During my 45 years on this earth, I’m fairly sure that I’ve never uttered the words “ooh, my Dad has such cool friends”. There was that time I discovered he went to school with Sting but the moment was short-lived. Besides which, Sting’s dad was my Nana’s milkman so I’d already had my brush with Sting-related fame. 

Recently, however, I discovered that, in the mid-60s, Prof Nuge also went to school with John Spinks, a New York-based artist whose C.V. includes stints as studio manager for abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler and pop artist James Rosenquist. And Spinks has kept in touch with Sting, going so far as to liaise with The Police frontman on The Last Ship, Sting’s musical set among the shipyards of Tyneside. 

Today, Spinks lives in Brooklyn, a far cry from St Cuthbert’s in Newcastle upon Tyne. But he remembers his time there fondly. 

“St Cuthbert’s was a great musical school, a lot of kids went on to play who came out of there. When I was coming up, the music scene in Newcastle was fantastic. Sting was a couple of years under me. I’m still in touch with him, we have a pretty good relationship. But talk about chalk and cheese. It’s a bizarre world.” 

While Spinks grew up in Wallsend, a stone’s throw from the shipyards, he’s a self-confessed “hybrid”.

“I was born in Clare, me mother was from Ennis in County Clare and she made sure I was born under the right flag, you know? But she married a Geordie so they moved to England. Me mother was a midwife in Wallsend and she was a midwife long enough to deliver babies from babies that she’d delivered. I pretty much grew up in Wallsend but I was in a monastery from the age of 11 until 16. I thought I had a vocation to be a De La Salle Brother, a teaching Brother, but celibacy got the better of me. I was kicked out, actually.” 

Even though Spinks had longed to be an artist from the age of 15, after school he went to teacher training college, saying he lacked “the courage” to follow his preferred path. Nevertheless, he loved teaching, especially his first job at a small village school. But by the time Spinks reached his early 30s and in the wake of a divorce, he decided it was “now or never” and so upped sticks and moved to San Francisco thinking he would be an illustrator. In the end, he became a short order cook in a Brazilian restaurant. 

A move to New York in the 80s and what Spinks calls a “drifting towards fine art” changed his life. After some time as a cleaner, labouring “early in the morning with a mop”, he found work moving art.

“When you move art you see a lot of great art and you also get to see galleries and museums in different contexts,” he explains. “The watershed was when I got a job working for Helen Frankenthaler who was an abstract expressionist. The bloke who told me about the job, he said ‘hey listen, I wouldn’t wish this job on my worst enemy’. This was a woman who was on the cutting edge of abstract expressionism. I’d never stretched a canvas in my life and I knew virtually nowt about it but I talked myself into the job. She thought I was great but the trouble was I wasn’t getting any time to do any of me own stuff.” 

After seven years employed by Frankenthaler, Spinks went to work for [the acclaimed pop artist] James Rosenquist.

“Part of the job was being able to hold your drink. These lads liked to put it away. So I had some riotous times with him.”

After parting ways with Rosenquist, Spinks decided “just to go for it” through what he calls “busking” – selling work to people with relatively little to spend, and doing it directly without any middlemen. “I’m a late bloomer in the sense that it’s me second career.”

Spinks, who is now in his early 70s, describes his style as “eclectic”. 

“I can really appreciate structure in paintings but I like to improvise. In the use of collage for example, I like to trust the medium. But it might sit there for six months in gestation while I’m working on something else. I recycle my work, that’s a good way of putting it. 

“The skeletons I would describe as my blues. By that I mean, you know how a musician might not be performing every night but he’ll pick up the guitar and noodle or doodle? The skeletons are just something that I keep on the back-burner because they have infinite possibilities. Anything a human being can do, you can make a skeleton do. So I might be watching a match on the tele and the referee is giving someone a red card and it’s frozen in me mind.” 

He adds: “Or I might see a bloke digging a hole in the street and three blokes watching him, which is usually the case. But if you make them into skeletons and you’ve got the bloke in the hole throwing the dirt out and three are watching him, it becomes heavy. Is he digging his own grave, what is going on? I like ambiguity.” 

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask him what Americans make of his North East accent.

“I think my Geordie accent is an asset. Not everyone’s familiar with this accent here, they can’t quite place it. I’ve been asked if I’m West Indian, Australian…so it gives you a momentary advantage because it makes them listen to you.” 

By Helen Nugent, Editor of Northern Soul

For more information about John Spinks, follow these links: https://www.tilloufineart.com/artists/john-spinks and http://newpainters.com/