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Sting to unveil piece at Laing Art Gallery

HE may be more used to thousands of fans, but this evening superstar Sting will be greeting a rather smaller, though no less appreciative, audience at the Laing Art Gallery.

Stephen Hannock

STING'S in Newcastle tonight, making a hit this time in the world of art. Barbara Hodgson meets the man to thank.

HE may be more used to thousands of fans, but this evening superstar Sting will be greeting a rather smaller, though no less appreciative, audience at the Laing Art Gallery.

On his return to his North East roots, the Wallsend-born singer-songwriter, probably accompanied by wife Trudie Styler, will be unveiling a painting of the River Tyne which he commissioned from leading US landscape artist Stephen Hannock.

It’s a coup for the gallery, of course, but a special moment for him – and an equally significant one for Hannock, whose painting has become a personal journey, or diary as he calls it, of the past four years.

The 57-year-old had just jetted in from New York, looking remarkably upbeat, when I met him at the gallery yesterday – minus the expected painting, which had somehow been delayed en route north.

“It flew out of JFK all crated up and landed in the UK a few days ago,” says a perplexed Hannock.

But then we hear word that it will indeed arrive at the gallery by 9pm.

And when the 8ft by 12ft painting, called Northern City Renaissance, Newcastle, England, is finally up on the wall, it will be the first time Sting has seen the piece he commissioned to celebrate the city’s cultural and economic renaissance since the closure of the coal mines and shipyards.

But he has seen an emailed image of it. “And he said ‘wow’,” laughs Hannock.

No doubt tonight’s invited guests will be equally impressed.

Even pictures of Hannock’s pre-painting study for it are remarkable.

Pinpricks of light show sites of old abandoned shipyards along the winding river, merging the past with present-day landmarks such as The Sage Gateshead, Baltic, and Gateshead Millennium Bridge.

Hannock employs an extraordinary technique, using power tools to sand down and polish layers of acrylic paint.

The final paint layer appears translucent over subject-related photographs and text, and the whole effect is one of reflective light adding extraordinary atmosphere and mood.

The shipyard sites glow and the partially-hidden images and text relating to the city’s mining heritage are visible only on closer inspection. “It all builds together like a history,” explains the New York-born artist.

His “text vistas” (the technique came about by accident after he liked the effect produced on a printed envelope he’d used to absorb paint) have ensured Hannock’s reputation as one of America’s top landscape painters.

His work hangs in the Big Apple’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and he’s won an Academy Award for Special Effects for his work on more than 100 paintings used to create images of heaven and hell in the movie What Dreams May Come.

Robert Redford is among his clients and he first met Sting when the musician bought one of his paintings.

They’ve now been friends for years.

“We just got along great,” he says of their first meeting. “Now we’re part of each other’s families.”

Hannock’s wife died from a brain tumour four years ago and Sting sang at her memorial. His eight-year-old daughter, Georgia, calls him ‘uncle Sting’.

“He’s her unofficial godfather,” says Hannock, before telling a story of how the youngster, clearly unaware of Sting’s early recording career, tearfully asked one day if ‘uncle Sting was in trouble’.

“She said ‘somebody on TV said he was with The Police’.”

Over the years, Hannock heard a lot from Sting about his native North East and the initial idea for a painting came at the time of The Sage Gateshead’s opening.

“Sting’s been telling me stories about the area for 25 years,” he says. “He really loves the area; he was thinking what we could do and he asked me, ‘do you think there’s a picture there’?”

Hannock was given free rein and what began as a small project just kept on growing. He’s visited the region several times, feeling even further connected on finding out an ancestor of his was the artist Alfred Hunt who painted a scene of Tynemouth Pier.

All his experiences are translated into the rich tapestry of this painting, which he thinks is his most sophisticated so far.

“It’s not a painting about Sting’s life: it touches on a couple of things, but it’s very much a diary for me – of what I know and learned about the river.”

So while references to Sting are in there, so too are the names of three archive staff from the Discovery Museum who found him a plan of the former colliery sites, and Journal sub-editor and ship expert Ken Smith, whose books Hannock referred to when his interest was sparked by Sting’s memories of shipyard construction blocking out light in adjacent streets.

He explains: “Sting told me about growing up, playing football on the streets of Wallsend, and, as the days went by, things would get darker and darker as a ship was being built then one day it would go off to sea and there’d be light again. It’s an amazing image.”

He found out historical facts that Sting didn’t know, and included modern points of reference such as the words ‘King Kevin Lives’ in response to Sting’s upset at football manager Keegan’s departure.

It’s all there, not at first glance perhaps, but the eagle-eyed viewer will spot such gems as the Swing Bridge, which on close-up is revealed to be in three historic sections.

Hannock says his painting echoes the story of many cities, about “industrial cities coming back on the wings of culture” – a comfort, he feels, in view of the current economic climate.

“I’m very proud of it,” he adds.

Northern City Renaissance, Newcastle, England, will be on show to the public from Saturday until February 1.

After that it may go to the Tate Modern in London and Hannock would like it to be shown in the US but says Sting will decide its final home.

Julie Milne, gallery curator, said: “It is fitting that the first public viewing of the painting will take place in the city and we are delighted to welcome Stephen and his work to the Laing.”

The Laing Art Gallery in New Bridge Street, Newcastle, is open from 10am- 5pm from Monday to Saturday and from 2pm- to 5pm on Sundays. Admission is free.

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