By day, he works for the council. By night, he caresses canvas with his artist’s brush. Rachel Meek meets an up-and-coming artist whose paintings conjure up memories of life on the streets of the North-East

IT might be the early hours of the morning, but it’s all in a day’s work for one local artist who loses himself in his paintings in the moonlit sanctuary of his garden studio.

John William Smith is currently burning the midnight oils as he prepares a major collection of his work. The last one paid for his studio.

The self-taught artist still remembers with pride and a certain amount of bewilderment the day that “sold” stickers appeared on virtually every piece, turning him from happy allotment amateur to the professional he dreamed of becoming. His latest exhibition, Echoes of the Past, opens at the McGuinness Gallery, Bishop Auckland Town Hall, on October 12, at 7pm and runs until November 3.

The 36-year-old, who still works for Spennymoor Town Council, recalls: “A few years ago I started experimenting with pastels in my greenhouse. I would come out covered in it, but I loved the time I spent there at the allotment playing around with different techniques.”

Since then, he has developed an impressive collection of life in County Durham and Newcastle through the eyes of a character called Smudge.

“When I was young my dad always called me Smudge, so I have used the character in most of my work – it is me, or at least me as I used to be. I have always loved art; it was my favourite subject at school,” says John. “I wasn’t the brightest kid at school and would often mess around in the other classes.”

John has tried to capture life as it happened to him on the streets of the North-East, with memories which resonate with many people in this area. “I can remember that we really did all have whippets. We also had pigeons and most of us those days had an allotment which was a big part of the community. I can clearly remember my family talking about the pits and the stories they told. Most of them worked as coal miners back then and it was a way of life for so many.”

Using acrylics, pastels and oils, John captures a colourful collection of memories, including Spar with Pa, in which he boxes with his dad in the back yard; The Poachers, with faces blacked to hide their identity; The Night Shift, featuring pit workers reporting for duty, and Rivals Together, portraying the all-important match day with father and son supporting rival North-East teams Newcastle United and Sunderland.

“I always wanted to go to art college but my background meant it was essential to get a job as soon as I left school,” he says. “I had to work and I started off fitting carpets. I now work as a multi-skilled operative for the council but over the years, when I haven’t been working, I have tried to teach myself new techniques and styles. I started doing big paintings for friends and family and they suggested I should do an exhibition, which I did, albeit nervously.”

John’s previous two exhibitions, which were held at the McGuinness Gallery and Spennymoor Theatre Gallery, were huge successes with his work completely selling out.

“I was so nervous at my first exhibition, but when my first painting sold, I felt so pleased. I couldn’t believe it, my son was running round so excited as the sold stickers were being put on everything. I was over the moon,” says John.

His second exhibition sold out on the opening night. “One customer even turned up before we opened as he knew about my work and wanted to see it, which was just incredible. It was amazing and I was delighted at people’s reaction.

It made all my hard work worthwhile.”

From the proceeds of his work, John was able to build a proper studio in his garden and buy further art materials to develop his collection.

“After a hard day’s work, I like to relax by going into my studio and losing myself in my paintings,” he says. “Sometimes I just don’t know when to stop, even though I know I have to get up for work the next day.

“Each painting is an emotional rollercoaster with highs and lows. I always want it to be right because I am trying to create something that people will like. I just want to get better and better, but this can take time and some of the big paintings have taken 50 or 60 hours to create.”

One of John’s biggest critics is his dad. “He loves my art, but he will tell me if something isn’t right with it,” says John. “When I have completed a painting, the family all gather round to decide on the right name for each piece depending on the memories it contains.

It’s a real family affair.”

  • To see John’s work log on to and for more information call 01388-602610. The Echoes of the Past exhibition at Bishop Auckland Town Hall will be open Monday to Friday, from 10am to 4pm, and Saturday, from 9am to 4pm, from Friday until November 3.