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Letters from home become art

Artist John Spinks, on right in black, chatting at the recent opening of his show “Remains To Be Seen.” TILLOUFINEART.COM

By Peter McDermott

Artist John Spinks’s Irish mother wrote him lots of letters over the years, but it was really just the one letter most of the time. “Say your prayers and stay off the drink” was the message.

His father in contrast varied it up and his letters to America provided a portrait of the rhythms of life back home, including the walking to and from the Royal Mail post box.

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The garden, the weather, the neighbors, sports – particularly Newcastle United, or some upcoming title fight -- or people in the news like Princess Diana were among the subjects covered.

“We have to get this Saddam Hussein thing sorted out,” wrote Cecil Spinks, who died in March 1992.

He’d worked as a “storekeeper” – looking after the supplies at a company that made fire extinguishers. He was called “Charlie” by his colleagues, his son discovered when he visited him at the factory, Cecil being considered too posh for a working man.

He was an “everyman,” John Spinks added, who knew no more or no less than any other person in the street, but his letters written on onion skin paper would be peppered with references to significant global events, like the disaster over Lockerbie.

And the artist has used those letters in his collages now on view at his show “Remains To Be Seen” at Tillou Fine Art in Brooklyn.

The introductory essay for the show says that Spinks “explores the mutable relationship between what we see and what we know. Joining musical notes, letters and maps with geometric forms, he mines both personal and world history.

“Spinks often moves maps of countries around like chess pieces. In the work ‘Asian Fusion,’ he draws Asia and the United States close, overlapping the two continents and creating new ports of entry while doing so. He is interested in making the familiar unfamiliar; words, musical notes [notably in the current show from Debussey’s ‘La Mer’] and maps lose their original purpose in his collages and are put to work constructing visual mysteries.”

Of late, Everton supporters have been finding solace in the arts, among them this group of John Spinks fans, from left: Pete Cannell (originally from Liverpool), Mark Taylor (Liverpool), Freddy Kane (Connemara) and Noel Foley (Fermoy, Co. Cork). PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT

For Spinks, the laboriousness involved in writing a letter on paper, as opposed to tapping it out on a computer, can be compared to aspects of the art process, but particularly drawing.

His mother, the former Lucy Sheedy, from Ennis, Co. Clare, did write one letter that involved labor, as she was cooking at the time. He remembers it as a thing of beauty. “It turned into a recipe,” Spinks said. He’s lost track of it, although he believes his aunt, who was a priest’s housekeeper, had it and so a cousin might still possess it.

Lucy was a nurse, and it was on one of her regular visits to an elderly man in the Northumberland village of Ponteland that she met her future husband – the man’s son.

She gave birth to John in Ennis after World War II, but the couple soon relocated to Newcastle.

Discussing art and other subjects at the opening of “Remains To Be Seen.”


Spinks, who lives with his wife Andrea in Brooklyn, is in regular contact with his daughter and grandchildren in England. And his cousins in Clare keep the Newcastle United fan abreast of the exploits of the county’s hurling team and its top local clubs. In both instances, he is reliant upon more up-to-date means of communications than the posted letter.

“Remains to be Seen” is showing at Tillou Fine Art, 59 Cambridge Place, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238, through Dec. 16. For more information, visit