Artist June Hunter moved from caretaker’s daughter in Newcastle to building a cabin by herself in the Canadian wilds but it is her late mother’s longing for a garden that truly inspires her. HANNAH DAVIES finds out more.
JUNE Hunter is delighted to be back in Newcastle and happily chats about rediscovering her old haunts around the Quayside and All Saints Church.
“Every time I come here I spend time wandering down there. It has changed so much.”
June is now a Canadian resident, where she is married to a radio producer and has two children. But she is delighted to be exhibiting in her home town at Newcastle’s Biscuit Factory art gallery for the first time
June, 56, was born to Jim Hunter, a caretaker of the Lloyds bank branch at Newcastle’s Haymarket, and his wife Rita.
When she was three her dad took a position as caretaker at Lloyds’ quayside branch, where he also worked as a messenger.
June recalls: “There was a beautiful little flat up there.
“My bedroom was right under the Tyne Bridge.”
June’s brother Rob was born there and it is where she lived until leaving home at 18 to go to university.
She adds: “I thought it was the best possible place to grow up.
“There were another two girls whose dads were also caretakers of banks on Queen Street.
“They were a bit older than me and we used to just go and play up at the graveyard at All Saints Church. It was like a jungle.
“We played hospitals and shops, we ran wild, played on the Roman Wall and on bits of the city walls.” June says they had a fantastic amount of freedom.
She smiles: “In those days your parents just said, ‘be back by dark,’ and that’s when we would come back. My brother reminded me of a time I took him to the churchyard and we made a tent and I threw a half brick on top of the tent, which he was under.
“We didn’t take him home, just brushed him off.”
June, who was a pupil at Heaton High School, was always interested in art but decided to go to university in Bangor, Wales, to study English Literature.
She explains: “I was the first in the family to go to university.
“I really wanted to go to arts school, but I pretended I wanted to be a teacher so I could go to university.
“I couldn’t really see at that time there being a way to make a living out of art. Being from a working-class family, making a living was all-important.”
June threw herself into life at Bangor University and then took an opportunity to go travelling.
She remembers: “It was an adventure, that’s why I did it.
“I was a year out of university and I decided to go on a holiday ... one that’s lasted more than 30 years.”
June headed over to Vancouver where some friends had already been on a working holiday, planting trees.
While she was there she met a friend who said she should visit his hometown, a place called Likely, 500 miles north of Vancouver, which was 50 miles off the main road along a dirt track.
June added: “He said ‘Come on a Tuesday or Thursday because that’s when the mail gets delivered.’
“All there was in the town was a bar, a gas station-come-post office and a tiny store. They were the three buildings in town.
“So I got the bus in and then hitchhiked up on a logging truck.
“It was the middle of winter and everyone was thrilled to see a new face and the friend, who I’d come to see, came into the bar.”
June ended up staying for a while and decided to build her own cabin there.
She says: “I loved it there it was so different. Part of it was I just wanted to see if I could do it, because it seemed such an unlikely thing for a woman from Newcastle to do.
“It was also a women’s lib thing. I figured building the cabin couldn’t be that much harder than teaching myself to knit Fair Isle socks.”
June set about her cabin building with gusto, but eventually realised she needed a bit of a hand.
She smiles: “It was bit more logistically difficult than knitting socks, in that the pieces were bigger.
“I had to drag the wood by hand half a mile up the hill.
“A friend came over from England for the last part because its not physically possible to build a frame by yourself – you need someone to stop it falling on you while you’re hammering.”
June says it must have been a difficult thing for her parents to deal with.
She recalls: “When I think about my poor mother ... I’d only be in touch very sporadically. My parents were amazing. Now my kids are a similar age I can appreciate how stressful it would’ve been.
“But then I think what I was doing was so far out of their realm of experience they didn’t even think I’d be doing such stupid things.
“A bear kept on trying to break into my cabin. I was just in the adventure.”
June worked as a tree planter for years though she confesses she was a bit useless the first year as she “kept on pressing flowers”.
After a while she decided to pursue her creative side.
June recalls: “Art was something I was keen to get back into so I went to a place called Nelson to do a fine woodworking course.
“I moved there and a week before the course started the guy was sick and it was cancelled, so I did a stained glass course instead.”
June then moved to Vancouver in 1980, and in the mid-80s decided to give up the tree planting.
“It’s hugely physical work,” June explains, “And I knew it would be the death of me.”
Through tree planting, however, she had met her husband, Phillip Ditchburn, 59, who now works as a producer for Canadian Radio.
The couple have two children Lily, 21, and Ian, 18.
Instead June pursued a diploma in media studies and ended up working for years as a graphic designer, which at least used some of her artistic skills.
But it was the death of her two parents that led her to art full time.
June explains: “I took a lot of flower photos, and photos of the kids after my mum died in 1997.
“My son was four when she died. He’s always been extremely hyper, ricocheting off the walls.
“I was sobbing in the bathroom after Mum’s death and Ian stopped bouncing off the wall for one moment and said,: ‘Mum, guess what you have to do. You have to remember her behind your eyes. You have to paint your house beautiful colours and fill it with pictures of her and you have to remember everything she showed you.’
“And then off he went again bouncing off walls.
“To me nothing really sunk in at that point, but I thought about it and it seemed much better advice than you get in sympathy cards.”
Another inspiration was her mother’s love of flowers, which June had also inherited.
She recalls: “When we grew up on the Quayside we had no garden.
“Mum couldn’t even put out a window box because we were under the Tyne Bridge and people would chuck bottles on it coming back from the pub.
“So she used to do things like grow carrot tops in saucers, and there was a flower seller in the Bigg Market who used to sell bunches of anemones.
“When they retired they moved out to a lovely cottage in Burnopfield in Gateshead, so she eventually got her beautiful garden.
“So to me a garden is such a luxury.”
June’s dad got ill in 1999 and June took time off to come to England.
June says: “I came over three times. In his last two weeks he wanted to be at home, which was stressful.
“I had one hour a day to go out and it was almost as if stress had popped my eyes open.
“I was taking these pictures while I was there. It was almost like a grain of my sight had been peeled back from the stress of it all, and when I got back I started to work more and more with these pictures I’d taken.
“For the last couple of years I did mostly garden pictures that reminded me of my mum, and in the last year or two I’ve become obsessed with crows in my neighbourhood.”
In 2006 June quit her day job in marketing and became a full-time artist, something she’s never regretted.
She says: “I lie awake at night with ideas of what I want to do next.”
June exhibits across the Vancouver area including its world-famous Granville Island Market.
But she is particularly pleased to be exhibiting back in her home town for the first time.
June adds: “My friend Chris Holmes is a photographer too.
“She’s really talented. She won the Craven’s Art Prize with pics of the Panama Swimming Club in Tynemouth.
“That’s the first time I went to the Biscuit Factory, because her picture was in a show.
“I thought how great to be in there and what an excuse to come back to the region.”
It was actually that visit that inspired this year’s show.
June finishes: “My son and I came over in May last year so we were here when the bluebells were in flower.
“I took the pictures of bluebells in the woods and that’s how I ended up with this set of work.
“What is it my mother used to say? ‘It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry.’”
June Hunter’s work is currently on display at The Biscuit Factory, Stoddart Street, Newcastle, 0191 261 1103.