The brutal with the beautiful
"I ran out and I ran down Drumfrochar Road to where the sugar house was burning. It was beautiful. There was flames going in all directions, orange and blue and then in the next street the distillery was burning and the whisky was running....I mean it was like a firework display.”
(Mary Bruce, Eyewitness Account, Greenock Blitz 1941 – Remembering Scotland at War)
Within the fiery destruction of Walkers Sugar Refinery were four men on a nightshift. One man, Alexander Cochrane, had gone to work with his family's pleas ringing in his ears. “Don't worry,” he said, “it's fine.” But it wasn't fine. The orange and blue glow acted as a flare to the German Luftwaffe and they used it to wreak unimaginable destruction on the town and the surrounding area. The man who went to work at Walkers Sugar Refinery and never came back was the great grandfather of stained glass Artist Alec Galloway.
“I thought the notion of creating a harp for him was a lovely idea. My granny always painted an image of him in heaven looking down on us all and watching over us, like an angel.”
The glass piece dedicated to his great grandfather was created with industrial Georgian wire safety glass, uncommon with glass artists because of the difficulty in cutting and shaping. The material was chosen to represent a factory environment – stark, oppressive and on this occasion, decidedly unsafe. Painted and printed onto this uncompromising surface is the actual rubbing from his great grandfather's headstone. To the right are layered images of the cockpit dials from a Junkers 33 German dive bomber and ground attack aircraft of the type used in the 1941 Greenock Blitz. At the heart of the glass piece blood red poppies are emblazoned, depicting, not just loss for Alec's family but for the countless others during the war years.
“One of the artworks I have created is a painting featuring my grandmother, Mary Cochrane who worked in the Glebe Sugarhouse.” The personal connection continues through Alec's work as he explores his family's historical connection to the sugar industry. Bringing forth the real with the imagined is a common theme through his art. The painting features his grandmother surrounded by fellow sugar workers who flank, what appears to be, their Foreman sitting – arms folded. These faces from the past sit politely with hands in their lap, some smiling, some not. At the McLean Museum I spotted a black and white picture of Glebe workers, all seated and posing for the official ‘works’ picture. To my astonishment, I spotted my granny in the front row - a young fresh-faced girl, before she was married - an image I’d never seen before!” he said in amazement. The main body of the painting is painted onto a jute sack, the same heavy material that would have been used for sugar bags, giving the piece a tactile quality. Blood red spatters, similar to the poppies in Alexander's Harp, stain the glasswork as a reminder of ancestry and loss.
“There’s a very big emotional element for me participating in this project.” said Alec. “My Dad’s side of the family, Great Grandfather, Grandmother, Father, Aunts and Uncles all worked within the sugar industry. My angle is very personal.”
The Glebe photograph features again in 'Junkers' painting. As a lad one can imagine the fascination for the Junkers aircraft that changed his family dynamics forever. As a child he constructed an airfix model of a Junker 33, not fully realising the significance of this until many years later. As a man, this is still a strong feature within the project. Junkers feature within the project as Projection pieces – photographs of composed glass compositions forming 5m x 5m projection onto the walls of the Sugar Sheds.
The series of paintings show connections using elements such a postage stamps that link to time and place and rosary beads that hang in juxtaposition with a map of the West Indies. Often the artwork is split into two clear dimensions and through all of the pieces runs a personal thread. He says of this approach, “The rosary beads were a way of trying to connect the human experience on both continents. Slavery and cruelty was rife in the midst of christianity but the paradox was that many plantation songs were mired in the christian faith, helping to raise spirits. The personal touch comes into play with my Grandmother Mary Cochrane. She was a strong Christian woman whose faith carried her through the traumatic death of her father.”
Part of the Absent Voices initiative ensures that a new piece of public art will remain as a legacy of the project - a gift to the town that focuses on the sugar heritage. Alec has designed a collaged stained glass piece that includes some of the themes from the body of work for Absent Voices. The work will be sited in the Municipal buildings in the East elevation overlooking the Lyle Fountain in Cathcart Square, Greenock. This choice of location has deeper meaning, as the fountain was gifted to the people of Greenock by Abraham Lyle of Tate and Lyle Sugar. To honour this homage, Alec has designed the window to highlight street names like Tobago, Jamaica and Virginia, dedicating this piece to the people and places that are linked forever by the sugar industry and its legacy.
The very personal aspect of Absent Voices undoubtedly inspired his body of work. Both moving and of historical importance, each piece grounds itself in visual storytelling – a story of a Greenock family and a parallel story of slaves and ships and exotic lands.
He says of the project, “Absent Voices will hopefully stand as a legacy through the archive produced and will hopefully inspire generations to gain a better insight to the sugar industry at a local and global level. But more than that, perhaps it's a study of human spirit - of two continents filled with people so different and yet, so alike."