A ray of Cypriot sunshine who caused scandal in '60s Leeds

He was one of Leeds College of Art's most notorious students. Nick Ahad on a new exhibition of new work by Stass Paraskos.

Before there was Damian Hirst and his sharks, there was Stass Paraskos.

The Cypriot, born in 1933, first came to Yorkshire when he was 20-years-old.

Born and raised on the sunshine island of Cyprus, the son of a sheep farmer, young Stass enjoyed painting in his spare time, but the idea that the son of a farmer might turn this talent into something more than a hobby was laughable at best.

In 1953, he moved to Leeds to work in his brother's restaurant as a cook.

He continued his habit of whiling away time with a paintbrush in his hand while in Leeds – and with his brother's restaurant had a makeshift gallery in which he could display his work.

The restaurant was a popular haunt of local art students. Spotting his talent in the paintings hanging around the venue encouraged Stass to enrol at the Leeds College of Art.

Terence Jones, events and exhibitions officer at Leeds College of Art, who has brought the work of Paraskos back to the city, says he was totally unqualified to enter the college.

"Despite the fact that he didn't have any of the formal qualifications needed to enter the college, his talent was spotted and appreciated by a really influential and inspira-tional man, Harry Thurbon.

"He was then the head of fine art at the college and was really taken with Stass and made sure that he got a place at the college."

Paraskos finally had a place where his raw talent could be moulded and shaped. It quickly became obvious that with the formal training of the college, there were few limits on what the artist could achieve.

His vibrant and untutored painter's skill produced work which was heavily influenced by the sunshine of his home in Cyprus. "His paintings then and now are full of colour. They often feature scenes from his local village and really capture that Mediterranean feel of his home country," says Jones.

On graduation, Paraskos found work as an artist and it was during this period that he gained a notoriety that Damian Hirst only wishes he could have achieved.

In 1966 Paraskos was staging an exhibition in Leeds. It was a popular exhibition, but one particular set of visitors were less welcome than most. In a raid, the police removed several of Paraskos's paintings and he was arrested.

There followed a notorious court case, in which it was alleged he displayed paintings that were lewd and obscene, in contravention of the Vagrancy Act 1838. The court case was one of a number of important legal challenges to the freedom of the arts in the 1960s and 70s, starting with the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960, and ending with the Oz magazine trial in 1971. Despite luminaries of the art world speaking in Paraskos's defence, including Sir Herbert Read and Norbert Lynton, and messages of support from the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, Paraskos lost the trial and was fined five pounds.

Jones says: "Ironically the painting in question now hangs in the Tate. When you see it, you do wonder what all the fuss was about. It's quite an expressionistic piece in which you can see, just, a woman holding a man's penis, but it is extremely tame when compared to what has happened in the art world since then."

After this Paraskos started teaching at Leeds College of Art, and later at Leicester Polytechnic, before becoming a Lecturer in Fine Art at Canterbury College of Art. When Canterbury College of Art became Kent Institute of Art & Design, he was appointed a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art and then Head of Painting, before returning to Cyprus to run the Cyprus College of Art.

He has since exhibited widely, including in Cyprus, Britain, Greece, the United States, Brazil, India, Denmark and elsewhere, and in 2003 was the subject of a book by the distinguished art historian Norbert Lynton.

His work is represented in the State Collections of Cyprus, the National Gallery of Greece, the Collection of the Arts Council of England, Leeds University Art Collection, Leeds City Art Gallery and the Tate Gallery (Tate Britain), London.

In 2008, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Bolton for his services to art and art education.

Jones, who has worked at the College of Art for the past two years, has been planning the current exhibition for over a year.

"He is one of those figures that people know about in the college as a bit of a hero," says Jones.

"People still talk about his work and what he did, so I thought it would be fantastic to bring some of his work back to the college and have it displayed in the same place where it had gained so much notoriety all those years ago."

n An exhibition of recent work by Paraskos is at the Vernon Street building of the Leeds College of Art until March 13. The exhibition will then travel to London.