Art instructor Robert Lyon (Andrew Carter, foreground) begins his first lesson with a slide show of classical art but doesn’t get quite the reaction he’d hoped for from his students, miners Jimmy Floyd (Steven Pringle, from left), George Brown (William Dick), Oliver Kilbourn (Dan Waller), Harry Wilson (James Houton) and Young Lad (Jordan Brown) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of THE PITMEN PAINTERS by Lee Hall, inspired by a book by William Feaver, directed by BJ Jones. (Photo by Lara Goetsch)
In the lobby of the Timeline Theatre Company, there is a dark tunnel. Walk through it once, and you travel back in time. Walk through it to leave and discover an unanticipated blend of time.
The lobby is transformed into an elaborate mineshaft—a time machine that sets the stage for the performance to come. After traveling down a dark tunnel, the production begins and a moment in history begins to be told.
“Timeline’s mission is to do historical plays that connect to today’s social and political issues,” Lara Goetsch said, who helped organize the production’s exhibit. “To say, here is a play from these union workers in the 1930s and ‘40s who were inspired to make art and paint, wouldn’t it be interesting to find people who are doing art right now with similar—if not the same background as the miners, and show that to our audience?”
“The Pitmen Painters” tells the story of a group of artistically inclined miners and the birth of a working-class artist movement.
Inspired by a book by William Feaver, the production’s story stems from a group of miners in the 1930′s in Ashington, England. While the mining town of Ashington was far from sophisticated, the group volunteered for the Worker’s Educational Association (WEA), a program for adult education.
In 1934, master painter, Robert Lyon, headed an art appreciation class in Ashington as part of the WEA program. Enflamed with an enthusiasm to learn, the program quickly became an incubator for the miners to create and inspire each other as artists.
The Pitmen Painters brings to life the story of these miners.
The experience is as if the world, or at least the theatre, had traveled back in time. But during intermission, the theater doors open to a room with glimpses of the past and present in a combination the art of the Ashington miners with current Chicago workers.
Juxtaposed together, the gallery gives a historical perspective for the two groups, their artistic expression, and what it means to be an artist with a blue-collar lifestyle. The Chicago artists on display include teachers, a city worker, an actor and a plumber. These modern Pitmen provide a beautiful exhibit, worthy of the miners from Ashington.
Both sets of artists come from similar backgrounds, both of which have seen war and a country with a shaky economy. When the artists’ expression and emotion are thrown on canvas however, the two groups divide completely.
The Pitmans’ art is simple and defined. Robert Lyon’s 1938 drawing, “Oliver Kilbourn” features a man etched out with deep dark lines on white paper. The man’s head is cocked back with a relaxed smile while his thumbs tuck loosely in his pockets.
But for Pilsen resident Antonio Martinez, artistic expression is not so clear-cut. In the plumber’s painting, “Pipe Cutting Money” a large white hand descends onto golden figures, dominating the image. Martinez and his fellow union artists live similar lives to the Pitmans’, but their mode of thinking are expressed as much more abstract.
“It was really about expanding what we were doing on the stage,” Goetsch said. “For years we have been putting historical information in the lobby, but never anything this crazy.”