Renowned Celtic author and historian, Tom Campbell, launches his Celtic in Art exhibition at The Penalty Spot on 11th May 2017.
We caught up with Tom to discuss this unique Celtic event:
“I was in Cuba on holiday, and dropped in to an artist’s studio in Havana. I was very impressed by his talent. However, he pointed out that competition was very keen because of the number of struggling artists.
That set me thinking. I had always been slightly disappointed at the photographs or illustrations in Celtic books, especially as they were limited in number, particularly those from the club’s early years. Suddenly, an idea hit me: why not get an artist to come up with pencil sketches, based on the few existing photographs of those long-gone days? It could freshen things up considerably.
The artist? Some would be expensive, I knew, but what about a promising student at an Art School – if there was one in Havana. There was: the Instituto Superior del Arte. I got a taxi out to the campus, built on the acreage of pre-revolutionary Havana’s only golf club. A problem: barriers up at the entrance, armed guards on duty, an International Conference was being held… The taxi was halted, and I had to go to a guard-house to be examined. In broken English and Spanish, the guard asked, “Who you wish to see?” How do I explain I’m looking for a student, one who could possibly draw footballers?
“El Director.” This was met with a surprised look, a quick evaluation, and the obvious question, “And you? Who you?”
In for a penny, in for a pound. “Yo soy un professor de Escocia y mi gusta hablar con el director.” All delivered with impatience, and hopefully authority.
“Passport.” I had it with me, and presented it. He studied it at length, finally nodded, “Momento, Professor.” And back he came with a badge for the International conference. I was in.
Now, where to go in a sprawling campus? I asked one student, keen to practise his English and he guided the taxi to “Painting and Sculpture”. An older gentlemen, a real professor saw my badge and asked if I needed directions; his English was good, and I did my best to explain: “I was a writer, about football. I hoped to find a student to provide line drawings. I would pay a reasonable sum…” He thought for a moment, considering the situation. “Momento…” and he disappeared into a lecture hall, and emerged a minute or two later with an elf-like little man with white hair done in a monk’s tonsure. He didn’t speak English, but the first professor stayed to act as translator. A torrent of Spanish, furrowed brows, much head-shaking and then agreement: “Pablo!”
“Momento, señor,” and the elf-like figure (who happened to be the equivalent of Dean of Arts) disappeared into another lecture-hall and dragged out another professor. Pablo turned out to be a portly, Falstaffian figure, heavily bearded and wearing what looked like a smock, speckled with paint. He was the Professor of Life Forms (and Anatomy). No English, but a very animated discussion in Spanish. I picked up a few words; “No Administracion… un estudiante… privado, no red tape… pero qui?”
“Momento, senor.” The Dean disappeared back into his lecture hall, Falstaff stopped a very attractive young lady riding a bicycle along the pathway, the bike (like the cars in Havana, seemed to date from the 60s, or earlier); a ladies’ bike, it had a basket in front and a little bell, brightly painted mud-guards too. Utilising the authority of a Professor of Life Forms, he commandeered the under-sized bicycle, and rode off, across what had once been a fairway and towards the residences. He returned in triumph five minutes later with Yoanis, his prize pupil (and another friend, just in case).
He introduced them to me, returned the bicycle to its rightful owner (who inspected it for damage before riding off presumably for a class)… and then the discussions began. I explained what I wanted (some thirty sketches in pencil)… the first professor translated… I showed some of the photographs I had… they all examined them in the sunshine under a tropical tree… they discussed angles, perspectives, I listened… the discussion lasted about an hour: two students, two professors, one patron of the arts, and never one word about money.
Finally, it was over: yes, Yoanis would try to get them done to my satisfaction, thirty was a lot, perhaps his friend could help… and that night they would meet me in my hotel and show me the first two so that I could judge if the quality was high enough…
I had bought a sketch book of quality art paper, and a couple of pencils… their eyes lit up, almost caressing the paper. The professor, the translator, coughed discreetly: “Our students are not fully qualified, but you understand they will work hard and take a lot of time to provide a good job. I would like to suggest what you should pay them.” And the sum was reasonable, ridiculously so. No problem.
Needless to say, the sketches were excellent, and over the next week or so I got to know Yoanis. He was ‘a mature student’, about 27 years old and in his fifth year of study at the Instituto. He would graduate in another month, and after a year of military service, he would attempt a career as an artist. He confided that his forte lay in oil painting, and I thought…
I asked him if he would like to attempt an oil painting of a Celtic scene, (and, of course, I would pay for it regardless of quality). We studied downloads from a laptop and I left the decision to him. To my surprise, he picked a photograph of Martin O’Neill leading a reluctant Neil Lennon towards the Celtic fans after the player had endured all sorts of abuse at Ibrox. Alyssa, Yoanis’ girl friend had joined us and her English was very good.
I asked why he had picked this image: “The juxtaposition of the two men… the difference in age… the contrast in body language, one insistent, one resisting… the contrast between the track suit (dark) and the player’s uniform… and sometimes the perspective from behind the men is more revealing and interesting.” And also Yoanis is not too sure yet how football players run and jump and move. So this one was a good choice for him.
And then Alyssa astonished me. “Yoanis wanted to know if the player had been injured in the game.” Apart from hurt feelings, I didn’t think he had, but I asked why. The answer: “Well, the player holds himself differently, as if hurting. Not just because he really doesn’t want to go with his trainer. Yoanis wanted you to know that the player’s stiffness is not because he can’t paint; he seems to have a bad back.”
I had watched this painting emerging before my eyes, and I was fascinated by the process – and delighted with the result. When I returned to Scotland with my sketches and the oil painting, I showed them to some fellow Celtic enthusiasts… and the idea emerged that we should commission some other paintings by Yoanis. My friends prefer to remain anonymous, and I was despatched to Havana a year later to set Yoanis to work. The result was some 23 oil paintings of Celtic scenes and personalities, virtually a Celtic history in art. And all done by a young and talented Cuban artist who had never seen Celtic play, nor even played football himself.
One of my favourite paintings is of Willie Fernie, and I watched with fascination as the artist solved one particular problem, namely the colour of the ball. The original photograph was black-and-white; so, we had to determine the exact colour of the ball (from 1956). Yoanis blended various colours, nine in total, before we were satisfied. As soon as he had finished, he produced his bulky notebook and wrote down the particulars: the colours used, the quantity used, the order in which he had mixed them… I asked why he was so methodical about this; his answer (via Alyssa): “I have never produced that shade of brown ever before; I might just need that some time in the future, and this way I can reproduce it.”
The sequel? An exhibition called ‘Celtic in Art’ was held at the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park and it was a great success. Incidentally, the money he was paid by our group for the paintings paid for a new roof and an extension to his parents’ house in Trinidad de Cuba. Life can be hard in Cuba, and we were delighted to help a struggling artist, and also his family. We invited Yoanis and Alyssa to come to Scotland at our group’s expense, and they had a wonderful time here; the members of our group, preferring anonymity suggested I front the exhibition, and I was pleased to do so. Now, some five years later was felt a suitable time to find a good home for these paintings, and, of course, Yoanis is entitled to a further share of the proceeds…
And, dare we say it, ideally it would be wonderful if the entire collection could be housed in the proposed Celtic Museum.”