|A Beautiful Moment in Le Touquet|
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.
|"The Bridges, Sunderland"|
Oil on canvas, 1991.
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.
Mixed Media on Paper 1994
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
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.
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.
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.|
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 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.
|Dead Elm Stone Stack|
|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 http://www.pbase.com/johnnyjag
|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.
|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|
mixed media on paper 2012