The Robin Ross retrospective in Blackpool
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 July 2019
Blackpool hasn’t always been considered a town with a thriving arts scene. Roger Borrell meets one of the people determined to change perceptions
Robin Ross has been known to get phone calls from visitors who want to see rock being made at his ramshackle base in a back street of Blackpool. It's an easy mistake to make - it's called the Rock Factory and it was used for making the seaside confection in the early 1900s.
Today, it's an artistic hub helping talented local people realise their ambitions as painters, photographers and printers. And while rock making ended decades ago Robin, with no pun intended, says: 'The art scene in Blackpool is certainly rocking.'
He is celebrating a decade as a screen printer with a retrospective exhibition of his work. He hopes it will help to dispel the myth that the closest Blackpool gets to art is a saucy seaside postcard.
Robin is well travelled and his work draws on influences from across the world - anything from the veteran gas guzzling cars he's photographed in Havana to a fisherman snapped beside the Indian Ocean. As well as original images, he also searches out new techniques such as printing on vintage newspapers and OS maps and using unusual mediums such as gold leaf.
It's been a long journey to arrive at what could almost be describe as an artist's garret. After St Annes High School, he embarked on a career with the Land Registry. To the bafflement of his bosses, he walked out of a secure job with a good pension to be a radio disc jockey.
He was in at the start of Radio Caroline and his listener figures once outstripped Kenny Everett's. Over the years, he worked for Piccadilly, Red Rose and Jazz FM, meeting world famous musicians and befriending a few, such as Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits.
He helped discover many top bands and has 35 gold discs to prove it. But another career swerve saw him join the team driving the expansion of Marks & Spencer and working on promotional launches across the UK. When that came to an end he did a short course in print making and then spent three years travelling to Manchester to perfect the art. Now, his prints sell for up to £220 while bespoke commissions can be double that.
Robin, who lives in Cleveleys, has sold his work at exhibitions and shows in America, Moscow, Berlin, Lisbon and London.
It's an expensive exercise but he has managed it through crowdfunding and canny purchases, such as a Tracey Emin piece he bought cheaply and sold for a handsome profit.
His profile was raised recently when he was a winner on the BBC TV series, Home Is Where The Art Is. 'The problem artists here face is getting their work in front of the public,' he said.
'Mr Saatchi isn't going to come knocking on my door so we have to do it ourselves if we are to sell our work.' With a group of fellow artists, he set up a loose affiliation called Arrested Redevelopment showing work at venues such as Matcham's in the Grand Theatre, Shaw's Café Bar and Hive in Church Street. They are also planning a series of pop-up events at empty buildings in the town.
Robin isn't a great fan of the art establishment. 'I like the idea of doing things for ourselves, being independent. I've always had a rebellious streak,' he said. 'There has been some money from the arts but it has gone elsewhere.
'Despite this, more and more people in the town are realising that they really can be creative. Blackpool is full of talented people who just need an outlet.'
He is also generous with his time, using art to help offenders and people in recovery.
At the other end of the spectrum, he regularly lectures on cruise ships. It's a far cry from the rabbit warren of the Rock Factory, which is just off Abingdon Street. 'It's a brilliant space to create art. We have photographers here who are currently exhibiting in London as well as some great painters.
'The tricky bit for all of us is earning a living. You'll have heard stories about starving artists? Well, they're all true!'
The Robin Ross retrospective is at Shaw's Art House Café in Clifton Street, Blackpool, running from June 27 to August 6. To find out more go to rockfactoryprintstudio.co.uk.