ARTISTIC AGITATOR

Brian Lewis sits beneath two works by the 'Castleford Brick Man', Dave Prudhoe, in his Tyke Modern gallery.

Brian's fires are burning as brightly as ever

With the enthusiasm of someone a quarter of his age, Pontefract artist and self-confessed "benevolent dictator" Brian Lewis is still full of ideas, idealism and new initiatives

Who was it who first made the observation that people mellow with advancing years? Clearly that only partially-informed individual had never met Brian Lewis.

At 77 years old, the Pontefract writer, painter, poet and pot-stirrer is still buzzing with ideas, still aiming barbs at the art establishment and still going about his business with the zeal of someone a quarter of his age.

Brian's two latest projects typify his perpetual twin enthusiasms: for providing local artists with a creative outlet; and for reminding the arts movers and shakers that there's a teeming pool of talent beyond the big names and big cities.

The most significant of the two initiatives (without in any way downgrading the worth of the other) is the cleverly-titled Tyke Modern, an art gallery-cum-studio-cum cultural hub which Birmingham-born Brian opened in his adopted home town in April 2015.

It's on two floors above the ETSY charity shop, on Cornmarket: ETSY – Elite Training Systems Yorkshire – being an organisation which, among other things, provides vocational education to youngsters for whom conventional school just doesn't, for whatever reason, work.

Asked about what moved him to create Tyke Modern, Brian was typically forthright. “There was very little inspiration, actually!” he said. “I just walked into the shop one day and said to the bloke behind the counter, 'What's all this then?'. It was as blunt as that.

“He explained what the charity did, so I offered him some books. He came to my home, collected the books then asked if I wanted to see the rest of the operation.”

Having shown Brian round ETSY's training centres in Carleton and

Wakefield, the aforementioned 'bloke behind the counter', Simon Bailey, asked: “What would you do if I let you have some rooms over this shop?”

“I said 'that's easy' – I'm never backward at coming forward – 'what I'd do is bring in an art exhibition',” recalled Brian.

And so, just ten days later, with the former tattooist's premises having had a thorough clean and paint, Brian and wife Reini moved in more than a hundred paintings they'd accumulated at home, although there are still as many again remaining in their terrace house…

“What we've got on these walls is 139 pieces – but what makes them distinctive is that every one has been done by a Yorkshire artist or photographer, or somebody who has worked here.” And hence Tyke Modern.

Although he describes himself as “a benevolent dictator”, Brian gave the curator's role to fellow artist Yvonne Denton, who has arranged the loan of additional works – including one exception to the White Rose-only rule (although it is by an Indian artist who once had an exhibition in Castleford!).

However, Brian intends that Tyke Modern should be more than a gallery. “I want it to be a culture centre, somewhere where artists can come and work or maybe a place to develop small industries. If I had my way, every house in this town would have an original work of art in it – not bloody things from IKEA!”

Although little room remains in the gallery for one-off exhibitions or many additional works beyond those already on its walls, Brian has secured the use of a space at ETSY's Carleton base and a big upstairs room at the Red Lion, on Pontefract Market Place.

A group at the Red Lion has been revisiting the techniques of life drawing, the results of which will be exhibited as Josephine Butler and the Concertina Book – a series of concertina-folded paintings and drawings based on the story of the pioneering 19th century feminist and controversial 'patron saint of prostitutes'.

While visiting Pontefract during the 1872 general election campaign, Butler had to flee when the barn in which she was speaking was deliberately set on fire. Despite the hostility toward her, however, it was the landlord of the Red Lion who offered her alternative accommodation for the meeting to go ahead.

This ties in nicely with the second of Brian's projects, which he characterised as something of a fringe event to the 2015 Wakefield Lit Fest.

To illustrate his thinking, he looks back to his time at the Yorkshire Art Circus, the pioneering Castleford-based community art organisation which, in the 1980s and 90s, nurtured a remarkable range of local authors, painters, poets and craftspeople.

“The YAC's motto was 'Everybody's got a story to tell, Yorkshire Art Circus finds ways of letting them tell it',” explained Brian. “Not just written, though: you could paint your story, embroider it, whatever you wanted.

“I've always been an advocate of the local artist. Also, with anything I get involved in, I always want to know what it will do for the legacy; if it will get these people involved in any meaningful way.

“I always use the Fryston example. At Fryston pit you'd got Jack Hulme, a remarkable documentary photographer; Dave Wilders, a fine painter; Harry Malkin, a sculptor who started with an exhibition in The Place [a former Pontefract restaurant] between the

gents' lavatory and the till – and his next one was in the Royal Festival Hall.

“You've got two alternatives to explain this: either it's something in the water in Fryston, or you could find this talent in any place – but only if you ask. Those people are there if you make an effort to find them and give them a chance.

“But if we always bring in the 'big name' poets from afar, then forget it: you don't get the legacy. They come in, they do their bit, then off they go to the next one. And then what?”

If that's a dig at the premise of the Wakefield Lit Fest, then it's typical Brian Lewis that his criticism was followed by action – just as when he set up a local artists' gallery on Chantry Bridge, across the road from The Hepworth Wakefield, on the £38m gallery's opening day.

Thus he staged a number of events in the first half of September: the Josephine Butler exhibition, a display of 'car boot art' – pieces constructed from oddments picked up at car boot sales – and the launch of a book by Pontefract photographer Karl Nurse, all at ETSY's UCAN centre in Carleton; he's putting together an A to Z 'people's history' of Knottingley and Ferrybridge on the back of three 'tell us your story' sessions; and in similar vein, there'll be a 1960 onwards popular history of Pontefract places, collated from the reminiscences of townsfolk dropping in at Tyke Modern.

At the very least, then, there'll be two books to show for his and – more pertinently – local people's efforts: there, in paper and ink, will be one of the most tangible possible forms of those legacies on which Brian is so keen.

And then? Probably the last person who can answer that will be Brian Lewis himself. But one thing is certain: the next spark of inspiration which sets off another blaze of activity won't be too far around the corner for this most unquenchably enthusiastic of artists.

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