Doing rather than thinking

Artist Brian Lewis
Artist Brian Lewis
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Brian Lewis set himself the target of completing 1,000 pictures in a year. Stephen McClarence went to find out why.

Brian Lewis has plenty to say about most things – art, politics, car boot sales, literature, the amazing number of new cafes in Pontefract, Barbara Hepworth (though not much that’s complimentary), the unexpected joy of cooked radishes. And, as he edges towards his 75th birthday in December, the reason why he’s spending the year completing 1,000 drawings for a series of exhibitions.

“It’s to celebrate the fact that old guys aren’t just people wandering about with bus passes,” he says. “And that the arts of England shouldn’t just play to the artistic demands of 12 year olds.” For good measure, he adds: “I’m fed up with an arts Establishment dominated by auction houses, rich collectors, international dealers and intellectual sluggishness.”

With that challenging manifesto in mind, I take the train to Pontefract, where Lewis and his imam-like white beard are waiting for me on the platform.

I ought to say that I’ve known him, and his beard, for 30 years. I’ve respected his radical views, but haven’t always agreed with them, though he’s right about cooked radishes.

At 74, he still shows the same astonishing energy and industry he’s always had. He’s sending off emails at dawn, writing by 6am, on a train by 7am. Don’t ever mention cosy slippers and retirement. A great iconoclast (we’ll come to his opinions about Barbara Hepworth), he believes that art needs a social context and political and moral attitude; it needs to be about content not just design. He also knows the publicity value of what, for the sake of argument, we’ll call stunts.

By his own standards, 1,000 drawings in a year should be a doddle. Back in the Eighties, he took up a challenge to create a complete exhibition in a day, painting 20 oils and hanging them in a Sheffield gallery. When he was 65, he did 65 paintings in a day and exhibited them at Dean Clough in Halifax (where all the new drawings will be shown from mid-October).

As a founder of Yorkshire Art Circus, a pioneering West Yorkshire community publisher that gave an inspiring voice to “ordinary” people, he came up with the concept of “A Book in a Day”, gathering material from after breakfast and publishing by teatime. This soon evolved into “A Book in Eight Minutes”. It should logically have led to “A Book by Yesterday Morning”, but somehow it never has.

A quick biography in 75 words, one for each of his years...

Born in Birmingham, left school with four O-levels, became a foundry apprentice. Moved to Yorkshire at 18, awarded one of the first Open University degrees, became a teacher and college lecturer, former deputy chairman of Yorkshire Arts Association, national tutor for Open College of the Arts. Awarded honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University for services to the community and the arts, first Poet Laureate of Birmingham, suit-wearer, controversialist, passionate adopted Northerner, early riser.

We walk across Pontefract – past the cafes (and, yes, there are a lot) and people saying “Hello, Brian” and over a concrete pedestrian footbridge – to his home in a quiet Victorian bay-windowed street. A small doll of the Queen beams ironically from the front window. Inside, bookshelves and pictures cover practically every square inch of wall. His study is crammed with Staffordshire dogs, Indian carvings, a Victorian miners’ certificate and plastic models of the Simpsons.

An eight foot high tower of storage boxes houses the 600 drawings he’s completed so far for the current project.

The pictures are challenging stuff, frequently grotesque and darkly satirical. He pulls out two or three of them. They draw, as he says, “on a very wide range of cultural flotsam and jetsam”. One series is inspired by the Labours of Hercules. Another explores the idea of the Ship of Fools, the medieval concept of society adrift in a pilotless boat (we’re all in it together).

Another traces the progress of Rebekah Brooks, the former News of the World and Sun editor, through the Leveson Inquiry. “In this picture she sails out on a boat through the legs of a colossus,” says Lewis. He studies the image as though he’s never seen it before. “It’s very strange, isn’t it?”

As an anti-elitist, he agrees that some of these ideas are a touch obscure. “But I’m not going to spend all my life drawing whippets, the stereotype of the North.” Lewis calls the 1,000 pictures the Hokusai Project, after Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist most famous for his print The Great Wave off Kanagawa. In 1834, when he was 74, Hokusai wrote in his journal: “Although I had produced numerous designs by my 50th year, none of the works done before my 70th is worth keeping.”

Hokusai – from, as Lewis points out, “a culture where they don’t dismiss the old” – apparently means “old man mad about drawing”. Lewis decided to follow his lead and become one himself.

So is it a stunt? “No, it’s an attempt to say to people: ‘A person who is dedicated can do in a year what you’re told not to do at art school: turn things out.’ It’s a crusade against the networks of people who are spending a lot of time thinking rather than doing.

“So much modern art is affectation without craftsmanship. We’re moving ahead so fast in science and technology but in the arts we’re pratting around. You can’t be creative if you don’t have the technique. And it’s all about the art market now. How can a Damien Hirst possibly be worth so many millions? How can Munch’s Scream be worth $120m? I would close art galleries unless they had better definitions of what they were for.”

We have vegetable (with radish) casserole for lunch and he phones for a taxi to take us to Wakefield, where I’m due at an event at the Hepworth gallery. This prompts a Hepworth tirade:

“Barbara Hepworth is a limited artist who, because of a historical accident, happened to have a network of influential friends. There’s a hole at the centre of her work. If you compare her with Henry Moore, she cannot draw. He’s an artist who teaches us things; she teaches us very little.”

He believes this so fervently that last year he organised a picket of 20 artists outside the Hepworth on the day it opened.

Brian Lewis’ exhibition, Today the Struggle, to July 9 at the According to McGee gallery, 8 Tower Street, York. 01904 671709;