Artists turn ashes from Glasgow School of Art into new artworks
A view from Giles Hepworth and Bill Hartley

Artists turn ashes from Glasgow School of Art into new artworks

JWT asked artists including Alison Watt, Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry to create new work from the ashes of The Glasgow School of Art.

The "Ash to art" campaign was one of those rare moments in a creatives’ career when the idea is the easy part. It took five minutes to think up, two and half years to execute.

Seeing news footage of the devastating fire ripping through The Glasgow School of Art, we wanted to help out. We did it in the only way we knew how – with an idea.

Our plan was to send charcoal from the fire to world-famous artists, asking them to turn it into art. The art would then be auctioned to raise funds and publicity for the restoration of the iconic Mackintosh Building.

There seemed something uniquely appropriate about reincarnating the old building as a new one, and using charcoal, that classic art school drawing material, to do it.

The idea was simple, but making it happen was anything but.

After Scottish account director, Lynsey Houston, had made initial contact with the school, we jumped on an EasyJet flight and pitched the idea to Alan Horn, director of development.

He was hugely enthusiastic, and stepped-in to safeguard the precious supply of charred timber, which the GSA has been meticulously preserving.

We had been given the green light, but we soon discovered that the art world is impenetrable to outsiders. We needed something to cut through the galleries and gate keepers who guard access to their artists with ferocious efficiency.

Our solution was a good old-fashioned direct mailer. Each artist was sent a boxed-up fragment of charcoal. These relics of The Mackintosh Library were given poignant context and identity by an attached label that read "Bookcase. Charles Rennie Mackintosh. C. 1909" (pictured above).

Late nights were spent in artisanal production of cardboard labels scalpelled from hard-backed envelopes, jamming the photocopier with their manila paper, while indelibly staining ourselves and the office carpet with Mackintosh soot.

But it was worth it. Sir Antony Gormley was the first artist to sign-up, and when Chantal Joffe, an alumna of the school, received her box of charcoal, she said "it was like receiving the ashes of a dear friend".

For the next year our secret weapon, account manager Jonah Werth, chivvied galleries with a potent combination of boyish charm and terrier-like tenacity. Project manager, Kate Duncan, added her art school contacts, and account director Sophia Redgrave gave polish to proceedings, particularly in our dealings with Christie’s.

The artists went to extraordinary lengths to produce a truly diverse body of work across a wide range of disciplines including drawing, painting, printmaking, photography and sculpture. Simon Starling sent his piece, Layers of Darkness, to Japan where a team of urushi masters spent weeks applying layer after layer of traditional tree sap lacquer, creating a sheen of obsidian blackness on the upper half of the charred wood.

Simon Starling in collaboration with Shinichi Shioyasu, Masahiko Sakamoto, Kazuo Haruki & Akira Kosaka Simon Starling: Layers of Darkness. In collaboration with Shinichi Shioyasu, Masahiko Sakamoto, Kazuo Haruki & Akira Kosaka

Grayson Perry chose to enter the Mackintosh ashes in one of his trademark urns, saying he’d had an idea almost immediately, "Memorialising or celebrating the difficulty  –  honouring the wound – it’s something I try to do".

Grayson Perry: Art is Dead, Long Live ArtGrayson Perry: Art is Dead, Long Live Art

For Alison Watt, her piece of Mackintosh charcoal initially felt "almost too precious to touch". However, "the idea of creativity coming from the wreckage" resonated with her and, by grinding small slivers of charcoal to a powder and mixing it with Payne’s Grey and Burnt Sienna oil colour, she created a black pigment of such intensity that it took several months to dry.

Alison Watt: Deep Within the Heart of MeAlison Watt: Deep Within the Heart of Me

Cut to last Friday, when our 25 pieces were hung in Christie’s. They shared gallery space with masterpieces by Rothko, Picasso, Miro, Pissarro, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Monet, Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It was a truly extraordinary moment.

Whatever happens in this afternoon’s auction, it’s good to know that we’ve all played our part in helping a famous art school rise from the ashes.

Giles Hepworth and Bill Hartley are creatives at J. Walter Thompson London.