The New Sun

Ain't Life Grand?

Born in Swansea, a Welsh port-town bombed to bits by German warplanes, I enjoyed my early life. The town was a bomb-site for nearly 20 years after. Until the mid-1960's post-war Britain was still austere, but everything was possible. That's what my mother kept telling me.

During the war she held down two jobs. She worked as a telephonist in the central fire department, sending out fire-fighters to put out massive fires kindly ignited by Germans, and to collect hundreds of bodies suddenly obliterated by the same kindly souls.

Her other job was a kind of counter to the ravages of war - a singer and comedienne. Known as the "Comedy Queen of Wales" she always had top billing in theatres and when entertaining the troops. She never accepted the offers of Broadway, because her family came first. But, she made sure any spark of creativity in her children was nourished.

Her devotion to family also stopped her contribution to the finances. Married immediately after the war, her income was massive, and she was ferried to theatres in a Jaguar. As kids came along she slowed down and finally stopped her stage career, along with its finances. My father had just left the army, an NCO in the 'Red Berets' (paratrooper) who got shot up in France. He was a shunter on the railway, so his income was small.

Our home was poor-Bohemian and we all sang, danced and did wonderfully creative things. Later, as a teenager, I went to art college after leaving a deadly boring mechanical apprenticeship. In those days poorer kids never went on to college! That's why, when I walked to art college from my home, neighbours shouted insults like "Get your hair cut!" and "Why don't you work with your hands?"

I continued in my Bohemianism - long hair and I made my own clothes. Mainly because we had no money. Later, when I got married, I got on a public bus to get to the church, and clambered over the bombed buildings that still littered my town. I couldn't afford a suit, and though I was 21, I wore my old school uniform, with the badge taken off the pocket. But, that was what post-war Britain was like. It didn't matter.

As an art student I took over my mother's home for an art studio. I would paint murals on her living room walls when she went shopping. She came to expect it after a while. I would break off from my painting and sculpting and play piano, as lyrics came to my head. It wasn't unusual for my Dad to come downstairs bleary-eyed, to shout at me for belting out a rock tune after midnight. I sold everything I painted, even though I could only afford the cheapest materials! I did my water colours with a child's paint box I borrowed from my little sister.

Then along came the "movers and shakers" who pretended to know better, and things began to change. They constructed "youth culture" and critics started to emerge. I developed an art theory I called "Atmospheric Image" and used it on a vibrant painting I did in a nude life class. Even though my tutor saw me painting it, he insisted I had "copied" the idea from somewhere. So I didn't bother again.

I was singing and playing in local rock bands, and caught the eye of the manager of a famous rock band. But his actions put me off rock as a career and I went back to art.

I began work as a professional artist, loving every moment. I worked six months and "rested" six months. My easel was one of my mother's chairs on top of the dining table. My "canvas" was always a sheet of board taken from scrap-piles in yards. My paints were the cheapest I could get, or were donated by other artists who had bought new ones. I just used the screwed-up end bits. I did sculptures in my bedroom, dressed in the only suit I had. It was a shiny green Italian number. It ended up covered in rock dust as I used to do rough work with an electric drill and grinder. My trousers were always covered in oil paints, because I painted using my fingers, and wiped the excess off on my pants.

But, I got noticed and paintings ended up around the world. I was not invited to a particular art gathering, but walked in anyway and managed to get photographed with the host artist. For the picture I was engaged in an intense arty chat. I got through it but I didn't have the faintest idea what we were talking about! But critics loved it because it was "prfound"!

I was invited to exhibit at a Welsh Arts Council exhibition, held in large tents in a park. I filled the sides with paintings, but got noticed for my 12 foot tall statue of a Viking warrior. The critics loved that, too, and gave all kinds of "meanings" to it. In reality I just liked the subject and thought it would grab attention! They even told newspaper reporters I had 'invented' the material used to make the sculpture. That wasn't quite what happened...

I was flat broke and had to produce something. I nailed two bits of wood to a flat base and built my Viking around it, from the bottom up, in my mother's kitchen. I couldn't afford anything, so I found some chicken wire fencing in the garden and made a form around the wooden bits (also found in the garden). The nails used to fix bits together were extracted carefully from doorways in the house.

Cloth found in a cupboard was used for the "Viking clothes," and my mother gave me money to buy plaster-filler in small boxes from the local hardware store. I couldn't afford real plaster. To stop it from cracking and falling off I painted it over with an old tin of gloss paint.

The problem came when I reached the shoulders, which, by that time, was touching the ceiling in the kitchen. I made the head on the kitchen table. Looking around for something to do it with, I saw a coal scuttle in the corner and beat it into a suitable helmet shape. This made up for the fact that my warrior had no head. I borrowed my brother's car and tied the whole statue on top with string. It caused a sensation in my exhibition tent.

When the exhibition finished I took out any paintings left over, and leaned the statue against a tree. By the time I went back to get it, someone had pinched it! That saved me trying to find a home for it, but I did wonder how on earth the art-lover managed to sneak a 12 foot statue out through the gates!

An American buyer later contacted me and I met him at the Savoy Hotel in London. He asked me to send half a dozen paintings to the USA. That's the last I heard from him! I sent off my paintings, but got nothing in return. But so what? Like others, he had mused over what I "meant" in my paintings, when, in truth, I painted what I liked. No inner turmoil or intense hidden meanings. Just paint on a board.

Life took its toll and I stopped artwork for a long time. A few years ago I returned to it and still love it. I leave critics to their musings and don't say a word. If they enjoy making up mythical meanings, that's fine. I just enjoy the act of making art. Aint life grand?

Continued: Ain't Life Grand? Part 2.

* * *

by Barry Napier
Also by Mr. Napier:
Marlborough: Deliciously English, about a lovely small town in the U.K.
A Quirky English Pastime, Cooper's Hill Annual Cheese Rolling & Wake competition.
England's House of Cheese, a shop in the historic village of Tetbury determined to keep tradition alive.