Posted on 1 Comment

Dick Want: Cloud-walker

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

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.

Cloud-walker

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’.

Dick Want: Spiritual self-portrait No. 11
Dick Want: Spiritual self-portrait No. 11

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.

Dick Want: Rod for my Back 1
Dick Want: Rod for my Back 1

‘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 Want: Militay Road, Appledore
Dick Want: Militay Road, Appledore

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.’

Fat Freddie's Cat 85
Fat Freddie’s Cat 85

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.

Dick Want: Kate
Dick Want: Kate

‘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.’

Dick Want: Reclining Nude
Dick Want: Reclining Nude

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.

Dick Want: The Empty Chair
Dick Want: The Empty Chair

‘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.’

Dick Want: Automatic drawing
Dick Want: Automatic drawing

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.’

Dick Want: Royal Military Canal, Hamstreet
Dick Want: Royal Military Canal, Hamstreet

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Dick Want: Brompton Cocktail
Dick Want: Brompton Cocktail

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.’

Dick Want: Ode to the female form
Dick Want: Ode to the female form

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.

Dick Want: No Escape
Dick Want: No Escape

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.’

Dick Want: Covid 19 Apothocre
Dick Want: Covid 19 Apothocre

 

 

If you would like to see more of Dick’s art you can follow him here:
Facebook: Richard Want Artist https://www.facebook.com/Artwant/
Instagram: dick_want_artist https://www.instagram.com/dick_want_artist/?hl=en
Blog: http://artwant.blogspot.com/

If you are interested in automatic drawing you might also like to revisit this blog from December 2019 https://duncangrantartist.com/2019/12/29/luna-zsigo-capturing-emotional-landscapes/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted on 2 Comments

Joe Machine: From Marine Town to The Holy See

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

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.

My mum (aged 4) on the beach at Margate with her sister, mum and Gran

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.

Joe Machine: I'll Cut You
Joe Machine: I’ll Cut You

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.’

Joe Machine: The Drinking Contest
Joe Machine: The Drinking Contest

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.’

Joe Machine: Self-portrait breaking into public house
Joe Machine: Self-portrait breaking into public house

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.

Joe Machine: Ear cut off, numb with drink
Joe Machine: Ear cut off, numb with drink

‘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.

Stuckists protesting against the Turner Prize
Stuckists protesting against the Turner Prize

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 Machine: Blonde Strippers
Blonde Strippers

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.’

Joe Machine: My Grandfather Will Fight You
Joe Machine: My Grandfather Will Fight You

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.’

Joe Machine: Diana Dors
Joe Machine: Diana Dors

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.’

Joe Machine, Edward Lucie-Smith
Joe with Edward Lucie-Smith, Machine Evolution show, 2013

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 Machine: God and Tree
Joe Machine: God and Tree

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.’

Joe Machine: Last Blossoms of Spring
Joe Machine: Last Blossoms of Spring

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.

The Tramshed restaurant

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.

Joe Machine, Steve O'Brien
Joe with Steve O’Brien, Brittanic Myths book launch, Mayfair

It was at a private view of Machine Evolution, hosted by The London Magazine  that 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 Machine: St Guthlac Assailed by Demons
Joe Machine: St Guthlac Assailed by Demons

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.

Joe Machine: Joseph of Arithmethea
Joe Machine: Joseph of Arithmethea

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.

Joe Machine: The Krays
Joe Machine: The Krays

‘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.’

Website
You can see Joe’s work on his website: https://www.joemachineart.com/

His most recent show Unseen Spring was a virtual exhibition with the London Magazine

The Arthurian Cycle exhibition will be at the David Game College, Aldgate, London in November/December