I know. Sounds unlikely doesn’t it?
I suppose you might be thinking coal, asbestos, or brick dust, fair enough. But stardust?
Yet, for a while in the ’70s there was a significant scattering of Stardust in Rochdale, the old mill town in Lancashire where I grew up.
I should explain. The stardust in question was not sprinkly sparkly stuff, but plain old Bernard Jewry, otherwise known as Shane Fenton, otherwise known as Alvin Stardust; a corny, would-be glam pop singer.
One day on a gable end in Heywood near Rochdale, Alvin Stardust’s face appeared painted larger than life with a jigsaw pattern backgound. Why Alvin Stardust? Well why not? Local legend has it that it was intended to be Elvis, but the artist – who I later was to learn was Walter Kershaw – didn’t have a suitable picture!
Walter remembers going to the house and asking the owner whether he would mind if he used the side wall as his canvas. He said yes. This phenomenon of ‘Street Art’ (which pre-dates the ‘Cable Street Mural’ by at least four or five years ‘Art Graffiti’ by ten and Banksy by decades) began in 1973 with ‘The Pansies’. Often paintings were on properties that were due for demolition. I remember as a kid: dying to see what was going to appear next, and where.
Although I think I am right in saying that Walter never got into any trouble over his work, the Council certainly didn’t approve, which of course made it all the more exciting. I thought he was brilliant. A sort of guerrilla artist, bringing art out of the gallery into a public space.
My little story came about at the saturday morning art class which was held at Rochdale Art College. I loved it there. I did a basic drawing/painting class for a couple of years, then an excellent life drawing class for a couple more. I remember the white-painted studio walls, paint-caked floors and the smell of turpentine, oil paint and stale fixative; something which, although I have all but lost my sense of smell, I can still conjure up.
I must have been about thirteen. On this particular morning I was drawing an imaginary scene – a lunar space space station, when the tutor announced a visitor. It was Walter Kershaw, and he was keen to see what we were doing. I remember him going around, spending a little time with each of us; making suggestions about how we could improve our work. Finally, he came to me. I was in awe. For me it was like George Best suddenly coming up to you in the park and showing you how to improve your dribbling skills.
I remember exactly what he taught me, because I still have the picture. I had put in some rather half-baked lettering What he did was to rub this out and show me using faint ruler-drawn parallel lines, how to make ‘guides’ which would ensure you got letter shapes the same height. Something which in later life as an Art and Design teacher I did for my own students countless thousands of times.
In fact, at about this time, Rochdale had quite an alternative scene going on. So alongside Walter’s subversive murals, there was the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) – one of the highest circulation alternative magazines in Europe, The Rochdale Art Festival, The M6 theatre company (whose cast included Sue Johnston – later Brookside and Royal Family), The Deeply Vale free music festivals which played a significant part in the early careers of amongst others; Joy Division, The Fall, Mick Hucknall, plus Cargo studios on Kenyon Street where artists such as The Fall, Joy Division, Gang of Four, Not Sensibles, A Certain Ratio, Nico, Teardrop Explodes, Icicle Works, The Chameleons, Echo and the Bunnymen, Durutti Column etc. recorded.
In 1977 I moved away from Rochdale, but I never forgot Walter Kershaw’s work, nor his ‘down to earth’ approach to art. He was one of the reasons I went to study Art in Newcastle, as he studied there too (when it was still King’s College, Durham.) I began painting murals myself: at the Sixth Form college I went to and later, when I took up teaching, with groups of students in my own and local schools. In addition, mindful of how much of an impression it made on me to see an artist make a living from his work, and furthermore, share it with his community, in the last school I taught at we initiated an Artist in School programme that lasted over ten years, in which we had an annual residency or artist’s workshops, the aim being to reach as many children as possible.
Walter still lives in Rochdale and works out of his studio in Littleborough and as well as his mural painting, which has taken him all over the world, he has work in a number of public collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Arts Council and the Gulbenkian Foundation.
© Andy Daly 2012
© All images (except No. 4) Walter Kershaw