For some time now, thanks to the high quality images taken by my good friend, photographer, Roger Crosby, I’ve been able to offer prints of all my artwork, as well as selling the originals. These high quality photographs were good. They looked pretty close to the originals, especially when they were mounted and framed.
But from now on, if you order a print from me, it will be a Giclée print, produced by renowned East London-based printers, The Print Space. The quality of their work is fantastic, so I think you’ll be very pleased with the result.
Giclée printing has a number of advantages:
1. The quality will be better. Often with a Giclée print, it is almost impossible to distinguish the print from the original.
2. You’ll be able to order your prints in different sizes.
Most of my ink drawings are A4. Because I draw them on my lap, often in my van, it’s just a more manageable size. But now I will be able to offer prints in A3 or A4 formats.
I’ll be putting a price for A4 and A3 prints on my website but if you’d like a bigger size, contact me and I can let you know if the quality of the original image will allow a bigger print and, if so, how much it will cost.
It might take me a whle to update all the art on my website – there are hundreds of pictures up there and I’ve made a start – but A4 (mounted prints) will be £65 and A3 (mounted prints) will be £80. Add £8 for an A4 frame and £12 for an A3 frame. If you find you can’t order the option you want online yet, just get in touch and I’ll add the options to the one you want.
Similarly, if you would like a print of a picture that is a non-standard shape – there are a few – just let me know and I’ll see if it can be done.
3. With giclée printing, the print stays in mint condition for longer. Because the type of ink and paper used for giclée prints, they won’t fade when they are displayed in normal conditions indoors. The colours should stay true for decades – I’ve heard 80-200 years from different sources.
So what is a giclée print?
The term ‘giclée’ comes from French and means ‘a spurt of liquid’. It was coined, in 1991, by American printmaker Jack Duganne, who died last year. He wanted to find a word that would differentiate fine art prints from commercial printers’ proofs. Today, it is used to describe a printing process that uses large-format inkjet printers that can match colours and apply ink precisely, to produce exceptionally high quality prints of original artwork.
The ‘recipe’ for a commercial quality giclée print requires four ingredients.
First you need an image of the piece of art that you want to print. That can be a digital image from a camera or a scan. The important thing is that the resolution must be high. Most digital images have a resolution of 72 DPI (dots per inch). For giclée printing, the image file will need to be at least 300 DPI. The greater the DPI, the more detailed your print will appear. If the DPI is too low, the print will lose detail and reproduction of the colours will be less accurate.
When it comes to printing, the type of ink you use is also very important. Giclée printing requires ‘archival quality’ inks. These are pigment-based, rather than the dye-based inks that are usually found in inkjet printers. Pigment-based inks are permanent and are resistant to light, heat and water. So you can expect a giclée print to last a lifetime without fading or staining.
The quality of the paper used is the third element in achieving a successful giclée print. My prints are on Hahnemühle German Etching paper, which is a heavyweight, acid-free paper with ‘a slightly warm base tone’ and ‘a strong mottled texture’. I have been really impressed with the finish. The texture of the paper means that it can hold more ink and it captures the light, resulting in a print that has strong colours and deep blacks.
The final ingredient to make your perfect giclée print is a great big inkjet printer – but not just any old inkjet printer. Traditional inkjet printers use the classic cyan/magenta/yellow/black (CMYK-4) colour combination, whereas inkjet printers used to make giclée prints are able to hold up to twelve different coloured ink cartridges.
If you order a giclée print from me it will be despatched directly from The Print Space, but before it is sent, I get to see it online in a virtual room. I also get tracking details so I know when it has been delivered safely.
You get to know the place where you were born and brought up, don’t you?
You know what you like and what you don’t like. And have a picture in your mind about what that place is like.
But it’s not often you get the chance to see that place through somebody else’s eyes. As a proud born and bred Gravesender myself, I’m very interested to see how our community is perceived by somebody – ‘an outsider’ – with a fresh perspective on the very familiar.
At the beginning of March, artist Anne Langford issued an invitation on Facebookfor residents of Gravesham to get in touch with her. She wanted to hear about what it is that people living in Gravesham take pride in, and what it is about the borough that makes them proud.
Anne admits that she ‘loves chatting and is a little bit nosey’, but her request was not made just out of idle curiosity – something to keep everyone amused during lockdown – but to initiate a month-long Arts project that she is undertaking, in partnership with Gravesend’s independent, floating art space and performance facility, LV21.
The Arts Council England funded project, called Pull Up A Chair, is a research-focused project run by Brighton-based organisation Quiet Down There, exploring how residents and communities participate in and enjoy (or don’t enjoy) arts and cultural activities. A longer term objective for the independent arts organisations involved – in Gravesham’s case LV21 – is to plan what more they can do to involve local communities in arts and cultural activities.
Pull Up A Chair offers a new spin on the familiar concept of an artist-in residence: one that was developed through a collaboration with Apexart based in New York City. In this model, instead of embedding an artist within an institution – a university, museum or art gallery, for example – artists are asked to immerse themselves in a community for a month, experiencing what it is like to live, work and play there.
Artists are paired with locations of which they have no knowledge, and which they have never visited previously. The idea is that they approach their work with no pre-conceptions about a place or its communities.
During their residency, artists are asked not to produce artwork but, instead to follow an intense programme of activities around the locality, to meet the people, and to report on their activity via social media.
The Gravesham project, which has a loose theme of ‘pride’, is one of three linked residencies each of which has been affected by the pandemic.
In Luton, a collaboration between artist Alex Parry and Revolution Arts has now been completed but was cut short by the pandemic. And the project in Swale, Medway, with artist Chloe Cooper and Ideas Test, was reimagined because of Covid, and took place in June 2020. You can read Anne’s reflections on the loss of Arts projects during the pandemic on her blogpost Resorcing the Ruins.
Pulling up a virtual chair Anne Langford’s residency in Gravesham was due to begin in March 2020, but COVID put paid to that. Funding constraints meant the project had to be completed this financial year, so Anne has been challenged to develop the model even further, by looking at what can be a achieved through a ‘virtual residency’. In fact, Anne has only visited Gravesend twice – once before the project started to meet everyone at LV21 and once, as part of the project, for a solitary walk around Trosley Country Park which she reported on in her blog. The rest of the time, she has explored Gravesham via her computer, from her home in East London.
‘It’s been interesting finding out how to do this remotely, and how to get some sense of immersion in the project when, essentially, I’m in the same flat I’ve been in for a year,’ Anne says. ‘So I’m sitting here with a little bottle of water from the Thames at Gravesend and a little pot of soil from Elizabeth Gardens. I’ve got some ropes from LV21, a piece of flint from Trosley Country Park and some chalk. I’ve been on a Google Earth tour and let myself get lost in Wikipedia.’
If the project had run to plan, Anne would have lived in Gravesham for a month and followed a schedule of events – maybe volunteering at the Food Bank, or joining a yoga class – talking to people she met. She was particularly looking forward to ‘ship spotting with Betty and Arthur’! But beginning the project in lockdown, although she had a number of telephone calls lined up with notable residents, Anne wasn’t sure she was meeting the people she really wanted to reach.
‘I thought how do I get out and meet some of those “other” people, because the project is about starting new friendships and relationships with people that don’t know about LV21, or LV21 don’t know about them,’ Anne explains. ‘So I asked, do you mind if I just go on Facebook – there are a lot of Facebook groups all over Gravesend – and let me see if they’ll let me post and say hello. And it’s turned into this phenomenal source of people who I probably wouldn’t have met another way.’
Through her Facebook page, Anne has begun to make contact with the everyday community groups that meet around Gravesham. She’s discovered the Harvel Hash House Harriers (a drinking club with a running problem); the Chalk Village Gardeners Club; the supper club in Higham Village, run by a chef that, in normal times, sells out just from people in the village; and a local Beaver group. She’s also spoken to some local personalities, like Genny, The Confidence Queen , a conversation that left Anne ‘fizzing with energy and joy’.
‘At the beginning of the project I was feeling a little despondent,’ Anne says. ‘And now it has turned into a really joyous thing. I’m just loving connecting with all these people ready to share – sending in photographs and saying, I’ll put you in touch with so-and-so, or I’d love to meet you for a socially distanced walk. It feels like at the end of a long Covid year, Gravesham is giving me a real gift!’
It is the often overlooked stories that Anne is looking for, the ‘ordinary everyday’.
‘I read an article about how a lot of Scandinavian countries work on the basis that most of us will live an ordinary, rather than a extraordinary life,’ Anne says. ‘And because of this, they make the ordinary things in public spaces, comfortable and beautiful, as well as functional. And I’m interested in that – how if we just valued the ordinary and the everyday, our lives would be so much richer.’
Anne Langford Anne grew up in a small town in Worcestershire. Originally, she dreamt of being a jockey but later decided to become an English teacher. But while at university in Aberystwyth, Anne ‘fell in love with drama’ and decided that her future lay there.
After she left university, Anne landed her dream job (‘living in a caravan in the middle of Wales and earning peanuts’) working for Equilibre Horse Theatre, a company that made art and theatre productions in communities with horses.
The company, which no longer operates, presented classical riding as a theatrical art form, involving performance artists to explore the centuries-old relationship between people and horses.
‘It combined my first love, horses, and theatre,’ Anne recalls. ‘Mid-Wales is a really creative world – all the farmers are poets and musicians. It’s part of their life. So when we did an open day where dressage trainer, Georges Dewez, shared how he trained the horses and local musicians played some music and a poet performed a poem, everyone said they loved it and asked us to do it again. And from that it grew into this big theatre performance.’
When the company took a break, Anne returned to the Midlands and worked in a call centre for a bit, before moving to Belfast for a couple of years, as a producer with a small touring theatre company called Kabosh. After that, she came back to the UK, to work as a local government arts development officer for Worcestershire County Council.
‘That job was amazing!’ says Anne. ‘It’s one of the things, professionally, I’m most proud of. Because, after growing up in a small town without any theatre, I set up a rural and community touring scheme that took professional performing arts into village halls and community centres.’
But although Anne was working in the Arts and doing important work to increase access to theatre, something still niggled with her.
‘I knew I loved the theatre and I loved performing,’ she explains. ‘But I didn’t have much confidence in my own ability as an artist. I would get involved in productions but as a volunteer, rather than professionally. And then finally, in 2005, I got the confidence and the guts to put myself through drama school.’
It was a great move. She emerged from E15 in London with a Masters in Drama and her own theatre company.
Since then, working mainly freelance, Anne has mixed up working as a performer, with producing and directing shows. And, increasingly, she has become interested in making work for people who wouldn’t necessarily think of going to the theatre, telling the stories of those whose voices, otherwise, might not be heard.
More recently, she worked for 18-months with Clean Break a theatre company who work with women affected by the criminal justice system, on a show about loneliness and belonging for young women on the edge of society. She also completed another project with young people at Yard Youth in East London, looking at their experiences of being in public spaces and the treatment they receive from adults and those in authority. And she has worked with a group of LGBT+ emerging artists at the Park Theatre, in London.
‘I’m really interested in the creativity and storytelling that is there in all of our lives,’ she says. ‘Even if you don’t go to the theatre or if you say you’re not creative, we are all storytellers. Everyone tells stories, in the pub or to a friend. Sometimes theatre companies will approach you and say, “we’d like you to work with this group of people on this issue”, and that’s great! But I often think there’s been a step missed out, around spending time with people and finding out what it is that they are interested in. That’s why when I saw the opportunity to apply for Pull Up A Chair, I was desperate to do it because it was a chance, as an outsider, to find out what people like about a place and what they don’t like. To give them free rein to get excited or let off steam.
‘We tend to think of culture as something that happens on a big stage in a shiny theatre, but actually culture is the stuff we do every day – it’s the supper club, it’s the gardening group, it’s the running club. That’s what culture is and we need to celebrate it.’
Early Impressions Although she has only been working on the project for a few days, Anne is already beginning to form the impression of Gravesham as a borough whose identity is strongly shaped by its association with the Thames.
‘I’m really interested in the idea of an estuary and what it means,’ she says. ‘There’s constant change both to the landscape itself and to the population. The river brings people in and out, and people have come and gone from Gravesham over the centuries. It’s a place that is constantly being built up and taken down. And it seems, more recent movement is just repeating this pattern.’
Anne has also detected a strong sense of connection among residents.
‘There seem to be phenomenally rich and connected layers of community in Gravesham and people have a real affection for the place,’ she reflects. ‘And they’re not naive. There is a knowingness about the bits that are not so pretty, but it is really lovely to hear people talk so passionately about the place they live in.’
Links You can follow Anne’s residency journey, which ends on March 31st 2021, on her blog .
If you’d like to suggest any ‘must not miss this’ Gravesham places to visit, people to meet (via a phone call, online or in person when restrictions allow socially distanced outdoor meetings later in March) or stories and thoughts on what ‘pride’ means to you, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or post your suggestions on Anne’s Facebook page.
Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery
Those of you that know me know that I’m a big champion of community art. But Richard Jeferies, the artist featured in this blog, has ‘community’ running through him like a stick of rock, which is apt because he does live beside the seaside, in Sheerness on the sunny Isle of Sheppey, on the Kent coast.
The Kent art community is pretty well networked and artists from all over bump into one another from time to time. Richard designed a playing card and painted a couple of his ‘fun face boards’ for the launch of my Hand of Artistscommunity arts project in 2015 (click on the link and scroll to the bottom of the blogpost for a slide show). He also contributed to the charity Christmas Card project that I organised in 2019. I turned up for one of his chalk art events, which, unfortunately, was rained off. I’ve also participated in his online drawing projects.
The coronavirus lockdown has been difficult for all artists, but it must have been particularly difficult for Richard because so much of his art is made with and for other people.
If you know the Isle of Sheppey, you will probably be familiar with Richard’s work, stretching along the coast or dotted around the island. You might also stumble upon his work if you are out shopping in Chatham or taking the kids to school in Gillingham.
‘Some people have said, there can’t be an inch of wall locally I haven’t painted,’ Richard laughs.
And if you live on Sheppey, there’s a good chance that you’ll know the man himself.
As well as being a familiar figure around the island with his ‘Artist’ tee shirt and brushes, Richard has become an integral part of his community.
When he moved to Sheppey from London in the mid-80s, Richard joined the local art group, eventually becoming chairman. He also got involved with the local Little Theatre, painting sets at first and then moving on to acting and directing. Theatre has been a passion of Richard’s ever since, he jokes, he played one of Humpty Dumpty’s soldiers at primary school and was allowed to wear his red and gold trousers to the Christmas party!
‘Acting is another art form for me,’ he says. ‘It’s like drug in a way. You can’t resist it. It draws you in and then you can’t stop doing it,’
In 2014, while he had an art studio in Chatham, Richard auditioned for a role in a comedy adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps at Medway Little Theatre.
‘In an astounding piece of miscasting, the ruggedly handsome 37-year-old hero, Richard Hannay, turned out to be me in a wig!’ he exclaims. ‘It was so much fun. Very energetic, lots of quick costume changes, slapstick and improvisation.’
Since then, Richard has continued to channel his energies into the community where he lives: designing carnival floats; leading community art projects; entertaining passersby with his window displays at Christmas; and even DJ’ing on Sheppey FM for a while.
Community art workshops Richard has no formal art training. He started painting as a child alongside his father who painted in oils and, when he left school, trained to be a draughtsman, which is how he still earns his living today.
Although, like most artists, Richard says he would give up his day job if the right art project came along, he believes that his day job and his work as an artist are complementary.
‘It’s great because I draw as a hobby and I draw as a profession,’ Richard explains. ‘My professional knowledge of perspective and scale and even just laying out a page feeds into my art, and the art feeds back into my technical drawings, in that I know when a drawing is telling the right information.’
In the early 2000s, as a result of contacts through the local art group, Richard became involved in a project to commemorate the Battle of Britain. It was inspired by the ‘Battle of Britain lace’ which hangs in the Sheppey Healthy Living Centre. The lace is one of 38 commemorative laces made by Nottingham lace-making company, Dobson and Browne, in the mid-40s. Laces were presented to those whose invaluable contributions to winning the Battle of Britain hastened the end of the War.
‘We came up with the idea of photographing the lace, breaking the photograph down into individual squares and then getting as many members of the public as possible to recreate that square in their own style and in colour, rather than in the black and white of the lace,’ Richard recalls. ‘It was a resounding success. Lots of people of all ages got involved and, for many, it opened their eyes to things that they might never have had the chance to do before.’
The finished work, comprising two hundred individually designed squares, was laid out on the tennis courts at the Healthy Living Centre, where it could be viewed by the public from the upper gallery.
The interest and enthusiasm the project generated, led the council to fund some evening art classes for beginners, and some creative workshops, around the Battle of Britain, drawing on local knowledge about the Second World War. Richard led these sessions and then, subsequently, a series of 10-week community art courses. And although he really enjoyed teaching, artistically it was a steep learning curve for him.
‘I had to learn techniques in so many media,’ Richard says. ‘Everything from drawing, watercolour, acrylics, pastels, oils, even egg tempera – where you mix ground pigment with egg yolk, as Michelangelo did when he painted the Sistine Chapel.’
But it was worth it.
Richard loved it when novice artists found a medium they loved and were inspired to continue their creative journey.
‘Some members of those early classes have gone on to have artistic success of their own, and I’d like to think I’ve encouraged them slightly,’ he says.
Richard remembers, in particular, one man who came to classes with his wife.
‘It was clear that he was just there to keep his wife company,’ Richard says. ‘He didn’t really join in. Until one day, everyone had a small canvasses and some oils. And during that evening, I noticed that people were leaving their desks and wandering over to see what this man was doing. And he was having the time of his life creating this fantastic sunset using a palette knife. The next week, his wife took me to one side and said, “Thank you for that. It has cost me a fortune. After that class, we went out and bought all the materials and he hasn’t stopped since!”
‘And I thought, that’s exactly what it is. You can’t teach art per se. Art is an expression, it’s heart not mind. What I can teach is how to use the media, but in the end the spark comes from the individual.’
The arts funding that made those initial workshops so inclusive is no longer available and Richard is concerned that the introduction of fees for art classes excludes many people from opportunities to be creative.
‘At that time we were able to offer workshops for free. Now you have to charge people £20 a time, and you need at least 20 people in a class to cover the overheads, and many people just can’t afford that,’ Richard reflects. ‘That goes directly against what I try to achieve, which is opening up art to people who would not normally have had the opportunity to have that creative experience. So now I try to do that, whenever I can, through my public art projects.’
Public art projects
Richard’s first big public art commission came in 2013. The local council put out a tender for a mural to be painted on some hoardings, owned by the Emmaus Church, on Chatham High Street, . Richard’s winning idea was to use the space to portray Chatham past, present and future.
‘But I didn’t want to say, this is the mural you’re going to have, I wanted to include local stories and even to get local people involved in the painting,’ Richard explains. ‘And as we were working, we had people rolling up and saying, that looks fun, I wish I could join in, and I’d say, well here’s a brush and some paint, off you go!
‘And as I was painting I thought, maybe we could include some of the local people out shopping in the mural. So as people were passing I asked, would you like me to put your picture up there, or perhaps you’d even like to paint it yourself? By the time we got to the end, one panel had become six panels and we had 250 faces!
‘Hundreds of people were involved in that project – young offenders who helped us with the base coat and 150 children who contributed paintings or messages on tiny clay bricks, as well as other artists and the general public. And that, for me highlighted the whole success of the project. And it was what really gave me the buzz for public art projects.’
Inspired by the success of the Chatham Mural Project, Richard decided to try to make a go of it as a professional artist.
He rented a Studio at Sun Pier in Chatham and set up Squarecube Artisans. (The name came from a project where Richard decorated a foam board cube in a different way each day, which earned him the name ‘Squbie’ among his son’s friends.) But although Richard continued to be offered commissions, there was never enough work to enable him to give up his day job.
‘What I really needed was an agent,’ Richard says. ‘ I hate chasing work down and I hate forms. I just want to do the painting stuff.’
Despite not making it as a professional artist, public art commissions have continued to come in over the years and Richard has remained true to his principles in their execution.
‘There’s a large community of artists locally and so I always ask them if they want to join in,’ he explains. ‘I’m not precious about it and I’m not here to take the credit for everything. I like other people to be involved.’
Following the success of the Chatham High Street mural, Richard took part in the Medway FUSE Festival for a couple of years. One year, working with other artists, he created larger-than-life cut-out characters to line the Chatham High Street. These figures proved more popular than their creators imagined.
‘The Frankenstein’s Monster cut-out, designed and painted by artist Riven Gray, was stolen that day and was apparently last seen on a train heading for London!’ Richard laughs.
Other community projects followed, such as annual pavement art events along the long sea wall on Sheppey, involving both local artists and the public.
In 2019, Richard was commissioned to restore a poem written by Ros Barber. It had been painted by Simon Barker, fourteen years previously, onto the risers of the massive concrete steps on Sheerness sea wall, as part of the Four Shoresproject. The poem, which faces out to sea, recalls a ship carrying explosives that was sunk there.
‘The action of the salt water and sand movement had eroded it,’ Richard explains, ‘So I repainted the whole poem which, in many cases, involved recreating the text from scratch and even repositioning some lines, because sand movement had covered the original locations.’
The pandemic strikes In 2020, all public involvement in public art events stopped because of the pandemic.
‘Last year was a real bummer,’ says Richard. ‘ We had four or five projects that we were hoping to kick off with and they would all have been community projects but, because the money had been allocated in the local council budgets, I ended up doing them either by myself or with just one other artist.’
Working alone outside can have its disadvantages. As he started work on a mural of a giant bumble bee on the sea wall at Beachfields. Richard was approached by the police.
‘I was engrossed in my work when a police car pulled up and an officer told me they had received a report of someone drawing graffiti on the wall,’ Richard remembers. ‘ Luckily I had all the correct permits, so they went away smiling.’
The twelve foot high mural, which took Richard three days to complete, signals the start of the ‘Bee Road’ at Barton’ Point Costal Park, as part of the Making a Buzz for the Coastrun by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The route is marked by smaller bees along the way.
Minster Parish Council also commissioned Richard to recreate JMW Turner’s famous painting The Fighting Temeraire on the sea wall. The original vessel, after fighting in the Battle of Trafalgar, was towed up the Thames by a paddle steam tug , before being broken up for scrap in Rotherhithe. Turner, who was a regular visitor to Sheppey, painted his original masterpiece there.
Other lockdown projects have included painting a set of concrete steps in descending tones of the rainbow, to make them more visible to people with sight loss, and an ‘Alice Maze’ for children, on the seafront, inspired by the original Tenniel illustrations .
Unfortunately, the maze was later removed by the council.
‘It was a great tragedy that, having devised and painted a fun, interactive floor mural for children to enjoy, it had to be removed because someone thought a children’s play zone was a good place to ride his bike,’ Richard says sadly. ‘So when the cyclist slipped over, he decided to claim against the council and the maze had to be power washed away to prevent further “slippery when wet” incidents.’
Drawing projects When Richard is not working or painting, you’ll find him at home, drawing or making things.
‘I go through phases,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I can’t think of anything to draw so I’ll start making something. Then, when I’ve got no inspiration for making something, I’ll start drawing again. It means there is always an outlet if I really need it. And of course there are days when you have so many ideas, you do nothing!’
The days that Richard does nothing must be few and far between. Once, when he was bored at work, he drew a small ‘goth’ on a Post-it note, stuck it on his computer keyboard and posted it on Facebook and tagged it #gothonmykeyboard.
‘The next day I had another idea and she became a recurring theme,’ Richard explains. ‘Sometimes she was just a silly cartoon and sometimes she might have a message. I found that she could say things that I wanted to say and people responded to her. She became the voice of inclusivity.’
Later, when Richard came across the charity SOPHIE (Stamp Out Prejudice Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere) set up in memory of Sophie Lancaster, who was murdered in Lancashire in 2007 for being a goth, he published a fundraising book for the charity, featuring a collection of his #gothonmykeyboard cartoons, along with poems by Jaye Nolan and Alison Eley.
‘People suggested that my goth character would be good for that,’ he says. ‘She never came down hard on anyone.’
During lockdown, last year, Richard featured another character, Luna the Librarian, in a series of free colouring sheets for children, published via Facebook. Luna made her debut in a mural that Richard painted on a boarded up window at Sheerness Library.
‘One of their large plate glass windows had been smashed and was boarded up awaiting repair,’ Richard remembers. ‘Having walked past it for several weeks and seen the boards still there I asked the library if I could paint it. They agreed and until the glass was fixed, Luna was on show.
‘Because of that project, I was commissioned to paint another mural in the children’s area of the library.
‘The colouring sheets were just my little bit of something I could do in the first lockdown, a) to keep myself sane and b) to help other people. I ended up producing nearly one a day, almost 50 in all. Some of them were exhibited at The Beaney Art Gallery in Canterbury as part of their Life in Lockdown exhibition.’
Richard has also illustrated a book for an ADHD charity, ADHD Awesome which was published this year and is now raising funds via Kickstarter for an adult colouring book of ‘saucy seaside postcard style drawings’ featuring Instagram model @SunnyToni85.
Making models In 2009, as a challenge to improve his inking skills and develop positive drawing habits, Jake Parker created Inktober. Each day in October, artists were given a single prompt word as a stimulus for a drawing.
Richard was inspired by the idea and helped found a Facebook Group called Drawing Days, where members – including me – followed a word prompt each day and uploaded our themed drawings.
The daily drawing format has since been picked up by all kinds of groups and each year the Discworld forum, one of the forums of the late Sir Terry Pratchett, issues daily Terry Pratchett themed prompt words for Disc-tober.
In 2020, Richard, a great fan of Terry Pratchett and his books, decided to challenge himself to make a model, related to the prompt word every day. He then arranged the whole set of models in a tiny handmade room – a library containing all Pratchett’s books.
Tiny rooms had featured in Richard’s work before.
During December 2018, he transformed the front window of his house into a giant advent calendar, adding one themed room each day. There was a library, a 60s themed room, a kitchen, a Terry Pratchett room, and an observatory, complete with a telescope to commemorate the late astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who Richard once met while on a visit to the Herstmonceux Observatory in East Sussex.
‘He was as eccentric in real life as he came across on the screen,’ Richard recalls.
‘He was filming a show and I asked him for an autograph. He agreed, reached into his left pocket for a pen and came out with a pair of glasses. So he reached into his right pocket and came out with another pair of glasses. He held them both and said, “Oh, I was looking for them!’
Everything in each room in Richard’s advent calendar was handmade. The final piece to be added was an attic containing ‘old computers and all the usual paraphernalia you’d probably find in your own house’.
‘It was great fun to do,’ says Richard. ‘And it certainly created a lot of interest, especially with youngsters and their parents on the school run.
Recently Richard has been experimenting with making models out of tin foil using scrap cans collected from his local beach.
‘I just had a feeling that I could make something out of tin cans and feathers seemed the easiest, so I made a kite which I’ve got in my garden,’ Richard says. ‘I’m now building a hare, also out of tin cans, for my mum, because she wants that for my Dad’s memorial grave. And a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the owner of a local holiday park. He saw the kite and wants me to do a tin can sculpture for him, to promote recycling.’
Just before lockdown, Richard completed a painted ‘Elmer the Elephant’ to go into Elmer’s Bog Heart of Kent Parade to raise funds for the Heart of Kent hospice. The parade was to have taken place last summer, but has been postponed until this June because of the pandemic.
For the future, Richard is just looking forward to the end of lockdown so that he can continue with his community art projects.
‘My art is no different from thousands of other artists,’ he says. ‘I create stuff that somebody else can easily do. But if I can inspire somebody who didn’t necessarily think they could do it to do art, I consider that a resounding success.’
We all met up again at Gatwick airport for an extended day trip to Milan, looking round the Liberty factory and getting a first glimpse at the test prints of our fabrics.
Our third meeting was for the launch of our fabrics, back in London’s Regent Street at the Liberty store. And then, later, at a Liberty book launch reception, where we hobnobbed with fashion glitterati, including Chatham girl, Dame Zandra Rhodes.
We’ve all kept in touch since then, and Emma Hill kindly submitted some of her art to an exhibition (remember those?) that I organised at The Hot Tin in Faversham, Kent.
Liberty calls Unlike me, Emma had her eye on Liberty for quite a while before her successful submission to the #LibertyOpenCall fabric design competition.
#LibertyOpenCall was the first Liberty Open Call to be conducted entirely online. Prior to that, aspiring artists/makers would queue up outside the store, sometimes for six hours or more, for the chance to make a four-minute pitch about their product to the Liberty buying team.
Emma had spent two years developing a scarf collection with Liberty Open Call firmly in mind. Her designs were inspired from her ‘Itchycoo’ painting series, featuring the enchanted garden from the stories that she told to her young children. Each scarf featured: a heart; a tiny motif of Mimi, a child in a red dress from the Itchycoo stories; and a daisy and an iris – the names of Emma’s daughters. But Emma and her scarves never made it to London.
‘The first year, they didn’t have an Open Call,’ Emma remembers. ‘And then they did have one, but I was abroad so I didn’t hear about it until after the event. And the last Open Call I missed as we were doing up our house. So I never got to pitch.’
In 2018, six years after Emma completed her scarf collection, a sponsored ad for #LibertyOpenCall popped up on her Instagram feed. There was no queuing for this fabric design competition. Aspiring designers posted their entries on Instagram and added the #LibertyOpenCall hashtag. There was a fantastic prize. Winning designs would be made into fabrics to be sold in Liberty’s flagship London store and online, and would enter Liberty’s historical fabric archives alongside the design greats, including William Morris.
Emma submitted her painting Graffiti Summer, which was inspired by a day spent in London with her daughter, visiting the Fashioned from Nature exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and photographing graffiti in the East End. Her entry was chosen as one of the four winners.
‘I hadn’t really put any thought into which painting to hashtag,’ Emma reflects. ‘If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have chosen Graffiti Summer. That painting took me on a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It had been a battle making it, so it wasn’t a favourite. I felt so relieved when it was finished. However, now I’m really pleased that it accidently became the one, because it’s so much richer because of all the layers. It has a good story behind it and now, with a bit of time, I’ve grown to love it. ‘
As part of her Liberty experience, Emma was chosen to feature in a BBC documentary called A Day That Changed My Life. The cameras followed her creative journey from submission through to the nail-biting moment when she heard that she was one of the winners.
‘It was fun to share my art journey and the background of the winning painting,’ Emma says. ‘It was also the first time I’d shown my fresh new style of painting after a three-year break, so it was amazing to get such a fantastic initial response.’
A really important part of the Liberty experience for Emma was meeting the other three winners – me, and fabric designers Catherine Rowe and Natasha Coverdale.
‘It wouldn’t have been the same if there was just one winner,’ she says. ‘What made it so valuable and amazing was the four of us being able to experience it together. And the opportunity to learn a bit about each others’ work and to get to know each other.’
Early days Emma was brought up in the UK but is half English and half Norwegian. As a child she spent school holidays in Norway visiting family. There were summer camps in the mountains in summer, and skiing in the winter.
Although she really excelled at art at school, she didn’t get into art college. They said she ‘needed to be more free’. This was a massive blow for Emma. She became very insecure in her art and began to believe that she couldn’t paint.
She decided the best way to get her passion back and find her creativity again was to learn more about art. So, after a ‘mind-blowing’ year studying art and philosophy among the mountains and lakes in Lillehammer in Norway, Emma, aged 19, returned to the UK to pursue a joint honours degree in Art History and Scandinavian Studies.
‘I thought that through my studies, I could learn about art, discover what interested me and get into painting again,’ she reflects wryly. ‘In fact, studying art history had no influence on my art whatsoever!’
While she was studying at the university, Emma started attending life drawing classes at the art college across the road from where she lived. Eventually, she applied for a place there but was told she would have to choose between the degree she was taking which was nearly complete, or a completely new course in fine art. She decided to complete her degree and afterwards, spent the summer in Norway with her uncle, training to be a divemaster.
After the dive season in September 1996, she came back to the UK and started working as cabin crew with British Airways and, that Emma says, is where her real art education began.
Art Culture Vulture
‘I travelled extensively and made it my mission to search for art and culture everywhere I went,’ Emma recalls. ‘It was a real adventure. When I arrived in a county, I would visit whatever exhibitions were showing. I found amazing exhibitions from the largest retrospectives in New York to tiny local galleries in Calcutta, Hong Kong and Tokyo, and everything in between.
‘The days when the time frame just didn’t fit, or when galleries were closed were often the most fun as they were totally unpredictable. I’d often find myself in the most unusual of places.’
‘I documented everything,’ she continues. ‘I wrote it down and organised it according to time zones, starting with London at 0 degrees Longitude. It was a kind of response to three of Mathew Collings books – Blimey: From Bohemia to Britpop: London Art World from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst; It Hurts- New York Art from Warhol to Now and Art Crazy Nation. I thought of my writing as a commentary on art and culture at the turn of the century, from the point of view, of a 20-something-year-old girl.
‘I kept it all my writing on an old floppy disk, but luckily I had it printed up as a book, which, last year, came out of storage after eight years. In the New Year, 2020 I picked it up and had a read. After 20 years I realised that my thoughts about art and my purpose are exactly the same today.
‘What interested me back then was how art becomes like an international language, communicating cultural diversity and differences without the barriers of speech and geographical borders. Art uniting people while sharing new, rich perspectives. I’d be in Thailand and they’d be promoting art from Finland, or I’d be in Brazil looking at art about the arctic – completely different culture promoting each other, educating and sharing an insight to their world. It was like there was this network of people communicating and understanding each other’s cultures, and it was all through art.’
With the prospect of more time during the first lockdown, Emma prepped up, with canvas and paint and was looking forward to explore her creativity. But when lockdown came, she didn’t feel like painting. Instead she decided to write up her travel diaries as blogposts.
‘I thought it would be interesting to see if I could look back at where I’d been and continue the story, but on the internet,’ Emma says. I looked back at where my painting started off, in Australia, where I became hugely influenced by Aboriginal art and culture.
As I was revisiting my archives during lockdown ‘Black Lives Matter’ came to the forefront of my awareness and I thought that I would celebrate Black Art and the huge influence that it has had on my work. The previous week I had started painting heart’s for an exhibition in Vienna, All You Need is Love. All of a sudden I was continuing my story – painting Love HeArts, that were expressing unity, celebrating difference and visually expressing all the beliefs and thoughts from what I had written all those years ago’
So, six weeks into lockdown, Emma was painting again and exploring new ways of communicating her art through social media. You can watch Emma talking about influences on her work from Black art, in this IGTV broadcast.
It’s amazing what a word of encouragement can do. I met Karen a few years ago at a MUD event. She had just started painting and told me she was interested in exhibiting and I told her to just have a go. I didn’t know at the time, but I certainly do now, that when Karen ‘has a go’ she really has a go.
In this guest blog – thank you Karen – she describes her journey from successful actor to (accidental) artist and her triumphs and personal battles along the way. Enjoy!
Battersea girl I was born into a hub of drips and buzzers and penicillin, in the East Lambeth baby wing of St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, in 1962. My mother weighed approximately five stone and was extremely ill during her pregnancy with me. She was also wracked with tuberculosis, which cut a swathe through London in the 60’s.
Although I was a healthy baby at 8lbs, due to the medication my mother was fed to combat the dreaded TB as she carried me in her womb, I did not open my eyes nor utter a sound for nearly two months. There was some conjecture that I would be severely impaired – brain damaged, deaf or even blind. My grandfather kept a vigil over me day and night, while my mother was taken to the TB wards of Guys Hospital to recover.
Then one day the doctors decided to give me a massive jab of penicillin to ‘ try and wake me up’. It worked! I opened my eyes, then my lungs, and hollered, much to everyone’s relief. And, as my grandfather put it, I never closed my mouth again!!! I was bundled off to Battersea, in South London to begin my life journey.
Home was a big old London Pub, The Fox and Hounds, on the Latchmere Road in Battersea. We all lived there, my mum – a single parent, my half brothers and me.
My grandmother lived with us and was the matriarch of the family, whilst my grandfather lived in Wimbledon with his partner. He was the Daddy of the family. He put a roof over our heads and gave my mother an income. When he barked you jumped to attention, but his bark was always worse than his bite.
Our neighbourhood was a rich melting pot of White, Afro Caribbean, Asian, Persian, Russian, Irish and Portuguese. Plenty of diversity to feed the senses and the stomach! People were ‘poor but happy’ as my great aunt Rose would say.
In the 70’s Battersea was one of the poorest parts of London. By the 80’s it was the new capital of the Yuppie kingdom.
Our street was a hybrid of working class families, struggling artists, photographers and musicians. We all played together in the streets and in each others’ houses. It was an enriching, multicultural experience in every way. The Kings Road and its soon to be Punk revolution was a brisk two mile walk, over the bridge that spanned Old Father Thames. Battersea Park and Clapham Common were a half mile in either direction. Clapham Junction a spit away. There was plenty of green space for young minds to invent strange new worlds.
Growing up in the pub, memories abound of old ladies in big hats and black coats decorated with dead fox collars, complete with head and claws, whose beady, emotionless little glass eyes stared at you. Their coat pockets bulged with hankies, ready to be spittled and applied to the face of any grubby child passing by.
In the saloon bar, the men wore Sunday Crombie coats, pork pie or trilby hats, ties and cuﬄinks, whilst donkey jackets, hearty laughter and coarsely bearded geezers graced the public bar. Everyone was called ‘Ducks’ or ‘Dearie’, ‘Flo’ or ‘Esme’.
I could glean a pocketful of pennies and boiled sweets – unwrapped and complete with ﬂuﬀ – by ‘doing a turn’, singing a little song, on a Sunday afternoon at closing time. I was born a natural entertainer, or a show-oﬀ for want of a better word!
Into the ‘world called show’ I hated my primary school and did not settle. I cried everyday and became a handful. So when my mother was hospitalised with yet more pregnancy sickness, while carrying my brothers, our kind neighbour, Betty, came up with a solution. She suggested that I could sit in the back of the kindergarten at the performing arts school that her grandson went to. There I could paint pretty things and sing and dance in the afternoon. It was a grand diversion for an anxious child, while my mother awaited the arrival of the terrible twinnies.
I could already read, write and recite my times table up to ten when I started primary school. So when I was sent on a blanket audition for the musical adaptation of Scrooge, featuring Alec Guiness and Albert Finney, I naturally sailed though – reading the script ﬂuently, singing and acting my little heart out, as I had done for all the old dears in the pub on a Sunday afternoon.
I secured the role of second child lead, much to the chagrin of the fee paying stage mothers, was hastily enrolled to the stage school and agency, and plunged into the biggest adventure of my little life.
And that was how I became a part of the alumni of the Corona Academy, a famous performing arts school in West London, spawning actors such as Ray Winstone and Nicholas Lyndhurst; Queens corgi painter, Cindy Lass; the original ‘Miss Whiplash’, Cleo Rocos; and a ‘Real Housewife of Beverley Hills’ to boot!
So there was little old me, securing enough TV commercials, voiceovers and supporting roles in ﬁlm and television, to ensure that I paid my school fees on time and maintained living this magical dream. I can’t recall ever being happier to be honest.
It was at Corona, with its progressive form of education and teachers with sometimes questionable qualiﬁcations , that I ﬁrst garnered an interest in producing art.
Roger Ruskin Spear founder member of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, son of British portrait painter Ruskin Spear, taught a mixture of art, philosophy and music business acumen, and treated us like the young adults we were becoming. I achieved an A plus grade in my Art O-level and I lay this squarely at his door.
We also had a New Zealander, a bearded Hagrid, who taught us about Cubism and Picasso, mainly because he was developing his own play called Picasso I don’t care, funnily enough. I don’t think it ever saw the light of day.
Then we had an elderly German gentleman who let us explore contemporary art, cover our canvasses with Polyﬁlla, and encouraged us to produce everything in mixed media.
There was all of this and the regular curriculum, on top of the singing, mime, stagecraft, acting, ballet, jazz and tap dancing that we threw ourselves into daily.
Corona was one big family, a way of life, and it consumed me like a drug. It invaded every pore of my being and I wallowed in it. When I left at 18 years of age, I was suddenly bereft and at odds as to what to do with myself.
Fashion and beyond I started working for my second cousin, Brenda Knight, a successful Fashion PR, and her famous designer partner, Nigel Preston of Maxfield Parrish fame. I ﬁgured with a full Actors Union card under my belt, I could aﬀord to take a year or two out of the business. Just to see what life was like on the other side.
The Fashion business is a crazy world. I was the original Bubble (Ab Fab). Despatched across London with bags full of samples to present to fashion editors in big magazine houses. Not knowing my arse from my elbow in all truth. It was 1981 and the kids were in America with Bette Davis Eyes.
Noticing my complete naivety during one presentation of fashion samples to her, Anna Wintour patronisingly remarked that she could, ‘see it was a dress’. I got all ﬂustered and started to apologise. She smiled witheringly at me and said, “My dear how very ENGLISH of you!’. Formidable…. ..she was!!
Then came the call from my agent, would I like to go to a casting for Granada TV’s Crown Court?
The fashion business was long hours, skinny sleep-deprived models, lots of freebies, launch parties and lashings of red wine, but the pay was pants. I got the part and stepped back into ‘that world called show’, where I resumed my career as a supporting actor for another 15 years.
I also ﬂirted with the music business. My husband, a session guitarist, and I formed a grunge band. I discovered I was a formidable front man/girl, and song writer. We had a small modicum of success and a video on the telly.
Then disaster struck. My mum lost her home, her husband and her business. Ironically this coincided with us losing our peppercorn rent Battersea ﬂat. Everything was put on hold!
A move to Kent and a mortgage ensued and I fell into a ‘day job’. Sales is every actors spare string to the bow, yes that old chestnut!
Logistics, mortgages and then the crash of 2007 ended that sojourn and I found myself working for the probation service – a rewarding but poorly paid job. It was now 2017 and, after a particularly challenging bout of nightmare neighbours, which left me with a stress condition and seizures, I took three months oﬀ work with anxiety.
A fresh start in art I was shell shocked and desperately needed a fresh take on life. We had moved towns and left the horror behind, but the echoes remained.
My Facebook friends were reaching out to me, so I made it a challenge to get out and meet as many of them as was geographically possible.
In closest reach were the artists Craig Turner and Peter Reeds, who welcomed me with open arms, told me how much they enjoyed my little blogs on Facebook and encouraged me to start painting.
I then progressed to the Nucleus Arts Centre in Chatham, Kent.
I had a lot of artist and entertainer friends on my Facebook page. As I went to each studio at Nucleus, matching the real person to the posts on my feed, I met artists Jon Gubbay and Nigel Adams who became casual mentors to me.
So here I was, an untrained outsider artist, arming myself with pastels, paint and a whole lot of enthusiasm. I had begun posting my endeavours on my Facebook page, when I heard about a new collaborative artists group that was in its infancy called MUD. I dragged my husband along to the ﬁrst meeting at a micro pub on Rochester High Street, and made the acquaintance of artists and founders of MUD Duncan Grant, and Derek Wells.
I’d gone along to the meeting to support the group and left as an exhibitor. ‘Just do it !’ was Duncan’s advice. So I did.
In 2017, I successfully submitted four oil pastel paintings for the very ﬁrst MUD artists exhibition at the Blake Gallery, Woodville Halls, Gravesend, Kent.
I continued to produce work in oil sticks and to exhibit work in acrylics. I was also developing a penchant for Sharpies and brush markers. This led to my #sharpieworx project.
In the spring of 2019, my work was progressing to more ﬁgurative and abstract ﬁelds. I took the bull by the horns and decided to submit to the 2019 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. I submitted an abstract acrylic called Brother Sun, which made the ﬁnal selection. I made the ﬁnals (!!) but didn’t make the hang. However, I was mighty proud of getting that far with what was essentially only the ﬁfth acrylic painting I had ever produced in my artistic endeavours.
Then in July of that same year I was struck by a hemorrhagic stroke, paralysed down my left side, and packaged oﬀ to a neurological rehab centre in Ashford, Kent. It was like a boot camp, but I quickly got with the programme and started to regain the use of my limbs.
My brain bleed aﬀected the creative part of my right lobe and I didn’t attempt to draw for a while. Then one day I got bored with staring at the white board in my room and drew an Italian looking lady on it in red marker.
‘Oooh who did that?’ the nurses all exclaimed. Phew I could still draw!
After three months I returned home and started producing a lot of erotic art. I had always drawn female nudes, but now there were men as well.
I got back into the swing of things and ordered a whole heap of paints and canvasses. I started to experiment with abstract form and expressionism. For once I was producing a lot more works in acrylics than pen.
I also started to concentrate on developing my Android Photography PhoneArt : #TinyEyeProject.
I have been exploring the medium of Phone Art for three years now. It is a new and accepted art form and I am totally absorbed by it.
My parameters are very strict:
Everything must be photographed, enhanced and edited entirely on my mobile phone
NO Macs or Photoshop, and
I trawl the Android world for free digital apps to manipulate my work with.
This has resulted in a catalogue of amazing images. It also resulted in a project featuring myself titled: A Persistence of Being. This is a series exploring female sexuality, its projections, and feminism.
I have recently also started another PhoneArt project featuring my friends titled: Pimp My Pals. This is a collaborative work, as I take existing photos from friends albums and ‘pimp’ them digitally. I am currently building this into a series as well, in the same style as my Persistence of Being project. Both are a hybrid of photographic and acrylic works, taken from the detail of the photographs.
I hope to have both these both ‘in the bag’ by Spring 2021, with a view to featuring them in solo exhibitions.
I am fascinated by how digital media pervades everything we do and dictates how we look, behave and perceive ourselves. We have essentially become ‘avatars’ or ‘parodies’ of ourselves. Social media platforms are becoming an extension of our personality and being.
Why sexuality? Surely it’s been done to death?
Sexuality has always been historically a very important component of art. There is the male and the female gaze. It features very strongly today across many social media platforms, with women unwittingly pushing back the margins of feminism, with their trout pouts and bum enhancements, twerking merrily as they display themselves as sexual objects.
In my project I explore this. I have used traditional poses, but also direct poses that are designed to make the viewer somewhat uncomfortable, such as in Kiss me Quick. It’s the ultimate feminist statement, in that as a woman I am taking charge of my sexuality. And indeed this has had that eﬀect on some male viewers, who have likened this picture to that of a gun ﬁghter and acknowledged it as somewhat challenging.
My stroke has deﬁnitely taken my work to another level. I know my brain injury has changed me in subtle ways and in the beginning, I felt like a part of me was missing. But it also took me to a diﬀerent viewpoint. I have expressed this through my art, and it has helped me work though it and discover who I am.
I can’t say I’m really inﬂuenced by any one particular artist. I have eclectic tastes in nearly everything. I don’t use life models except for myself, and I produce a lot of images directly from my head, with very little reference material.
I have been described as an ‘automatic artist’, in that during my creative process I make no preliminary marks or sketches. The same goes for my photographic work, I just shoot and see what comes out.
As an untrained artist, I enjoy being at liberty, devoid of boundaries or parameters. I have an experimental nature and noone can really tell me, ‘You can’t do that!’.
My work is very rarely planned unless I’m working to a brief, even then I will put on some sounds and let the muse take me.
My inspiration comes from many sources, Literally whatever makes my brain go pop!
Regardless of the Covid 19 virus, I managed to squeeze in three exhibitions this year, including at the prestigious Peter Pears Gallery in Aldeburgh, Suﬀolk, and despite suﬀering a badly pinned hip fracture.
So ﬁnally, why the accidental artist ?
Well….. had it not been for attending that ﬁrst public MUD meeting in 2017, meeting Duncan Grant and being told by him to, ‘Just do it!’ I would never have dreamed of exhibiting professionally and taking my art any further than a hobby to calm my anxious mind.
It was an act of fate, a leap of faith and sheer determination!!
Meet Dick Want – artist, sculptor, engineer and craftsman. I’ve known Dick’s work for a good few years now and have been lucky enough to exhibit alongside him at two group exhibitions in Kent. Here he is talking about his art. Enjoy.
When, as a mature student, Dick Want studied for his Masters in Fine Art, at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) Canterbury in Kent , his dissertation was titled The Nefelibata Diaries. Nefelibata, he explains, is a Portuguese word meaning ‘cloud-walker’.
According to the dictionary, a cloud-walker is a person who lives in the clouds of their own imagination or dreams – someone who doesn’t abide by the rules. And, in many ways, that description fits Dick very well.
Dick has lived with poor mental health since he was a child, although his condition wasn’t diagnosed until he was 42. He explains that his mental state dictates the art he creates and the way he works.
‘I produce art exactly as my heart tells me to, to express my moods at the time – I’m never in the same place two days running,’ he says. ‘I’m on this roller-coaster in my mind, and when I’m trying to control it, I channel it into making things. When I start on a canvas, there is an intensity to it. I’m literally locked in my house and I do nothing else for two or three weeks, which means the rest of my life goes to shit!’
Dick grew up in Romney Marsh, which straddles the Kent and East Sussex borders. As a child, he spent many days on the Marsh, birdwatching with his parents. And he still loves it there.
‘It’s one hundred square miles of flat land surrounded by the Downs and the coast and it sticks out into the English Channel, which gives it its own little microclimate,’ Dick explains. ‘Because it is so sparsely populated, the ground light is fantastic and because the land mass has nothing on it, you get a big sky, which is always a good thing as a painter.’
Dick grew up in an artisan household. His father was a joiner, who later went into teaching and then became a Methodist minister. His mother, Mary Want, was well-known locally as a watercolourist. https://www.posterlounge.co.uk/artists/mary-want/
Dick inherited his dad’s technical ability. By the time he was 10 he was working with wood and taking bicycles to bits and rebuilding them. He also inherited his mother’s talent and passion to make art. Dick remembers her as ‘a free spirit trapped in a theological world’.
‘She was like the quintessential vicar’s wife, but mad as a box of frogs for her painting at the same time,’ Dick recalls. ‘I can remember coming home from school and there’s mum sitting in the flowerbed outside the kitchen painting the flowers. And I walk through the kitchen and the frying pan’s on the cooker blazing away.’
‘Mum somehow juggled domestic life with an intense urge to make art,’ he continues.’ And I grew up seeing this intense urge and understood it somehow.’
The combination of Dick’s undiagnosed mental health issues and being contantly ‘at loggerheads’ with his father about his strict religious upbringing came to a head in his early teens.
‘I went pop when I was about 14 and I didn’t land again until 2001,’ he says. ‘The 70’s, 80’s and 90’s were taken up with doing just exactly what I pleased. It was an extremely rebellious period in my life. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. Instead, I’d self-medicate. If I was climbing the walls, I’d just get drunk. It wasn’t until I crashed completely that I found out what the problem was.’
Motorcycles and tattoos When he left school, Dick started work as an apprentice engineer. In 1982, he got a job as a precision engineer making components for Speedway and Grasstrack motorcycles at Godden Engineering. It was a dream job for Dick who, by that time, was building his own motorcycles. He still rides Fat Freddie’s Cat, which he built in 1985 and he now also owns a Harley Davidson Dyna Glide.
‘My bike building really took off while I was at Godden’s and I built some really special motorcycles,’ Dick says. ‘It was purely self-indulgent – they were bikes for me to ride – but they were also an artform. I was mixing aesthetics and engineering, making something that was pleasing to the eye and also engineeringly functional. It was a form of self-expression at the time.’
After building bikes during the day, Dick spent his evenings working on his surrealistic paintings.
An interest in pen drawing eventually led to a new career as a tattoo artist. Between 1984 and 2001, Dick had two successful tattoo studios in the Medway Towns. He made his own tattoo machines, drew his own design books and, for nearly twenty years, worked freehand, drawing directly onto customers’ skin from mental images.
‘At that time, tattooing was a complete sub-culture, a kind of anti-fashion,’ Dick explains. ‘I got into tattooing as way of saying yah boo to the system. I liked the mixture of technical drawing with engineering. I am intensely organised and I liked the discipline of what you were working with. You couldn’t make mistakes. ‘
But as tattoos became more fashionable, Dick became disillusioned.
‘When people started coming in asking for copies of David Beckham’s tattoos, I thought it’s my time to get out,’ Dick says. ‘It had all become about media and fashion and that’s not really what I got into the business for. Also, it was very intense. People put a lot of trust in me and, in 2001, after 20 years of tattooing I had quite a big mental breakdown.’
Dick had been seeing a psychiatrist for several years but it was not until this point that he received a diagnosis and it came as a relief.
‘Actually having someone say, “I’ll tell you what your problem is” was really refreshing because I didn’t think anybody would believe what was going on in my head at the time,’ Dick reflects. ‘Giving it a name means you’re not such an oddball. Someone actually recognises the trauma you’re going through.’
The academic years As part of his rehabilitation following his breakdown, mental health services enrolled Dick on an Art Foundation Course at UCA Canterbury. One of the tutors there had a profound influence on the direction of Dick’s art.
‘He was really into his art history and he took us right back, touching on all the major art movements and showed us a different world,’ Dick remembers.
In response to this new knowledge, Dick started painting his way through art history.
‘I fell in love with Georges Braque’s cubist phase,’ he says. ‘His artwork was so sensitive and I wanted to paint like that. I loved the fractured images. Breaking up images with geometric shapes is all the stuff that is going on in my head all the time. I have to vent it somehow and it comes out on my canvas.
‘I looked at Suprematism – Malevitch’s Black Square and that era of Eastern Bloc art. Then I met Kandinsky who introduced me to using my colour palette to express myself and that brought out some geometric abstract paintings.’
But Dick’s first encounter with the university system was bruising. The surrealistic pictures that he had been painting over the previous 15 years were shunned as ‘too established’.
‘I think I did the surrealist thing too well,’ Dick reflects. ‘There was nothing they could pull apart. They couldn’t use their normal destroy-somebody’s-dream-and-then-build-them-up-to-something-else technique, which is what I felt the university system was about.’
Undeterred, for his final dissertation, Dick focused on the work of French surrealist André Masson. The thesis, called ‘I am thy Labyrinth‘: An analysis of Self as a Surrealist Subject (2011) explored the labyrithine qualities of the human mind. Dick’s subsequent artistic practice has been profoundly influenced by what he learnt.
‘All my artistic practice is autobiographical,’ Dick says. ‘You can’t do anything without ‘the self’ interpreting it. The surrealist self is really your absolute innermost emotions that are totally unguided or uninfluenced by anything else around you. It’s a very hard place to achieve.’
To help him to achieve this, like surrealists before him, Dick started to experiment with automatic drawing while listening to music.
‘You focus absolutely,’ he says. ‘So when I was drawing, I wasn’t thinking about my hands, I was thinking about the sound. It’s like drawing with your eyes shut. You are feeling the movement and the action. The outcome is not necessarily a drawing that makes sense to the eye, but there is invariably a rhythm that comes out on paper.’
Influenced by John Cage’s experimental composition 4′33″ , a ‘silent’ piece consisting only of the environmental sounds the audience hears while it is performed, Dick built a sound-sensitive drawing desk that could ‘record the sound a drawing makes’. The desk used microphones to amplify the sound made as the pen moved over the paper, so that it could be recorded.
Through the work for his dissertation, Dick sought to draw parallels between the ephemeral nature of sound and the ephemeral nature of time. He sought to capture the time passing while a drawing was completed through recording the sound of the drawing process itself.
‘The ephemeral nature of sound means that, unless it is recorded, it vanishes with the passing of time and the only record of its passing are the things that came into existence during the seconds that have passed,’ he wrote in an ‘artist’s statement while at university. ‘With my sound drawings there are two possible automatic aspects. The first is the drawing that should be made entirely without conscious thought, the second is the sound produced whilst making the drawing. The drawing becomes evidence of the ephemeral sound and, if recorded, the sound becomes a record of the time that has passed.’
After his first degree, Dick went on to complete a Masters degree in Fine Art, again at UCA.
‘I never thought of myself as academic but I hadn’t finished with the system,’ Dick explains. ‘When I finished my first degree, I felt so beaten up by the system that I wanted some time where I could enjoy studying art to the level that I’d discovered I was capable. I hadn’t got quite as far as I thought I could.’
But before he could get started, once again Dick’s work came in for some harsh criticism from his tutors.
‘I got slated again!’ he exclaims. ‘They said you’ve got to develop something that is your own. And I thought I can’t make it any more my own, so I went off and painted landscapes of Romney Marsh. I studied the Royal Military Canal. I started at Hythe and painted my way along it.’
During that two year period, as advised by his teachers, Dick developed his own personal painting process and style.
‘I went from the total abstract that I’d been painting in oils at the end of my degree to quite formal landscapes in acrylic,’ Dick explains. ‘I ended up out in the countryside with metre-and-a-half by metre canvasses, painting wild. It was great fun. I worked with a brush in one hand and an atomiser in the other, running the paint off the canvas.’
His Masters dissertation The Nefelibata Diaries, was about capturing the point where reality meets abstract, meets surreality.
Once again, he linked the concepts of painting and time, contrasting the speed necessary to capture a good landscape in ever changing conditions with the time taken to complete a painting as indicated by the rate at which the paint alters as it moves down the canvas.
In 2014, Dick posted a series of images of The Fairfield Project, which illustrate the process he used to achieve that effect.
Now free from the constraints of his undergraduate programme, Dick’s Masters project helped to reconnect him with his creative roots as an artist and a craftsman.
In contrast to a busy curriculum where the emphasis was on thinking and working quickly, painting the Royal Military Canal offered a complete change of mental pace.
Dick spent hours out on the Marsh on his motorcycle researching and recording images to inform his paintings. A feature of his mental health condition is an inability to relax the intensity with which he scrutinises everything. For this project, Dick used it to his advantage and channelled it into his art.
‘I can’t paint an object without studying the detail,’ he explains. ‘The images I collect don’t get used in my paintings but they give my mind the information I need to be able to paint what I’m thinking. On the Masters course, I was left to my own devices to study my own worth, and it was quite therapeutic. It taught me that it’s OK to spend time thinking about what you are producing. And it’s OK to be a craftsman and to really know your own skills and tools.’
A man of many talents Now with his MA under his belt Dick is back in his home studio, using his skills and tools, painting, sculpting and carving wood. He describes himself as ‘a workaholic’.
‘I like working with my hands, and making stuff is really where I’m best,’ he says. ‘Engineering was great because it taught me things like welding, electrics, mechanical design, all of which you can apply to wood, building, sculpture, whatever you fancy working with. At the moment I’m carving wood constantly. I’m making some hop finials which are proving to be a much bigger job than I anticipated and take up every minute of spare time.’
Recently, Dick has also built a mosaiced, six foot cement and brick sculpture in his garden, experimenting with the material until he achieved a consistency that he could work with a trowel like plaster, but which set like Portland Stone as he built up the layers.
And he has returned to surrealistic art, painting intensively, once again using oils.
‘I’m enjoying the proximity with history, working with oils, and the traditional way of painting,’ he says.
Because of his mental health, Dick is reluctant to speculate about where his art might take him in the future.
‘I have to take each day as it comes because you can’t guarantee a run of anything in my world,’ he explains. ‘Because of my mental health, everything else I’ve done in life to do with families, relationships and dealing with the public in general has been a disaster. Making art and riding my motorbike everyday are the only things that really keep me going. My art is almost like my umbrella and so long as that front door is locked, I can manage with making art. That’s where I am.’
Over the last couple of months my blog has focused on the Stuckists. So far there have been two posts. The first looks at the history of the Stuckists. The second features the art of founder Stuckist, Joe Machine
This third and final blog about the Stuckists (for now at least) features Ella Guru: artist, musician, photographer and a founding member of the Stuckists.
Art school Ella, who has been drawing all her life, grew up in Ohio. She hated high school and during her final two years, spent half a day a week at a vocational school for commercial art.
She went on to study art at Columbus College of Art and Design, on a three-year scholarship and, for the first two ‘foundation’ years, did really well. Students were graded according to the amount of work they did. Ella completed all the assignments and got good marks.
In her third year, Ella chose to specialise in ‘fine art. The feedback she received from her tutors left her feeling deflated.
‘The third year is when the tutors tell you what they really think,’ she explains. ‘I was doing large paintings of naked bodies in symmetrical mandala shapes. But because I had no ‘concepts’ or anything to say about my work, the tutors shot me down. I was a full on Goth at the time. They looked at me, my work and my lack of ‘concepts’, and basically they said I was superficial and should just go hang out in bars and clubs. That there was no substance to me as an ‘artist.’’
‘The funny thing,’ she continues, ‘is that I did hang out in nightclubs and went on to make a living from painting nightlife, so who’s laughing now!’ This page on Ella’s blog is dedicated to her nightlife paintings.
In 1987, Ella moved to London for the first time where she ‘lived in squats, went out clubbing and had a great time’. Eventually, she returned to Ohio and completed her degree in Fine Art and Photography at the Ohio State University. When she returned to England, art took a backseat as Ella got involved with the music scene.
‘My life was all over the place at that time, ‘ Ella remembers. ‘I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in the UK or go back to the US. So, I never planned to do music rather than art at that time. It’s just that music happened instead.’
In 1995, Ella formed the Deptford Beach Babes with one of the former Voodoo Queens. The band played together until Ella left London in 2013.
‘It started as a surf music 3-piece instrumental band.’ Ella says, ‘and then morphed into sometimes having eight or nine people on stage, borrowing musicians from other local London bands.’ https://youtu.be/aN9p9IFEIg8
Sexton Ming, beehives and Stuckism
It was 1996 when Ella’s flatmate introduced her to Sexton Ming http://www.stuckism.com/ming/ who would later become her husband. They married, both in drag, in 2001.
‘I met this shy, short bloke and I didn’t think anything of it,’ Ella remembers. ‘Then I travelled round Europe for six months on my bike. I met some people in Switzerland who said, “Oh, you’re from London, do you know Sexton Ming?”. So when I got back home, I said to my flatmate, I want to meet Sexton Ming.
‘When we first met properly, it was in a Wethersoons. I was influenced by his slap-dash, freakish drag and The Offset group that he was part of (the remains of Leigh Bowery’sMinty). I started painting Sexton in a beehive wig and then I started painting everyone in a beehive wig. Those large close-up, almost pop-art beehive paintings captured my new relationship with Sexton and the friends we had at the time. It was a time of great fun and humour. Around the time when Stuckism formed.’
‘Stuckism spoke to me because at art college I wasn’t doing conceptual art, I was doing painting and that wasn’t conceived as being real or important,’ Ella explains. ‘So I related to the whole idea of Stuckism.’
Ella’s early paintings were made using whatever medium she could find. Her later work uses more traditional materials for ‘simple and practical reasons’ she says.
‘My early pictures were all charcoal and house paint on paper, so very fragile. Around the late 90s, I started using acrylic or oil on canvas. I realised that if I ever intended to sell work it needed to be more permanent.’
Hanging out in nightclubs
In 2007, The Urban Voodoo Machine’s club Gypsy Hotel started. This club included burlesque and circus performers as well as bands. It was a new time for Ella in London and she took great inspiration from this and other nightlife. The Last Tuesday Society held masked balls in a five-storey townhouse near Covent Garden and Ella began painting nightclub scenes.
‘It wasn’t a great leap in some ways as I had always been painting subjects dressed up and costumed,’ Ella remarks. ‘My early Stuckist paintings were all drag portraits in beehive wigs. Whether male or female, they were all doing drag. So making busier paintings was just a step up, a challenge.’
Saturday night at the Windmill Brixton was Ella’s first complex painting about nightlife.
‘It was a sci-fi theme night held by Brixton band Naked Ruby,’ Ella remembers. ‘The background figures are from my band the Deptford Beach Babes and Naked Ruby.’
It was at clubs such as Gypsy Hotel and The Last Tuesday Society that Ella met many of the models who would appear in her later paintings.
‘Most of my models have come from some kind of nightlife or performing role,’ she explains.
Because of the pandemic, the nightclubs that Ella used to frequent and paint now lie empty.
‘I heard the phrase “Plague year 1” a few days ago. It fills me with despair that all of what I once painted will soon be no more,’ Ella reflects. Tarot In 2012, Stuckist Elsa Dax curated the Stuckist Major Arcana Tarot deck, where each of the 22 cards was designed by a different artist. As well as contributing a card to the project, in 2013, Ella decided to paint her own version of all 22 cards, charting her own personal and spiritual journey. You can view Ella’s Tarot cards and read some of the stories behind them on her blog http://ellaguruart.com/?projects=tarot
The Tarot project coincided with Ella’s decision to move with her family from their flat in East London to a new home in Hastings, in East Sussex, where she lives now. This major life change heralded a change of direction for Ella’s art.
‘I was working on my Tarot when we moved here,’ she explains. ‘I painted half of the Major Arcana in London and half in Hastings. It was the story of my own journey and this is where the symbolism that is a feature of my later paintings began. I did a lot of research for each of the Major Arcana and somewhere I have scribbled notes for some cards but a lot of it has been forgotten now.’
While the meaning of many of the Tarot cards is hidden to some extent because the context is personal and particular to Ella, some tell a story that can be ‘read’ by everyone. The Justice Tarot card portrays a young man in Hackney, East London.
‘In this painting I am definitely talking about racism and the unfairness of stop-and-search,’ Ella says. ‘It is based on a true story. The left of the canvas shows police doing a stop-and-search. This young man was so fed up with the way he and his peers were being treated that he went to Cambridge -pictured on the right – to study law so he could come back and defend them. On his first break back from university, he was again stopped by the police. He showed them his Cambridge ID.’
Reinterpreting the familiar Ella’s later paintings are quite different from her early Stuckist paintings, featuring close-up heads in broad strokes of house paint.
Her recent work, which resembles traditional-style oil paintings, feature scenes from nightclubs, reimagines Old Masters or retells myths or stories from the Bible. Ella describes her later work as ‘insanely complex, symbol-laden, hyper-detailed’.
Her first direct homage to an Old Master was Head of Duncan DeMorgan, after Caravaggio’s Head of John the Baptist.
My “twist” was to use contemporary nightclub performers as biblical characters,’ Ella says.
She also painted a version of The Last Supper featuring the Stuckists, featured in an earlier blog and then Backyard Crucifixion.
‘I don’t parody or mock, but rather reimagine the scenes in a modern setting,’ Ella explains. ‘The ambiguity in my paintings is intentional and, so far, no Christians have been offended by my biblical interpretations. One acquaintance said of my Backyard Crucifixion that it looks like the women have come to cut Christ down from the cross. Don’t mess with them. They mean business.’
Her paintings are produced in several stages.
‘I’ll maybe look at an Old Master or a selection of Old Masters and decide how I want to do my version,’ she explains. ‘Then I’ll stage them. I’ll pose the models and photograph them. Often models bring their own costumes, which become part of the painting. For Backyard Crucifixion the models were in cowboy boots and Converse, which totally worked in the paining. I like to throw these odd, modern items into pictures.
‘And then everything is laid out in Photoshop before I transfer it to canvas. Some paintings are created from just one photograph but many others, like The Whores of Babylon are posed and photographed separately and then put together on the computer.’
As you get to know Ella’s work you’ll notice that the same models reappear in many of her paintings. Look out for Amanda Steele, who has appeared as Salome, Mary Magdalene, as Siamese twins for New York writer Alex Goetchius’s Max and the Siamese Twins (left), and in Ella’s Tarot card, Temperance.
Below, Ella talks in a little more detail about three of her more recent paintings:
Le Pustra’s Kabarett der Namenlosen v3
Oil on canvas, 36″ x 54″ 2019
Le Pustra’s Kabarrett Der Namenlosen is an immersive and interactive theatre show, a blending of contemporary burlesque performance and Weimar Republic Cabaret Culture. I was at the first run in Berlin in 2016.
At least half the show is in German, of which I understand very little, so I can’t actually follow much of the dialogue, monologues or even some of the songs. This does not matter to me though as I make my own interpretation of the show. It means something to me that is probably not the same to anyone else.
This show captures the dark undertones of seedy city life, the desperation for real emotion and connection, but instead we have a stage full of outrageous characters who take turns to entertain the audience as well as each other. There are always several characters on stage.
The first painting I did of the Kabarrett Der Namenlosen was bought by the theatre where the show is held. My client in Prague saw the image online and commissioned me to paint a second version. And then two years later, commissioned a third.
I think people don’t understand what goes into these paintings. They don’t understand what is going on in that room… the rooms in our heads. It’s not a mechanical thing. It’s not just doing an illustration.
In order to paint any picture I have to be 100% into it. When the client asks me to do another version of a painting, I have to change it enough to make it interesting. Painting two versions of the same painting is not that difficult. But a third? What could I possible do differently?
Le Pustra’sKabarrett Der Namenlosen is great because it says something to me personally that may be unique to me. If others feel the same, each brings his, her or their own perspective to it. It is much more than a cabaret show. And therein lies that belief that it is up to each of us to appreciate a piece of art in our ways.
The shows and the paintings are a dark exploration of the soul.
During lockdown Le Pustra and one of the cast, Reverso, did an Instagram chat about Reverso’s performance within Kabarett Der Namenlosen. Reverso is the one slitting his own throat in the painting. His performance is called “Deceptive Beauty”.
“For me I like to hear what people have to say about it, rather than me telling them,” Reverso says.
Reverso is saying what I think, that it’s not about the artist explaining in words what they are doing, but rather that people can bring their own interpretation to what the artist is doing.
I feel the same about my paintings. Especially the ones of the Kabarett der Namenlosen. So if you are looking for an ‘explanation’ of my art , there isn’t one. Perhaps this is why I found that 3rd year art college review so difficult. But I really do not believe that good art requires an ‘explanation’. If anything, for me good art is art that does not require explaining but reaches the soul of the viewer on more of a visceral level.
Cathedral dress Oil on canvas, 135x 110 cm, finished May 2020
In this painting I’m wearing the Cathedral Dress, which is wearable sculpture by Liam Brandon Murray
For this one, the shoot was in the Truman Brewery where the dress was on display as part of the Modern Panic X exhibition. It was November 2019.
I tried on the dress during the launch night. Wearable Art Sculptor Liam Brandon Murray suggested I paint myself in his new dress. The previous year I had painted my daughter in another Liam Brandon Murray dress.
So one day before the show opened, I took the dress into the warehouse behind the gallery and had my friend and muse Amanda Steele take photos of me in the dress. I had some commissions to finish, so the Photoshop layout for the new Cathedral Dress painting was not started until 4 February 2020.
The painting was begun on 3 March 2020. All elements and symbols were in place before the pandemic broke.
All detail had been decided in the weeks before, yet the picture seems to be all about the current situation: the foreboding symbols of the candle blown out; the house of cards collapsing; the hour glass running out; the clock with no hands; the cat with a mouse in its teeth. The rhododendron and tuberose flowers also symbolise danger and impending doom. Even the dirty window somehow feels like a reference to lockdown, as does the dress itself. If we all wore dresses like this, ‘social distancing’ would not be a problem.
Lamentation at the cave Oil on canvas, 48″ x 54″, 2020
This was the second piece I painted during lockdown and the third in the Lamentation series.
The photo shoot for this painting was in January 2019. So while the six figures shown were posed before the pandemic, the painting has added elements of our strange times.
I began this painting in May 2020. The UK had been in lockdown for two months. The people are huddled together in mourning, something that no one has been able to do during Covid-19. Many lives have been lost, and even more people denied the process of saying goodbye to their loved ones.
The Virgin Mary is absent from this version. Drag artist Virgin Extravaganza was present at the shoot but did not join this huddle as the bloody James (Jesus) would have ruined their outfit. However, when I painted the picture, it was quarantine time and Virgin was in the USA doing drag shows from their high school parking lot. I have represented the shows on the iPhone, bottom right corner.
The cat is one of the studio cats who always wander into the photo shoots. [Ella writes about cats in her art in her blog Put a cat in it]
A few of the added details come from a Facebook group called Zombie Nation Art Challenge. The random Toad Familiar, bottom left, is one of those. The empty bottle labelled “Djinn” (gin) is another.
The beach setting is Fairlight, Hastings, East Sussex, only accessible by water or at low tide.
The bat (top left) is a reference to Covid-19. At one point it was said that ‘bat shit’ could be one possible origin of the virus. ‘Batshit’ has other meanings, too. References to the state of the world in general, social media, etc.
The bee crawling on a piece of rotting fruit symbolizes corruption of the body or the onset of disease and death. Often depicted to remind the onlooker of their own mortality.
One final note about this painting and viruses. The day I did the photo shoot for this painting I was sick. I had arranged the photo shoot in London with about eight models and I did not want to cancel (oh how times have changed!). I was sure it wasn’t flu as I get the flu jab every year. I refused to hug or shake anyone’s hand. I use a long lens so was never too close to the models although they were close to each other. No one at the shoot, not even the people I was staying with, got sick following that weekend.
My mum was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1930. She lived there until she was about 12, when her family moved to Gravesend. At the age of 90, she remains one of the town’s biggest fans. She acknowledges that Chatham is ‘not what it was before the dockyard closed’ but she still has fond memories of a lively town full of sailors in their crisp uniforms, on shore leave. Very much On the Town.
Just up river from Chatham, at the mouth of the River Medway, is Sheerness, another former naval town and seaside resort. Mum remembers day trips there with her dad. They used to set off from Sun Pier in Chatham, sit on the front eating rolls with butter and cheese, which they brought with them. And then they’d have their dinner at the Co-op cafe – fish and chips – served with ‘real tomato ketchup’, which was really hard to find, apparently, and so was a real treat.
It’s funny how those impressions of places that we have as kids or as visitors to a place can contrast so starkly with the experience of the people who live there – how we can miss the more threatening undertones that are everyday reality for others.
Like my mum, Joe Machine (born Joe Stokes), one of the founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog) was born in Chatham, but over 40 years later, in 1973. But there, any similarities with my mum’s experiences end. As a child, Joe was exposed to extreme violence and had every reason to fear sailors.
Growing up in Marine Town ‘I was brought up in pubs and clubs and my father’s business was near to some pretty unpleasant pubs,’ Joe remembers. ‘By the time I was 7 years old, I’d seen a lot of alcohol fuelled violence. Sailors to me were men of violence. I used to see fighting in the pubs, windows going through, pretty unpleasant stuff for a young child to see.’
Joe went to school in Marine Town, in Sheerness, where he was badly bullied.
A lot of the kids at Joe’s school had fathers in the Royal Navy. Joe tells an unsettling story of going round to a friend’s house to play when he was just 8 years old.
‘I went into this terraced house and his dad was cooking in the kitchen,’ Joe says. ‘I can remember seeing his dad’s blue serge Royal Navy uniform and square rig hat hanging up there. That really did make an impression on me.
‘So I went upstairs playing with this kid for a while and when I came down to use the toilet his dad said, “Come over here”. He asked me if I got bullied and when I said I did, he said “Look I’m going to give you something that will stop the bullying”. So he got a toothbrush and held it over the gas stove and he melted one end of it. Then he got two razor blades and he set them in the melted end. He said, “Look lad, I’m going to give his to you. Take it to school with you and if anyone upsets you, slash them in the face with it”
‘I was absolutely terrified, completely and utterly terrified. I wanted to get rid of it. I couldn’t take it home, so I dropped it down the drain. The next time I saw weapons like that was many years later, when I was 16, in young offenders institutions.’
Drawing on experience Young Joe’s way of dealing with the violence he witnessed was to draw. At first school he drew scenes from his own experience – pictures of the things that scared him.
‘While other kids were drawing what they were supposed to, I was the kid drawing people with blood jetting out of their necks, people getting glassed in the face, people getting their eyes popped out,’ Joe explains. ‘I think making drawings of the kinds of violent acts that I’d seen was a pretty healthy way of dealing with things, but it wasn’t seen that way at school. They stopped me drawing and I had to go and sit at the back of the room away from everyone else.’
Things got worse for Joe as he moved to the next class. He wasn’t allowed to draw at all without having the subject matter checked first. Things came to a head when a teacher humiliated Joe in front of the class. His drawing of the incredible Hulk had spilled off the paper and he had coloured in some of the table as well. Joe couldn’t take any more. He grabbed a blackboard compass and stabbed the teacher in the hand with it. He was removed from the school aged just 6.
Throughout the rest of his, sometimes chaotic childhood, Joe continued to draw. Outside school, he worked for his father in the arcade, but when he wasn’t sweeping up or cleaning fruit machines, he was doodling and drawing.
‘Drawing saved me,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what I would have done without art. The things I saw as I grew up really did affect me. They worried me. They disgusted me. I produced thousands of drawings, most of which ended up in the bin. Drawing for me was a kind of therapy. It was like an externalised part of what was going on inside my head. It helped me make sense of it.’
Thievery As well as showing an early talent for drawing, young Joe also showed an aptitude for theft. Even as a very young child, when his dad took him shopping, Joe was caught putting things into his pocket.
‘I’ve got no memory of it but my dad says he picked me up and shook me and a load of batteries fell out of my pocket,’ Joe says. ‘Most of my friends, their parents were alcoholics or drug addicts so they’d be out stealing. Everybody was at it. It was just natural – and I took to it like a duck to water!’
Joe started with easy targets – he stole from his mother’s purse, his dad’s arcade, local shops – but as he got older, he got more ambitious and took more and more risks.
‘It was like a drug to me,’ he reflects. ‘I think I kind of justified it as, I was trying to claw something back. I was trying to make something of myself in a society that I thought wasn’t up to much and had failed me at every level.’
For a while Joe made good money from a ‘pretty foolproof’ method of breaking into arcades. He bypassed the alarmed steel shutters on the front doors by dropping down through a hole cut in the felt and baton roofs . But his luck finally ran out when he tried to steal a till from a greengrocers in broad daylight. He cut through the electric cable but didn’t realise that the till was also secured to the wall by a chain.
‘I eventually managed to get away with the till,’ Joe recounts. ‘I got round the corner, where I dropped it. So I had to leave it there and run off. But, of course, they knew who I was. I got grassed up and about a day after that the police came to my mum’s flat and that was it.’
In 1989, Joe was convicted of theft and sent to Borstal, Young Offenders Secure Training Centre where he was allowed to paint.
‘I carried on painting sailors and things like that,’ Joe says. ‘But I still couldn’t quite paint what I wanted to because everything was highly censored.’
Bill Lewis, the Medway Poets and Stuckism After two years in prison. Joe went straight back into crime. But things had changed while had been away. His parents had split up and Joe was living with his dad. He was still paining but also writing.
‘I’d been writing for years as well as painting,’ says Joe. ‘I had this silly idea that I was going to be a novelist and I’d written loads of stuff all of which was rubbish – really, really bad.’
Fed up with him hanging around and getting into trouble, Joe’s father suggested that he join a creative writing class. The class was taught by Bill Lewis – member of the Medway Poets and, as it turned out later, another founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog)
The creative writing class folded after a short time because numbers were low so, instead Joe and two others met at Lewis’s place in Chatham. After a while, the other two students dropped away, leaving only Joe and Bill who became good friends. Bill introduced Joe to the Medway Poets and, in the early 90s, Joe started writing and performing with them.
Through that connection, Joe met Billy Childish and Charles Thomson and with them and others, went on to found the Stuckists. It was possibly an unlikely alliance. Joe was one of the only members who hadn’t been to art school. But although his background was in crime, rather than punk, he identified with the punk ethic of the Stuckists – rebelling against the established order. He also enjoyed being in the company of other compulsive obsessive painters – ‘people who just couldn’t do anything else’. And he shared their contempt for conceptual art.
‘The more I thought about Brit Art, the more I thought that it was utter rubbish – contrived, prefabricated rubbish,’ he explains. ‘I was painting stuff from my life. I didn’t know how to do anything else. What they were doing was as far away from honesty as you could possibly get. It was nihilism. It had no belief whatsoever. They were doing it for awards. They were doing it because they wanted to be famous.’
Joe started exhibiting with the Stuckists. His work was given prominence and he did well. He became known, particularly his ‘sailor paintings’, depicting the violence of his childhood and the sex and pornography that he was exposed to too early, in the homes of his friends’ parents. In 2006, he had a sell-out show at the Spectrum Gallery in London, where most of his paintings were acquired by the David Roberts Art Foundation
Through the Stuckists, Joe finally had an opportunity he craved to work through his early experiences through his art. The more he painted, the further away he became from being involved in crime.
‘I realised then that I had no need to be doing some of the things I was doing,’ Joe explains. There was no point in me putting my energy in that direction, it was either going to end up with me being dead or in prison fo a long time. So I slowly turned more to painting than the other criminal stuff and once I started giving my energy to that, it gained its own momentum and it worked out very well for me.’
Family matters Joe’s mother was an Ashkenazi Jew and his father was an English Romany Gypsy. They were both from East London originally. Joe’s great grandfather was a professional bare-knuckle boxer, fighting in a travelling boxing booth owed by the family. When he retired, he became a boxing promoter.
His paternal grandfather was a professional boxer, but he never spoke about his career with Joe.
‘He never talked about violence but I knew it was there because that was his life,’ Joe explains. ‘All my other relations, my cousins, were terrified of him because he had this kind of glowering violence about him. But that never came across with me. He was always kind to me. I was his favourite grandson and I loved him fiercely.’
The subject matter of Joe’s early paintings, his previous criminal activity and his post-jail work as a bouncer on the violent rave and ecstasy scene have caused some commentators to mark him out as a tough guy too.
Joe says they’ve got him completely wrong: ‘I’m not a tough guy. I’ve been involved in violence but whatever I’ve done has been a reaction to the things that I’ve seen. I certainly didn’t feel like a tough guy when I was a kid. I felt vulnerable and that fear of violence has never left me.’
Spirituality and sucess Becoming involved with the Medway Poets and then the Stuckists were key steps on the road to a new ‘more holistic’ life for Joe.
In 2000, after exhibiting with the Stuckists, Joe was announced as winner of the Stuckist’s Real Turner Prize show and his painting of Diana Dors, painted in response to a chance meeting with Dors as a child, was used as the cover image for the original Stuckist book. He was gaining recognition as an artist and able to devote more time to painting.
‘It was a big thing for me. I’d gone from seeing all the stuff I’d seen, being in prison, working in situations where I was threatened with guns and knives, to sitting in rooms where I could be at peace, I could paint, and it had a restorative, cathartic element to it,’ Joe says.
Fellow Stuckist, Charles Thomson describes Joe as a very spiritual person and Joe himself talks about his ‘great faith in God’.
‘I’ve always had the sense of the hand of God in what I was doing. Even as a child I knew there was something else, something was there, a very definite presence,’ Joe explains. ‘There was no epiphany or red pill moment, the realisation has gradually crept up on me that it has always been there. I’m not a religious fanatic. I don’t do organised religion. I’m not born again. But I speak the truth when I say I don’t believe in God, I know God is real because of my experiences of Him.’
The Stuckist protests against the Turner Prize and the wider art establishment (see previous blog) grabbed the headlines and attracted a lot of publicity for the movement. Many art critics were hostile, but independent art critic Edward Lucie-Smith took an interest in their work and in Joe’s work in particular. He described Joe as his ‘favourite Stuckist’. Lucie-Smith has gone on to hail Joe as ‘one of the most important British Artists’ and ‘the successor to Francis Bacon and William Blake’.
Joe too holds Lucie-Smith in very high regard.
‘There’s nobody like him,’ says Joe. ‘He’s incredible. He’s a legendary art critic and he’s a maverick. Although he works with the art establishment, nobody tells him what to do.’
Joe met Lucie-Smith for the first time at a Stuckist exhibition in 2008, and from 2012, the pair began to collaborate more closely. Lucie-Smith promoted Joe’s work and encouraged him to broaden his artistic horizons.
‘Edward sat me down and said “I like most of your work, but I don’t like all of it”,’ Joe laughs. ‘I think Edward wasn’t very keen on the sailor stuff – the sex and violence – because he thought I was going to be pigeon-holed. He helped me see the potential of working in other areas.’
Joe has since illustrated two volumes of Edward Lucie-Smith’s poems, Making For The Exit and Surviving.
In 2012, Lucie-Smith encouraged Joe to enter the Cork Street Open Exhibition in London. Joe won the Grand Prize for his religious painting God and Tree. The painting shows God standing next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from Genesis. The idea came from some work that Joe had been doing with Charles Thomson about Kabbalah, matters of spirit and meditation, but it was Joe’s son, Joseph, who finally gave him the confidence to paint it.
‘My son said, “You do this stuff so much in your life, why don’t you paint God?”‘ says Joe. ‘I told him, I can’t. I’m not really supposed to depict God. I’m Jewish. But Joseph said, “I don’t think God would mind”. So I did. I took his advice and painted it, and that’s when things really started to take off for me, artistically.’
Religion and mythology Spurred on by his success and supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe gained the confidence to tackle a greater variety of themes in his painting, themes as diverse as the Russian Revolution and landscape paintings, inspired by Kentish woodlands.
In 2013, again supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe held a solo, retrospective exhibition Machine Evolution, at the Cock ‘n’ Bull Gallery, beneath the Tramshed restaurant in Dalston, featuring some of his Russian Revolution paintings. The restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Mark Hix, recently went into administration.
Ironically, the gallery was named after an installation by artist, Damien Hirst, bête noire of the Stuckists. The piece, a Hereford cow and a cockerel preserved in a steel and glass tank of formaldehyde, was on permanent display in the restaurant.
‘The irony wasn’t lost on me,’ Joe laughs, ‘and I think Edward could see it as well!’
The exhibition was a great success and, in conjunction with the show, Russian investors brought out a major hardback book of Joe’s work.
It was at a private view of Machine Evolution, hosted by The London Magazinethat Joe was introduced to magazine editor, academic and mythographer, Steven O’Brien, who is now his agent.
In 2015, Joe and O’Brien collaborated on a book Britannic Myths which retold ancient stories from Britain and Ireland through text and painting. The collaboration generated a number of London-based exhibitions of the paintings included in the book.
Also in 2015, Joe was invited to become artist-in-residence for the Prometheus Project in Trieste, Italy. This project, the brainchild of Italian concert pianist Claudio Crismani and Edward Lucie-Smith, was based around Alexander Scriabin’s last musical work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, reinterpreting it through music, visual art, literature and history.
‘It was a great time and resulted in three wonderful shows for me,’ Joe recalls. ‘I had a sailor show but also new paintings of Greek Gods and the myth of Prometheus were exhibited in the Arts Centre at Trieste harbour and at various other venues around Trieste.’
Joe now refers to myth as ‘his preferred genre’.
‘Over the years I’ve done so many paintings working through he stuff about sex and violence,’ Joe remarks. ‘But more recently, my work has moved further and further into religion, spirituality and mythology so that is now about 90 percent of what I do. There’s no way when I was first involved with the Stuckists that I would have painted some of the stuff I’m painting now. I still do the other stuff sometimes, but now I’m more whole than I used to be.’
Joe is now working on a series of 30 paintings showing scenes from the Arthurian legends for another of Steven O’Brien’s books, and has been commissioned by mythographer and author, John Matthews, to produce a series of paintings featuring the characters from the old English poem Beowulf, which will be used to illustrate a series of oracle cards.
Among his other roles, Steven O’Brien is a curator for the Vatican Arts Trust. Through him Joe has been invited to exhibit a new series of paintings Saints of Britain in the Vatican, Rome and Certosa di Tresulti monestary, Collepardo. The exhibition is planned for 2021, pandemic permitting.
Joe is still astounded by his success. ‘Who would have thought that a boy from the back streets of Kent, with no prospects, no hope, a criminal record, would through art and through his own momentum, propel himself into getting a show in the Vatican,’ he says. ‘And that’s pretty much because I followed my star. I kept painting because it is the only thing that ever helped me. And it’s only by sticking to my guns that I’m in the position I am now.’
Bedtime stories When Joe first met the Medway Poets it was as a poet, not a painter and he has recently returned to writing, alongside his art. He still writes poetry and he has recently written that novel. It is called DeadTown Boy and and tells the story of Joe’s childhood up to the age of 18, when he was released from Borstal Young Offenders Secure Training Centre.
But Joe now lives in Somerset with his wife and five children. His current writing project is a novel for children The Invisible Kingdom based on the bedtime stories he made up for them when they were very young.
‘It’s an allegory of World War II, where my children are characters in the story,’ he explains. ‘When I was a kid, my dad used to sit on the end of my bed telling me stories about the Kray twins, who he was friends with in London during the 1960’s. It wasn’t the kind of Rupert the Bear stuff most kids got.’
Joe is trying to use his past experience in a positive way these days, including through working with charitable groups and young offenders.
‘I have to square my past with being a father now and doing the right thing by my children,’ Joe reflects. ‘There’s no way you can be be involved in the kind of life I had and maintain a good relationship with your family.’
Now Joe feels positive about the future.
‘It’s wonderful, I do feel very happy and very, very lucky now,’ he concludes. ‘Because I’ve been able to turn around an obsessive, compulsive need as a child to produce work that was based on my experience. I’ve gone from having to do that to that, to wanting to do that and then absolutely loving doing that. It’s an obsession in another way I suppose, but it’s a good obsession.’