Broadway Spotlight: Mike Rollins
Mike Rollins is a fine artist who tutors at the Letchworth Settlement, demonstrates at local art societies and writes for Leisure Painter magazine. He is also a member of the Wynd Gallery co-operative group of artists in Letchworth.
Mike’s exhibition at the gallery depicts key buildings that inspired Emily Brontë when writing Wuthering Heights, whilst exploring the Yorkshire setting in which he grew up.
When did you first become interested in painting?
“I started when I was a kid” is a cliché answer, but it’s true! Painting is just an innate thing that I’ve done since I was young. But, after getting into local theatre I thought set design might be the way forward. I did a foundation course in art and design to begin with and then went on to get a BA Honours from Birmingham in theatre design, with hopes of eventually working on film sets. I deviated off this path when I got taken on as a designer of visitor attractions, working on museums and theme parks. After my son was born, I got to a stage where I wanted to work nearer to home. Initially I worked with some local heritage organisations, whilst my career gradually transitioned into fine art. I really wanted to take control of my creativity, and painting, like design, is just another way of communicating ideas.
Your work focuses on landscapes and cityscapes, what draws you to these settings?
It’s about atmosphere and creating a sense of drama. I think it’s something that initially drew me towards set design. The place itself becomes a character in the piece. You can tell a story without having people in it. You can take people on a journey through your painting through certain elements within the scene, like a path. When choosing a subject, I’m looking for a strange angle, or dramatic contrasts of dark and light. Especially if I’m trying to paint a place that’s very well known, I try to get a viewpoint that doesn’t say ‘tourism’. If I can’t get a new angle on it, I try and break up the image so that it becomes more interesting visually.
What’s your painting style?
My style has changed a lot over the years. Recently, I’ve moved more towards a cinematic style, almost bordering on illustration. I like playing with brush marks and allowing them to become a character in the piece. I love to get up close to a painting to see all the different mark making, textures, hues and techniques - creating work that seems abstract up close but is recognisable when further away. I like to use different tools to paint with as well, not just brushes, such as loyalty cards, rulers and sponges – anything that will leave an interesting mark.
What will you be displaying at the gallery?
I’m going to be displaying work that focuses on Emily Brontë. I started painting this series in 2018, the 200th anniversary of her birth, as I wanted to commemorate both her life and her novel, Wuthering Heights.
The two main settings of the story, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange were inspired by numerous buildings and landscapes in West Yorkshire. Some have become tourist favourites, such as Top Withens on Haworth Moor, whilst others have been sadly demolished. I wanted to create a body of work that reconstructed some of these buildings as they were at the time of the Brontës, adding my own take on their stories.
Who or what are some of your artistic influences?
We discussed Edward Hopper in one of my classes recently. Looking back at his work, there’s a solitude in his work that I think I’ve picked up along the way. I love Gainsborough’s style of painting and some of his pastorals which are very sketch-like. The portraits themselves can be quite beautiful and exact in likeness, but everything apart from the face just melts away into the landscape beyond. In a similar way, I find inspiration from Constable - his sketch work, again, is very loose. I also love the big drama of a John Martin painting.
But certainly, growing up, I’ve been influenced more by literary figures, like the Brontë sisters and Ted Hughes. I love the atmosphere they create, and I think that’s because I grew up in West Yorkshire surrounded by the moors, deep valleys and black stone walls. Ted Hughes’ poetry creates images in my mind because of the way he describes the landscape. It’s just very emotive, guttural, and visual. Emily Brontë’s work really captured my imagination and, again, it’s her use of language to describe the weather and landscape. In Wuthering Heights, the Yorkshire moors and buildings become characters, just as much as Heathcliff and Cathy. More than anyone, it’s the Brontë sisters’ lives that have inspired me, especially because they lived and worked so close to where I grew up.
Do you think art has to have a narrative?
No, but I think that narrative is very important for me. I prefer to have a story in my head because it makes it more interesting for me to paint. There’s a mood I aim to create in the piece and hopefully someone catches that mood. But once my art leaves the nest it will be interpreted by somebody in their own fashion and my original intention won’t necessarily be clear. Sometimes people see something in a painting that I didn’t think of myself. You might have all these grand ideas about what’s going on in a painting but, at the end of the day, somebody might just like a particular colour.
What’s been your experience with The Broadway Gallery?
I’ve been to the gallery quite a lot over the years and I did a solo show there in 2015. Since then, I’ve shown in the Letchworth Open a couple of times. I just enjoy visiting. It’s lovely to have a quality gallery space available locally.
Mike Rollins work will be displayed in the gallery from 10 January until 4 February 2024.