‘It was 1993 at Westoe Pit I was in there taking photographs. I was in there off and on over a year. The pit was ready for closure. Originally the purpose of the photo’s was to have some source material to do some paintings. But as the closure became imminent I began to take photo’s in their own right. For a record you know. I began to develop techniques by taking photo’s in very little light, all the dark spaces. I must have about 10,000 negatives or there about’s.
During that time I began to collect a lot of oral testimonials from the lads and I realised what was being destroyed wasn’t just the pit’s themselves but the good humour amongst the lads. The upshot of that was I was invited to do a book with Durham County Council and that led onto a PhD at Durham University’.
I like paintings by Bacon, Goya and Valasquez, are there any artists that you admire ? ‘I tend to lean towards Caravaggio because he uses the approach called tenebrismo where a figure emerges from the darkness. I like paintings by Tintoretto from Venice and Jack Yeats from Ireland who does more like yer everyday life. Not long ago I went to see a huge exhibition by Bacon at the Tate which left me cold, a lot was the same style’.
Do you stick to the same style ? ‘I try to remain faithful to what I’m trying to represent but if you look around I’ve got figurative stuff and now becoming a little more abstract. (shows painting) Using how the light falls on the face’.
What got you interested in drawing, was it in your family ? ‘Not really, although a cousin of mine was in Detroit and painted cars on billboards. I was about 10 year old at St Albans school in Pelaw looking out the window and seen the tar works with a puffer train going in and out the factory. The teacher sent me down the river with a great big piece of paper to draw the tar works. And for a lot of years that drawing hung on the wall in school.
Then I got into drawing people which was a challenge. I worked down Westoe pit in the 1970’s then done a degree in Fine Art. I worked as an artist and labourer a lot of the time. Also worked in theatres backstage moving the scenery around, and I used to draw the actors. In 1986 I was working as the Artist in Residence at the Tyne Theatre. It had burned down and they invited me to document the re-building of the place – enjoyed that. I was also at the Ingham Infirmary in Shields for a year as Artist in Residence’.
I met you a couple of years ago at The Central Library in South Shields what project were you working on ? ‘I was at the Library as the building was being planned for closure. I drew some residents of the town that went there. Some notorious, others not so haha. I also collected a few testimonies from there. They invited me back to draw and paint the building of the new library, The Word.
That was great to watch the construction of it especially during the winter. I did a bit of live drawing but worked a lot from photographs. The men and women working there would stop and smile for the photo. It was nice they photocopied the drawings, blew them up and stuck them around the site’.
Have you got anything planned coming up soon? ‘Some of the negatives from the pit are being put in an archive at the refurbished St Hilda Pit Head in South Shields. The Heritage Lottery have funded the refurbishment. It was one of the last pits working on the Tyne. Well I’ve done what I originally set out to do that’s make 100 or so oil paintings from my mining photographs and that’s created a body of work.
It would be great to exhibit the paintings in other mining areas around the world. Plus, I can make applications to the mining museums around the country to show the work. I was always shown kindness from the lads in the pit so I have to do right by them, play fair ya’ knaa’.
Interview by Gary Alikivi August 2018.