Local artist Tony Bentley chats with Lauren Molyneux and shares his artistic philosophy
Having been a fan of fine art since he was a small child, it comes as no surprise to Tony Bentley that chasing his dream would one day lead to him opening his own gallery. Growing up in Langho, Tony found influences for his creative work in a variety of sources, but was put off dedicating himself full-time to the creation of fine art by his uncle, a fellow artist.
“I have always loved art and I’ve always been interested in trying to create things,” says Tony. “As a young man, art was something I always wanted to go into, but my uncle, the artist of the family, convinced me to avoid fine art as a means of employment and try to work with art in more commercial realms for the sake of financial stability. So, heeding his advice, I went into graphic design.”
Tony’s passions now lie in sculpture and stone-carving, but he is thankful for the path his uncle directed him towards: “A career in graphic design gave me the opportunity to experiment with a whole range of mediums, including life drawing, photography, illustration and screen-printing. Now as an artist, I’ve found that my background has definitely influenced the work I’m producing today.”
Tony has recently been commended in the national competition for Landscape Photographer of the Year. After previously being shortlisted three times, this year his entry made it into the exhibition now showing in London’s Waterloo Station and Volume 12 of the Landscape Photographer of the Year Book. “I love landscape photography and I’m lucky that the Ribble Valley is one of the areas that is less frequently shot by photographers. Places like the Lake District and Cornwall are very well-known, but a lot of national landscape photographers aren’t fully aware of the beauty it has to offer. We still have a hidden gem here in the Ribble Valley.”
As well as having a passion for photography, Tony is equally passionate about artistic experimentation. “I’ve never really been the type of artist to stick with one technique and not be intrigued by others. I try to be open to everything and question the artistic methods that may have been used. I’m interested to know how other artists work and what their processes are.
“Having a background in graphic design has meant that the lines between art and design have always been blurred for me. This is something I think is happening more generally nowadays anyway, as we are all being exposed to so much imagery and boundaries are constantly being crossed between photography, art and design. This works well for me! I am by no means a traditionalist, nor is my work usually considered to be traditional, I just don’t think those distinctions are quite as important anymore.”
Although experimentation with a range of modes is one of the things Tony enjoys to do, his main artistic love is sculpture. “In terms of influences, I remember seeing Barbara Hepworth’s work at her studio down in St Ives, Cornwall, and being absolutely blown away by it. I think her work definitely had a big impact on me. I’m not sure if the influence necessarily shows in what I produce now, but I really love her work.”
Having recently invested in a kiln, Tony is also currently enjoying being able to experiment with ceramics. “After a short college course in ceramics, I’ve learned and developed a lot of my skills through book-based research, and the incredible generosity of other artists who share their techniques online. But I’ve been very lucky to have the freedom to be able to experiment and learn through trial and error. I suppose the main difference between ceramics and stone carving is that with clay, you have the opportunity to add to your piece and perfect any mistakes, whereas when working with stone it’s a reductive process – you can only take away from the original material. Stone is much less forgiving!”
Tony and his wife, Julia, now own The Keep Gallery in Clitheroe, where Tony’s work is displayed alongside the work of other artists. After recently celebrating the gallery’s second birthday, the celebrations continue following their win at this year’s Ribble Valley Business Awards for Artisan Business of the Year.
“We’re absolutely over the moon with the result. Our aim has always been to create a gallery that’s unlike others, with nice lighting and good music and a bit of personality. We really didn’t want to create a silent and joyless traditional white-walled gallery! Hopefully a place where people can feel comfortable coming just to look or to buy anything from a mug to an original sculpture. It’s an alternative approach that’s an attempt to be more inclusive to people who may not necessarily visit a more traditional gallery.”
Tony’s alternative approach to art is also displayed not only in the work itself, but in the philosophy he encourages viewers to take. “For me it’s important to provide people with the opportunity to find out a little about the thinking behind a piece. I know that artistic convention usually dictates that the meaning in a piece of artwork is to be determined by the viewer, and that’s great. But I also think that it can help people to understand a piece, especially if that piece is quite abstract, when they are made aware of the aims I set out for myself when I began to create it. This way, they can then determine whether or not I was successful in my mission. I think this way art can become a lot more accessible to people.”