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Interview: Turner Prize contender Paul Noble on art and his upbringing

THIS evening an artist whose visual awareness was sharpened by the sunrises over Whitley Bay will find out if he has won the Turner Prize.

A member of the public walks past a large scale drawing by Paul Noble
A member of the public walks past a large scale drawing by Paul Noble

THIS evening an artist whose visual awareness was sharpened by the sunrises over Whitley Bay will find out if he has won the Turner Prize.

Paul Noble is on the shortlist of four with Luke Fowler, Elizabeth Price and the splendidly named Spartacus Chetwynd.

Coming the year after Gateshead’s Baltic hosted the event, it will be another feather in the region’s cap if Paul wins – or, indeed, if the £25,000 prize goes to Elizabeth Price who makes the list on account of her exhibition at Baltic earlier in the year.

Paul has been shortlisted for an exhibition in London called Welcome to Nobson. It featured large and intricate drawings of his imaginary Nobson Newtown.

In keeping with the headline-grabbing history of the Turner Prize, the drawings are peopled by Paul’s soft-contoured, poo-like creations.

Let’s get the poo over and done with first while acknowledging that it is a fact of life whether you’re in country or town.

“In many ways it’s quite straightforward,” explains Paul.

“We’re humans – animals – but we’re generally in denial of our animal status... I think it’s because I spend a lot of time on my allotment.

“It’s about composting and nurturing. We take things from the environment around us and we leave behind our waste. Walt Whitman wrote a beautiful poem about compost.

“They’re more than just poo. My mum says, ‘Why are you doing work with poo?’ But they’re depictions of anthropomorphised shapes that always collect in waste. It’s not like a dirty protest by Bobby Sands.”

There you have the artistic thought process... many and varied sources of inspiration feeding into one distinctive image.

The Nobson Newtown body of work first emerged in 1996. “It was only meant to last for a couple of years but the drawings got bigger and more complicated.

“Whereas the first drawings took two months, which I thought was an age, the last one took two years. They just expand and expand.”

Paul says: “I was very lucky that my parents moved to Whitley Bay when I was little. They were living in Blaydon before. Whitley Bay was an excellent place to be a young person.

“Whitley Bay High School – to which he recently returned with a crew for the BBC programme Inside Out – was an extremely good comprehensive school and they took art seriously. It was an important part of the syllabus and the art teacher was really great.”

On Inside Out he was reunited with that teacher, Jan Wilson, and was amused to find that while he recalled her as being hugely encouraging, she remembered him as extremely wilful.

He remembers she gave him plenty of time and space to experiment. If it was a coping device on her part, it worked for him.

“Possibly part of teaching is to put proper information in the head of the students but the other thing is not to discourage them,” he says.

Laughing, he says his parents must have messed up because his father, in particular, told him he couldn’t see how art could result in a livelihood.

Paul wasn’t to be deterred. He enjoyed art and writing at school and remembers how, while doing his paper round, the spectacular sunrises made a lasting impression.

“I think it’s common to most artists. It’s the reason they think visually.”

Paul says he’s appalled that art is being sidelined in the school curriculum and that the Laing Art Gallery, where some of his own work is displayed and where he used to go as a teenager to study the John Martin paintings, seems set to lose funding from Newcastle City Council, “although I know they’re in an invidious position”.

He says it’s harder for young people nowadays, recalling his 11 years on the dole and 15 years squatting as he struggled to make a name for himself.

“A lot of the things that have allowed me to get where I am you just couldn’t do now,” he says, adding that it’s ironic because the Turner Prize is “very much an establishment thing”.

Paul did an arts foundation course at Sunderland Poly and then spent “a great three years” at Humberside College of Higher Education studying fine art. He moved to London in 1986.

He was “surprised and pleased” to be nominated for the Turner Prize.

“It’s quite a solitary thing being an artist. You’re alone in your studio and you don’t get much feedback.

“I thought this was an excellent way for more people to see my work. I’m not looking to be obscure.”

Paul will be at tonight’s ceremony with his partner, artist Georgina Starr, and if he wins it will be a nice early birthday present for a man who turns 49 on Saturday.

The Turner Prize will be presented live tonight on Channel 4.


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