John Spinks' father wasn't an artist, but his life will live on in art. When Spinks' elderly English father began to write affectionate slice-of-life letters to his emigrant artist son in America in the 1980s, he never imagined for a minute that those private correspondences would one day end up on canvases, being viewed by strangers. The working class Newcastle man voted conservative all his life and would not have welcomed the scrutiny of a public gallery, but there's no denying the strange power of a letter between intimates - his son has just taken it a step further by making their private correspondence a subject for his art. "There's revenge involved in doing this because I found out some years back that my father destroyed all of my own letters. I was probably writing about relationships and I might have expressed opinions," artist Spinks, tells the Irish Voice. "What made him destroy them is that moral sensibility, that a letter could in fact cause difficulty later on. You know how a letter can come back and haunt you if you were in a divorce or something, and it fell into the wrong hands? Spinks, 62, was born in Ennis, Co. Clare, where his mother hailed from, and he makes no secret of the fact that - morality notwithstanding - he was still upset to lose them. It meant that the conversations all became one way, at least at first. "Now it makes my Dad's letters more interesting because they're set against a void. There's no reply. The revenge thing really works too because he had no say in this. These letters are un-selfconscious because he's not writing these thinking they'll end up between 10th and 11th Avenues in a gallery in New York." "Corresponding Approaches," Spinks' new show at the Irish Arts Center, opens an exciting new chapter in his work to date. As works of art the paintings are already complete in themselves, they compel the eye and reward repeated viewings, but there is also something quietly affecting about the words on the canvas too, the conversations between father and son that occur before and - the works make clear - after death. Spinks has intentionally depersonalized all the letters, removing personal greetings like Dear John and the Your Dad, so that we're left with just the text itself, which almost anyone can relate to. Because the handwriting is so clear and subjects so familiar you quickly find yourself having a dialogue with the work and - again because of the universality of the stories Spinks' father is telling - with yourself. "If you take out the personal names it becomes pure narrative. Whoever walks up to it is being addressed," Spinks says. "What inspires me is all these anonymous people doing a great job, getting on with life, coping with pain and illness and the daily grind. It's only Paris Hilton and other luminaries that we read about. They get more press than anybody. This is my way at hitting back at them, too," he says. As a young graduate in the 1970s Spinks taught English and drama in the U.K., quickly becoming head of his university department. But the dawning of the Margaret Thatcher era saw educational resources being clipped, and Spinks saw the way the wind was blowing. "I started thinking about making a move abroad. America has an adolescent energy that lends itself to reinvention, so that's where I decided I would go," he said. In his letters from home Spinks' father writes about Saddam Hussein, about Lady Diana's death, about plane crashes and epic world affairs and also the simple, everyday family comings and goings that very quickly begin to resemble your own. Throughout he talks about these momentous global events in the most polite, formal English, an Everyman looking on and describing what he saw as faithfully - and sometimes as lyrically - as possible. In an age inundated with vulgar celebrity doings, Spinks work arrives like an emissary from reality to bring up back to our senses. Writing, like drawing, comes straight from the self, Spinks suggests, and they possess the power to restore us, they can re-orientate us too. "When you want to build up tone in a drawing you'll make rhythmic lines, you'll layer them, and the tone becomes thicker and harder. I just wanted to emphasize how like drawing writing is. But are exercises' that take place in real time, they come straight from the nervous system." "Corresponding Approaches," will show until February 26 at the Irish Arts Center, 553 West 51st Street, New York. Call 212-757-3318.
Best of Ireland
11 places in Ireland you have to visit