Primary School.

These children are learning new knowledge at the same time as new skills through the arts. Through being creative these children are learning but through these interactive ways they are taking ownership of their learning, gaining in confidence and supporting each other. The artwork this school has created along with the songs they have written will be shared to the community during a special pop-up event happening at The Beacon this Friday, 28 March from 2.30-8.30. This is an opportunity for the Greenock community to find out more about the project as well as how they can get involved too.

Sweet Day Out At Beacon Arts

WHAT: Absent Voices Pop Up Show WHEN: Friday 28th March 2014 from 2.30-8.30pm WHERE: Beacon Arts Centre, Custom House Quay, Greenock, PA15 1HJ Full press release: Absent Voices Popup at Beacon Arts Centre Invitation flyer: Pop-up Invitation


A group of Inverclyde-based artists and musicians is holding a free day-long event featuring live music and art at Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre. The group of eight artists-in-residence at Greenock’s historic A-listed Sugar Sheds have been working on a project called Absent Voices, exploring the rich legacy of the sugar industry in Inverclyde. Primary schools, community groups and members of the public have been collaborating with the artists-in-residence and now the group wants to share this work-in-progress with the public. The artists are also looking for people who worked in the sugar industry to come forward and take part in the Absent Voices project. Their memories will contribute to a visual and sonic archive which the artists are currently building up as a lasting legacy. The Absent Voices Pop Up will take place on Friday, March 28 from 2.30 until 8.30pm. The eight artists will be joined by celebrated Inverclyde maritime artist, James Watt, who will display several of his iconic Clydeside paintings for one day only. Mr Watt will be speaking at the event about the importance of drawing as a tool for gathering information. Absent Voices lead artist, Alec Galloway, said: “As a group we have all been working on creating an archive which will tell the story of the once-mighty sugar industry in Inverclyde. “This pop-up event will give us a chance to spread the word about Absent Voices far and wide and to encourage members of the public to become involved in this exciting initiative.”


  • A display of drawings, paintings, photography, stained glass and poetry inspired by Inverclyde’s sugar industry heritage
  • Artwork produced by Inverclyde primary schools and community groups
  • Absent Voices artists, Rod Miller & Anne McKay, sharing their experiences of Sugar Sheds drawing walks in which members of the public have taken part
  • Live performances from Kevin McDermott and Yvonne Lyon ((check Absent Voices website for timings)
  • Samples from an under-construction soundtrack of the Sugar Sheds by Ryan King & Alan Carlisle
  • Beautiful Sugar Shed-inspired photography by Alastair Cook, alongside new writing from Scottish poet John Glenday.
  • The opportunity to sign up for FREE workshops in stained glass, urban sketching tours around Inverclyde, digital photography and songwriting.