Is there an 'Artist' gene?




How 'Jack Frost' helped me become an artist.

by Dave Harper

It was the early 1970s, big collars and even bigger flares. I think I was ten years old and we were on a Christmas shopping trip to Hanley. I remember it was just after five o'clock. From the brightly lit interior of Lewis's department store I was dragged into the darkness and cold of the street. I remember the road and pavement was damp and people were clutching boxes or had both hands full with bags. As we crossed over the road I looked back, and hovering in the darkness was this giant metal man. This was my first encounter with the 'Jack Frost' statue and I thought it was amazing.

It was if he was looking down on me, I was genuinely stopped in my tracks. The statue was actually inspired by the flames from the bottle kilns that once dominated the Potteries, but for me it will always be the 'Jack Frost' statue. I didn't realise it at the time but my encounter with this spikey metal man was an important part of my creative journey which would ultimately lead me to become an artist.


No one in my family had ever been involved with the arts or any of the creative professions, in fact I was the first to go to college or to do a degree. My Dad sketched a bit, but these were mostly plan drawings for new shelves or an extension to his greenhouse. So where did my passion for Art come from?

Other artists have told me about experiencing a kind of creative awaking, often between the ages of ten and twelve years old. Some talk about seeing an individual piece of art or exhibition, about having an overwhelming need to sketch, paint or write. Others have told me about being influenced or inspired by someone. I think all of these are part of this 'awakening' and they happened to me.


Like most kids of my generation I was transfixed by classic 1960s TV programmes like Captain Scarlet, Batman, Land of the Giants, Star Trek and UFO, But the ones I most liked were Pogles Wood, Nogin the Nog and the Singing Ringing Tree. They were darker and had more complex characters. But it wasn't just the stories. I was excited by how they looked. I remember writing my own stories and illustrating them. I couldn't stop myself. I felt compelled but it also seemed natural. Some of my friends however thought it a bit weird.

In the 1970s our village was visited by a mobile library and during the school holidays it carried extra children's books. I remember the librarian offering me Enid Blyton's Secret Seven but what I wanted was 'The House Book' by Terence Conran and I had to do some serious persuading to get to borrow it.    

CONRAN, HEPWORTH & the world at war

As I flicked through its pages it was like looking into a different world. I lived in a small terraced house in a small village on the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border. In those pre-internet days with just three TV channels it was easy to feel as if you lived at the edge of the world. But this book was like a window into a strange new land. A place where design and art allowed people to live very different lives to mine.

Around the same time I came across a magazine in my doctors waiting room which contained an article about the artist Barbara Hepworth. I didn't understand her work, but I instantly loved it and those abstract sculptures led me to Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink and a dozen others. 

Then there was Tony Hart. He was one of the presenters on a TV programme called Vision On. It was originally designed for deaf children, so speech was limited. It was all about the visuals, and this included Tony Hart's slot. He would take a few scraps of paper and make and amazing collage or painting. There was also 'The Gallery' which included artworks sent in by viewers. I submitted several pictures. None were ever picked for display, but I found both the programme and Tony Hart inspirational.

When you're growing up every day is filled with new experiences. Most of us will have vivid memories of learning to ride a bicycle or our first time at the seaside. But its not just about firsts. I remember being captivated by the title sequence of the documentary series 'The World at War'. It is a landmark piece of factual television produced by Jeremy Isaacs and narrated by Lawrence Olivier. But even as an eleven year old I knew it was special. Yes I have always been interested in history, but it was about more than that. Although back in 1974 I would have been unable to fully analyse the programme, I could see the powerful use of the images and music in the opening title sequence. If you've never seen it take a look. The combination of the faces of soldiers and the victims of war, intermixed with the images of flames is quite hypnotic. But I also felt something else. I had a desire to make such images and tell such stories.    


Having some creative and technical ability is always only part of becoming an artist. Its also about confidence, inspiration, drive and the inner need to say something. Regular practice and experimentation can develop the practical skills but the other stuff comes from people, and other sources. I had a small amount of raw ability but I was lucky enough to have two people who not only encouraged me but also gave me the confidence to help me on the next stage of my artistic journey.

Both were my art teachers. Firstly there was Mr Winspear. He used to take groups outdoors and we'd paint and draw 'Plein Air'. It might sound weird but before then I'd only ever sketched things from my imagination. He took the time to explain. He used to say things like "draw the light, not the object". I think he was the first person to see that I had a spark of talent and he gave me the chance to make something of it. 

Mr Winspear also helped me appreciate what was all around me, but which I was seemingly blind to. With his help I started to see the beauty of the Derbyshire and Staffordshire countryside which I'd previously taken for granted.

The second art teacher was Mr Cain - as I called him then. To begin with he taught me ceramics, but he turned out to be the most influential person on my creative journey. He was (and still is) a whirlwind of enthusiasm and artistic knowledge. His passion for art was infectious and remains so to this day. He introduced me to modernism, and to new ways of seeing the world. 

From the texture of a brick wall, or a rusty piece of metal to the paint pealing off an old wooden door, Mike Cain helped me see all type of beauty and to find inspiration in places I would never have imagined. But his most important gift back then was to believe me, and to help me develop the confidence to make art and go to art school. Although much of my career was spent making TV and radio programmes I never stopped 'making art' and that work: painting, sculpture and ceramic art, has come back into focus now that I'm doing it full time.

Since I started thinking about 'how it all began' I've come to realise that creativity and creative development doesn't follow a neat line. Its more like a series of connections between ideas, events, things, or people. Some connections are made instantly. Others get stored away and surface only many years later.  I think we're all creative, but some people have more of it than others. Its one of the things that makes us human, and different from all other animals.

I can't stop myself being creative, although its focus has changed a little in recent years. Strangely my refocus on Fine Art means that I have found myself playing the 'Sorcerers apprentice' once again. Its now almost forty years since I first met Mike. Back then he was my art teacher and gave me the confidence to embrace 'making art'. Today we work together and he continues to be an inspiration. As to the 'creativity gene' yes, I think it does exist and we all have it. Some of us just use it in different ways.