John Connolly, artist

DerwentTo wear away the tip of your finger in the pursuit of your art could be considered heroic or foolhardy, but either way that’s exactly what John Connolly is doing.

The artist has made flicking paint at his canvas his trademark, but to get that delicate dusting of dots he uses his finger to manipulate the brush.

The stiff texture of what has become known at his demonstrations as his ‘flicky’ brush takes its toll on his skin and coupled with an allergy he has to certain paint pigments he has to admit his hands are suffering.

“There’s no way I am going to stop what I do and I can’t paint in the same way wearing gloves so I just live with it,” he said with a certain amount of resignation.

It would certainly be a tough call for him to give up doing what he loves now having waited for decades to have the chance to work as a professional artist.

Since he took early retirement five years ago from his job as an art and drama teacher at the then Mortimer Wilson School in Alfreton he has established himself as one of Derbyshire’s most successful artists.

His work has been bought by collectors all over the world and he has paintings exhibited in more than a dozen galleries from Devon in the south to Cumbria in the north.

Like many of his peers John, who was brought up in Leeds, painted for pleasure when he was young but at the time was not encouraged to make a career of either that or his other passion acting – so a lifetime of teaching beckoned.

He trained as an art teacher in Doncaster and in drama at Derby and moved to this county to start teaching drama at Bolsover, at a school not far from where he now lives.

However, John wasn’t satisfied with simply working in the classroom and in his free time he was to be found performing either on stage as an actor (he has an equity card) or singing with a band (The Shaydes).

He was a founder member and artistic director of Compact Theatre Company and has even written three plays.

In his purpose-built studio at his home the posters from his touring days in the 1990s are in pride of place on the wall.

“They were good times and we had a lot of fun. I am still a performer at heart, though, and I now use those skills to entertain people at my demonstrations.

“The teacher in me enjoys passing on my knowledge to others but I also like to have fun with it and that’s when the acting comes in. The audience loves to see me throwing the paint around and I enjoy having an audience.”

It was in about 2003 that John began concentrating more on his painting. In those days his work was more traditional watercolour and he admits that looking back it was very much like that of many other watercolour artists.

“I have always had a keen interest in landscape painting – vast sweeping horizons, rugged terrains, shorelines and ever-changing light I am drawn by the bleakness of places – but it was seeing work by the artist Kurt Jackson which inspired me to develop my current style.

“There was something amazing about his work that excited me and I just thought that I wanted to paint that way.

“Now I work mainly with acrylics but sometimes mix media using anything I can to achieve the desired effect. I like mark making and interesting textures which is why I use my fingers and thumbs to scratch and scrape, as well as flicking the paint on to the canvas.”

Dried grass, twigs, leaves and ferns also find their way on to some of his landscapes and his most recent project has been a body of work centred on the New Forest.

John, 60, heads off in his van and loses himself (quite literally once he admits) in the forest for three or four weeks each year.
“It is the most beautiful place. So unspoilt. I set myself up among the trees and just paint all day. I have hardly ever seen another person. Plenty of pigs, ponies and deer but never anyone else,” he said.

“I really couldn’t be happier. When I left teaching I didn’t see it as retiring – I knew what I wanted to do and to me it was changing careers. Painting  is what I live for.”

John’s exhibition Seasons can be seen at St John Street Gallery in Ashbourne from May 8-30. He will also have an exhibition at Leabrooks Gallery in Somercotes in the autumn and his work is available at Gallerytop, Rowsley, Cromford Studio and Gallery and Jack Sevens Art Yard in Macclesfield.

For more details about his work go to http://www.connollyart.com