Blog Archive

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

A Creative Life

I recently had the honour of being invited to give a talk on my work and life as an artist at the Durham Caledonian Society.  I had no written notes to read from as I prefer to talk off the cuff.  This is not, therefore, a literal transcription of what I said, but it pretty much covers what I talked about.

A Beautiful Moment in Le Touquet
When I tell people I’m an artist, I often get a reaction of  “oh how lovely,” for the image of the artist can conjure a somewhat romantic notion of a carefree and bohemian lifestyle; wearing his Panama hat, painting the French countryside or perhaps a little street scene with a café under blue sky with pristine sunlight throwing shadows on customers enjoying a glass of wine, a coffee and smoking a Gauloises.  Or perhaps a succession of beautiful models visiting my garret studio to pose while I enjoy a fine Claret and nibble a few succulent olives.

I took the picture above in France this summer while on holiday; it was my “died and gone to heaven” moment. My friends were sipping wine in the café across the road and sent over a chilled glass of Rosé and at last I'd solved the age old problem of what to do with my left hand while holding a paintbrush in the right. This image summed up how I thought my whole life would be when I was a fresh faced schoolboy heading off to art school all those years ago. Ah, if only.

Making My Mark

"The Bridges, Sunderland"
Oil on canvas, 1991.

Leaving art school, I had the notion that I just needed to create beautiful paintings; the world would notice and inevitably bow to my obvious genius. I had everything I needed - a flat with a spare room for a studio, a modest income from various part time jobs and a seemingly unlimited supply of enthusiasm. I was focused on primarily being a painter - that was my great passion and I painted every spare minute I had. The summer I graduated, there had been a big Lowry exhibition on in Sunderland at the then Museum & Art Gallery which was a huge inspiration. 

My paintings were big, bold and heavy, a reflection, I believed, of the industrial and post industrial landscape of the North East of England as well as the endless stretches of coast. Within a year, I had my first exhibition of some 40 paintings and drawings at Washington Arts Centre as well as winning a prize for a painting I entered in an open exhibition entitled “Images of The North” at Bede Gallery. I’d survived my first year as a real artist and had what I considered to be modest success.

Oil on canvas 1992

These early paintings were created in the studio, working from sketches with only notes to indicate colour.  In the main, colour was intuitive but I wasn’t completely satisfied with the results;  I felt the colours could get muddy and dull.  I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of colour so began taking my easel out, using watercolours, gouache and pastels to work directly from the subject.  I was excited by the results and felt this was the direction I wanted to head in.  I began to realise the subject which really excited me was not the landscape itself, but the light.  The way the sunlight would jog across the landscape, constantly changing, reflecting and casting shadows as it went.  This was what I wanted to capture.

North Shields
Mixed Media on Paper 1994

One of my favourite places has always been the sea.  Coming from Ayrshire and having been brought up by the coast, I felt there was an affinity.  Many of my paintings from this time were just of the sea & sky;  constantly changing, moving, shimmering surfaces reflecting light & colour.  To capture that was my challenge.

South Shields
Mixed Media on Paper 1994

Oil on Canvas 1994

I still worked on canvases in the studio, but with a much fresher approach to colour and light, using paintings done from the subject as source material.  I moved from South Tyneside to Newcastle and the urban landscape also became a feature of my painting.  I had a flat on the 15th floor of a tower block and the views were breath-taking.

I had no interest in painting every brick and window of every building I could see; looking East I could see all the way to the coast some eleven miles away and could watch the lighthouse at Tynemouth flashing at night; looking south I could easily spot the tower of Durham Cathederal.  This was a new painterly challenge to express all that in terms of brush strokes of colour.  I was still looking at that light and being inspired by the landscape around me.

View Form My Living Room
Gouache on paper

The Big Lamp
Oil On Canvas 1999

Towards Blaydon
Oil on canvas 1998
The banks of the Tyne were another favourite place to paint that light and reflection of sky and water.

As well as these expansive views, I was drawn to the intimate spaces of the city.  Street corners, buildings and shop fronts, with their peeling paintwork, bright colours and graffiti tags.  My love of Edward Hopper's paintings was an influence in my approach to some of these subjects.

Pink Lane
Oil On Board

A perpetual problem for an artist is how to make an income.  If you don’t make enough from selling your art, then you have to find other ways, but other ways can often take you out the studio.  By the end of 1994, I’d had my most successful exhibition yet in terms of attendance, reviews and sales.  I hadn’t expected to sell much work at this particular show so some painting sales were a pleasant surprise and to get that wad of cash at the end of the show was a big boost for an artist’s confidence and bank account.  However, when this euphoria settled down and I thought about it rationally, the exhibition had represented nearly 18 month’s work and the couple of grand I’d earned was far from a living wage, let alone rock’n’roll lifestyle.  Something had to change.

High Art

One avenue of income and inspiration came in the form of community arts projects.  These were often exciting projects, doing something creative and getting such a great reaction from people; these were also opportunities to meet other artists and swap ideas and stories; it was at one such project where I met a man who was to have a profound influence on the direction of my life and art.  While working together on a project involving Delphic Oracles, Shakespeare and raucous schoolchildren,  Paul Miskin was describing to me with great enthusiasm, the stilt-walking street theatre company he was forming and it sounded most distractingly exciting.  I went along to see one of his shows and was blown away by energy, excitement and spectacle.  We kept in touch and eventually he had me teetering around on my first attempt at walking on stilts.  I was hooked.  His company was called Neighbourhood Watch Stilts International (NWSI) and attracted a most charming bunch of artists, misfits and eccentrics from many colourful walks of life; I felt very at home.

Paul Miskin in all his glory.
Thus began a most exciting chapter in my life.  Paul was the driving force of the company; he owned it after all, confidently ploughing every spare penny of his own money into some of the most hair brained genius madness of costume and theatre ideas I’d ever encountered.  There was room for creative input from everyone else though, and we set about coming up with ideas for costumes, choreographing, soundtracks and props.  The NWSI workshop was a hotbed of creativity with many big artist’s egos throwing even bigger ideas around.

Performing itself was a magical experience, the reaction of the audience was where the real entertainment was.  It always left us with the overwhelming feeling that we’d given people an unforgettable experience which took them out of the humdrum and the everyday for a brief time.

"The Stretchies"  from Chromarama, performed here
in Plymouth, 1995.

This also opened up some amazing travel opportunities, taking us all over the world, sleeping in every kind of accommodation imaginable, from lumpy mattresses on a classroom floor in Tarrega, Spain, to five star hotels in far flung places; from midnight skinny-dipping in the Med to cocktail parties hosted by the Director of Arts for the British Council in Rio de Janeiro;  while no-one was ever making a fortune, we were afforded wonderful memories and stories to tell that no money could never buy.

Publicity shot for Dilereality, an animation of characters and images  from the paintings  of Salvador Dali.
This image was inspired by Dali's Temptations of St Anthony.

This picture (above) was taken on a cold windswept Northumberland day.  I'm in the elephant costume, Paul took the pictures and the very brave Jamie Spiers is St Anthony, wearing only green body paint and matching loin cloth.  We set up in a remote field in the middle of nowhere and as we were finishing, a very irate lady, claiming to be the land owner, showed up.  We explained what we were doing and had not expected that it would have given anyone cause for concern, that we were not poachers or doing any damage, merely taking a few snaps of ourselves with the landscape as a backdrop, while all the time remaining polite and calm.  She was having none of it, accusing us of being criminals who were trespassing.
      "How would you like it if I just came into your living room uninvited and did what I wanted?"  she said in her most indignant voice.  I could bite my tongue no longer.
      "Madam," I replied, " if you believe we're breaking the law, I suggest you call the police and tell them there's a 12 foot red elephant and a little green man in your living room and would please come and have them arrested."  She got into her car and drove off; we got into Paul's van and also drove off, and never, ever returned.  I often wonder if she told anyone what she saw that day.

Another recurring Dali theme were ants; these ants are 9 foot tall and play samba drums.  They have more recently been accompanied by the brass playing red ants to form
The Ant Orkezdra.

...and this is Sid The Spider.  No town centre or shopping street is complete without one.

All these images are property & copyright of Paul Miskin and NWSI, reproduced by kind permission. If you'd like to see more, here's a link to their website.

Sticks & Stones

All this fun and travel was great, but I wasn’t painting much.  Certainly my sketch book went everywhere but that wasn’t the same, and although I could earn some good money, it was mainly seasonal.  There would be the odd winter gig, usually around Christmas and New Year but generally I had to look to other places to earn a shilling.  I’ve had many jobs over the winters and in 2001 I happened to be in my old home village in Ayrshire talking to an old friend who’d started working for a company cutting trees on railways.  When he told me the pay, I said,
“Get me a job,”  which he did.  I was to go down to Wales, live in a caravan and drag branches into a chipper every night for six months.  I reckoned I’d keep my head down, then in the spring I’d have a bit money saved up to embark on whatever my next creative project might be.  What I had not anticipated was I loved having more money than ever before, and I loved the work.  When I saw men climbing huge trees and playing with chainsaws, I thought I could fancy doing that.  So I did.

The trouble is I’d never had a full time, permanent  job before so I wasn’t used to not having time to paint.  It was okay at first cause I reckoned I’d get the time somehow and as I had more money, I could afford good quality paper and materials and pay for studio time even if I didn’t use it much.  I did have access to chainsaws and wood, so I started carving.

Alder Seashell
Spruce Spiral.

Dead Elm Stone Stack
Most of my carvings were simple abstract forms where I was more interested in the material than anything else. I didn't take this as seriously as painting but enjoyed it nonetheless, and have plenty strangely shaped bits of wood in gardens dotted around the country.  I also like to make art out of what I find lying around, and leaving it for other's to find.

Cone Mandala

Stone and Twig Mandala 

I've created loads of these over the years and wonder if anyone finds them.  Some of the rock balance pieces showed up on the website of a photographer (below) called John Graham, who I'd never met.  It was a huge compliment and the comments were very entertaining.  As with street theatre, I like to create something that will make people stop and notice, and the rest is up to their own imaginations.

See more of John's excellent photography here

This image is from John Graham's site, reproduced by kind permission.

Rock Balance at Bollihope Burn

Bonny patterns on the ground, quirky rock balances and oddly shaped bits of wood are all very well, but none of it elicited quite the same passion as painting, and my painting was becoming sorely neglected.  I had  moved out to an fairly isolated cottage in the hills of Co Durham and was becoming increasingly inspired by this fresh perspective; I could feel that itch for painting once again.  Something had to be done, then life events took over.

Painter once more.

The Sea at South Shields
Mixed media on paper 2008

This painting (above) of the sea at South Shields has special meaning for me.  I was commissioned by a very inspiring lady,  Ann Campbell who was at the time, very ill with cancer.  She wanted the painting to give as a retirement present to a couple who already owned one of my paintings.  They had previously lived in South Shields and had got to know my work through the Bede Gallery in Jarrow; they now lived down south so Ann thought a familiar view of South Shields would be appropriate. Such a commission  was a great honour and it had been a while since I actually sold a painting.

It was an Easter Sunday when I headed to South Shields with my easel and paints which hadn’t been used for far too long, and, despite the hail showers and wind, I managed to get a couple of paintings I was pleased with.  It was wonderful - I felt like an artist all over again. Over the next few days, both paintings were on my studio wall till I decided which one I’d frame for Ann.

I took the wrapped up painting round to Ann’s house and was greeted at the door by her daughter and good friend of mine, Charlotte, who led me through to the sitting room.  Ann, too weak to get out of her chair, asked if I’d unwrap the painting and prop it up where she could see it.  When she saw the painting she was overcome with emotion and burst into tears.  That’s a powerful thing for an artist - for someone to have such a reaction to a painting.  I realised there and then that painting was more important than trees or any of the other distractions I’d happily allowed into my life.

Ann fought for life all the way, but the cancer got her in the end.  She never got to give Pat and Richard the painting in person, they received it at her funeral about a month after I'd painted it.  This painting (above)  is the other of the two and I have it hanging in my house so I see it every day, just as a wee reminder to keep my eye on what is important in life.


So I wanted to get painting again and was frustrated at never having the time.  I could sketch and do the odd painting here and there but I needed some consistency where I could allow myself to get into a train of thought.   Then life events took over once more.  In the winter of 2008, I noticed my right testicle was a funny shape and I got the fright of my life.  I had to take this to the doctor;  I wasn’t even registered with a doctor and had never had an illness in my life.  (Typically, my first encounter with a doctor was a female doctor and involved dropping my pants.)  It very quickly became apparent I had a tumour which had to go.  In the January of 2009 I went for an operation where I said goodbye to my poor right testicle forever.  I wasn’t worried; I’d been assured the prognosis was good.  Turns out, if you’re gonna have cancer, that’s the one to have as the success rate is very high.

As I did a very physical job, I was signed off on the sick for three months and told not to drive for at least a fortnight and no lifting or heavy work.  There was three foot of snow on the ground and my car was buried in it; I was clearly going nowhere for a while.  So what to do? I got my easel out in the garden and got stuck in.  I kept a big fire on in the kitchen, would paint till I couldn’t bare the cold, go in, have a hot toddy by the fire, then back out.  I’d had a lucky break and was making the most of it.

View From The Garden
mixed media on paper, 2009

The Big Ash
mixed media on paper 2009

View From the Allotment
Watercolour 2009

I was on a roll, and in the three months I produced enough to select twelve paintings to put on a joint exhibition with a fellow artist James White at The Waygood @ Harkers in Newcastle.  I'd forgotten what pleasure putting on a show was (for all its stresses and hassles, it's more fun than working for a living).  It was my first show in eight years.  We had a wild party of a preview on the Friday night and on the Monday, I was back at work.  I didn't care; I was a painter again.

And finally...

mixed media on paper 2012

The painting above is one of my most recent.  I get out with my easel when I can and have set a goal to have work in a show within the year.  Paintings don't paint themselves; it takes a bit of effort and is totally worth it.  If you've ever fancied doing something creative, give it a go; get a sketchbook, draw some pictures or write a poem, or a story.  Sign up for that flower arranging course your say you're interested in, make that space in your shed and have a go at that bit of wood turning you always fancied doing.  It doesn't matter what you do nor what others think; have a go.  The creative path is a wildly veering road, it's a fun journey with many adventures and characters on the way.  What are you waiting for?

1 comment:

Barbara Rose said...

what a beautiful, honest, open and inspiring blog... just like the lady with cancer, it moved me to tears... i love your story - it touches me on a very deep level... and i resonate so completely with your attraction to LIGHT - thank you so much for sharing... blessings of light and joy to you and all those you touch with your creative arts (((0)))

About Me

My photo
up in the hills, Co Durham
tree climber, painter, stilt walker, musician. After 20 years of city life and all the late nights and fun, returned to my country-boy roots. Open fires, tranquility and muddy boots.