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Nicola White Mudlark: Discarded objects and lives in limbo

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I’ve talked a lot on here about my relationship with the River Thames growing up in Gravesend and how it ‘flows’ through a lot of my art. https://duncangrantartist.com/2019/03/20/drawing-inspiration-from-the-thames/

Tideline Art
Greenwich-based artist, Nicola White, who I first met through the Two Rivers art project in 2016, goes further. Her work arises from the Thames, literally. Her Tideline Art  is created using the objects she finds washed up on the foreshore when she is mudlarking.

I’ve done a fair bit of mudlarking myself. As a teenager I used to pick up Romano British pottery from the Thames mud. I remember, my dad used it as drainage in his plant pots! But what Nicola does with her finds is stunning.

Nicola White: Thames glass fish

Her trademark Thames glass fish are made up from the glass that she picks up on the foreshore. ‘I use a lot of Victorian poison bottle glass,’ Nicola explains. ‘It’s like history you can touch. I love the idea that each fish is made up, like a jigsaw, of so many parts of London history.’

Nicola White: Thames plastic cormorant

She also makes sculptures and collages using driftwood, metal, pottery and plastic.

While out walking on the banks of the Thames or the Thames Estuary, Nicola collects the plastic that she finds. Sometimes she uses it to make 3-D sculptures but, more often, she lays it out to make a picture by the side of the river, before photographing it and taking the plastic away. Her Lighter Fish was made with over 150 disposable lighters that she collected along the Thames Estuary in less than 2 hours. She believes it is a good way of raising awareness of plastic pollution.

Nicola White: Lighter fish

‘It’s quite visually compelling to see something and to think, wow, you collected all that along the river in one afternoon,’ she says.

 

Nicola collects the items she uses in her art while mudlarking on the River Thames. Originally, the term ‘mudlark’ was used to describe very poor people, often children or the elderly who, in pre-Victorian times, scrabbled around in the mud of the River Thames at low tide looking for anything of value that they could sell. Some mudlarks managed to scrape a subsistence living in this way. But it was a dangerous occupation. The river was filthy, full of raw sewage and decaying animal corpses. Mudlarks were at risk of infection from cuts they got from broken glass left on the shore.

Modern day mudlarking, Nicola explains, is a lot less hazardous and mudlarkers have a different motivation. ‘We go down to the river to see what history we can uncover. What I find most inspiring is that the objects we find have had a past life. They’ve come to rest on the shore and they have a story to tell.’

Thames finds

Nicola finds all manner of objects on the foreshore – pieces of pottery and glass, clay pipes, coins, buttons, bullets, animal bones and teeth and even, rarely, very old human remains. She once found an unexploded hand grenade which then had to be detonated by bomb disposal. http://www.tidelineart.com/thames-mudlarking-finds.html

Nicola was bought up in Cornwall and spent a lot of time, as a child, beachcombing. In 1998, she moved to Greenwich, in London. ‘At that time, I didn’t know that mudlarking was a thing,’ she remembers. ‘I found myself down on the foreshore and I started finding bits of glass and pottery. I realised then that there were these little treasures down on the banks of the Thames. I was so excited I was when I found my first coin. And it just went on from there.’

Thames torpedo bottle

But it took years for Nicola to realise her dream of a creative life. ‘I ended up spending over 20 years working in an office: something I said I would never do,’ she says. ‘I don’t regret it. It helped me get where I am today. But I have always had this passion to be creative and about five or six years ago everything changed.’

At that time, Nicola had came across a poem The Summer Day by US poet Mary Oliver, about a day in the life of a mayfly. https://emilyspoetryblog.com/mary-oliver/poems/the-summer-day/ ‘The last line is Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ she recalls. ‘And I just thought, gosh, life is short. I really don’t want to be working in a bank like this for the rest of my life. I want to wake up in the morning and feel excited about what I’m going to do with my day. So I started to make plans to leave and to make a living from my art.’

Roman Samian Ware find

As well as creating and selling her Tideline Art, Nicola also enjoys sharing a weekly mudlarking video on YouTube, where she has over 70,000 followers https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2K7yEwPIcPaQT5FM78dpyw

In the videos she takes her audience mudlarking with her. She explores her finds back in her studio and shares what she has discovered about the history of the objects she has found and the stories of those whose lives are washed up on the banks of the river.

And it is fascinating.

On one occasion, Nicola found a little brass tag from the suitcase of a WWI soldier. From his address on the tag, she was able to find out more about his life – he went to Australia and joined the Australian Imperial force, survived the trenches and returned to the UK to marry his landlady. ‘And then I found his grave,’ Nicola remembers. ‘He didn’t have any children so just finding that little piece of metal brought him back to life for a while and I was able to tell his story.’

When, Nicola found a button with Millbank Prison – a notorious penitentiary back in the 19th Century – written on it, she wondered how it came to be in the Thames. Her research led to her find out about the transfer of prisoners from Millbank to prison ships (Hulks) at Woolwich, where they served their sentences.

Thames clay pipes

And there are many similar stories emerging from the river.

Clay pipes are a common find. Nicola explains why here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjsHQ4s87dc

Essentially, clay pipes are the equivalent of modern day cigarette butts, the result of centuries of smoking, but they hold a particular fascination for Nicola. ‘I just love finding them!’ she enthuses. ‘There are so many different designs and they can tell us so much.’

One of the very many clay pipes that Nicola has found bore the name of Catherine Shipwell, one of the very few women pipemakers, whose largely unknown story she uncovered and shared.

‘Mudlarking is so interesting because you never know what you are going to find or where it will lead you,’ Nicola says. ‘For me, the most interesting finds are those that offer a glimpse into the lives of those from a London of the past.’

Roman pot find

Although giving up her corporate job required some lifestyle changes, Nicola has never regretted it. She has taken Martin Luther King Jr’s advice and is following her passion.

Set yourself earnestly to discover what you are made to do, and then give yourself passionately to the doing of it. (Martin Luther King Jr)

‘My life now is like dream for me because it’s a mixture of all the things I love,’ she reflects. ‘It occurred to me recently now I’ve got my studio, I thought, wow, this is exactly what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid!’

 

Art from death row
And it is Nicola’s work with prisoners on death row that offers us a glimpse into other lives – lives that, in this case, are intentionally hidden from view. ‘With Tideline Art I use objects that have essentially been thrown away,’ Nicola explains. ‘And it is a bit like that with the men on death row. They have, for the most part, been forgotten about and are considered to be of no further use to society.’

It all started about 10 years ago. Following a chance meeting with a woman from LifeLines http://www.lifelines-uk.org.uk/ – a charity that finds pen friends for prisoners incarcerated in the USA on death row – Nicola started corresponding with a prisoner on death row in San Quentin State Prison in California.

There are currently 760 men on death row at San Quentin, many of whom have been been there for decades. There they live lives in limbo under the shadow of imminent execution.

Daniel Landry: Many faces of me

In 2015, Nicola travelled to the prison to meet her pen friend ‘He frequently sent me beautiful hand-made cards created by his fellow prisoners,’ Nicola explains. ‘During my visit he told me about inmates who spend hours alone in their cells each day painting and drawing pictures, most of which are then packed up and stored. I thought this was a tragedy.’

‘Expression through art can take prisoners’ minds and imaginations on a liberating journey as they create a painting or drawing, or write stories or poems,’ Nicola continues. ‘I know how important it is to be able to express yourself creatively and to be able to share your work with others. I’m lucky enough to be able to do that and I wondered if I could find a way to give these men a voice, to help them to reach out with their art and connect with the outside world.’

Keith Loker: Butterfly

Nicola asked her pen friend if he thought the artists on death row would like to do an exhibition. She sent him some flyers which he distributed to other inmates and, after a while, Nicola began to receive some artwork. And so ArtReach, a travelling exhibition featuring art and poems from San Quentin’s death row, was born.

The purpose of ArtReach is to provide a platform for artists on San Quentin’s death row to exhibit their art and creativity, both online and in a variety of exhibition venues. It also aims to give a human face to the prisoners, using art and writing as a vehicle to raise awareness, and to generate debate and discussion about capital punishment.

Over the last few years, Nicola has taken the exhibition to galleries around London and the South East and it is soon to be packed up and sent to the University of Columbia, where it will be shown as part of a death penalty summit.

Michael Combes: Aurora Borealis

There are no exhibitions planned in the UK in the near future but you can see (and buy) the prisoners’ work via the ArtReach website https://www.artofsanquentin.com/ Ten per cent of proceeds from sales are donated to charity and the rest goes to the artist to fund art materials, stamps or food etc.

‘Each artist has got such different skills and styles,’ Nicola remarks. ‘And when you look at the artwork or read the poetry, expressions of emotion are evident – inspiration, regrets, happiness, sadness, yearnings, longings. For a place known for death and despair beautiful art with hope for life can emanate.’

You can hear some of the prisoners reading their own poems on the ArtReach You Tube site. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7GaPevHO0XxZiQuYJ-ZiTA/featured

Nicola is currently focusing on her Tideline Art and restocking her Esty site  https://www.esty.com/uk/shop/Tidelineart.

You can find out more and follow Nicola on the following social media platforms:
Twitter and Instagram:  @tidelineart
YouTube: Nicola White Mudlark
Website: http://www.tidelineart.com/

 

 

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John Bulley: The ‘mediocre’ painter who created an icon

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If you’ve ever been to Camden Lock in North London, you’ve almost certainly seen John Bulley’s most famous painting. There’s a good chance that you may even have a picture of yourself standing in front of it. It’s the signage painted on Camden Lock Railway Bridge, which towers over the market.

In the late ’80s, after being thrown out of art college, John was living in Peterborough, working as a designer for Bike magazine. Fed up with that, he decided to move down to London to join some friends who were painting signs for Oddbins wine shops.

‘I started working as a signwriter, painting signs and hoardings all around London, and it was brilliant,’ John remembers. ‘Anyway, someone from Camden must have seen my work because a bloke called Eric Reynolds contacted me and said, I like what you’re doing. Can you do some signs for us?’

John Bulley: London Zoo
John Bulley: London Zoo

The Camden Market redevelopment was surrounded by hoardings at that time, so John painted those, including a massive piece for London Zoo. He also worked on Dingwalls, a music venue, and painted a satirical mural for the Jongleurs comedy club.

‘That was good fun – no holds barred,’ says John. ‘Basically, I took the piss out of royalty, every government bigwig at the time, and the rich and famous. It was pretty radical and they loved it!’

 

John Bulley: mural Jongleurs
John Bulley: Jongleurs mural

One day, among all the other jobs that he was doing around the market, Eric Reynolds asked John if he could come up with an idea for a design for the railway bridge, which was about to be refurbished and repainted by British Rail.

‘It was that simple,’ John recalls. ‘No biggie. British Rail had their scaffolding up. It was just a job on a bridge that needed doing, so I did it.’

After a couple of days, John came up with a design.

‘I wanted to do something a bit different, with a bit of humour in it, that would stand out from a distance,’ he explains. ‘I invented a big fat typeface and chose colours that I thought suited the Camden feel and that would look good against the green background. And I came up with the idea of making it look as if there were two blokes up there painting it, like it would never be finished, and those blokes would always be up there painting away.’

The painters immortalised on the bridge were modelled by John’s mates, Tim and Frankie.

‘I got them to hang off bits of string in the art department where we worked, so I could pose them,’ John remembers. ‘Neither of them was athletic and they were horrified at having to hang around on bits of string. But there they are, up there forever.’

 

And the rest is history. John’s painting has become one of the most photographed in London.

‘It’s become bloody iconic, it’s weird!’ he says. ‘But I suppose it makes sense. If you’re a tourist and you want to show everybody that you’ve been to Camden Lock, you take a photograph of yourself in front of a big fuck off bridge that says Camden Lock on it. And every time they do a bit of promo on Camden Lock, there it is again’.

Over the years, Camden has been approached by advertisers offering huge sums of money to advertise on the bridge but all their advances have been rejected.

‘The bridge is the bridge and it stays that way,’ says John.

Camden Lock Bridge has been repainted once since John’s original job in 1989.

‘A few years ago Camden got in touch with me wanting to know the spec for the colours I’d used,’ he explains. ‘They were going to repaint the bridge exactly as it was. It needed it. It was looking very sad.’

John’s first reaction was indignation.

‘I said, fuck off, it’s my bridge, I’ll paint it,’ he laughs. ‘But they wanted to do it themselves, so in the end I gave them the colours they needed and they repainted it. And they did a pretty good job, I have to admit.’

‘I like to pretend the bridge is no big deal, just another bit of work I did ages ago but in reality I love it to death,’ John admits. ‘I love walking under there knowing it’s all my own work. And I love the kudos it brings me with street artists when I casually drop into conversation “Oh yeah, Camden Lock Bridge, I did that”‘.

John’s creative relationship with Camden has continued over the years. He’s painted other exteriors, and in 2017 he painted murals for Cuban restaurant Gabeto https://www.gabeto.co.uk/. Recently, he was contacted by Camden Town Brewery. They wanted him recreate his original design, to ‘bring a bit of Camden’ into their new brewery in Enfield. John, who owns the copyright for the bridge design, agreed.

‘I used the Brewery’s colours, but kept the Camden Lock lettering and the pictures of the two mates who I’d originally put up there,’ he explains. ‘It looks really nice.’

John Bulley: Oh Piss Off!
John Bulley: Oh piss off!

John now lives in Southend-On-Sea, in Essex, where he pursues his own art. He also accepts commissions and takes other paid jobs. Among other things, he worked on two of the Harry Potter films and the movie Memphis Belle.

Memphis Belle was a dream job for me cos I’m an aeroplane freak,’ John says.

After the film came out, Biggin Hill contacted John to ask if he would repaint the nose art on the Sally B, the original B17 Flying Fortress used in the film.

‘So she’s flying around right now with my artwork on her, which is pretty cool!’ he enthuses. http://www.sallyb.org.uk/ 

Despite his success and his portfolio of work, which often features characters from film or television, John insists that he is not an artist.

‘I hate everything about the art game,’ he says. ‘I loathe the way galleries are like cathedrals with their white walls and there’s all this sacred stuff in them, which you’re not allowed to touch because it is so precious. And I hate arty people standing around clutching their Prosecco pretending to read the art bollocks while sneakily eyeing each other up. Pretentious tossers.’

John Bulley Begbie Trainspotting still
John Bulley: Begbie from Trainspotting

‘I’m the opposite of that. I’m a painter, I mess about with paints,’ he continues. ‘I paint pictures. I copy photographs and I paint bridges. I’m an artisan, not a fine artist.’

John’s disdain of the commercial art world has prompted him to take his art into the community and his paintings are now a familiar sight around Southend.

‘Southend council funds an “official” arts organisation called Metal Culture which controls who can be artists, which leaves nothing for those of us that don’t fit in with their agenda,’ says John. ‘The people at Metal got fed up with me banging on about them getting all the money and called me “mediocre” so I got a tee shirt made with it on and I wear it with pride!’

John Bulley wears his 'mediocre' tee shirt with prideJohn has some sympathy for their opinion of his work.

‘Some of what I do is pretty mediocre,’ he reflects. ‘I’m not making any great claims for it. I paint what I like.’

‘Anyway, I got really fed up with the Arts situation in Southend, so I found an old derelict building and I thought I’d paint that and see if I could get away with it,’ he continues. ‘First, I painted Michael Caine from the film Get Carter and people really liked that, so I though I’d do a gangster theme. I painted the Kray twins, but I did them in their mum’s house set against pink wallpaper having a cup of tea from dainty teacups, and I did Bob Hoskins in Lassiter.’

John Bulley: Derelict gallery
John Bulley: Derelict Gallery

The ‘derelict gallery’ has been knocked down now, but for John that’s just an natural part of the process. ‘Nothing lasts forever and I love the fact that it is temporary’, he says. ‘It gives the work the kind of respect it deserves. And anyway, once you’ve taken a photograph and shared it on Facebook and Instagram and all that, you’ve reached as many people as you’re going to reach. If things get pulled down or painted over don’t be precious about it, do another one.’

‘One day the bridge will come down too,’ he reflects, ‘but for now I’m happy still to be able to wander up the road from the tube station and see it gradually appear over the canal.’

John Bulley: Italian job
John paints on large hoardings around Southend

Now John paints large (8ft x10ft) works and pastes them up on hoardings around Southend.

His work is topical and subtly subversive. ‘I did one of Megan and Harry called One day my prince will come – playing on the idea that a woman needs a handsome prince to be happy – and another one of the Royal Family called Land of Hope and Glory, which of course it isn’t,’ he comments.

John Bulley: One day my prince will come
One day my prince will come

‘I’m quite careful about what I put up around the town. I try to make sure it doesn’t offend. Although I did put up a picture of a homeless person just before Christmas and it was taken down the same day. It’s ironic that people were offended by a picture of a homeless person but not so much by homelessness itself.’

John is a champion of community art. Ten years ago he was one of the founders of  the annual Estuary Fringe Festival https://www.facebook.com/estuaryfringe/ an initiative aimed at giving art back to the community.

 

 

‘Me and my mate were in this cafe one day and I was moaning on as usual about the state of the arts in Southend,’ he recalls. ‘And he said, stop moaning John, and do something about it. So we set up the Festival. The first one was organised in just seven weeks and with no money, which just proves you don’t need hundreds of thousands of pounds to put on a good festival.’

The Festival features musicians, poets and artists. ‘Basically, we just want to be as anarchic as possible,’ John explains, ‘which we can be of course, because we’re not beholden to anybody.’

And what is John planning for the future?  Well he has some ideas but he’s keeping them under his hat.

‘For now, I’m just chipping away. Trying my best to be a thorn in the side of the powers that be,’ he says. ‘And my bridge is looking a bit sad again now. That could probably do with another coat.’

You can see more of John’s paintings or contact him here: http://www.johnbulley.com/ or on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/theartistjohnbulley/

 

 

 

 

 

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Ben Wilson: Chewing Gum Man

Artis Ben Wilson aka Chewing Gum Man on the Millenium Bridge

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Crossing London’s Millenium Bridge always involves negotiating a crowd. There are Londoners with their gaze fixed straight ahead, or on their phones, trying to get from A to B, and tourists taking in the stunning views down the Thames on their way to St Paul’s Cathedral or to see the international art collection at the Tate Modern.

But the bridge hosts a secret art collection. An art collection that you will only see if you look down. An art collection painted on the spat-out chewing gum left on the bridge and its surrounding walkways.

My sister Annie was out around London last week filming and taking photographs for a travel guide project she’s doing. She was taking pictures of the minature artworks on the bridge when she (almost literally) stumbled across the Chewing Gum Man himself – artist, Ben Wilson – lying on the ground, surrounded by a small crowd, adding the finishing touches to his latest mini-masterpiece.  She stopped to take some pictures and he was happy to be photographed and to chat about his work.

Ben is a professional artist with a background in painting, wood-carving and sculpture. He has exhibited all over the world. Check out his listing on Wikipedia to find out more https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Wilson_(artist)

Driven by his dislike of waste and a desire to improve the urban environment, in the late nineties, Ben started experimenting with occasional chewing-gum paintings. Has now created thousands of them across London (particularly in Muswell Hill where he lives) but also around the UK and in Europe. He says he loves the idea of taking something that has been thrown away and transforming it into something amazing.

Each transformation takes between a couple of hours and three days to complete, using a special technique that involves heating the gum with a small blow torch, then coating it with three layers of acrylic enamel, before painting it with special acrylic paints and sealing it with clear lacquer. With the public ‘donating’ an endless supply of canvasses, Ben needs constant inspiration for his creations. His subjects include requests from the public, portraits, mini-landscapes and strange creatures from his imagination. The shape of each painting is determined by where the gum spitting has taken place. On the bridge, where it is squashed into the metal, the images are made up of slightly disconnected oblongs. On the ramps down from the bridge to the river banks, they tend to be round.

Britain spends about £150 million each year cleaning chewing gum from pavement and although Ben’s work does get eroded when the bridge is cleaned, there is no deliberate effort to remove it. In 2009, he was arrested in Trafalgar Square but, he explains that, technically, what he does does not count as criminal damage, because he is painting the gum, not the pavement.

There is a serious intent behind Ben’s chewing gum art. He sees it as a small way of helping people reconnect with their environment. In an Observer article some years ago he said, ‘Kids are not allowed to feel any connection with where they live … They can’t play in the streets because they are likely to get run over; then you have the national curriculum, and all this testing at school, and no opportunity to play or to make things, and everything you do outside is recorded on surveillance cameras. The only imagery that children see around them are billboards and TV; every part of their environment is out of bounds or sold off. That’s why they don’t care about their streets. This is a small way of connecting people.’

At the moment, Ben is using Kickstarter to try to raise funds to produce a book featuring a picture trail of his chewing gum art from St. Pauls, across the Millennium Bridge and into the Tate Modern. He hasn’t reached the Tate Modern yet – he is nearly there – but with only 19 fundraising days to go (ends midday 13th September) he has only raised just over £3000 of the £8000 he needs for publication. You can find out more about the project and, if you want to support him, pledge a donation, here https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/studiomoe/ben-wilson-the-chewing-gum-man-the-millennium-bridge-gum. With Kickstarter projects you only pay if the project reaches its target amount. Ben is offering free paperback copies of the book in return for donations.

If you want to see more of Ben’s fascinating work, follow him on Instagram @benwilsonchewinggumman https://instagram.com/benwilsonchewinggumman?igshid=5jm87/ijcs264

And next time you’re in London and you cross the Millenium Bridge, just remember to look down as well as up, if you want to appreciate all the cultural richness the area has to offer.