If you are walking in the vicinity of Newcastle Arts Centre this week there’s a chance you’ll be under surveillance.
No need to worry. It’s simply that Mike Clay, talented artist and benign people watcher, might have singled you out as the subject for one of his surreptitious sketches.
Mike was planning to sit quietly in a shop window at the bottom of Westgate Road, from this Thursday onwards, and photograph whichever passers-by caught his eye.
The snaps were to be turned quickly into sketches to be added to the new exhibition of his work which has just opened at the arts centre.
Mike, who lives in a part of Sunderland teeming with life, tends to view humankind with amused and affectionate detachment. It is the grist to his artistic mill.
Drunks, hen party revellers, sunbathers getting slightly overcooked on the beach at Whitburn and (a recent departure) teeth-baring and slightly mad-looking selfie takers have all found their way into paintings which are eagerly sought after outside the region even if their creator is relatively unsung here, where a good deal of his time is spent working in schools.
Buyers of Mike’s work include the aristocrat Lord Iliffe, who apparently took down a Henry Moore drawing to accommodate a Mike Clay, and a member of former North East pop band Kane Gang.
Mike’s paintings have also found favour with Americans who would struggle to place Sunderland on the map, let alone Mike’s stamping ground in and around Villette Road.
Explaining the lightning sketch project, Mike says: “I quite like passers-by and the idea that people don’t realise I’m catching an image of them. I reckon each one takes me about a quarter of an hour to do so I’m hoping I’ll get about 10 done in a day.
“I’ll be there at different times and I won’t use a flash so hopefully people won’t see me, although I don’t mind if they do. I’m hoping I might see some people more than once, perhaps going to work and then going home again. It’ll be interesting to see if they look different.”
Mike sketches his portraits on small offcuts of hardboard which he was going to throw away until this alternative use sprang to mind.
“I always have lots of hardboard,” he says. “I’ve got about 50 offcuts prepared but it’s possible I’ll need more.”
Some of these offcut sketches, each representing a split second in an individual human life, are on display in the exhibition, screwed onto wooden rods.
Some of these people were snapped here and some in America, which Mike visited for the first time last year at the invitation of friends and fans.
These include 1970s film-maker and sculptor Ed Lynch, who has connections with Newcastle, and Tony Flagg, great grandson of James Montgomery Flagg who painted the famous ‘Uncle Sam’ recruitment poster used in America during both world wars.
In return for a couple of paintings, the pair signed Mike up as a member of the Salmagundi Art Club which has a rich history in New York. It raised his profile a little and enabled him to sell some work.
He returned to America in the autumn. “I sold two or three paintings and it paid for the trip,” says Mike gleefully (tip: you might be able to pick up a Mike Clay painting for less in Newcastle than the Americans paid).
On his two visits Mike saw urban and rural, mixing with revellers at a Mexican ‘block party’ in New Jersey, where he made chalk pavement drawings with the kids, and eyeballing bankers on Wall Street where he was struck by their uniformity, all sharply cut suits and tans.
Snapping away at them with his unseen, waist-high camera, he was tickled by the fact that these high financiers also seemed to be a magnet for American trippers, their baggy leisure wear contrasting with the pinstripes and braces.
Mike stayed on the edge of a forest where a warning about black bears made him think twice about a stroll among the trees and photographed a New York City cop who jovially agreed to be in a picture but only if Mike was in the shot too. Thereby Mike was forced to join the selfie brigade.
Local pictures and the American pictures make up two thirds of the new exhibition. The third part – and the most topical, given the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War – relates to Mike’s grandfather, Ernest Clay, who was gassed on the Somme and taken prisoner but survived to return to his beloved gardening.
“He died when I was about seven but he looked after me for a time while my mother was having my sister, doing the babysitting thing,” recalls Mike.
“Me and my brother used to wear his old First World War gas mask and play at being elephants in the garden.
“Recently I discovered some family photographs and little diaries he kept, describing life in the trenches – things like: ‘150 men attacked this morning and only 25 came back’.
“I have a postcard addressed to him when he was a prisoner-of-war in Germany.”
Among Mike’s little clutch of treasured photos is the one his grandfather carried with him to the front line. It’s a family portrait showing his wife and their young children, including Mike’s father, and on the back is a poignant message explaining where it should be sent in the event of his death.
Mike’s paintings, vivid and full of life as ever, merge images of the First World War with memories of his innocent gas mask games in the garden Ernest tended back at home in peacetime.
This body of work demonstrates how close the First World War still seems to those who knew anybody directly affected. For youngsters, as Mike knows from his work in schools, it has become the stuff of history lessons.
Mike Clay’s exhibition can be seen at Newcastle Arts Centre, 67-69 Westgate Road, until January 18 (open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm; Saturday, 9am to 5pm) www.newcastle-arts-centre.co.uk