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culture: Drama and spectacle is Mike's inspiration; Urban antics rather than rural landscapes are what excite artist Mike Clay.

Byline: David Whetstone reports

SOME artists travel the world in search of inspiration but Mike Clay says he finds quite enough within one kilometre of his house in Hendon, which, in these economically challenged times, is reason enough to make him smile.

But he's a cheerful chap, happy to be in an area of Sunderland which will probably never feature on those lists of the most desirable places to live.

"I suppose it's a pretty grim area," he concedes. "People do say, 'Oh, you don't live there, do you?' But I really enjoy it. It's like a village because everyone knows everyone else."

And if you are liable to stumble upon a comatose fairy by the roadside, then so much the better.

An artist like Mike feeds on drama and spectacle, and he finds Hendon awash with it.

People around here, he explains, just love to get dressed up to go clubbing - hence the occasional face you'll see leering out of his paintings, often sporting a pair of silly ears.

Sometimes, like the fairy, they don't quite make it home as the clock chimes midnight.

"There were three girls dressed as bumble bees the other day," he says appreciatively. "I did a couple of paintings of them where I called them the clubees. I like the ridiculous, I think."

Where life is chaotic it can also be colourful.

All this is reflected in the paintings which Mike turns out at a fair rate of knots. Primary colours and all shades in between describe a people and a lifestyle you could never describe as dull. It's joie de vivre, Sunderland-style.

Mike's vibrant palette owes everything to the little pots of poster paint he favours. In snootier circles, he confides, you would call it "gouache". But, no, this is the paint they use in schools.

His leaping, lounging, leering figures he outlines in drawing ink. Sometimes a new picture will be superimposed on top of an earlier, unfinished effort. It mirrors the fact that life is a succession of frozen moments and that a scene of mayhem can be all tranquillity in the blink of an eye.

Mike says one lady bought a painting because she liked the little dog in the corner.

He didn't tell her that the little dog was a leftover from the painting underneath.

Mike is not a North-Easterner by birth. He hails from Sussex but studied art at Sunderland Poly - now university - and stayed after graduating in 1982.

"I like the North East. It provides me with all the subject matter I need and London-based artists say there's a great interest in the North East at the moment. There was a sense of culture shock coming here at first, but it's wonderful. There's Hadrian's Wall nearby and the coastline is fantastic."

Mike has made a living out of art residencies and projects, many of them in schools.

He says he is sometimes approached by tough-looking men who say: "You're Mike, the artist. Do you remember me from such and such a school?" At moments like this, relief floods over him.

It's clear that he likes kids. He is a governor of the local primary school but can also see merit in a bit of mischief. "I wasn't that great as a kid myself," he says. "My mum and dad split up when I was seven and I can remember writing rude words on the street and even in the windows of the house."

In Hendon, he knows where the youngsters hang out. He says on occasion he has been asked to appraise a new bit of graffiti tagging.

Mike has left his own mark all over the North East while staying within the bounds of the law. He has a mural at Heworth Metro Station and worked with four schools and textile artist Fiona Rutherford to create an artwork for the station at Bede.

Primarily a sculptor, he started painting when his son was born. He found that pieces of square board fitted nicely down the back of the baby buggy, which explains why most of his pictures are of uniform shape and size.

His son is now 16, 6ft 2ins tall and with an eye on the legal profession. But the square paintings continue to suit Mike's artistic vision.

His last Newcastle exhibition was 10 years ago at the short-lived Bluebell Gallery on Shields Road, Byker. The latest is at Newcastle Arts Centre. I loved his paintings in 1999 and love them still. They tell crazy stories from real life. The gallery suggested the exhibition title Eavesdroppings but in Hendon, it seems, you don't have to sneak about to see things happening.

Mike smiles at the recollection of the wedding party dropped by mistake at the cemetery, instead of the church a quarter of a mile away. He nipped home and committed the disgruntled-looking bride to board.

Then there was the impromptu party on the beach, with kids in fancy dress leaping around to music. Like the dog, a survivor from an earlier painting exists as an eccentric but plausible gatecrasher.

Currently there is much talk of who will be the new Poet Laureate. If the North East were to appoint an Artist Laureate, Mike Clay might fit the bill.

Eavesdroppings is at Newcastle Arts Centre until March 7 with all works for sale.


IF you've ever fancied starring in a West End-style musical, now's your chance.

Newcastle Musical Theatre Company is searching for performers to star in its production of The Producers at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, in September.

As well as the leading roles in the musical, based on the hit 1968 film, directed by Mel Brooks, it also has parts for female dancers.

Auditions, involving singing and dancing, will be held at the theatre from 9am to 1pm on March 1, with rehearsals due to start on March 18. Applicants should bring sheet music, a CV and should wrap up warm as they may need to queue.


NEW Writing North has set up a new book group in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside. It will start on February 11, meeting every second Wednesday of the month, from 7.30pm to 9pm, at the Trojan Rooms in South Parade.

The group will be led by reader-in-residence Cathy McCracken, and will start off reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It's free to join. Visit for details.


VISITOR to Waygood Art Boutique in High Bridge, Newcastle, can become involved in making a special piece of art.

Over the next two weeks, they are being invited to help build a wall in the boutique window from miniature bricks.

The bricks are made by Andrew Burton, one of the artists in its current exhibition.


WALLS HAVE EARS Artist Mike Clay whose exhibition "Eavesdroppings", inspired by things he sees and hears in his local area, will be on display at Newcastle Arts Centre until March 7.; LOVING LOCAL LIFE Two of Mike Clay's paintings, which will be on display at his exhibition, depict the sometimes bizarre goings-on in the Hendon are of Sunderland, a place he admits is "pretty grim" but where he says he loves to live because it feels like a village to him.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 3, 2009
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