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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.

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Photography on a postcard: Urban Contemporary vs Street Photography

A selection of postcard-sized images in the Art on a Postacard Urban Contemporary vs. Street Photography auction for the Hepatitis C Trust 2019

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For the last three years, I’ve been invited to submit mini artworks for a secret auction by Art on a Postcard www.artonapostcard.com. This brilliant art charity raises money for The Hepatitis C Trust’s campaign to eliminate hepatitis C in the UK by 2025. http://www.hepctrust.org.uk/

It works like this. Famous and emerging artists are invited to donate postcard-sized (10cmx15cm) original, images for auction. Over the years Art on a Postcard have had postcards donated by Sir Peter Blake, Damien Hirst, Harland Miller, Gavin Turk, Rachel Howard, Gilbert and George, Polly Morgan, John Wragg RA, Stephen Chambers RA, Michael Craig-Martin, Chantal Joffe, Cecily Brown, Grayson Perry, Julian Opie and Jeremy Deller. The cards are displayed to the public in a gallery exhibition and, simultaneously, on online auction site, Paddle8. https://paddle8.com/ 

The twist is that although the names of all the contributing artists are published as a list, you don’t find out which artist produced which work until after the auction is over. You have to guess.

Trying to match artists to their pictures in a kind of artistic Whodunnit is part of the fun, and with bids starting at around £50, there is a chance that you could buy something from an artist that you probably could never ordinarily afford.

Here is one of Art on a Postcard’s Facebook videos from a previous auction in which Director, Gemma Peppé previews some of some of the cards and entices potential punters to guess the artists. https://www.facebook.com/ArtonaPostcard/videos/1819606894762754/

‘We have a group of men who pride themselves on knowing who everyone is, even the more obscure artists’ she says. ‘But last year they got the Marina Abramovic totally wrong! And another year, the money went everywhere because nobody could work out which was the Damien Hirst, and a huge amount of money went on a picture of a pig by a relatively unknown artist, because bidders decided that was the one.’

Last year’s Art on a Postcard raised £81,000 for the Trust.

The fight against Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is a virus that is transmitted from person to person by infected blood. 90 per cent of people with hepatitis C have contracted it through injecting drugs with contaminated needles. Others will have got it perhaps from having tattos or medical treatment abroad, or in the UK, pre 1991, from infected blood products. https://www.infectedbloodinquiry.org.uk/

To eliminate the disease by 2015, everyone who is affected needs to be found, diagnosed and treated. Drug treatment has improved greatly in the last few years, and as more people are cured, there are fewer people with hepatitis C to infect others. ‘It’s that last ten percent who are the most difficult to reach,’ says Gemma Peppé. ‘General awareness campaigns just don’t work. People don’t really take any notice unless hepatitis C is already on their minds. And they’re not going to pay any attention to material that is aimed at drug users, if they just injected drugs once, years ago at university, because they wouldn’t see themselves as that. But people do engage with Art on a Postcard and it just might reach that target group.’

Gemma discovered that she had hepatitis C fourteen years after contracting it in 1988. While she was ill she started working for The Hepatitis C Trust on their celebrity-led awareness campaigns but after being cured in 2013, she regained her energy and, in 2014, launched the first Art on a Postcard auction, with a colleague.

Since then Art on a Postcard has gone from strength. Gemma now produces a fine art postcard auction each November – that’s the one I’ve contributed to – and two photographic auction events. One auction takes place as part of Photo London, held each May at Somerset House in London. The Hepatitis C Trust is the official partner charity.

Photograhy on a Postcard 2019
And being launched today is another annual photographic auction Photography on a Postcard, which features contemporary urban art and street photography. https://www.artonapostcard.com/spitalfields-2019

This year the auction is curated by street artist Ben Eine and street photographer Dougie Wallace. It features over 600 images by some of the most collectable and interesting contemporary urban artists, including Anthony Lister, Vhils, Ed Kashi, Melanie Einzig, Shok1, Sandra Chevrier, Nick Thomm. View the list of participating artists and the auction catalogue here https://www.artonapostcard.com/spitalfields-2019

If you are interested in getting involved, the Private View is on 2nd July Central Mezzanine at Old Spitalfields Market, 16 Commercial Street, London E1 6EW. At this event, Art on a Postcard will join forces with Jealous Gallery https://www.jealousgallery.com/ who will be live screen printing and releasing an iconic Ben Eine ‘S’ for Spitalfields.If you would like to attend the private view, you can but tickets here https://aoap.eventbrite.co.uk.

Bidding on all artwork starts at £50. And to help you to find a bargain, Old Spitalfields Market have published a guide to the hottest names to look out for https://oldspitalfieldsmarket.com/journal/how-to-pick-up-a-work-by-a-world-famous-artist-for-as-little-as-50?fbclid=IwAR2x8F7pjQ267c-G750lCZUIDeQJ4z4QvpDMlyuCwNpN4vuD0-N-BLfBelA

The exhibition continues at Spitalfields until 7th July. If you can’t wait or you can’t get there, the auction itself starts today and runs until 10 July 2019. You can browse and bid on Paddle8. https://paddle8.com/auction/art-on-a-postcard. And on Saturday 6th July, Art on a Postcard will be curating five stalls in Old Spitalfields Market and will be joined by the artists Sara Pope and Rugman. So do pop along there if you get the chance.

Look out too for other Art on a Postcard events too. They’ve done one off-events such as Art on a Ukulele and there is an annual car boot sale, which has attracted artists like Tracy Emin, Peter Blake and Gavin Turk. ‘The trick is to get a destination artist,’ explains Gemma Peppé. ‘The year we had Harland Miller, people started queueing from 2pm the day before.’

And if you miss out on the auctions there is always the Art on a Postcard shop, where you can buy boxes of postcards https://www.artonapostcard.com/art-on-a-postcard-boxsets and limited edition, signed prints, of pictures from previous auctions. You might recognise this bloke https://www.artonapostcard.com/duncan-grant