NORTH-East mining artist Bob Olley has spoken of his quest for new challenges as he mounts a major exhibition celebrating his 80th birthday.

Backshift: Bob Olley at 80, opening on Saturday at Bishop Auckland’s Mining Art Gallery, features more than 30 of his works, offering a window into his perspective on the heart, humour and quirky reality of the mining world and community life surrounding it in the region.

On display are some of his earliest drawings from the 1960s, when he dreamt of a career as a magazine illustrator before fate sent him to follow in his father’s footsteps, into the local colliery.

Speaking to The Northern Echo at a preview, Bob said: “I am pleased with the exhibition. It is one of the best presentations of my work. I have worked closely with exhibitions curator Angela Thomas on the display.

“It features work from the early 50s and earlier, with some of the preparatory work, through to the last work I have done. I have moved away from coal mining now I have exhausted that. I am looking for a new venture, a new challenge with new subject matter.”

Bob’s style captures iconic scenes and figures of the region, from the Blaydon Races to the devastating miners’ strikes of the 1980s. Oil paintings, sculpture and preparatory sketches of his most-loved works are brought together as Bob looks back on over five decades of his artistic career, where life above and below ground is chronicled in his distinctive, graphic style.

His artwork shines the warm glow of a miner’s lamp on the camaraderie of miners hewing and hauling coal in dangerous and inhospitable conditions. And the pieces on show at the Mining Art Gallery span the gradual decline of the mining industry.

One of the paintings featured, High Speed Drifters, illustrates Bob’s very last job at Whitburn Colliery and captures the constantly wet and noisy environment in which miners spent their working hours.

Other pieces on display turn the spotlight on daily life in the tight-knit North-East communities of the 1960s and 70s.

It includes what is arguably his most famous work – The Westoe Netty, a humorous depiction of a public urinal.

Bob joked: “It nearly had the exhibition closed down on the grounds of indecency. It’s one of my favourites. I’ll probably have it on my headstone.”

Bob, who lives and works in South Shields, added: “I have always expressed myself best through art. When I first went down the mines I found it hard to articulate how I felt about the blinding dark, the noise and the constant movement – the only way to describe my life underground was to draw it.

“It was the camaraderie, friendships and laughter that carried everyone along, that famous Geordie humour. I have a great love for the people of the North-East and the mining communities, there’s something special about them and I love bringing that to life on canvas.”

The artist said he drew inspiration from anything. He said: “I could walk out here and see something and it will trigger something off and do a series.

“It’s amazing where it comes from. My best creative space in on an aeroplane. I close my eyes and people think I am asleep, but I am getting these images behind my eyelids.”

Born into a mining family, Bob was just 17 when he became a miner in 1957, embarking on an 11-year career at the coastal pit in Whitburn.

But his life-long love for art saw him leave the mines in 1969 and begin exhibiting artwork, before becoming a full-time artist in 1974. As well as paintings and drawings, Bob has been commissioned to create a wealth of public art across the region. This includes the life-sized sculpture of Stan Laurel, which stands at Theatre Corner in Bishop Auckland, and a mural of the town’s history at Bishop Auckland Railway Station.

Angela Thomas, Exhibitions Curator at the Mining Art Gallery, said: “It has been such an honour for us to work with Bob on this exhibition. It seems fitting to have so many of his works, pride of place, in the Mining Art Gallery.”

“Bob has written the text that accompanies each painting, so when you are walking around the exhibition it is like Bob talking to you about each painting and what is means to him.”

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