‘I’ve worked with every stratum of society from Hollywood stars to tower block kids’

Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance (ROAR) chief executive SHARON GILL talks to artist Rob Young

IF you have been over to visit the Clifton Park Museum in Rotherham recently you will have come across an artwork by Rob Young based on the famous Whistlejacket horse painting by George Stubbs in 1762 and in response to Ghost by Turner prizewinner Mark Wallinger.

The piece is currently hanging in the main entrance, to create a trilogy of work based on the portrait of a magnificent horse.

Rob says: “Whistlejacket is the world’s most famous painting of an animal. The horse that inspired it was brought to Wentworth Woodhouse. It wasn’t the biggest, it wasn’t the fastest, but it was beautiful. Along with its mate, they were the first two Arabian stallions in Britain and half of our racehorses come from these two.”
Rob responded to an artist call out to work with RMBC Heritage Services. What attracted Rob to work in Rotherham are the similarities between the history and the people of the town with his own home town of Shields.

He says: “I decided to create something modest, that any child could make themselves, with a bit of cardboard and a torch. These days, when people look for stories, they turn to Hollywood but some of the best stories are right here, in Rotherham. That’s what I wanted to share. If you look around Clifton Park Museum, there are some terrific stories. There’s a cat with two bodies that lived for five days!”

Through working on the commission Rob spent a long time in Rotherham and was really genuine in his appreciation of how warm and welcoming the people are, and how dedicated the museum staff are with passion for their work.

“The Rotherham project was one of the happiest experiences of my life,” admits Rob.

What I found disarming about Rob was that even though he has had quite remarkable success in practically everything he has turned his hand to, even if lady luck has helped along the way, he is a very grounded artist who recognises the opportunities he has been given and now wants to put his success to good use by working for those less fortunate.

Of the Rotherham project, he says: “It’s been a lovely project. I’ve worked with every stratum of society from actors to archivists, blacksmiths to curators, composers to x-ray specialists, local mums and local children — they’ve all played a part. It’s not my exhibition, it’s theirs; it belongs to the town. And it’s free. How wonderful is that?”

Rob was born in a deprived town where unemployment was high. Shipworking was the main industry after the closure of the coalmines. There was an air of little hope, no holidays, no culture. The nearest thing was a working men’s club with 500 men and lights on full blast. For Rob, all this led to low self esteem and lack of direction.

Not surprisingly, he was in a gang of 15 boys and even though he found a life in the arts, he assured me that he was not the wimp in the gang and held his own. His parents were good and supportive in the way they knew best. Rob was toughened up through karate classes. As mentioned, he has a tendency to success, which meant that in the martial art he excelled and was promoted to the men’s class. That meant he was beaten regularly, so every Monday night on his way to lessons he would drink a bottle of cider to soften the inevitable blows.

It is remarkable how some people can pinpoint the moment that their life changed. Rob’s lightbulb moment came when his then dancer girlfriend took him to see a dance performance. As he so eloquently states, he realised “I am in the wrong gang.” Okay, so he was not about to become a world class dancer, but the desire to be close to the ‘cool people’ took Rob to London to study theatre design — with a clear ambition to own a colour TV.

London is a culture shock to many the first time they go. The museums and galleries and sheer density of people were overwhelming to the point that Rob wasn’t sure he was even allowed to walk up Regent Street or go to a museum. His only previous experience was that he had been shushed and not made welcome. Rob remembers the taste explosion that came from access to international foods and gorging himself on everything that was available in contrast to the tomato sauce and crisp sandwiches of his youth.

After his three years of study, finding work was harder than expected and Rob found himself homeless, living on a building site, in survival mode. But it seems this was not to be his future as at the age of 21 years he won a competition to spend three months on an adventure holiday in South America from the purchase of a blank CD. This feels like Charlie and the Chocolate factory’s golden ticket.

It soon came to pass that Rob’s survival skills and ability to keep smiling on through would enable him to become a charity photographer, visiting extreme locations in harsh conditions, including leading 70 people up the Himalayas to swamps in Tanzania. You are asking, like I did, how did that come to pass? I ask if he had ever owned a camera. Rob laughs and says no, he had to borrow one and teach himself to begin with.

The next 13 years saw Rob comfortable in his photography career, often working out of London, until one day the world as he knew it came to an almighty end. An horrific traffic accident left Rob hospitalised and with his legs in plaster for a period of nine months.

I am going crazy in lockdown after that period of time and I am mobile so I cannot imagine the mind-numbing frustration of such a situation. But not Rob. He picked up a pen and started to write, even though he failed his English O-Level. He wrote anything, poetry about his life just to pass the time. This is another one of those pinpoint moments that changed his life.

Rob works hard and has a fearless approach to his endeavours. He used his compensation money to present himself as a poet on stage. You will not be too surprised to hear the reviews were great and creative opportunities started to come in.

It is almost impossible to explain why some people succeed and some do not. Rob works hard, he says he is shy and humble, suffering from imposter syndrome which makes him work all the harder and he learns from his mistakes.

He says: “Failure is part of the journey.”

One of his poems was made into a film, called Miranda. Rob modestly says he was mistaken for a TV show producer of the same name which is why he was invited to present his film pitch. His poem had been mistaken for an interesting interpretation. He came clean and said it was just a poem but Film 4 made it anyway. Rob was commissioned to write the screenplay and had to borrow money to buy a word processor — and he hasn’t looked back too much since.

When he was commissioned by Working Title Films he was a little scared until a kindly face said: “Don’t be scared, the entire British film industry is run by women in cardigans”, which Rob assures me is true.

I am not going to list Rob’s achievements here as you can find them easily for yourself. Rob had a commission with the Royal Shakespeare Company that received 25 million Twitter hits and won two internet oscars. He asked why he was chosen, as someone who doesn’t know the posh words for things and so uses little words instead, with a bad education and plain English?

It is precisely because he was bored at school that he would understand how to engage with that audience. Rob refers to himself as one of the most successful writers no one has heard of, often used as the lowest common denominator (“If Rob can understand it…”).

With a 20 year award-winning career writing for film, TV and stage, Rob did look back and wonder what else there was to achieve. Was he after more applause? Having managed to secure the ambition of a colour TV and a warm room in which to live and work, Rob decided to start giving back.

“I’ve helped thousands of young writers find their voice,” he says, adding: “As a Faculty Associate at NHS Research & Development North West, I help NHS leaders communicate complex conditions like HIV and FGM in a way that is warm, welcoming and accessible to all. I was the first patron of the first arts festival in England to be run by an NHS Trust (the Love Arts Mental Health and Wellbeing Festival in Leeds). I’ve worked with every stratum of society from Hollywood stars to tower block kids, terminally ill lung patients to young cancer survivors.”

So Rob urges you to go and visit Clifton Park Museum. It’s free, it’s interesting and full of stories, it’s warm and welcoming.

You can be inspired to express yourself, have fun with what’s available to you. Make funny films with your friends. Be true to yourself, you never know where it will lead.
Rob’s exhibition is open until February 2021.

https://youtu.be/nH3BKpGxzw4 – NHS work

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