A rarely spoken truth of the professional arts world is that affluence is one of the most significant sorting factors when it comes to whose creative talents are seen and celebrated, and whose end up gathering dust in closets – or, perhaps more likely, never come to fruition at all. In the Netflix TV series Pretend It’s a City (2021), the US writer Fran Lebowitz observes:
The main thing writers need – or painters or any other kind of artist – is talent. And the great thing about talent is that it is the one thing – the only thing I can think of – that is absolutely randomly distributed throughout the population of the world … It is just sprinkled like sand around the world, and it could come up anywhere. Now, of course, there are many places where you might have this talent, but no ability to express it…
While listening to the words of the Scottish welder-turned-poet Robert Fullerton, who died in 2020, it’s easy to envision this metaphorical sand being sprinkled over his home district of Govan in Glasgow as ‘Rab’ came of age. His innate talents might have gone unrealised, had it not been for a mentor who insisted, when Fullerton was still a scraggly 17-year-old shipyard welding apprentice, that he reads the novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914) by the Irish house-painter and sign-writer Robert Noonan. And his writings might have gone largely unknown outside Glasgow were it not for the Scottish director Callum Rice’s celebrated short documentary Mining Poems or Odes (2015).
Although 20 years in the shipyards took a toll on his health, Fullerton saw little distinction between his two ‘trades’ – one working class, and another that’s often considered a realm of the elite. Instead, they were interwoven, with one inspiring the other. The world under his welding mask served as his ‘perfect thinking laboratory’, where he mined inspiration from the literal sparks that would cascade into view. And, although Fullerton had retired from welding at the time that Mining Poems or Odes was made, he still found a deep resonance between his two crafts – both of them ‘done solitary and in silence’.
In his portrait, Rice finds a hardscrabble visual lyricism to match Fullerton’s knack for words and storytelling. The beauty of Fullerton’s poems, as filtered through his heavy Glaswegian accent, are elevated by evocative shots of the shipyards that inspired them. Like his subject, Rice delights in the surreal wonder of bright metal dots flickering in the darkness of a welding workshop.
For his accomplished portrait of everyday artistry, Rice won a British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) at a ceremony Fullerton himself had no interest in attending. ‘I think it’s funny that films and TV programmes get awards when there was never a prize for welder of the year at the shipyard,’ he told the Scottish newspaper Daily Record in 2016. ‘Now that’s a title I would love to have won.’
Written by Adam D’Arpino
Director: Callum Rice
Producer: Jack Cocker
Website: Scottish Documentary Institute