Behind The Working Man
By Gail Braznell
Alexander Millar was born in 1960 in the small mining village of Springside, a few miles outside the town of Kilmarnock in West Scotland. Growing up in the small traditional Scottish village gave Alex a strong sense of atmosphere, especially during times spent with his father, a British Rail worker, in the steam filled stations which Alex describes as “the most romantic, nostalgic places to be.”
While developing his style of art, Alex painted his signature ‘Gadgie’ characters, eventually entering his work into the Daily Mail’s ‘Not the Turner Prize’. His work was selected as a finalist from over ten thousand entries and was exhibited at the Mall Galleries in London. Since then Alex has been successfully exhibiting his work across the UK and his style is recognised worldwide.
Alexander Millar, an entirely self-taught artist, possesses a depth of expression unrivalled in the contemporary art world. His paintings are collected by art lovers across the globe. Making the ordinary details of life extraordinary through his exquisite use of light and impasto brushstrokes, through Working Man.
Alex has recently found new inspiration from a sense of freedom having just been released from a long 12-year contract with the UK’s leading fine art publisher Washington Green.
In October 2015 he launched his new collection “Happy Days”, using many of the happy and fond memories he had as a child when life was free from trouble and strife.
I Caught up with Alex for a chat.
A lot of your work has been inspired by your childhood, but what is your strongest memory growing up
My dad’s death sent me over the edge, I had a huge physical and mental breakdown and that was the darkest time of my life. We never really got along, he was ill for years and years with Parkinson’s disease, towards the end of his life. I became friends with him in a strange sort of way. At the same time, I started doing little drawings of memories I had of my childhood like the old men, which used to make me feel better. It was like my safe haven, covering myself in that nice warm blanket of comfort. Dealing with that not only became my salvation but a real leap of faith to move into the art world. I’d given up hope but because of the art, I realised there was hope and that has been my biggest inspiration.
Working as an Artist can be very solitude at times, how do you manage to stay inspired
It can be but I work better in company with a buzz around me. Although my studio is at home in Jesmond, every morning I go to a little cafe in Newcastle it’s called Di Marcos, it’s my little piece of Italy. I sit there and do my sketching and have a chat with people. I’m always watching people, I love all those little details about people, they fascinate me. It’s these details that turns the ordinary into something extraordinary in my head. I always work in natural light so there is nothing better than being able to sit outside, despite the cold, with a glass of wine, whisky or something stronger like Earl Grey Tea with classical music playing in the background.
Your work is renowned amongst art connoisseurs and is sought after by celebrities and collectors alike. What advice would you give to up and coming artists within the art world
Art is emotion, good or bad, everyone is an artist, art comes from deep down inside of you. All you need to do is believe in yourself, listen to your gut and feel your emotions.
Where does all that inspiration keep coming from
My formative years were spent in the company of old men dressed in dark suits smoking woodbines partnered with large missile-shaped women decked out in headscarves and pinnies. My father worked for British Rail and I got great pleasure from simply sitting in the atmospheric steam filled stations which even today I find are the most romantic, nostalgic places to be. Many of my most romantic paintings are set within that very atmosphere – I guess I’m just a big old-fashioned nostalgic romantic at heart! It, therefore, comes as no surprise to many that my favourite film is ‘The Quiet Man’.
Over time has your artwork changed at all, if so how
I can see it has changed, the characters they must have been doing yoga or something they’ve got more movement now and have become younger in a strange sort of way.
What is your earliest strongest memory
I was three years old and for years I thought it was JFK being shot. My granny came in one day screaming “oh my god he’s been shot, he’s been shot”. Nobody actually told me the truth until many years later, but it was my dad he’d shot my grandfather, they’d been out shooting rabbits and my dad blew my granddad’s leg off with a shotgun.
Do you have any new themes you would like to pursue
I’m lucky that I’m able to tap into a lot of different things these days. About the time I was looking for another challenge I watched a video of a song Sting had written about the flamboyantly gay author Quentin Crisp “An Englishman In New York”. In the video, Oh my God Quentin is amazing. Nobody associates me with portraits so I did this portrait of Quentin and I amazed myself. Everyone I showed it to was blown away, so I did Freddie Mercury next from the video ” I’m going slightly mad”
It was about this time I met a guy who owned a gay bar in New York, he invited me to meet the two most wonderful and inventive drag queens Acid Betty and Jimmy Sprinkles, who’s creations in making themselves up into different characters is pure inspiration. The imagery is amazing, you don’t have to work anything out, it’s all there for you, it’s just incredible. I love the imagery, I love that it’s a different part of life, it’s still humanity and it’s still part of life’s big tapestry.
What’s the most indispensable item in your studio
My mixing palette, I bought this years ago from Scarborough. It’s made from solid mahogany and it’s just wonderful….. Another is music, I have to have my music on, whether it’s Bowie, Kings Of Leon or T-Rex.
Do you remember the first piece of artwork you ever sold
It was a very bad watercolour painting of the Tyne Bridge, I painted and signed it when I was on the dole for £150. I have no idea where it is nowadays or if it even still exists.
Have you done any other jobs other than being an artist
I’ve done every job known to man. I left school in Glasgow on a Friday and I was on a building site by the Monday serving an apprenticeship in joinery for three years. When I came to Newcastle I was earning a pittance as a window cleaner. I loved looking in people’s windows and If there were any bonnie looking lasses I would sign the window “I love you” backwards so they could read it from inside.
Once I became well know in the art world I was earning plenty and was soon able to afford three houses and two cars. The funny thing is I couldn’t tell my mum as she was scared of the big wide world and would often ask me if I was doing ok financially. She was always encouraging me to go back to a proper job like cleaning windows again.
What’s the last piece of work from another artist that surprised you and Why
I think it was me…….
I don’t like to look too much because I’m so easily influenced by other peoples work. I like to surprise myself…. I like getting into that unconscious state where the magic happens. If people spent more time developing themselves then society would be different.
We know your childhood is your biggest inspiration but do you have to do much research
Yes of course, but my research is having a conversation with someone. I listen to people, not with my ears but with my eyes. People don’t realise what an inspiration ordinary lives are, it’s spectacular. It could be the movement of the street drunk, the gossiping old ladies standing on street corners, the tired old guy wandering home after a long hard day at work or the wee dog cocking its leg against the street corner. All these types of things are appealing and interesting to me. I am fortunate enough in that the things I love to paint are right in front of my eyes every day. The hairs on the back of my neck still stand on end every time I see an old ‘Gadgie’.
You are very grounded, do you have a dream project
I’m living the dream at the moment. There’s a phrase in the film Kung Fu Panda, don’t be too concerned about the past because it’s history, don’t concern yourself to much with the future because its a mystery, be happy with now for its a gift…that’s why they call it the present.
Is there anything you dislike about the art world
It’s an uneasy line that art walks with business and so often the aim of making money can overshadow the meaning and substance of the art itself. Art is an emotion that you are dealing with. The Americans have got the right idea because when they see success, they celebrate it. The British will praise to a limit then they will start putting it down to conformity, another brick in the wall.
What moves you most in life, either to inspire or upset you
I love a nice chat, I love talking with people and I love life and everything about it. Talking costs nothing, people talk to me as I’m sketching, It’s the northern way. I like friendliness and compassion all the nice things in life because it encourages you to be the same. There’s a disconnection with society these days, people don’t want to talk, they’re always listening to their headphones or reading their phones, I find it disturbing that the internet has disconnected people.
My pet hates are bad drivers and people who don’t say thank you when you hold the door open for them.
The past couple of years has been especially exciting as my work has taken on a life of its own. Sales have gone through the roof and everyone seems to be taking notice of these solitary figures I create. I’m continually surprised to see the effects my paintings have on people, on many occasions I’ve had women moved to tears absorbed by a painting that evokes memories of their father or grandfather.
Alexander Millar, The UK's Top Contemporary Artist Originals and prints are available at www.alexandermillar.com Email email@example.com