On the outskirts of Bolton, in a terraced row of Victorian houses, one has a plaque outside with the tell-tale list of business occupiers.
All of the occupiers are quite ordinary, the usual collection. Buzzer number 10 takes you through the traditional and original front door, into the Victorian hallway and staircase. The difference is that buzzer number 10 just says, ‘Gerry Halpin, Artist.’
Gerry waves me up the stairs from the first floor, leaning out of a predictable panelled doorway. The predictability ends abruptly there. A one-room studio, packed floor to ceiling with easels, partly finished canvases, piles of sketch books and a collection of ceramics. “I bought them at car boot sales and junk shops. Just liked the colours.” There’s very little spare floor room too, as I settle into one of the two chairs occupying the space left free.
Gerry Halpin is 74 soon, but his boyish enthusiasm belies those years. I’ve known Gerry’s work for a while and admired the figurative work that I’d seen. But I was perhaps more intrigued by his ‘landscapes from the air,’ that I thought was a more recent genre for him. That turns out not to be so.
It all started, he tells me, flying back from San Francisco about twenty years ago. He was fascinated by the shapes and patterns of Utah observed from 30,000 feet in the air. “Shapes and linear forms that were a combination of man-made and natural. The interaction between the two.” Back home and a friend volunteered to fly him around in his light aircraft so that Gerry could sketch. That’s what really started things.
Although now he can pause recordings of ‘Earth from Space’ on the telly, sketch and then paint, he still always books a window seat when flying on holiday and sketches what he sees below. Flying back from Thailand recently, he talks about the Indian Ocean, the coast of India and “Sketching the good bits.” The fascination is still very much alive.
Gerry trained as a teacher. His dad didn’t see a future in him going to art college and so persuaded him to study teaching. He did so, but with his three subjects being art, psychology and philosophy. When I raise my eyebrows at the last two subjects Gerry comments, “You’d be surprised how useful they are when dealing with a class of young people!”
Gerry painted every night after teaching and so his skills are essentially self-taught. In 1990 he decided to give painting a go full time. “But of course I then had to pay for a studio. It was a combination of a friendly bank manager – who was a frustrated artist himself – and two days a week as an artist in residence at another school that got me through the lean years. The beans on toast years.”
He had always been recognised as an accomplished painter around Rivington and sold enough work, or was commissioned enough to pay bills along with part-time teaching, but wanted to explore more techniques, continue to, “Experiment and learn,” as he says. That experimentation and learning continues today.
In 2001 Gerry was admitted to the Manchester Academy of Fine Art and has (just) stepped down as President after four years. He could have completed the maximum of six years. “My work whilst I have been President has been a steady progression. Not wickedly experimental. I’m stepping back completely, with the academy in a good place with 120 members. Now I want to excite myself with painting again.”
Gerry’s tales of boyish enthusiasm include being reprimanded at his hero Cezanne’s Aix en Provence studio for touching Cezanne’s chair (“Sad isn’t it, but I just had to do it!”) and standing in the queue ahead (alphabetically by one letter) of Lewis Hamilton at Buckingham Palace.
Gerry was being awarded an MBE for services to charity through his art. That was in 2009. “I turned to him and said that I was in poll position this time! He was quite charming – and said he was very nervous…this is the Queen.”
So Gerry paints looking down on the earth, fascinated by shapes, colours and interactions of nature and man. ‘Re-interpreting and re-presenting landscape,’ as he tells me Cezanne instructed. He also paints people. No, he paints people beautifully.
“I work here from 8.15 to about 6 every day. And go to Costa for two slices of toast for my lunch every day. But I take my sketch-book and coloured pencils. I draw people that I don’t know, so I can almost just see people as parts of a landscape. Then I arrange the different drawings of the different people into a painting. They’ll never know. I do the same when I’m waiting for a train, or anywhere. I’m just a compulsive painter. I paint compulsively, day after day.”