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Artist makes good use of old news from home

By Peter McDermott

Artist John Spinks has called his work showing at the Brooklyn Public Library a "conversation with a dead man."

"Letters from Wallsend" are full of news about soccer, the weather and the family back in the Northeast of England.

When the day came for the artist to ask his parent if he could read those letters that he'd sent him back from New York, he was very disappointed to hear that they'd been consigned to the fire.

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"He was of a generation," he said of Cecil Spinks who died in Newcastle in 1992.

"I was going through a divorce and so on," the artist added, explaining his widowed father didn't want discussion of such things lying around.

However, the older man's letters to America are routinely incorporated into his Irish-born son's art.

"It's my revenge," Spinks said.

In contrast to his father, he said, his mother, a nurse by profession, only ever wrote the same letter: "Say your prayers and keep off the drink."

Lucy Sheedy met her future husband when she was nursing his mother. Her first successful pregnancy, after two miscarriages, led to the 1946 birth of the future artist. She was in her native Ennis, Co. Clare, at the time. "It was just for the confinement," said John Spinks, who will become a grandfather later this year. The family moved on, first to Surrey and then to his father's native Northeast. "But there was six weeks every year back in Clare," he said. "And I did Irish dancing in Newcastle. Everybody we knew seemed to be Irish."

Meanwhile his father inculcated in him a passion for Newcastle United, which won the FA Cup in 1951, 1952 and 1955, and although the club has done little to justify hero-worship in the intervening decades, he still sees almost every game on TV.

The elder Spinks, who joined the army in his mid-teens in the 1920s and was mobilized again at the beginning of World War II, worked in positions in stores that were beneath his intellectual abilities, according to his son.

"He was a voracious reader," John Spinks said. "Particularly books about nature. He was a countryman in his sensibility."

These days by way of tribute, he places his father's handwritten lines alongside printed text from some of the masters of English literature. "I like to put him in with heavy hitters like Dafoe and Beckett," he said.

The exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library - which features also the work of some of the borough's leading photographers and a book-cover artist and writer - also gave Spinks the opportunity to cooperate with some long-time friends in his old neighborhood in Brooklyn.

"For 17 years, I had a studio in Dumbo. This was long before gentrification," he said. "There's a pizza place down there near Gleason's Gym run by the Leonardi brothers - old-school Brooklyn Italians. I loved those guys and it was reciprocal."

"And when the neighborhood changed, they were still there keepin' it real," he said.

Spinks moved south to a new studio in Clinton Hill, where he now lives with his wife Andrea, but he kept in touch with the Leonardis.

"Every Christmas, I'd take them a 'pizza' that I'd made. These were tondos -- 12-inch round paintings/collages with a composition roughly built around 'slices' of imagery. I'd deliver them in a pizza box. It became a ritual.

"Anyway, last time I made one using envelopes my dad had sent me over the years showing various addresses I'd lived in the city. I combined this with slices of map showing their Front Street location," Spinks said.

He thought it a good idea to include that most recent "pizza" for the library exhibit with the note underneath saying "From the collection of the Leonardi family."

"The lads were delighted to lend the work back to me until April," he said.

Another social contact led to his current commission. One Saturday, while watching a Premier League game in Mr. Dennehy's bar on Manhattan's Carmine Street, he struck up a conversation with the staunch Everton supporter sitting beside him. James Reynolds, an Irish American, told him about his letters from his granduncle in Donegal, Henry McCandless.

"I told him I'd definitely have a look at them," he recalled.

Spinks liked what Reynolds showed him. "There are a lot of good one-liners," he said. "I knew my father very well, so it's exciting watching another personality, someone I didn't know, take shape from these letters.

"I'm having a ball with it," Spinks said.

"Letters from Wallsend" is on view through April 9 at Brooklyn Public Library, 10 Grand Army Plaza. John Spinks's web site is