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Originally published Sunday, April 22, 2012 at 5:31 AM

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'Pitmen Painters,' story of miners-turned-artists, opens April 26

Vashon Island resident Wally Bell has a close connection to the story of miners who became painters in the hit play "The Pitmen Painters," running at ACT Theatre April 26-May 20, 2012.

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER PREVIEW

'The Pitmen Painters'

By Lee Hall. Thursday-May 20 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20-$55 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).
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Some of the paintings were created on pieces of plywood or slabs of cardboard, and have a rustic look. Yet the skill of the artists is evident. So is the authenticity of the revealing images of Northern England life they captured.

A busy small-town fish-and-chips shop at dusk. A hillside of pigeon "crees" (sheds for pet birds), with a tall smokestack in the background. A family giving their small cottage a spring cleaning. A festive merry-go-round at a town fair.

But the most prevalent images are of Northumberland miners at work deep in the earth, crouching in dark, cramped quarters.

There are men dangerously resetting arch girders to prevent a cave-in. And guiding ponies along tracks, to haul loads of coal. Filling large metal bins with chunks of ore, by hand. At the pithead baths, scrubbing off grime and coal dust after a shift underground.

These scenes are depicted in the fascinating artwork of the celebrated Ashington Group, an association of artist miners who are the subject of the London stage hit "The Pitmen Painters." ACT Theatre opens the Seattle debut of the Lee Hall play this week.

Vashon Island resident Wally Bell knows the world of those paintings well. A retired sales executive, he never toiled in the mines himself.

But his grandfather and great-grandfather did, and several generations of other relations. And his father, Walter Bell, now 88 and still living in the Northumberland village of Lynemouth, is a former miner — and quite likely the only surviving member of the Ashington Group.

Wally Bell says he's eager to see "The Pitmen Painters" (which also had a recent engagement on Broadway) for the first time, though his father isn't one of the characters portrayed in Hall's docudrama. (Hall hails from the same region, also the site of his famed film and musical "Billy Elliot.")

The Ashington Group began in 1934, through cultural-enrichment classes that the Workers' Education Association, a labor group, offered to working men.

The men taking a course on evolution wanted to branch out, and requested an art instructor. The WEA engaged Robert Lyon of Durham University (a proponent of "learn through doing" and "paint what you know") as their teacher.

At first Lyon gave slide lectures, but soon he was encouraging his students to do their own painting.

"He egged us on to paint what we had to say without bothering about conventions on how to paint," original member Oliver Kilbourn recounted decades later to William Feaver, whose book "The Pitmen Painters" inspired Hall's play.

"We painted at home and brought the pictures for [Lyon] to criticize at the next weekly meeting. We became enthralled with this and carried on to paint all we felt about our lives."

Walter Bell was a good deal younger than Kilbourn and the others. A friend invited him to join the group in the late 1950s, after the Ashington painters had been "discovered" by London galleries and documentary filmmakers. But the men still gathered weekly in a small shed in Ashington to paint and talk art.

"I was five or six when I used to go with my dad to the hut," Wally Bell recalls. "My memories of those times are always in sepia. The men's clothes were brown, their fingers were stained from the coal, the room was stained with pipe and cigarette smoke.

"There was always a lot of intense activity, people looking at paintings and critiquing them. They painted with what they had — very simple materials like household paint and plywood. They'd often reuse stuff, and paint over things. But they took it seriously."

Their involvement in art defied long-held stereotypes of British miners — and macho attitudes in their tight-knit communities.

"Men in those days didn't paint, it was considered effeminate or childish," Bell says. "So it was quite a courageous thing for them to do." (Bell's miner grandfather also defied stereotypes: He was an opera-lover and a master of embroidery.)

Within England's rigid class system, miners "were looked down upon as ill-educated ruffians, who didn't speak right. But the Ashington painters never forgot who they were, or where they were from. They said, we're miners but we know what culture is."

For Walter Bell, still recovering from a harrowing wartime stint in the Royal Navy as a radio "jammer," the group provided the camaraderie of kindred spirits.

"My dad was shy, a bit of a loner and quite traumatized by the war," says his son. "This gave him something to do, beside working."

Later, Walter Bell became a safety inspector in the mines, earned a coveted spot at a college, and worked as an art teacher in local schools. He continued to paint.

Bell has only a few pieces by his father from his 10 years as an Ashington member. One is "The Pay Check," a well-observed portrait of miners gathered to receive (and argue with the paymaster about) their wages.

Others are striking "cartoons" of miners on the job. The captions are steeped in the brutal black humor of men exposed to injury or death every day in the pit, and the fatal lung disease that could develop years later. Walter Bell's own brother died in a mining accident — in the same spot where an elder relative perished years earlier.

By the early 1980s, the group had scattered and the Ashington hut was demolished. A few years later, a crippling miners' strike against England's implacable Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed down local collieries and effectively ended the British mining industry and an entire way of life (as dramatized in "Billy Elliot").

Wally Bell isn't nostalgic about the grueling, endangering work his relatives did to survive for over a century. Or his own choice to travel widely and wind up, with his wife and young son, on Vashon Island. But he still identifies with the culture he left behind.

"It helps anchor you in a world of changes," he muses, "to have a base and know where you came from."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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