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Painting for Beginners

In her delightful accent, one child said to the other, "come here now Mhari - don't disturb the wee man - he's a real artist".

Painting has been my salvation. I made my career in chemistry in the rubber and plastics industry and towards the end suffered a heart attack which immobilised me and left me waiting in the queue for a National Health by-pass which was to change my life. But the long hours of waiting were insufferable to a usually active man who had spent most of his life in the turmoil of industry.

So I had a bright idea – I would start to paint and relive a time at school when I enjoyed the opportunity of the art room. In our last two years working to GCSE, we had dropped Art – “because it was not important” – but something still lingered. During the war, the whole community came to a halt to listen to the BBC 6 o’clock news. I was only 8 in 1939 but always joined them. Being somewhat perverse I insisted that we listen for five minutes each before the news to the “The Fat Stock Prices” and the news in Welsh – I have forgotten why! The news told us, in the polished modulation of Alvar Lidell, the battle stories of the day. Afterwards, I would sit and sketch the scene in black and white. So began my career as a war artist! The sketches, day by day piled up into a priceless collection until my mother in the female guise of tidying up consigned them to the waste bin!

My father was killed in 1941 and, as happens at funerals, there was an unscheduled knock at the door and after 25 years absence there was Willie Irving, my Father’s uncle come to pay his respects. Willie Irving was an artist of no mean capability who received his ‘immortality’ by painting the famous picture “Blaydon Races” which still hangs in the Gosforth Park Hotel. The painting depicting a host of Tyneside characters caused police to intervene and move the crowds when it was first exhibited on Grainger Street in 1901. Willie Irving also submitted several works to the Royal Academy. As an eleven-year-old boy, I was privileged to visit his studio several times in Jesmond and watch a real artist at work. He painted two outstanding portraits for Joseph Cowan, Lord Mayor of Newcastle and from his rewards he bravely, at the age of 45, went to study in Paris, at the end of the great Impressionist period.

So, years later, I sat contemplating a new hobby, indeed a new world. I had always had a great liking for painting and knew the galleries well. In 1960 I had the opportunity to spend six months in America and Canada and saw the American galleries including Montreal, Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Boston and of course New York with its famous Solomon Guggenheim Gallery. My house was adorned with two landscapes of the Scottish mountains and an excellent reproduction of Constables “Hay Wain”. I showed some of my early watercolour efforts to Leslie Mawhinney, a very talented art teacher who declared “you are talented – you must be the best oil painter I know working in watercolours”! Like the spiritualist at the Synagogue, I was working in the wrong medium!

So, step by step, I began to turn out work that had an interest. Being long interested in art I felt I could comfortably assume my new role as Hans Anderson’s little boy who now and then would stand up and declare at some obnoxious and abstruse aberration of the Tate Gallery “The King has got no clothes”! and I find I still have the great need to do this!

I don’t think I have ever personally been affronted with the question “what is it”? Joining the Buddle Art Club was a great step forward even though I was always out of step with their perpetual presentation of St. Mary’s Island. I have always been interested in history both national and local and at my first exhibition at North Tyneside Central Library I exhibited my interpretation of the 1862 New Hartley Pit Disaster. A few days later I went to see the exhibition, artists, of course, are most frequent visitors to see their own works, and was summarily accosted by a 4′ 10″, cap wearing, archetypal Geordie who declared, “it musta been a queer bugger as painted that”!

Later on, I exhibited at the Barn Arts Centre, Washington and rejoiced in the fact that the exhibition was in fact held in a well-stocked bar, for the visit of my friends from Buddle Art Club. It was at this club that I found my first guru, one Birley Arris of Hexham who made a powerful and lasting contribution to my apprenticeship. It was at this same Art Club that in a mischievous mood I sold a painting to a member ‘expert’ for £50 entitled “Pink Fern”. The previous evening as I was painting, we received company who stayed until midnight. Somewhat tired I went off to bed after wrapping my paint-covered brushes in a handy piece of parchment. Next morning “Pink Fern” seemed a beautiful title for the result and he fell for it!

Not too long after I joined the prestigious Newcastle Art Club at Westgate Road. The meeting was sparse and held in a broken down attic on the top floor of an ancient Victorian building. This was my first experience of life modelling. I am far from reserved and very liberal-minded but something strange happened. The rather pleasant and well-proportioned young lady took off her wrap and was manipulated into various poses. We waited anxiously! Then I worked assiduously, and it was soon break time. For some deep psychological reason, my completed sketch on a 20″x20″ sketch pad measured only 3″x3″. After tea, my second sketch improved to 5″x4″! I was inhibited! People (especially self-appointed experts) are funny. I was taken aside and told, “sorry Ken, but you really have no talent at all in this field – I cannot decide why you joined this Art Club – maybe you should leave?” Three days later, the Northern Art Federation exhibiting at the Laing Art Gallery saw fit to present me with a prize for my painting of North Shields Fish Quay Festival!

I exhibited successfully in the Art on Tyneside exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery for a period of four weeks. This was an absolute highpoint and not to be forgotten. Thirty pictures on a variety of subjects. During this time, I had a painting holiday in Skye. I was sitting alone, trying to interpret the infinite variety of blues and greys when two delightful children came towards me on their way home from school. In her delightful Hebridean accent one said to the other, “come here now Mhari – don’t disturb the wee man – he’s a real artist”! I felt I had arrived.

Painting reveals many opportunities, of meeting people, of visiting places. It allows one to discharge deep, pent up emotions of living. Having spent a successful career in the esoteric realms of science I am now, in retirement, encapsulated in the world of painting and its close associate, poetry. Next year I have a joint painting/poetry exhibition at the wonderful Gulbenkian Gallery of the People’s Theatre in Heaton, Newcastle.

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