North East visit: the Ashington Group ‘pitmen painters’ and the Playground Project at the Baltic, Gateshead

14241691_1841428396078671_715717104665990861_oIn 1930s Northumbria, many young men’s last experience of school was at the age of 13. As a series of drawings by Oliver Kilbourn in the Woodhorn Museum shows, boys of 14 regularly worked long shifts down the mines, with little energy or time for leaning or leisure in between.

But this didn’t mean they weren’t interested in continuing education. One way in which miners, and other workers, could access education later in life was through the Workers’ Education Association (WEA), which offered lectures and courses using visual stimulae such as magic lantern slides.

One group of men, in the mining town of Ashington, came to the end of an illustrated WEA course on the topic of evolution and decided they should turn their attention to a subject that otherwise meant little to them: modern art.

What began as a course on art appreciation, taking in art history as well as contemporary art, taught by a lecturer from the local art college, soon became a practical group for experimenting and critique, in a makeshift studio fashioned from a First World War-era wooden hut. It became apparent that learning though doing, and seeing through doing, meant more to these men than academic study (although the men did go on organised trips to visit the London galleries).

Initially starting in 1934 with linocuts, and subject matters suggested by the tutor, the Ashington Group, as these ‘pitmen painters’ became known, spent four decades recording and documenting their lives, leisure and neighbourhoods, from the physical and emotional upheaval of moving house due to financial hardship, to payday, washday, pigeon-keeping and children’s street games.

The resulting paintings, many of which are now on display at the Woodhorn Gallery, are varied in style, medium and technique, ranging from illustrative drawings and watercolours to impressionistic, atmospheric landscapes in readily available tube paint, to detailed oil paintings showing technical aspects of industrial work. The paintings capture the mundane and the fleeting (for example advertisements on street corners) as well as tragic events that caused a lasting impression, such as accidents and their aftermath. Some of the work was done from memory, whereas other paintings responded to events, such as the Second World War. Although formed as an amateur group, the Ashington painters exhibited and were visited by the Mass-Observation project and artists such as Julian Trevelyan.

Whilst much of the detail, equipment and environments of the physical minework looks unbelievably old-fashioned now – not to mention dirty and arduous – there’s a touching ordinariness in much of the paintings. The Ashington Group collection manages to be both historical record and to capture some kind of essence of life and leisure that remains much the same – such as the night-time silhouettes and hungry anticipation of people queuing for the small pleasure of fish and ships – despite the large-scale pit closure of the late-twentieth century and the erosion of mass, communal employment and socialising.

The Playground Project

Elsewhere, in the North East, the Playground Project at the Baltic in Gateshead captures the history and evolution of international playground design through vivid photographs, drawings, diagrams and videos.

From the early twentieth century, the exhibition surveys changing forms and experiments with different materials (from natural materials such as sand and water, to elaborate rope contractions designed to introduce unpredictability to play and to test balance, to easily assemblable interlocking wooden shapes) up to the present day with Assemble’s new film of children at play in various city spaces.

The exhibition brings out the often underlooked links between playground design and radical art, architecture and pedagogy, intertwining imagery with the writing and work of writers such as Colin Ward and Marjorie Allen.

Particularly striking is varying attitudes towards play at different times of social change, from the adventure playgrounds enabled by vacant lots, which arose from the post-war rubble of British cities, in which children were allowed freedom to build, explore and problem-solve for themselves, to those which were incorporated into new, welfare state-era mass housing schemes and emulated abstract sculpture, both in their form and building material.

The exhibition’s brought to life by the incorporation of play equipment for young visitors to the gallery to explore and enjoy, but that which has made it into the gallery – with a viewing platform above – seems strikingly safe compared to the more freestyle constructions of the past. Most of those, it seems, would be outruled due to health and safety today.

The Playground Project continues until 30 October.