First published: Winter 2009
Leon Martindale began painting at the age of 58 in an attempt to, as he describes, 'keep [his] brain active' and to control the increasing physical problems he was experiencing due to the effects of Parkinson's. Prior to this, he had worked in a variety of jobs including on a chicken farm and as an assistant photographer for Westland Helicopters. Currently, he manages his own digital print business operating between England and the Philippines.
Martindale describes his experience of art up to his first attempt at painting as being that of an interested amateur; he had dabbled with various creative activities and even undertaken a three-dimensional design course at some point, although he had, until the onset of his Parkinson's, never tried painting. In 2004, Martindale attended a recreational painting class, but quickly found that he was 'no good at painting trees and bluebells'.
The 'revelation' for Martindale took place one day in his study in the Philippines. He became fascinated by the accidental effects created by a tube of burnt sienna which had burst open when he accidentally dropped something onto it. Rather than waste the paint, he spread it randomly over a sheet of paper and left it to dry in the hot sunlight streaming through the window. What he saw when he looked at the paper some time later were shapes and images which he describes as 'spirits in the paper'. He had always liked to make faces and find little images in the random patterns formed in diverse materials and surfaces such as the walls of public toilets, floor surfaces or folds in cloth. Fascinated and stimulated by what his imagination was seeing in the smeared and stained paper, he manipulated the image, allowing the figures and images to present themselves to contemplation. The figures or 'characters' he saw in the images also began to be assigned specific roles within his imagination - there was 'Tommy', the foot soldier from the First World War who died in 1915; then there was 'Brick, a strong, tough leader of men and also a pirate'. We also have other images such as further scenes from the First World War curiously intermixed with an image of King Henry the Eighth.
At this early stage in his treatment for Parkinson's, Martindale had been over-prescribed a medication which began to have the effect of inducing strong hallucinatory sensations and this, as he acknowledges, provided the initial stimulus to the content of his work. He describes this time as disturbing but not particularly frightening, with the sensation of, for instance 'a person suddenly growing fur' as he was talking to them, or being surrounded by 'ghostly figures whispering to him'. He describes his paintings as sometimes feeling like 'spirits' from another dimension trying to communicate through him with, at least in the earlier days, the sensation that it was 'other hands' making the paintings. He later began to acknowledge his own wilful involvement, however.
It is worth noting that Martindale confessed to growing up in a 'haunted house' where he regularly would see an 'old grey lady' whom he says on one occasion 'tried to push him down some stairs', and that ghosts would on occasion talk to him. He does still experience communication with spirit presences that he does not describe as hallucinations in the same way as experienced through medication. In his study, he regularly experiences contact with spirit presences whilst painting. He describes his study as sited over the spot where the deceased were laid out before burial and he feels the presence of the dead influencing him – although no longer directly.
What is clear when talking to Martindale about his paintings and his experiences is that we are being invited into an imaginative world that is genuinely constructed in response to disturbances brought about by changes to his health and circumstances. It is an imagination formed from a lucid mix of inner fantasy and an open and receptive attitude towards the materials of painting and the powerful influences that are perhaps beyond rational interpretation, being all the more powerful for that.