From white collar to full colour

Suffolk artist David Pairpoint worked for 20 years in a bank until he decided to shed the collar and tie and become a mature art student.

Andrew Clarke

Suffolk artist David Pairpoint worked for 20 years in a bank until he decided to shed the collar and tie and become a mature art student. Now studying for a Phd, he has a powerful exhibition at the New Cut Arts Centre which looks at the way Hollywood glamorises the most tragic of professions. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to him.

It takes a great deal of nerve to step away from a secure, well-paid job with a reasonable secure future and a guaranteed pension at the end in order to enrol as a mature student at university and embark on a hazardous career as a freelance artist.

David Pairpoint, 64, of Flixton, near Bungay, is currently studying for his doctorate in fine art having first gained a degree and then a masters degree at the University of East London.

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He said that although he didn't have his life changing epiphany until the age of 40, he has never regretted the change of career from reasonably well-paid bank employee to impoverished artist.

“It took a lot of courage at the time - not only on my part but on the part of my family as well.” David's talent and hard-work are being recognised with an exhibition at the New Cut Arts Centre in Halesworth.

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David's exhibition takes as its theme the way that iconic Hollywood images are used as part of our visual language in everyday life and makes a link between the way that Julia Roberts prostitute was portrayed in Pretty Woman and the way that the five murdered prostitutes were portrayed by the media while the search was on for their killer.

“I suppose I have always been interested in movies. It started when I was very young. My mother used to take me to the cinema from the age of about 18 months and from about the age of 11, I went on my own. It was during those most impressionable years that I really fell in love with films and with the experience of going to the cinema.

“In later life I have come to realise how much of my outlook on the world has been shaped by Hollywood and how the film industry portrays the world. It shapes our thinking without us really being aware of it.”

He said that this has been brought home to him since he has been looking at the world afresh - through an artist's eyes. “I decided in my most recent group of paintings to portray the world through the medium of iconic cinema images but then to subvert them by introducing a child-figure, an innocent, if you like, which could be a younger version of myself.”

He said that he has been amazed by the various different ways that people have reacted to the paintings. “People have reda them, or interpreted them in a wide variety of different ways simply because there is now a child figure present in what otherwise would have been a reasonably well known image. As a result it has become something more than a reproduction of an image from a Hollywood film.”

David is pleased that his foray into the world Hollywood glamour has provoked such a strong response from viewers and he hopes that the Halesworth exhibition will provoke an equally strong response - particularly as Roxanne, which tackles the subject of the prostitute murders, is being exhibited much closer to home than a viewing in London would be.

“What I have found very gratifying is that people have been developing a narrative for the pictures. They have been developing theories, little stories, about what they feel is going on in the pictures which give them an added sense of life.”

He said that he created Roxanne, named after the hit-song by the Police, towards the end of the series of paintings. He was working on the Hollywood series as the murders were taking place and found the events portrayed on the evening news had a bearing on the work taking shape in his studio.

“I was struck at the way that the TV coverage changed as the events unfolded over the days and weeks. At the beginning the girls were being portrayed as drug-addicts and sleazy prostitutes and then a couple of the parents made some televised appeals and the whole attitude of the television coverage changed. Suddenly, these were no longer sleazy prostitutes, they were somebody's daughter, they were young women with friends and families and it immediately put me in my of the way that Hollywood romanticises and glamorises prostitution or working girls as they were called. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman is the obvious one but it stretches all the way back to the way that Jean Harlow and Marlene Dietrich were portrayed - the way that the film world sanitises these things.”

He said that initially he thought of painting portraits of the murdered girls juxtaposed with similar images of Hollywood film stars as a kind of memorial and an ironic comment on the fact that they had had their 15 minutes of fame, their moment in the sun, but it had been a tragic, deadly moment in the sun. On reflection I thought that was slightly trite, so I went onto make a different, larger painting, the Roxanne painting, which suggests the story of the prostitutes but isn't blatant. It has an allegorical feel to it but is open to interpretation.”

He said that film world has always glamorised the world of the prostitute and perhaps now needs to take stock and take responsibility for the messages it sends out. “I'm sure the experiences of the real-life prostitutes on Sunset Strip bear no relation to Julia Roberts' portray in Pretty Woman. Looking back at Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8 - she played a prostitute who was decked out in furs and designer clothes. I doubt many prostitutes can aspire to that kind of luxury. Even much closer to home Billie Piper's series on ITV - Diary of a Call Girl - still maintains this glamorous image and it is dangerous.”

He said that although the collection on display at the New Cut in Halesworth is complete he has started another series of works on the similar theme of Hollywood and autobiography. “There just seems to be so much to explore in that whole arena of films, star perception and the world as we know it.

“Films are extremely powerful, if you see one that really strikes you it can stay with you for weeks - months even. The images I have included in the exhibition - movies like The Searchers, Giant, are all classics that I saw during that impressionable age from nine to 11 and they have all stayed with me - have made an indelible impression on my film-going world. They had a big woa impact at the time and they continue to work their magic.”

He said that 30 years ago, he almost didn't dare dream that he would be making his living from his art. He worked at Lloyds Bank in Norwich for 15 years, painting as a hobby in the evenings but not really realising his potential. Banking was the safe option which he was happy to take in order to provide for his family but when his daughter came home from university with tales of mature students and university life, his outlook on the world dramatically changed.

“I worked at Lloyds Bank for 20 years before chucking the job in and went off to Norwich Art School to do a foundation course, which I then followed up with a BA in fine art at the University of East London and then went back 15 years later to do my masters degree and now I am currently working on my Phd - on a part-time basis.”

He said that to work as an artist is the realisation of a life-long dream. “My Dad died when I was quite young, so I didn't have the opportunity to go to university or learn how to be an artist simply because I needed to go out to work to help bring some money into the house.

“I had always painted and drawn - and it always was an important part of my life but any thoughts of going to art school had to be shelved because my Mum was trying to bring up three boys on her own and we needed food on the table.”

He said that even when he got older, once you are on the work treadmill it is very hard to get off. “You get married, have a family and there you are having to provide again - which you are very happy to do, but there comes a time when you can strike out and change things.

“For me it came when my daughter came home from university and told me that she had come across these things called mature students - people of my age who had gone to university later in life. I had never come across this before but I quickly found out about it.

“I knew immediately that this was a second chance. I was about 40 then and decided to chuck in my job and the bank which was a really unusual thing to do at the time - particularly in banking because you are normally there for life but this was something I really wanted to do, this was my chance to get the life that I wanted for myself as a teenager.”

He said that he has never regretted the change of career and he sees it as proof of the old maxim that it is never too late for a change and to realise a long cherished dream.

“It all sounds a little corny I suppose but it is true - sometimes all you need is the courage to do it and the support of your family. It was a big step but my wife Carole, who was also studying at the time, my daughter was at university studying graphic design and my son Stuart who was at Easton Agricultural College, were all very supportive. Also I found the tutors on the course very accepting of mature students and enjoyed the fact that we brought some life experience into the lectures and into the studio.

“But at the same time, the experience of art school just took my work in a whole new direction simply because you are exposed to many more new ideas and surrounded by like-minded people. I really do recommend it.”

David Pairpoint's Hooray For Hollywood exhibition is at the New Cut Arts Centre, Halesworth until March 14.

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