Monday, June 27, 2011

Learning art lore at the GLS Symposium

Image from the Woodhorn Museum

At the opening reception of the Graduate Liberal Studies Symposium, held this weekend at Harbour Centre, the first people I met were speaker Oscar Firschein and his wife Theda, just arrived from Stanford.

After spending much of his career doing research on Artificial Intelligence, Oscar chose to present a very different topic at the symposium. He gave a fascinating talk with slides on "The Pitmen Painters, England's Coal Miner Artists."

These workers from the coal-mining village of Ashington continued to mine while they learned to paint. As their artistic skills improved and they became known, they did not give up their work at the mine. Instead, they spent their leisure time painting their working lives.

To cap my new knowledge, I learned that the Ashington Group, known as the Pitmen painters, have recently been featured in a play by Lee Hall, the creator of the delightful Billy Elliott. After its original launch in Newcastle, and with runs on Broadway and at London's National Theatre and tours already under its belt, The Pitmen Painters will open at the Duchess in London's West End this October.

The miners painted through the thirties, but got less attention after the war. The mines are closed now. None of the men lived to see their hometown acquire a gallery to display their work.

In 1988, art critic William Feaver published a book about these remarkable men. He comments here on the recent play and the history behind it.

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