Steve BirdI would like to say that I was born with a natural talent and a paintbrush in my hand, but I would be lying. I was just an ordinary kid who drew and painted like all kids do. I do remember sitting on the floor in the living room drawing futuristic cars and flying machines: I guess I would have been about eight years old or so. I have one memory from my final year at primary school of covering a large sheet of paper with so much paint that it all became a dark gooey mess, which I seem to recall being rather proud of. An early abstract expressionist period that lasted for one painting! I guess they probably told me off for making a right mess.

Secondary school didn’t start off much better. Art lessons involved week after week of sitting drawing still life studies of pots and pans, in charcoal and chalk, while the teacher disappeared off for a cup of tea and a fag. I’d probably enjoy that now, but back then I couldn’t have been more bored. But in my third year of secondary school everything changed, with the arrival of the man who made me realise how much I loved art: Mr Simcock. I remember Frank Simcock with such affection, although back then I didn’t know his first name of course: I don’t think teachers had them did they? When he arrived at school the whole place just lit up. No more rubbishy pots and pans. Now there was a six foot hotdog suspended above the art room door and a life-sized collage of Rita Hayworth as Gilda doing the glove-strip, as you entered the room. Now art was about finding what you liked to do and learning to do it well. I remember spending ages lovingly reproducing the cover of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album to the strains of Black Sabbath playing in the background. Now the art room was the only place that I wanted to be and I spent every available moment in there, basking in the vibrant colours of the 1970’s. Evenings and weekends were spent in my bedroom with paints and paper everywhere, as the wallpaper gradually disappeared behind my numerous endeavours. I was hooked!

As the end of secondary school approached, we were called one by one to see a man who none of us had met before and I don’t think any of us ever met again: the careers officer! He had his own office in a prefab, in the quad outside the hall and when my turn came to answer the inevitable question “What do you want to do when you leave school?” I looked him straight in the eye and said “I want to be an artist”

There followed a pause and then, “What, a commercial artist in advertising, or a designer in a factory?”

I held my ground. “No, an artist. Like Rembrandt or Monet. You know – an artist!”

He looked at me quizzically for a moment or two and then said, “I suppose you’d better do A levels and go to college then”

And that was that. You see, in Stoke on Trent at that time it seemed that you either went into industry or the forces. Anything else just wasn’t “a proper job”. Saying that you wanted to be an artist was as farfetched as saying that you wanted to be an astronaut, it was just an alien concept. So while my friends went off into the forces (I found out later that one of them had actually become a submarine commander – that’s nearly as good as an astronaut don’t you think?) or into the factories , I went off to the local Sixth Form College to become the next Van Gogh.

As it turned out, sixth form couldn’t have been much better. I loved the place. I had loads of new friends, there were girls who hadn’t known me since nursery (which is always an advantage) and the atmosphere in the place in 1973 was buzzing with hormone fuelled excitement. As far as the art lessons went, I was getting a thorough grounding in painting and drawing that is really the bedrock of everything that I do today. We painted from the model twice a week and were never allowed to draw first with a pencil or charcoal. You learned to be confident with your brush and to work the image into shape by training your eye and hand to operate as one. We were constantly being challenged. I recall one morning walking into the art room to find that there were no brushes, only bunches of twigs with which we were expected to paint the model. Another day there were only square ended brushes and black and white paint blocks: the idea being to depict the model with monochrome squares. All this suited me down to the ground. You see, I have been described in the past, by a philosophy lecturer who didn’t mean it as a compliment, as empirical. To which I say, yes I am and happily proud of it. I like to stay grounded and truly appreciate the world around me as I experience it. Everything that I do is rooted in reality. That is not to say that it is shallow and meaningless. On the contrary, real life is far from that: it is rich and lush with potential. I have grown over the years to despise pretentiousness in all forms. If you have to explain to me the meaning of your artwork that you have simply dragged out of your bedroom and placed in a gallery then you will have to work very hard to earn my respect. But I am digressing. Where was I? Ah yes Sixth Form.

So there I was, happily enjoying learning how to paint, which in my view is where we should all start, when something happened that really set the cat amongst the pigeons. I got a part in a play! Who could have seen that coming? Suddenly everything else faded into the background and all I wanted to do was, act, rehearse, direct, do lighting, anything to do with theatre. It totally took over my life! I did try and keep a hold on the art, going to college to study drama and art, but it wasn’t long before I realised that the theatre was everything that I wanted and the paintbrushes were consigned to the back of a drawer somewhere……………………………………….

……………………………………..Fast forward ten years, a mediocre career in the theatre and one broken marriage later. Ten years during which the only thing that I painted was a six foot high cornflake packet for a pantomime. It was one of those times in life when you find yourself sitting at a crossroads with no idea which road to take, trying hard to remember how you got there and the person that you really are. It was then that the meeting with the careers officer all those years before came back to me and I reached for the brushes again. Thus began the first period of my life as a professional artist.

To be continued…………..

Pin It on Pinterest