Conrad Atkinson: Artist, “Infant Terrible,” Activist and Friend:
June 15, 1940 October 8, 2022
How many people are there who make you smile? Im betting you can count them on the fingers of one hand. I know thats certainly the case for me. Conrad Atkinson was one of them.
Conrad Atkinson in 2015 at the opening of an art gallery at the University of Cumbria. Photograph courtesy of Jan Fialkowski.
I had heard about Conrad, the Cumbrian artist, from my friend Dr. Helen Clayson when she was the Director of St Marys Hospice and the founder of the asbestos victims group in Barrow-in-Furness. Conrad was invited to address the first international asbestos conference Helen organized in Barrow. He spoke about his landmark piece called: Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism showing, if memory serves me right, slides of the artwork.1 I didnt get it.
Some years later I had the chance to see the work at the Tate when museum conservators readied it for installation. I was blown away by its scale, attention to detail, historical content, vivid coloration and vivacity. Here were the lives of people I had read about and worked with spread across a huge museum space. I knew the outline of the history, but it was Conrad who had delved deep enough to provide the nuance and chiaroscuro. After decades stored in plastic boxes, this installation was as fresh as ever and its message equally as clear. Conrad had studied the daily reality of ordinary people, distilled it through his unique artistic filter and preserved it forever. Having already been 41 years old when I saw it at the Tate, the piece had stood the test of time.
Conrad Atkinson at 2019 hanging of Asbestos: The Lungs of Capitalism.
In email exchanges, Conrad explained the genesis of the work:
The concept really just grew from the research I did. I met people suffering from mesothelioma and the lung shapes were developed to accommodate the research material. There was a lot of hostility in the art world to my technique and subject matter. The Socialist Worker critic praised it as a new direction for visual artists as did The Morning Star but Bernard Levin in The Times said Id poisoned the wells of art and that Id never felt the beat of a butterflies wings on my cheeks (this latter was true).
There were fascinating areas in the piece: a man in Barking who took me into his garden in a council estate built on the site of an asbestos factory. He put a spade in the ground and turned it over and it was pure blue. He then pointed to his red roses on a bush and said look closer the red roses had blue flecks in them. 2
Some years after I met Conrad in Barrow, I contacted him to ask if he would do a design for the cover of the 100th issue of our publication: the British Asbestos Newsletter. I described to him exactly what I wanted. He gave me something totally different, something much better. Having shown his design to friends, they were unanimous that Conards image was perfect. And so it was.
Of course, there will be many people who will write about Conrad in the weeks and months to come.3 He was, after all, an artist famous in the US as well as the UK and leaves behind a legacy of paintings, sculptures, drawings, installations and public artwork treasured by political activists, health and safety campaigners as well as art connoisseurs. His interests were varied and he was well known for his anti-establishment views and forthright political opinions, which he took great care to communicate. In art as in discourse, Conrad was always provocative.
I regret not having met Conrad sooner; however, even in his seventies, he retained a cheeky grin and unparalleled bonhomie. I am grateful for the opportunity I had, brief as it was, to know and work with him. Sending our sincere condolences to those who knew him best: his partner Margaret, daughters, grandchildren and colleagues.
October 31, 2022
Kazan-Allen, L. Forty Years of Asbestos Protest Art. 2019.
2 Email from Conrad Atkinson. December 6, 2018.
3 Edwards, L. Internationally renowned artist Conrad Atkinson dies aged 82. October 17, 2022.