Mark Rowney’s work used to sell on Fifth Avenue, New York. Now you need travel no further than Allendale, as David Whetstone reports.
IT’S no surprise to learn that Mark Rowney has led a fascinating life on three continents. His extraordinary artworks, rich in imagery, seem to evoke different eras and cultures.
He does beautiful bird portraits that look as if they have been torn from a Victorian nature book. On the other hand, he places birds in fantastical landscapes.
Even more noteworthy than the paintings are his works in leather, painstakingly carved and painted. Sometimes the two media combine, with carved leather forming a mount for a painting.
Amanda Galbraith, who runs the Pebbles gallery in Allendale where Mark is exhibiting until the end of the month, bought one of Mark’s carved leather books after looking longingly at it for days. As with all Mark’s work, it’s an heirloom in the making.
“They are quite time-consuming,” says Mark with characteristic understatement.
“The bigger books take about 70 hours and the smaller ones take about 40.”
Mark doesn’t know of anyone else in the country who is producing leather-based artworks in quite the same way.
“It’s actually originally an American art form. You’ll see it in saddlery but with very set patterns.”
Mark, who is 45, was born in Middlesbrough but was not as far from American culture as that might suggest. His parents, he says, ran The Rancho del Rio near St John’s Chapel in Weardale. The western-style bar and restaurant was a popular haunt in the area for 17 years.
When he had his degree show at art college in London, all his family came down from the North-East dressed as cowboys. “People thought I’d hired them specially for the occasion but it was just the way they were.”
His parents eventually left the Weardale ranch, moved briefly to the Lake District and then placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal, advertising their services. They were taken on by a New Jersey senator and worked for him for 10 years before going on to manage property for Ralph Lauren. As Mark says: “It’s an interesting story.”
But so is his. After art college he spent five or six years in London working as an illustrator for newspapers and book publishers.
“You tend to get a bit burned out so I decided to move to New York, totally on spec. It was very exciting. I booked into the YMCA and used the payphone. I’d managed to get some names of art directors from people I knew in London and I just rang them up and said, ‘I’m from England and I’ve got my portfolio’.
“I went to see several people and I got work from every single one of them. But what was also great was that it was just before Christmas so I got invited to lots of parties which was amazing for networking.”
After about six months he walked into a Paul Smith store on Fifth Avenue and came out with a contract. This was when the British fashion designer was still a bit of the new kid on the block.
“I did a lot of presents for him,” says Mark. “Every Christmas the shops would club together and commission me to make something for him.”
He produced textile pieces such as quilts for Paul Smith. “It was funny – I’d been working for magazines and suddenly I was seeing my work on catwalks and in Vogue.”
The shop staff would keep abreast of interesting customers. “I know Susan Sarandon has some of my work and a lot of the rap stars as well.”
One day he was approached by two American women who asked if he fancied designing for a new company they were setting up. “I’d been working for them for six weeks when they said, ‘Would you be interested in going to India to oversee the preliminary manufacture?’ So I worked in India off and on for three years and became an embroidery expert, working in a factory in Delhi. It was an experience that was frustrating and beautiful and all those superlatives – but also very strange.
“The last period I was out there I actually became very ill. I went down with some kind of tropical thing. I went back to New York and they said they wanted to expand the business by setting up a factory in New Guinea. But I’d had enough. I was exhausted, working seven days a week.”
Eventually he returned to the North-East where he has been for the last decade, living in the Weardale village of Ireshopeburn and creating beautiful artworks. This is his second exhibition at Pebbles. “I wanted to show the work here and get a response from people living locally,” he says.
“The trouble with my work is that it isn’t the kind of stuff you can pump out quickly and have a show every six weeks.”
Next year Mark might spread his wings. Now might be a good time to buy.