Published: 19 December 2014
Royal patronage for artist Mike Healy
Published on 19 December 2014
When he taught design at Glasgow School of Art, Mike Healy told his students that every human is an "experiment which cannot be repeated".
It was a line borrowed from a poet he'd met in a Glasgow pub when he was 19 and a student himself at the world famous art school. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, Healy now believes it is a universal truth.
"When I was younger and more foolish, I thought that one day I'd be able to sit back and wisely understand the world," he says. "I now realise I am largely the same person I was back then. I am just an older fool now."
Now 63, and living full-time at Southend, Kintyre, where he has a home and a studio, Healy paints and works as a volunteer counsellor in Glasgow one day a week.
A recovering alcoholic who has been dry for 17 years, Healy paints with the same verve with which he once approached drinking. His work is widely collected by corporate and private collectors including the European Parliament, Coutts Bank and RBS. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge bought one of his paintings when it went on sale at Thompson's Gallery in London in 2013.
Yesterday, a solo exhibition of 60 of Healy's vibrant colourful landscapes of Scotland and equally vivid still lifes opened at Thompson's. It is his ninth solo show with the gallery, which has a track record of showcasing the work of Scots painters. Healy's work is suffused with light and colour. You can almost feel the heat of the Amazon, where he was born in 1951, oozing out of the canvases. Both his parents were Brazilian-born of British parentage, with his mother's family hailing originally from Barra.
Healy's father flew Catalinas (flying boats) in the Amazon region, from Belem to Manaus on the Amazon. Healy recalls an idyllic early childhood spent in T-shirt, shorts and sandshoes exploring the beaches of the city of Niteroi, where the family moved not long after he was born. Occasionally, his father would take him to Santos Dumont Airport across the bay in Rio de Janeiro, where he remembers being mesmerised by a large mural on the history of flight.
When he was seven, Healy's parents split up and his mother met a another man, a Glaswegian accountant. Life became unsettled, with the family (he had two younger brothers) shuttling between Brazil, Scotland, London and the Middle East.
Aged 13, he was sent with his middle brother to Keil School in Dumbarton. In this tough environment, he worked hard in and out of the classroom. Keil famously produced high fliers through a rigorous approach to technical subjects and a tough daily regime which saw squads of boys taking on basic tasks around the school. As they progressed through school, the boys became responsible for managing younger boys as well as the maintenance of buildings. Healy's ability to draw was spotted early, but art was not taken seriously at Keil, which had a single part-time art teacher billeted in a Portacabin-style classroom in the woods.
Luckily, this teacher happened to be the painter John Cunningham, who became one of the leading lights of the Glasgow art scene and an influential tutor at Glasgow School of Art (GSA). To the young Healy, this Gauloises-smoking, Citroën-driving Cunningham, with his glamorous French wife, was the embodiment of what an artist should be. Cunningham left to teach at GSA in 1966, but his successor John Mathieson helped steer Healy towards a place at GSA. At the art school, from 1970-1974, Healy studied graphics, illustration and sculpture, and it was the beginning of a life-long love affair with the Mackintosh-designed school, which saw him return as a tutor in 1983, after a spell working in commercial studios in the US and Brazil. By then married, with two young children, Healy quickly became head of the Graphic Design, Illustration and Photography department. In 1990, he was appointed head of the School of Design, the largest school within GSA.
Healy admits now his coping mechanism for dealing with the stress of managing the day-to-day challenges of this demanding role was to drink to excess: "It was my way of switching off. I'd been drinking heavily for a long time and my health started to deteriorate, as well as my marriage. As alcoholics often do, I decided to change everything at once, so I quit my job at the art school in 1997 and went to work in Singapore."
Within four months, he was back in Glasgow having been fired because of his drinking. He drank around the clock for nine months. His marriage broke down and it was only after his then 12-year-old daughter begged him to stop that he decided to get help.
The long road to becoming a successful artist whose work is bought by heirs to the throne has not been an easy one. He had desperate spells when he had to make ends meet by taking jobs such as a nightwatchman in a Glasgow office, but the old resilience engrained into him as a schoolboy saw him pick himself up and head to London in 1999 with a new portfolio of paintings under his arm. Thompson's took a chance on him and other shows followed. He was also offered exhibitions at the prestigious Walker Gallery in Liverpool, and in Bermuda. For a while Healy combined painting in Kintyre with teaching at the University of Lincoln - he is still a life-time Professor of Art and Design at the university - but now lives in Southend with second wife Pat.
"I am calmer and happier and my work gets better each year," he states. "I found out who I am, which is not much, and I live in reality. I have a small talent that I nurture. I get great pleasure from making my paintings. Hopefully, others get lasting pleasure from them."
Mike Healy: An Exhibition of New Paintings is at Thompson's Gallery, 15 New Cavendish Street, London until December 23 www.thompsonsgallery.co.uk