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Art and a world of work

There are chickens in Winston Barnett's barn - but there is something else.

There are chickens in Winston Barnett's barn - but there is something else. The artist talks to David Whetstone about his eye-catching work.

A great attraction of The Art Tour is stumbling across hidden treasures, the kind of thing you just won't find in an art gallery.

A few strides away from Winston Barnett's rented cottage in the hamlet of Charlton, near Bellingham, is a barn which has been transformed by the addition of nine large, wall-mounted artworks.

The ever-present chickens are unimpressed, being more intent on scratching for grubs than gazing at the walls. For roving art lovers on The Art Tour, though, Winston's barn is likely to be a talking point.

This is serious art, the kind you get dirty making and which makes your muscles ache.

It is a little reminiscent of the famous Merzbarn of Kurt Schwitters, the exiled artist who expressed himself with found objects in a Cumbrian barn which now stands in Newcastle's Hatton Gallery where it is revered as one of the 20th Century's most important artworks.

Winston probably wouldn't put himself in that league but, given his love of agricultural flotsam, he and Schwitters might have got on famously.

The nine pieces which hang in the barn, complementing its rugged, functional appeal, consist of bits of redundant machinery fixed to painted panels, which are in fact doors from a DIY store. Some of the panels also have a small photograph attached to them with one, showing a sturdy sheep, recurring in Winston's work.

Other panels lie in a workshop nearby, available at a price to anyone who might fancy them. They are not, it has to be said, the kind of thing which would enhance every home. But they would add a touch of class to one of those clinically modern apartments which spring up when regeneration is afoot.

If nothing else, they draw your attention to the stuff lying around all over this country - gadgets and widgets which were once essential in agriculture or industry but which now lie under thistles and nettles, gradually rotting and rusting.

Winston rescues them, sometimes cleans them up and gives them a new life divorced from their old. A bit of old railway gear lies at the heart of Before Beeching, a piece which also has a photo of Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergere.

"I always loved railways," says Winston. "When you were little, travelling on the old Pullmans was exquisite." Something of that old luxury is evident in the Manet painting, he explains.

Around the cottage lie smaller sculptures featuring heavyweight bits and bobs. Arranged in interesting juxtapositions and with witty titles, they make appealing conversation pieces. One, for example, is called Captain Cook, Mr Banks and the Cabin Boy. It consists of three bits of crooked metal hammered into wood, like three people in a boat (Joseph Banks was the explorer's companion and diarist aboard the Endeavour).

"If I was really rich I'd get them cast in bronze but I'm not rich," Winston muses.

Winston was born in Consett when it was still red with the dust of the steelworks. His paternal grandfather was a steel worker and there were pits all around (40 of them in County Durham when he was growing up, he recalls). Winston went to King's College, Durham University (later Newcastle University) to read architecture. He graduated in 1959 and practised in London and Newcastle, spending 10 years on Grey Street with the firm Barnett Winskell.

He has a fund of stories about various waves of regeneration which have swept over Tyneside and well recalls the dramatic interventions of city council leader T Dan Smith and his acolytes - "clowns", he says, compared to Dobson, Grainger and the regenerators of an earlier era. Still, he recalls, there was "great enthusiasm" for many of the developments which now make us shiver.

Only the arrival of improvement grants under the Housing Act prevented a lot more 19th Century architecture being levelled to make way for concrete, says Winston, adding for good measure that this was only because the money for new tower blocks ran out.

The next period of his life saw him entering academia, fulfilling a long-held dream. He spent 14 years in Australia as head of the school of architecture at Sydney's University of Technology.

"It was great and I really enjoyed it. I came back here four years ago because my parents were very old. They have both since died but I have settled here again with my wife who is Australian." Since his return, much of his time has been devoted to art, another lifelong interest.

As well as the sculptural pieces and what might be called industrial assemblages, he paints pictures.

A series of portraits (oils on paper) honours the miners - who, he says, never received medals for their vital war work - and the steelworkers, distinguished by the blue glasses they wore to protect their eyes.

These pictures, under the general heading The Dignity of Labour, will be shown at the Lamplight Arts Centre, Stanley, from July 2-28 in Winston's first solo exhibition in the region.

* You can see Winston Barnett's art as part of The Art Tour 07. His home at Charlton, near Bellingham, is open from 11am to 5pm on Sundays until July 15. Look out for the Art Tour sign (black arrow on yellow). Tel (01434) 240687 or visit www.winstonbarnettart.com


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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