From being a physical education teacher to becoming an established seascape artist, Mick Oxley's journey of discovering and harnessing his artistic ability, is a story of creative will and triumph. A resting period following the diagnosis of a debilitating illness proved pivotal in making the transition to a painter. He talks to Ayesha Kohli of Creative Sparq about the challenges he faced, his creative process and the healing power of art.
Tell me about yourself.
I was born in Northumberland in July 1953, raised just outside of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. I left school at 15 and worked in a variety of jobs while gathering enough “O” and “A” levels to attend the University of Bradford in 1976.
After graduating, I undertook a P.G.C.E. course and started teaching in a middle school in the centre of Bradford. Being keen on sports, I ended up teaching P.E [Physical Education] and Games. I also taught Craft & Design, as it was then called. Due to illness, I retired from teaching in 1993. In 1994, I returned to live in Northumberland – in a little house overlooking the North Sea in Craster – with my wife Karen and my two-year-old son Joe.
When did you start painting and why are you passionate about it?
Having been diagnosed with M.E. [Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome] and suffering exhaustion, especially after exercise, I initially rested to recover.
Most days I spent hours sitting outside pondering my changing circumstances, watching the tides ebb and flow, the scudding clouds, the kaleidoscopic changes to the colour of the sea, tasting the briny air, smelling the sea, feeling the wind on my face.
Towards the end of the 90s, I was still struggling physically, exhausted after standing for a few minutes or walking ten paces. Reluctantly at first, I accepted that I needed to use a wheelchair. While it was a restriction, it also freed me to recover a little and to go places.
Around 1999 I decided to enrol in a W.E.A. (Worker’s Educational Association) class in Painting and Drawing which was held weekly in the local village hall. Luckily for me, the class had a good and knowledgeable tutor who encouraged me to develop and discover new techniques. I decided to launch as a full-time painter, using my environment as my source of inspiration – dredging the memories from my time sitting observing the sea and sky.
What were the challenges of transitioning from working as P.E teacher to becoming an artist?
The transition from P.E. teacher to artist was multi-layered. For the family, it was financially challenging. My income had dropped by almost two-thirds. We had to adapt to the new reality. My wife returned to work, and I was there for my son before and after school. I had never painted since school so there was a lot of technique to grasp. As mentioned earlier, I remain grateful to the tutor for being so generous with his knowledge and time. Then the challenge becomes establishing yourself as an accepted artist. Could I become a financial radiator as opposed to a drain? The multiple challenges we faced helped me re-focus. Before I was inward looking, considering health, worrying about the future. Now I could look outside and consider goals to aim for. Painting has such a therapeutic force, it has helped me so much.
How did you approach this change in career on a personal level ?
The change from P.E. teacher came about due to circumstances – Illness, disability, a move of area and the support of my wife and son. It was all a new adventure – I always thought of it as a magic carpet ride, I might fall off but I aimed to enjoy the ride. Once I got used to the novelty that people would pay for my creations, I gained more confidence and upped my efforts and commitment.
In many ways, I considered myself fortunate to stumble from one career path to another. It all seemed to happen organically. I was grateful for that, for painting gave me an oasis of tranquility, afforded me the space for my head to accept my new life circumstances.
What is your signature style?
When I first started painting, I thrashed about like an early swimmer, before settling into a style and subject area that I could easily draw upon – my immediate environment, the sea, sky and elements. I enjoyed painting in two diverse mediums – watercolour seascapes and textured studies of the shoreline painted in acrylic. Although the styles were different, the paintings had obvious links – colour palette, area and subject. From an early date, I worked in a limited range of colours. To me, these were the colours I saw most days, very northern tones often seen in muted light – greys, blues greens and their multiple tones. This all helped me forge a recognisable style which aids any artist in their quest for acceptance and commercial viability.
What does creativity mean to you?
Creativity is a very personal thing – striving to explain an idea, a thought, a feeling, mood. Like water which falls on ground, soaks through aquifers for centuries before emerging at a source; an idea can remain deeply buried for what seems like eons before emerging at the forefront of your mind. From that point, I try to draw it up into some sort of graphic expression – often a few scribbles and notes that would be unintelligible to most human life! The drawings always help formulate my ideas – colours, method, timescale etc.
What is the creative process you use when you start a new painting or series ?
I began a new series of work earlier this year, under the generic title of Diffused. I would categorise the process behind the series as follows - Inspiration , Experimentation, Creation, Reflection
Inspiration: For this series, the starting point was the early morning photograph of the sea and sky. On some of them, depending on climatic conditions, time etc., there is a soft focus, pastel coloured light, often with a pale sun emitting light between the clouds. J.M.W Turner often captured such effects in many of his paintings, like the Venice works. I searched through many years of daily photographs looking for ideas.
Experimentation: From there I moved on to pen drawings, small, rapid drawings, making notes as I went along. As I was carrying out the drawings, I was also considering sizes, colour palette, textures and how to achieve the soft, misty focus that I wanted. To achieve this I practised on scraps of card, applying colour, letting it dry then diffusing the tones and light. When I felt, I could convey what I wanted I started on the first of the series.
Creation: Firstly, I applied texture to the canvas. For this I use various gesso’s – applied to emphasise the savage essence of the local coastline but also the shape of the clouds and the flow of the water. Secondly, after the texture has dried for twenty-four hours or so, I undercoat the canvas, usually in one colour. Often I add darker areas or lift out the lighter ones. On the third day, the canvas is ready for painting. Again, I use a restricted palette, three or four colours. When painting, I refer to the original drawing, the colours I have in my head. The colour is applied quite thickly, blended and left to dry. Fourthly, I mix a white/lilac blend and stipple it over the painting, blending it with a fantail brush. This gives the effect of mist, breaking up and diffusing the colour and light, softening everything. If it has been applied too thickly I can wipe it off.
Reflection: Sometimes I leave a painting for weeks before going back to work on it. Finally, if I consider it finished – usually after looking at it on a screen, I will varnish and string the canvas ready for display in the gallery. It is always interesting when a new series goes up in the gallery – to hear people’s perceptions of what I was trying to achieve, my mood and whether I have succeeded!
Do you have a routine or ritual that you like following every day?
I am a person who likes the discipline of schedules. If my health allows – I still have periods of enforced rest – I like to go along to the studio early in the morning to begin. Before I go along, I take a photograph of the sea and sky from my bedroom window. This has given me a valuable library of thousands of images – of colours, shapes, patterns etc. Being in a wheelchair, I cannot always get to where I want to go, so a photo can act as a valuable asset to me.
From eight a.m I work in the studio, either drawing, texturising or painting. I often do this until late morning. By this time, the gallery has opened. Luckily, we have a good team who help staff the exhibition space. Sometimes I work on in the gallery space, other times I come home and rest. I am lucky to have that flexibility. I often paint to music. That can vary from Vaughan Williams, to punk, to the radio.
When I get to a stage where consideration is needed, I make a coffee, photograph the work and consider it with fresh eyes at home. Sometimes the obvious jumps out at you on a screen – perhaps a fundamental thing that I missed when sitting almost on top of it.
Please provide some context behind a few of your works.
Upsurge, Watercolour, 2008
This seascape represents the North Sea to me, especially during its wilder days - the crepuscular sea, an almost Nordic half-light, surges of water meeting and colliding, yet beyond lies an emerging light. We all need that hope, that glimmer of better times ahead. Originally, the painting was rectangular with more sea to the right. However, I was not satisfied with it. While chatting, a friend suggested cropping the sea to the right thus making it a square painting, with the upsurge being the central focus. It went on to be my best-selling print. Shows what I know!
Storm, Acrylic on a textured canvas, 2016
Large, almost monochrome seascape – although it is extensively under painted, so colours do emerge from underneath. The aim was to capture the early morning half-light over a sea swell. The painting is heavily textured in various gesso’s to emphasise shape and movement within the painting. As with Upsurge, there is the distant prospect of light.
Elements: Morning Reflections, Dunstanburgh Acrylic on texture, 2016
One of the local classic views, from the sandy beach at Embleton towards the ruin of Dunstanburgh Castle. Painted in softer, almost pastel shades, with the warm rays of early morning light reflected in the stranded pools. The aim was to capture the silence and peace of the early morning – a contrast to the rough seas and glowering skies.
Who or what inspires you?
My immediate environment has always been my source of inspiration. I still draw on what I can see, smell, feel and hear extensively. New ideas for paintings emerge from my observations – sitting and staring out to sea, contemplating life and all it throws at you.
As for artists, my favourites have always been Turner, Len Tabner and Ornulf Opdahl. Turner was the master of light, a thoroughly modern creator who attacked his subjects with such vigour. Len Tabner paints from his base in North Yorkshire, capturing the North Sea with a refreshing power and looseness. It was his work that inspired me to paint seascapes. Finally, Norwegian artist Opdahl is concerned with light, or the lack of it and the effect it has on his work from his coastland studio. All have influenced me massively.
How has technology changed the way you work and what are the opportunities/challenges that it presents artists such as yourself?
Technology presents many challenges to crusty old artists like me. Firstly, we have to come to terms with the incessant changes it throws at us. We grapple with one concept and another is immediately thrust upon us! It can also seduce you into spending too much time in its grasp. Having said that, it offers so much – travel, access to music and arts and a world of information. For me, I incorporate technology into my work, from sourcing ideas through to marketing, contact and communication. I am limited by knowledge and time but it works for me a certain level.
Creative and cultural investments are often de-prioritized during tough economic times as they are deemed nice to have but not necessary. Why do you think this happens or what do you think can be done to avoid this?
When the economic hawks hold sway, spending on arts, especially for the masses seems to take the hit. When economies shrink, the disparities between rich and poor become wider. For the rich, life continues as per norm, they still have access to the arts as they can afford it. The poor have less access. We all must strive for equality and fairness in whichever society we live in. As with the paintings, there always should be that glimmer of hope to aim for.
If you had to suggest a government policy intervention involving the “creative industries” that could make a positive impact on society in your view, what might that be?
I would urge governments to value the creative arts, to realise the potential it can unleash. We owe it to future generations, to give youth a balanced education, to allow children to flourish, develop and follow their chosen paths. Most would agree that a healthy society would have a thriving, well-funded educational base and arts scene. Also, after working in a post-earthquake zone, I realise the therapeutic power of art. I could see at first hand the healing power at play with adults and children alike. Which society does not need to utilise that force?
If you were to compare levels of creativity among children today versus your childhood or your experience as a teacher, what differences and similarities do you see?
Children the world over all have the same thirst for experiences and knowledge – not all have the same access to those opportunities. Moreover, not all, have access to new technology –smart phones, tablets etc. – a lot of learning happens via those new technologies.
Apple, Samsung, Microsoft have almost taken on the role of fostering or restricting creativity – I suppose it depends on your point of view.
Artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics are making rapid strides into automating tasks and jobs in many different fields, including Art. What do you feel about that?
Variety is the spice of life, I welcome the use of technologies like robotics in art. Whether or not reactive, robotic paintings can supplant those of proactive human artist’s remains to be seen. Welcome to the party!
About The Interviewer
A brand storyteller, Ayesha Kohli is the founder of communications consultancy, Sparq Communications and the Editor of Creative Sparq. She launched the site in 2017 to showcase different perspectives on creativity and creative thinking. Passionate about people, culture, education, leadership, technology and trends, she loves championing emerging talents and new businesses.