A North East artist’s final masterpiece – completed just days before he died – will take pride of place at a major event this summer.
Jeff Rowland – whose paintings sold around the world – had just finished decorating one of the 70 statues which will form Elmer’s Great North Parade, when he succumbed to leukemia, in November, aged just 54.
Now, his family has given their permission for his statue – which he named after his beloved niece, Amy – to join the rest of the herd for the free public art trail, organised by regional charity, St Oswald’s Hospice.
The trail, which will open in August, is inspired by the popular children’s picture book character, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant and the individually decorated statues will be positioned throughout Tyne and Wear.
The 10-week long Parade, in partnership with Wild in Art and Elmer publisher Andersen Press, is the sequel to Great North Snowdogs, which was held in 2016 and raised £367k for the Hospice’s children and young adults’ service.
North Shields-based Jeff, whose oil paintings earned him international acclaim and a legion of fans worldwide, painted the Snowdog, ‘Arthur’ and was one of the first artists to offer to decorate an Elmer statue.
And, seeing it for the first time since his father’s death, his son Chris said, “I was very emotional.
“It was the last piece my father worked on and it must have taken every ounce of energy he had to finish it,” said the 24-year-old engineer, “so seeing it makes me very proud indeed.”
Written and illustrated by David McKee, the Elmer books feature a patchwork elephant whose unique colours mark him apart from the rest of the herd.
Chris said: “My dad’s paintings were often cityscapes, with lots of rain and, often, a couple, and he was inviting the viewer to think about why that couple was there, what had brought them to that place and the nature of their relationship.
“I don’t want to give the game away about his Elmer statue but it’s safe to say it’s pretty different from that. It’s undeniably his work – his skill shines right through it – but it’s quite autumnal. The colours are just beautiful.”
In accordance with his wishes, Jeff’s Elmer statue has been named after his 17-year-old niece, Amy O’Keeffe, to whom he was like a second father, and she said: “It was a bit strange seeing the elephant but I’m very proud of it – and of him.”
The Hospice now hopes other artists will let their imaginations run riot in creating designs of their own to join Jeff’s statue on the trail.
Those whose designs are chosen will not only receive an artist fee of £800, but their work will be seen and enjoyed by the estimated 700,000 visitors to Elmer’s Great North Parade.
It will culminate in an auction of the statues on 12 November which will be held at The Sage Gateshead to raise money for the Hospice, which provides specialist care for North East adults, young people and children with incurable conditions and support for their families and loved ones.
Along with the 70 large sculptures the trail will feature more than 100 smaller Elmers, designed and decorated by North East schools, youth groups and organisations.
Project curator Victoria Maddison said: “Jeff was a great supporter of the work of
St Oswald’s Hospice and we are very grateful to Chris and to Amy for agreeing to let his statue join the herd.
“It is a wonderful tribute to a lovely man and an exceptionally talented artist.”
Submissions must be made via an online form at www.greatnorthelmer.co.uk/artists and the closing date for entries is 14 February.
Artworks will be presented to the sculpture sponsors in May and the artists whose designs are chosen will need to transfer their designs on to the full-sized Elmer sculpture between June and July.