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Willy Russell unveils his artwork at Kirkby Gallery

Shirley Valentine found her escape on a liberating trip to Greece. ‘Rita’ White in literature.

Now their creator, Whiston-born playwright Willy Russell, has revealed his own escape – painting. And he’s unveiled his first solo exhibition of art, with his Another Aspect show opening at Kirkby Gallery today.

Having been told at school that the only thing he’d ever be able to draw was the dole, it was only when he reached his 50s that he once again picked up a brush.

“It was completely to do with a crisis back home,” he explains, sitting among his artworks. “I was in Portugal and I was losing sleep.

“One afternoon I was at a table outside, and started doodling, and for the first time I had some relief from the problem. I’ve since used it in situations where I’ve been so tired I’ve been unable to sleep. It’s so restful for the left side of the brain.”

From those early doodles, the 69-year-old writer and musician started drawing while he was in the recording studio. Then he happened upon artist Peter Moore at an event at Liverpool Hope

University, and joined his evening class at the college.

View towards the Malverns by Willy Russell

Now, he says he paints or draws every day. He has studio spaces in Canning Street and Portugal, and is contemplating a third in London.

“I got to a point where painting in class, I realised that most people were painting at about A2 maximum,” he explains. “I met someone who said, work big. And I wanted to scale up.”

The work on show in the Kirkby exhibition includes both landscapes and figurative paintings, as well as some abstract canvasses, in watercolours and acrylics.

It has been inspired by a number of locations, including Portugal, the West Yorkshire moors, mid-Wales and the rolling lushness of the Golden Valley in Herefordshire.

His more representational pieces come from sketches – he says he avoids working from photographs wherever possible, while he maintains he doesn’t want “to be abstract for abstraction’s sake”.

Mersey Bank by Willy Russell

The Kirkby show – at the same venue which staged the 2015 exhibition Willy Russell: Behind the Scenes - precedes a second, smaller, one due to be held in London later this year.

“Never would I have envisaged this,” Willy admits, looking around him. “I oscillate between joy and terror at people coming in to see this work en masse. But I’m used to being judged.

“I’m not blasé about criticism, it will wound me as it always does. But I’ve had enough good faith in the work I’ve done to weather any out.”

Willy Russell: Another Aspect is at Kirkby Gallery from May 9 to September 2.

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