“The impulse to create and how it shapes and directs our lives as artists – and why that matters – and how it shaped Alec’s life….”


When I look back to when I ran my gallery in Ilkley in the 80s and worked as an art critic and curator in Yorkshire, there are two things that immediately spring to mind.

The first is the number of artists I met who became my friends, the second is some of the art they made – and the two are – of course - linked. Not always of course, but all of the artists who became my friends made art that was as distinctive and recognisable as their fingerprints or their handwriting. The art I chose to show was honest, not pretentious, well crafted, passionate, loving, full of life and the love of it, and that was how I came to know Alec and Jean.

I was lucky. I would not have met these men and women who were passionate about art without following my own passion for art, so where does this come from? Why are artists different? What drives them?

Where does the impulse to create come from and how does it shape our lives as artists?

•Art offers us a method to communicate what we may not necessarily fully understand or know how to express. Art helps us to share thoughts, ideas and visions that cannot be articulated any other way. Visual art (and music) gives us a way of showing something beyond words.

•Art begins as a solitary activity. The child or young person who separates himself from others by his desire to spend more time being an artist than being with others has to possess certain character traits in order to persist: a strong sense of identity, self-confidence, courage, self-reliance, stubborness. Because we all like to be part of the crowd it is hard to express our creative impulses when we are young.

•To be a steel worker like Alec who spends his time drawing takes all those qualities but to be an artist needs one more thing – a rich interior life that demands expression. It is a circle.
The child or young person who dares to be different inevitably has a rich interior life, it is what makes them strong. It is also what gives them the greatest delight.

What are the qualities an artist needs?

•So courage and self belief are essential to be an artist. Alec had it – and he had it when he decided to train to be a teacher of art – knowing that this would give him time to develop as an artist and knowing, as all good teachers do, that by teaching he would learn.

•What and artist also needs is the sense that what he or she is making matters – first of all to themselves and only later to others.

•For this you also need a sense of being part of a tradition – to know where you belong – which is where visits to museums and galleries, if they are good experiences to see good things, are so valuable.

I have not forgotten my first encounter with art which was in the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, where my mother left me while she visited some aged relative. I didn't know what I was seeing, I didn't read the labels, but the sense of excitement and joy and wanting more - and to know more about, these wonderful things has never left me.

When you stand in front of a really good work of art, it does not require you to say to yourself what it is, it goes straight from your eyeballs to your heart. That is what happened to me as a child and it keeps on happening. I became a writer about art because I wanted to share that experience and help others to have it.

So, why does it matter that we have art

•We need art because it makes us complete human beings and connects us - because

Art both universalises experience and enlarges our experience,
Art stimulates our imagination, asks questions of us about how we think and feel – and why - because we have to respond to this other view of the world that is presented to us. Not to argue with it, but to have a conversation with it.

So, what is this thing called art?

Drawing under-pinned everything Alec did. Drawing is much more than representing what you see, though Alec was a superb draughtsman.

•Drawing it is learning about what you see: you see it, you draw it, you know it and while you are doing that you think it into your imagination and then you make something out of it that wasn’t there before – that is, simply put, art.


There was a continuous development in Alec’s themes and ideas and after he retired he was able to really go for it, to get really dug into his experience of landscape, ancient cultures and symbols.

•Although they look very different from his earlier work, all that he had done before came together in these prints I think. He wasn’t afraid to experiment and explore, and his conclusions were made into art that would encourage us to do the same.

•Print making seems eminently suitable for this period of Alec’s working life as an artist. It not only encourages experimentation and exploration. Democracy and access matter to the printmaker, it mattered to Alec.

Besides the self-belief I mentioned earlier Alec also had Jean who believed in him and supported him totally in his decisions and his passion for his work. Having that support is vital. You need that love and understanding of the importance of art for you - and as an end in itself - that enables you to realise your creative potential, because it enables you to realise your unique individuality as a person. The lack of it can mean a long hard slog to find your voice. I have only just found that support in the last few years so I know what I am talking about.

Finally, everything I have spoken about matters to all of us here tonight because one way or another, simply by being here were are sharing a connection that makes our lives richer.

Mary (Sara) Thomson 2013

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