A turn of the tide

Mark Sofilas and one of his paintings of Whitby, below.
Mark Sofilas and one of his paintings of Whitby, below.
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Artist Mark Sofilas spent the first 45 years of his life in Australia, but he tells Sarah Freeman how he found his spiritual home 10,000 miles away in Whitby.

Until a few years ago, Mark Sofilas’ daily commute took him via Sydney harbour, past the doors of the famous Opera House and into the heart of the city.

However, while hordes of tourists were poised with their cameras, after a while Mark stopped noticing the iconic shell design and instead, head down, would make his way to the office where he worked as a commercial artist, designing advertising for the likes of Coca-Cola, Qantas and the Australian Cricket Board.

It was, he admits, a good job and while he occasionally wondered whether he might be able to make it as a fine artist, come the weekend, he rarely, if ever, picked up a sketch pad – it always felt a bit too much like work. His daily routine might well have continued until retirement had he not moved to Leeds in May 2008 with his English partner Kate and their twin daughters.

This was Mark’s introduction to the 
UK and keen to explore his new home, 
that spring the family set out for the 
coast. Like hundreds of others they enjoyed plates of fish and chips, Mark 
had his first taste of Yorkshire ale; when they arrived in Whitby he also had something of a revelation.

“Around ever corner I just saw something really beautiful and exciting,” he says. “I’d got so used to my surroundings in Australia that everything blurred into the background. Maybe it’s the same for people who have lived all their life in Yorkshire, but for me seeing if for the first time, well, I was like a kid in a sweet shop.

“It wasn’t just the abbey ruins or the pretty cobbled streets, the entire place had a real effect on me. Something was triggered, I knew I had found my new direction.”

That day, Mark, who had already made a few tentative enquiries with advertising agencies over here, turned his back on the commercial art world. Instead he decided to focus solely on fine art with Whitby as his muse.

Four years on, the 51-year-old is still not entirely sure what it was about the resort which sparked his own personal sea-change, but he suspects it might have something to do with his own family’s connection to the fishing industry.

“My father’s side of the family is Greek and my grandfather started commercial fishing in Western Australia,” he says. “It wasn’t something I ever particularly got involved in, but maybe the sea was always there somewhere at the back of my mind and perhaps that’s why Whitby struck such a chord. Where the artistic bent came from I’m not so sure, my mother definitely has a creative side, but she came from that generation who were raised to put their bums up, noses down as we say in Australia. You left school, got a job, you went to work and that was it.”

Inspired by Peter Brook, best-known for his striking Pennine compositions and David Hockney, who recently returned to Yorkshire after years in California, Mark has begun to develop his own style, one which is far removed from the type of work he did as a commercial artist.

“When you’re employed by an advertising agency, more often than not there has to be a degree of realism to the work you produce. Your job is to give the client what they want, even if you don’t think it’s necessarily right. Stepping away from those limitations has been really liberating.

Obviously I hope people can tell that these are Whitby scenes, but I want my work to create an impression of the place rather than being a photographic representation.

“Wherever I go I try to get to know a bit about the history and geography of the place. A good painting can’t just capture the view it has to capture the atmosphere, it’s about transferring your own affinity with the area onto the canvas.”

Now painting full-time at his studio in Leeds, Mark works in oil and his paintings are attracting a growing number of collectors from across the country.

“I am incredibly lucky, Kate is a lawyer and definitely the brains of the family, but coming to Yorkshire has given me the chance to do the thing I really love.

“When I started painting my aim was to show familiar Yorkshire scenes in a new guise and while I know Whitby has a special place in lots of hearts you’d be surprised how many people I meet born and bred in Yorkshire, who have never even been there.”

Mark’s new solo exhibition is at the Harrison Lord Gallery in Brighouse and focuses on his sea and harbour scenes inspired by Whitby and the surrounding coastal towns and villages.

“I know a lot of people complain about the British weather, but I love it. In Australia you don’t really have definite changes of season, but here they are all so markedly different and each provides a unique mood. You can go to a particular spot one month and the next it looks completely different, for an artist that’s just perfect as it means every painting you do is different.”

Mark has his work shown in several galleries in the north of England and has recently secured his first deal with a London venue. His success is at least in part down to the experience he gained in his previous life.

“Artists are notoriously bad at self-promotion and if my years as a designer taught me anything, they taught me about business. Launching myself as an artist was stepping into the unknown, but right from the start I set out a five-year plan and four years in it still seems to be working. I’m no spring chicken, but I honestly feel the light and landscapes of Yorkshire have given me a new life and career.”

Mark Sofilas’ exhibition at Brighouse’s Harrison Lord Gallery runs until the end of the month. 01484 722462 www.harrisonlord.co.uk, www.marksofilasart.com.