Yellow Man; Blue Man – Margaret Mytton

My first impression of Dave Pearson on 7th September 1970 was of an intense and mischievous looking, pale man in his early thirties wearing incongruous and slightly shabby non-matching pin striped suit jacket and trousers, which I later found out had been made by his father Sam, a tailor. It was my first day on the Foundation course at Manchester School of Art and Dave made an immediate, easy and warm connection with us as 18 year-old students. I remember clearly his comment on my drawing. With humour and slight frustration he said ‘Well…. just mess it up then!’, and I knew exactly what he meant.

Dave spent thirty eight years of his life teaching at Manchester, as well as being outstandingly prolific in his studio 20 miles away in Haslingden. He was an inspirational, non-judgemental teacher who believed in learning by doing. He had an informal empathy with his students and saw teaching always in terms of the recognition and realisation of potential and the encouragement of the uniqueness of individual creativity. Assessment was a necessary part of the process, and he did it with professionalism, but for him it was tedious and bureaucratic, belonging to an entirely different world than that within which one is oriented in the production of art. He applied this generous, fertile openness to his own work too. His approach was to be fully absorbed in the process, which for him was as natural and necessary as breathing. When on a walk, having hypnotherapy in a hospice, riding in car, he would be collecting visual information, in the form of photographs or simply visual ideas to be noted down later for experimentation. Though creating artwork was a continuous, rigorous process, this, was not ‘work’ in the sense that it originated in effort. He painted simply because he loved it.

Self-portrait

Dave the man was indivisible from Dave the artist. He had prodigious creative energy, but it was self-generating, borne out of love of life and the sense of wanting to make it more vivid and engage with it directly, asking questions for which there would never be verbal answers. As an artist, Dave operated simultaneously in different modes. Nimble stream-of-consciousness thinking which greedily savoured the moment cooperated with creative planning, both realistic and unfettered by reality, while analytical, discursive thinking made connections with often highly abstract ideas. His stamina enabled him both to focus and to de-focus in a state that might be described as meditative, were it better behaved and less anarchic.

The act of painting for Dave was a joyful one, a passionate connection which was playful and demanding, rather like a rigorous dance, but never one of judgement or domination. I only ever saw him struggle over one canvas, which was a commission. The lack of complete freedom threw a sharp, unforgiving light on his dialogue with the painting, and though it went through several incarnations, it never worked. It was as if in the act of painting, the work itself must be respected as an autonomous other which had an exciting, always fresh capacity to surprise, seduce and reveal. Dave hardly ever went back to work on paintings once complete. Once they had achieved that separation, they became themselves and were no longer his to meddle with. Similarly, he had little interest in evaluating his work, and though he felt that some were particularly successful and ambitious and held his interest when complete, he kept everything he produced. Surprisingly, this has resulted in very little unevenness in the quality of his body of work, largely because of the intensity and immediacy of his engagement with each individual piece.

Dave’s sources of inspiration were varied, as diverse as reports of war atrocities and a delight in plastic toys and corny graphics in packaging; it was also sometimes subtle and intangible. However, some ideas, themes and influences remained as constants throughout his life. He was often inspired by the infinitesimally delicate nature of a glance or a gesture as betraying or revealing something between people that could never be put into words.

 Many objects and events recurred: a meal, a book, a table, an interior, around which figures interrelated, clamoured, communicated, shared thoughts, took part in something momentous, or were simply onlookers. He was inspired by the idea and symbolism of journeys, especially epic ones like Dante’s descent into the Inferno, Homer’s Odyssey, the heroic Jarrow March, and anticipated voyages into outer space and the unknown by astronauts in the 1950’s.

Self-portrait study

Dave was moved by the integrity and humanity of Vincent Van Gogh, the monumentality of his endeavour and the depth of his love of art. Vincent’s life, or at least the part of it concerned with the making of art, became for Dave something of a pilgrimage, footsteps to be re-traced, for a period of around seven years. He merged Vincent’s environs in Nuenen, The Hague and Arles with landscapes close to home in Haslingden in small paintings, drawings and etchings, in which the intense, almost mystical sharing in the act of creating art was sometimes highly eroticised, always celebratory of the poetry of landscape. These spontaneous explorations were followed by three-dimensional reliefs and environments transcribing Vincent’s paintings and bringing them, larger than life, into scale with the human body.

Dave was fascinated by the idea of groups of people collaborating together in things which were irrational, poetic and ultimately symbolic of deep instinctive connections with the land, animals, death and rebirth and natural cycles. Examples were in the customs of ordinary people in the use of masks and hobby-horses, tracing links back to world views and beliefs from medieval times. Another example was the Mexican Day of the Dead. He was also inspired by profoundly human themes such as relationships, illness and mortality. He scrutinised himself, but with a clarity that allowed for no self-indulgence, and through this penetrated aspects of the nature of the human condition.

Dave throughout his life had a powerful connection with landscape, which he always felt was far from exhausted as a subject matter for painting. He worked frequently in the countryside, usually near water, sitting on a small stool or if the weather allowed, lying on his left side. He savoured the colours, details, life, birdsong, the quality of the air etc, while his drawing or painting articulated playfully what his imagination created from the complete sensory experience. In later years (or bad weather) he would take hundreds of photos with which to work later, often employing an element of randomness, pointing the camera in different directions, including behind him, as he walked or taking photos at timed intervals. With a macro lens, he would also record minute details.

Self-portrait

Had he lived longer, Dave had a multitude of ideas with which he would have liked to have continued working. He would have liked to have visited Jerusalem and other historical but modern cities and made series of work about complex political themes and tensions, referring back to the Book of Revelation and interpretations of the idea of apocalypse in relation to current events. He would have liked to have approached the local Muslim community to understand their beliefs, and to ask if they would allow him to enter the mosque near his studio, in order to explore a new and fascinating world in his painting. He would also have liked to have used the decades of visual research he had made documenting war memorials, especially the one in the Memorial Gardens opposite his house, of which he had amassed several thousand photos. Over the years he recorded ceremonies at Armistice Day, at Christmas: the crib and Christmas tree, Easter, weddings, and children’s and adult games. He wished to bring to this some of the ideas he had had relating to customs in the 1970’s. He also wanted to explore much more extensively ideas and images of landscape – especially those which related to personal experience and to cyclical changes in the seasons.

In the last months of his life, Dave slept only around two hours a night. Despite being able to eat very little, his energy levels stayed generally very high. He said it was as if he were as if he were living off adrenalin. He produced a series of vibrant paintings based on the Day of the Dead in his last few weeks as well as writing poetry. Some of these, about a Yellow Man, referred both to Vincent and to his own increasing jaundice. His last work, produced days before he died, were self portraits. 

COPYRIGHT: Margaret Mytton 2012