Earlier this year, at the end of May, Fiona and I took a weekend trip to Scotland to visit the Degree Show of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee. Fiona has her eye set on going to art school in Scotland. (Last year we had planned to visit Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, but Fiona was too ill to make it work – Alex and I went to Scotland alone, and did a massive road trip around the west coast instead.) My parents occasionally check out the Scottish art school degree shows, and they always come away impressed. Fiona had a different (or at least, an additional) motive for the trip: it was an opportunity for her to meet her boy C.

We flew to Edinburgh on Friday evening and stayed with Mum & Dad. On Saturday we drove to Dundee in the morning and parked near the college. I didn’t see Fiona’s first encounter with C because I was parking the car. But when I got in the building I got to meet him, and he seemed like a very pleasant young man. Fiona and he went off on their own to explore, while Mum and Dad and I took a look around ourselves.

(So how did I feel about letting Fiona off on her own with a young man three years her elder? Well, old, I suppose. On the other hand, when my parents were as old as I am now, they were watching Abi and me get married. So I guess I should consider myself fortunate the Fiona isn’t talking about eloping just yet. Hooking up is normal teenage behaviour, and I’m just glad that Fiona is actually indulging in it now, rather than still being cloaked in depression.)

The works on the ground floor had impressed me a lot already. When we got up to the first floor of the labyrinthine college I stopped to chat with Johanna Tonner, one of the final year students, about the works she was displaying. She had framed prints for sale (I bought one for my office), but her bigger pieces were soft sculptures: torso-sized asymmetric blobs of soft foam core wrapped in colourful hand-printed fabric, mounted on a metal rod at just the right height to walk up and hug. She told me that she had made everything in the exhibit herself: not just the prints on paper and textiles, but she had ground solid metal bases for the sculptures in the college’s metalworking shop, and had made the wooden frames for her larger photos in the woodworking shop. DJCAD. She explained how the first year at DJCAD students get a solid baseline of lots of practical studio and workshop techniques before they decide where to focus their attention in later years.

Print by Johanna Tonner

I guess I just hadn’t thought very much about what “art school” was until then. Although I had been tentatively supportive of Fiona’s desire to go to art school, I had been holding back on enthusiasm and whole-hearted approval. That day changed me. The college teaches a vast range of practical skills. But the imagination, creativity, and artistic vision on display at the degree show was simply staggering. I kept looking around and being blown away by another sculpture, painting, or installation. Animation, architecture, textile and fashion design, gorgeous jewellery, comics and illustration… It just kept on coming.

It filled me with joy: this is what humans are capable of. This is what humans were meant to do. But it also made me sad: many of the amazingly talented students will not be able to make a living from their art. Why not? Why is our society set up to elevate commerce above creativity, banks over beauty? Art and expression are what make us human – not just making art, but experiencing and responding to it as well. I found it a genuinely emotional watershed.

By the time I met up with Mum and Dad again, they had become enchanted by a project on one of the upper floors: Juglares by James Fallan. For his exhibition project he had undertaken a walk from Glasgow to Dundee via Edinburgh, stopping along the way to talk to people and collect their thoughts and expressions on a large canvas he carried with him. After the journey, he turned took parts of the canvas and turned the words and pictures into a 3-D surface that he used as the surface texture for bells cast from bronze, with handles made from sections of the walking stick he used along the way. As part of the exhibit he had a couple of screens showing video of him along the way, and of him making the bells. The bells themselves are gorgeous, and the project captured my imagination just as it had caught Mum and Dad’s.

Juglares by James Fallan – statement
Juglares by James Fallan – statement
Juglares by James Fallan – exhibit
Juglares by James Fallan – canvas
Juglares by James Fallan – map
Juglares by James Fallan – bell
Juglares by James Fallan – bell

Mum and Dad were seriously considering buying one of the bells. It was just coming up to lunchtime, though, so I suggested that we go visit the college café and have sometime to eat and drink before making a decision. While we were getting our food, I sneakily texted Abi and asked her if it would be okay for me to buy the bell for Mum and Dad as a wedding anniversary gift — their 50th anniversary was coming up the following month. Abi agreed, and I broke the news to them that this was going to be their present. They were slightly taken aback (it wasn’t cheap), but very happy.

So after lunch we went back upstairs and waited for James to return from his lunch as well. He was delighted to hear that we’d be buying one of his pieces. In fact, it was his very first sale. And not only that, but this happened to be the day when he has his parents and grandparents over to see his work. They showed up just as we were making the purchase and figuring out how best to send him the money, because I didn’t have enough cash on me. We stood around and chatted with them, and they were proud and delighted to see his work, and to be around when he made his first sale, especially knowing that it was going to be for a memorable gift. Similarly, this added to the story for us, knowing that we had managed to time our presence and the purchase just so perfectly. It was a great moment. It made me happy to buy Mum and Dad such a nice gift, and it made me happy to be supporting the work of a talented young artist.

(Fiona had a lovely day with C. We all met up again in mid-afternoon, but Fiona and C weren’t done having out yet. I drove back to Murthly with Mum and Dad, and Fiona and C stayed on in Dundee for a while and went to the cinema. I drove back to Dundee late in the evening to do the dad taxi run.)