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.’
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
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/