Joe Scarborough: “We used to live cheek by jowl, you knew everybody!”
Ahead of his first ever retrospective exhibition, one of Sheffield’s most-loved artists Joe Scarborough sits down with NorthBound Magazine for a natter about his art, growing up in Pitsmoor and living life in the big village…
When I first came to Sheffield six years ago I was struck by the small close knit communities that somehow exist within such a big and widespread city, making the daunting experience of moving from a tiny countryside town to a huge, bustling northern powerhouse all the more easier. Sheffield truly is a unique and wonderful place to live and nobody agrees with or encapsulates this more than the Sheffield legend Joe Scarborough. At 81 years of age, Joe has had, and continues to have, a colourful career, creating amazing pieces of art that reflect everyday life in the most fun and vibrant way. With his new exhibition ‘Life in the Big Village’ set to open in August at Weston Park Museum, I sat down for a chat with the man himself whilst he enjoyed the sun on his narrowboat in Pitsmoor.
What resulted was a wonderful and insightful discussion on his life and artwork, the local community and nostalgic notions of how life should be lived.
I start with asking Joe the fundamental question of how he first got into art and painting and what I got was a very humble response. “Well basically I’ve always been interested in art but I found out slowly but surely that I wasn’t particularly good at anything else, so art, if you like, was the last resort!” It turns out that Joe in fact started doodling trains, boats and planes from an early age, using the backside of his dad’s great big pink report books from the steel works as a canvas. It wasn’t until he started working down the pits at Thorpe Hesley that he realised he wanted to move on from trains, boats and planes. “Suddenly I decided that figures in mining gear and stuff like that were far more interesting than trains and boats and planes, so I started to do very, very simple figures and because I couldn’t draw faces, the idea of a figure about four inches tall was very attractive and practical.”
It seems that his distinctive style of large, faceless figures and small buildings, all painted in dynamic and vivid colours, results from a very practical and logistical resolution to a conundrum that Joe had to come up against in his early days as a painter. “The canvases I bought were 20×24 because it fits any council house chimney breast and I thought I got a great sale. But the thing is if my figures were only four inches tall, I was trying to put them into a building that was about six inches tall. And people just accepted it.” He claims that people accepted the style seeing as the aesthetic of big figures and small buildings had been a feature of old medieval paintings. “The style wasn’t seen to be silly. You can get away with a small building and larger figures. That means that you can get far more into your canvas than normal and from then on I was on my way.”
As the conversation moves on, Joe emphasises his role as a storyteller, creating a cast of characters to thoroughly fill the canvas, creating scenes of everyday life. “It’s like cramming a novel into a short story,” he says about the epitome of his artistic vision. “My job is more than just an artist, I’m presenting your life back to you, like the old music hall artists who sang about what they knew; I’m just painting about what I know.”
It’s very apparent that Joe is a poetic person, someone who thinks a lot about what he wants to create in his paintings and a very conscientious artist who speaks to his audience through a well-woven narrative. I ask him about possible inspirations for his canvas characters that crop up in these narratives and if he ever finds himself drawing the same figures. “In your own life you will see somebody two times a week maybe and then not see them for maybe a couple of years and all of a sudden you’ll see them again – I tend to do that with works. Certain people will be in some works and then it’ll be a year until they go in something else. And it’s to keep that synergy between myself and the audience, because it’s always the audience. You must think of yourself as actor, narrator, and storyteller. You’re not talking to yourself, you’re talking to an audience.”
Joe’s paintings certainly seem like stories on a canvas, a picture of real life through a vibrant eye, a reflection of the communities that we live in. The conversation turns to Pitsmoor, the place he grew up in and still resides, and what the community was like back then and how it now is.
“Well it was a definitely a close-knit community in Pitsmoor. The houses on Fitzalan Street, they’ve gone now. It’s under grass as it turns out, everything was close together […] I think it’s changed now because, and I know this is strange, when we lived down in Pitsmoor people had a life in the streets. Now, people don’t have a life in the streets, they have life in the front room in front of the TV, which is very exciting. You can reach the rest of the world by TV, so you don’t have to go out and you don’t have to meet people!”
I tell him that that is unfortunately the case in most communities these days and not just in Pitsmoor. Even for me, someone who grew up around technology has seen the difference in how people now interact within their communities compared to when I was a kid. “I think, to be honest to use two phrases, we used to live almost ‘cheek by jowl’, and you knew everybody. But nowadays a new phrase has crept into the lexicography of society: ‘You’re in my space.’ And that separates you. People say ‘you’re in my space’ and of course you don’t have a space, it’s like saying ‘don’t touch me, don’t come near me’ and all that. Well, in that case you just don’t get any social intercourse between you, so people become strangers to each other even though they only live 20 yards away from each other. Everybody in my paintings are bumping into each other.”
With that, Joe shows how his art not only imitates life but also is the imitation of the life he wants everyone to live in. He wants to recreate in his paintings the small community feel that he experienced growing up in Pitsmoor and show us scenes from our lives no matter how different our experiences are.
I bring up his new and upcoming exhibition at Weston Park Museum called ‘Life in the Big Village’ and wholeheartedly agree with him that Sheffield is indeed like one big village. The exhibition is “a retrospective” of his career with works from back in the 60s up to the present day. I ask him what the main focus is. “It’s big, it’s brash, it’s in your face, it’s about things that, you know, you would quietly smile about, things that will annoy you but then that’s what life is like. It’s like I’m giving it you back, but everything in that show you will already know about. It’s not stratospheric, it’s at your level, it’s your next door—it’s a celebration of your next door.”
The paintings range from Sheffield scenes to beautiful settings in Crete, all of them capturing Joe’s life and memories. There will be images old and new, including a brand new work that Joe has created for the exhibition which features an old stylish Bristol 405 car, using Pitsmoor as the backdrop. Joe says to keep our eyes peeled for it.
By the end of the phone call, I was thoroughly uplifted by our conversation as we had talked in depth about issues that I have always been concerned and passionate about. As we start saying goodbye to one another, I ask him if there is anything else that he wants to say to the people that will read this interview, any final thoughts that I can put out there for him. “I think at the end of the day whatever way you’ve lived—I live it in painting and in images—the phrase that should come to mind at the end of every day is ‘well fancy that’. Every day is a surprise, fancy that, fancy that happening, fancy thinking of that. Every day is a surprise.”
‘Life In The Big Village’ opens at Weston Park Museum on Saturday 17 August and runs until Sunday 24 November. Joe will be doing a talk on Tuesday 27 August at 1:00pm about the works. More info at museums-sheffield.org.uk