THE BIG INTERVIEW: Artfelt calling to pass on a passion
Purton-based artist Gordon Dickinson has been presented with a Swindon Art Hero award for his work with young people. Alongside his wife, fellow artist Toni, he runs No Added Sugar, an educational organisation which devises art projects
“I WASN’T trying to be an artist,” said Gordon Dickinson, remembering his early work.
“I was just doing stuff in my spare time. I got bits and stuck them together, started painting on bits of hardboard, doing my own thing.
“I knew nothing about art, never studied artists. I never looked at it or read about it. I just did stuff.”
Gordon was born in 1959. His father, Bob, worked for Pressed Steel, while mum Muriel worked for fishmongers Mac Fisheries.
He has three brothers. One of them, Trevor, is also an artist and lives in Australia.
“It was quite experimental, Dorcan, when we first went there. I had come from Walcot which was blazers, ties, the cane. I got caned for having my hair too long.
“They blew a whistle at break time and you had to stop dead no matter what you were doing. If you moved a muscle you got the T-square.
“I got caned about six times. I was only there six months and I wasn’t particularly bad.
“Then we moved to Dorcan and it was like going to Butlins. They introduced me to my form teacher, Mr West. He said, ‘Call me Alistair,’ and I thought, ‘No way!’”
The impulse to create art was already with him but he chose to follow a normal career path – at least initially.
“I was offered a place at art school but I was also offered a place at the railways.
“At the time, if you’d got a choice of going to a proper job or art college, where you wouldn’t earn any money for at least four or five years if you ever did, it was a no-brainer as far as everybody else was concerned.”
“I chose coachbuilding because it fitted in with what I was doing. It meant I could be a Jack of all trades.
“We were using wood, metal, glass, all of the materials.”
Gordon was a father at 20 and in a marriage that lasted only 18 months. The Railway Works, although he’s full of praise for it, made him restless.
“I used to look around and it was clocking in, clocking out, the hooter and all of that. When you’re in the railways you’ve got your place and that’s pretty much it for life.
“There was an old boy used to sit down behind me and he had a chair made out of a piece of wood that had a groove in it – he’d been on that chair for 30 years, probably. There was a piece of wood behind, where he rested his head, that had a little groove in it, and there was one where he put his cup down.”
Leaving at the end of his apprenticeship, Gordon became a council carpenter and quickly discovered that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side.
His first task was to install window frames, and Gordon managed two carefully-planed perfect fits in the time it took an old hand to install a dozen. The younger man soon realised why.
“They were all the wrong size. They were all too big. He said, ‘Watch,’ and he pulled out this lovely silver hatchet, got the frame, hacked it down the side, put it in the hole. It still wouldn’t fit so he got a big hammer and banged it in.”
Gordon later went into the double glazing industry, but career satisfaction wouldn’t come until his mid-30s when he decided he wanted to be a full time artist, come what may.
He had continued to create pieces since his schooldays – paintings, sculpture and abstract works in boxes and frames fashioned from whatever he could lay his hands on.
He had begun to exhibit, sell and meet other artists, one of whom, Josie Williams, would become another well-known figure on the Swindon scene.
Over lunch at Queen’s Park one day in 1999 they agreed to start an art group. Contemporary Artists of Swindon – CAOS – went on to become a major force for the arts in Swindon, staging shows, performances and ‘happenings’ such as roving galleries consisting of artists parading through streets, in pubs and elsewhere.
“It was just about people getting together, having a few drinks and talking. It was a raving success – before we knew it I think we had 60 people wanting to join within a month.”
Gordon met fellow artist Toni at the turn of the millennium, and No Added Sugar was established in 2001.
“We decided we were going to do this together as community work and she said to me, ‘There’s a phone, there’s a directory. Ring up schools, tell them we’re artists and we’ll come and do your projects.
“We decided that we wanted to do a quality product that looked really nice but was still owned by the kids.”
The business has gone from strength to strength. The couple work throughout Swindon and as far away as London, Leicester and Northampton. A recent project was a huge frieze of carefully-crafted butterflies on an inside wall of a London primary school, beneath which Gordon painted the words: “Until you spread your wings you will have no idea how far you can fly.”
His guidance for would-be artists? “Don’t do it for the money. If money is your driving force for being an artist, if you’re not doing it anyway, don’t even bother. You’re wasting your time.
“It might work financially but you might as well just get a job doing anything.”
The No Added Sugar website is noaddedsugar.org, and it is also on Facebook.