Mike Cain - Biography

Mike Cain is an abstract artist who works within the Modernist tradition. For over six decades he has been making and exhibiting his paintings, sculpture, and ceramics.

"I'm a collector of textures and shapes. I use a lot of found objects in my work. They inform, inspire and become part of my work."

Mike was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire in 1941, but spent most of his early years in Burslem, Stoke on Trent. His father was a miner, and his mother a housewife. He hated his school days but away from the classroom he developed an interest in art.

"In 1953 I was walking past the Burslem School of Art and I was stopped in my tracks. To celebrate the coming coronation of the Queen the students had boarded-over the building's lower windows and constructed giant paintings in the style of artists like Picasso. I must have been eleven at the time and I'd not seen anything like it let alone heard of Picasso, but it was wonderful, quite wonderful."

Photos: Mike is seen working on a ceramic slab relief sculpture. 

A few years later Mike attended the Burslem school of Art where he met the painter and writer Arthur Berry. As well as being his tutor Arthur became a lifelong friend.

“I came into contact with a world that I didn't know existed - a world of all the arts. I discovered people like Matisse, Paul Klee and Van Gogh, writers like John Steinbeck and the music of Miles Davis. Every day was exciting with Friday evenings spent at the Embassy Club in Burslem listening to jazz."

Mike planned to do a degree in Fine Art, but personal and family circumstances led him first to Manchester and then back to Stoke. By the end of the 1960’s he was working in the ceramics department at the North Staffordshire Polytechnic.

At around the same time Mike rented his first studio in the centre of Burslem and held his first public exhibition at the Brampton Museum and Art Gallery in Newcastle under Lyme.

In the 1970s Mike completed a degree in Fine Art at Lanchester Polytechnic and exhibited widely in the Potteries and Manchester. He trained as a teacher and then spent the next 25 years working at schools throughout North Staffordshire. In 1979 – during his first teaching post at Hatton School in Derbyshire – Mike met 'A' level student Dave Harper. He helped him secure a place at Art school and the two men have remained close friends ever since. In 2017 Mike and Dave formed the Penkhull Artist Potters Association and now share a studio together.

The Potteries and the countryside of the North Midlands remains a major source of inspiration for Mike. 

“The industrial world that I grew up in and the materials that made it: brick, stone, wood, iron and steel, have always had a great fascination for me. Where these things are brought together, for instance in the wood, steel and paint used in railway coal trucks – they possess a kind of aesthetic integrity that remains for me both unique and poetic”  

Mike Cain - becoming an artist

John Michael Cain was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire in 1941 but spent much of his early life in Burslem, one of the six towns that make up 'The Potteries'. His father was a miner but throughout much of his childhood Mike's mother was ill and remained at home. At the age of fifteen Mike left school and went to work in a furniture shop in Hanley called Palfreymans.

"You wouldn't believe how bad my education was. It was a terrible experience, like something out of the 19th century. We had just one teacher who took every lesson. I knew nothing and left barely able to read and write."

Mike liked drawing, and decided to enroll for evening classes at the Burslem School of Art.

"The tutor was a man named Norman Herbert. He gave me a small model of a head to draw. I'd never done this sort of sketching before. After a while he explained about light and tone and made a small sketch on the corner of my paper to show what he meant. I'd never been helped like this before,."

But that same evening Mike was to be offered more than advice on his drawing technique.

"A little later that evening this old man came into the studio and shuffled round. He looked at everyone's work, mumbled something and left. But a few minutes later I was told that the 'Principle' wanted to see me. To be honest I thought I'd done something wrong but in fact he offered me a full time place at the college studying Art, and with that my life changed forever."

Burslem school of art - A new world

Mike gave up his job at Palfreymans department store and studied full time at the Burslem School of Art. It was there that he met several people who would have a major influence of his life. This included the artist and writer Arthur Berry who was his tutor and later became his friend, and fellow art student Tony Wild.

"I came into contact with a world that I didn't know existed - a world of all the arts. I discovered people like Matisse, Paul Klee and Van Gogh, writers like John Steinbeck and the music of Miles Davis. Every day was exciting with Friday evenings spent at the Embassy Club in Burslem listening to jazz."

While at the Burslem Mike planned to do a degree in Fine Art, but family and personal circumstances led him to Manchester where he lived for four years.

"I did all sorts of jobs, but I also carried on with my painting. It was an exciting time culturally with films like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and A Taste of Honey. Coming from a working class background I felt I was part of this 'New Wave'. 

Mike returned to Stoke and worked in the pottery industry making screen-printed transfers. This led to a job at the Stoke College of Art (North Staffordshire Polytechnic) where he became head of the screen printing department. During the evenings and weekends he'd work in his studio in Burslem and at the end of the 1960s’ Mike held his first public exhibition, at the Brampton Art Gallery in Newcastle under Lyme.

During the 1970’s Mike exhibited at various venues around the 'Potteries' and in Manchester but realised that to develop further he needed to he became a full time artist. This resulted in him doing a degree in Fine Art at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry. One of his fellow art students and friend was Horace Panter who later went on to become the base player with the 2-Tone band 'The Specials'.

After graduating Mike completed a teaching qualification and spent the next twenty-five years teaching Art, Design and Ceramics at schools in Staffordshire and Derbyshire.

His first teaching post at Hatton School in Derbyshire brought him into contact with Dave Harper. Dave was the schools first ‘A’ level Art student and held ambitions to do Art at degree level. Mike was instrumental in developing Dave’s confidence to apply and secure a place on the Art Foundation course in Derby. The two men have remained close friends ever since.

Mike has always seen himself as an artist who works via various media including ceramics, sculpture, photography, print making, and painting. Throughout his time as a teacher he continued to exhibit.  

In 2016 Mike began working in ceramics again, after years of largely concentrating on painting and sculpture. During this time he had a chance meeting with the artist Bruce Mclean which proved influential and set Mike on a new direction in terms of working in slab based slipware. At the same time Dave Harper started doing some ceramic work in Mike’s studio and in 2017 they formed the Penkhull Artist Potters Association and now share a studio together.

"I think our industrial past and how it presents itself is a strong influence on what I do as an artist. The artifacts of the industrial revolution: the canals, roads, bridges, machines and factories, for me possess a kind of integrity. This manifests itself in the way materials are used and juxtaposed and in turn this translates into a powerful aesthetic." said Mike