The sea has been a big influence for many of Cornwall’s artists, some of whom grew up with the sea in their blood. Others have come from backgrounds devoid of sea based influences until later in life. One such artist is Port Issac based Martyn Dempsey.
“I originally lived in Rusholme in Moss Side, Manchester and later moved to Wilmslow in Cheshire,” explained Martyn when we met to discuss his artistic life. “I came down to Newquay when I was 16 and got addicted to surfing.”
Martyn’s addiction meant he worked in hotels in Cornwall during the summer months and headed off to places like New Zealand, Australia and the British Virgin Islands in the winter months.
“I love it here…in Cornwall. At one point I did think about moving back north, but on looking around I decided that Cornwall was where I needed to be. It’s the sea. I need the water.”
His early artistic endeavours were not of the conventional kind. “I used to spray (paint) Manchester when I was a boy. My mum said ‘why don’t you start painting a canvas?’,” he explained. “I was like ‘How do you do that?’. Painting wasn’t really the done thing where I was from.”
Despite art being seen as unfashionable Martyn continued to use it as a means of expression and once he moved to Cornwall he pursued his twin passions of surfing and painting. “I was in Newquay doing various jobs to maintain myself but I was still painting pictures,” He explained how his work began to attract attention.
“People started coming up to my flat and I’d have paintings on display and the visitors would ask me who the artist was. Some of those people bought pieces and I became more confident. It wasn’t long before I was selling work at a number of Cornwall galleries.”
Although he enjoyed his life in Newquay Martyn still had the travel bug. “I’d got to know the British Surf Team and became good friends with the likes of Grishka Roberts and Spencer Hargreaves. I travelled with the team around Europe.” As he travelled Martyn continued to paint leaving the completed works at galleries he came across en route. “When we travelled back along the route I picked up the money from sales of my work. I was earning as I travelled.”
Martyn had also left some of his artworks at various galleries around Cornwall: “I was able to collect earnings from the Cornwall galleries on my return.”
These successes were great but what Martyn needed was recognition for his work: “I headed to St Ives and visited the New Craftsman Gallery (home to the likes of Terry Frost). I kept asking Mary Redgrave, who was running the gallery at the time, to take a look at my work.” After six months Mary Redgrave gave Martyn an interview at the Bernard Leach Pottery in St Ives.
“I turned up with about twenty pieces, all covered, which was what I’d been asked to bring with me. I started to unwrap the work but Mary Redgrave stopped me,” said Martyn. Mary Redgrave pointed at three and suggested the young artist uncover them. “I did as she asked. She took a look and said ‘I really like your work. You’ve got real potential to do well in the art world.’ Getting that opinion was a catalyst for me.” Mary Redgrave then suggested that she visit Martyn’s studio: “You’ve got a studio, haven’t you?” He hadn’t. “Yes” he replied.
Martyn searched for a studio and he found one in the shape of an old hairdressers in Port Isaac: “It was basically a shed. I started painting there and Mary Redgrave visited and I started selling my works. It just felt it was the right time and the right place.”
“Shortly after that I decided to move to my present studio and gallery space. It was a good decision as the work sold very well. I ended up doing exhibitions in London at places like the Blackall Studios in Shoreditch.”
In 2013 Martyn exhibited work at the prestigious Manyung Gallery in Melborne, Australia. “I attract all kinds of collectors including individuals and institutions such as banks like Rothschild Bank, HSBC and Morgan Stanley. I’ve also worked with the likes of IKEA who used seven of my designs.”
Martyn’s work has been through many changes over the years: “I started with an abstract approach before painting landscapes and this in turn evolved into an exploration of the elements,” explained Martyn. The work has now returned to more abstract compositions.
“It’s really difficult with art, to know which route to go down. The more I think about it, the more I like to try and capture the colours of Cornwall. To do a good abstract takes a long time, much longer than most people imagine.”
What material does Martyn use? “I use a mixture from crayons, pencils, acrylic, oils…I use everything.” Had he ever done an art course? “I’ve never bothered. I’ve taught myself a lot of techniques…how paint drys, how to dye a canvas etc”
“One technique is to paint quickly then hose the paint off the canvas with water. The effect is amazing. It is then I start working on the painting.”
Was he talented as a child? “I won my first exhibition when I was about six. The prize was to go to Blackpool and see how Blackpool Rock was made. That was my early claim to fame.”
Visit Martyn’s site here
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