You have said that as a child, you were fascinated by people making things. What is the first thing you remember making?
When I was young, I was surrounded by creative people. The first thing I remember making and having a feeling of achieving something was rebuilding a car engine with my grandma - as mad as that sounds. She was amazing. She was a photographer and actually, before the engine, I was doing cyanotype and salt printing with her. But, when I was twelve or thirteen, we rebuilt this really old engine together and I remember it being a weird victory - we had taken an engine apart, put it back together, and it worked. It was kind of spectacular.
INTERVIEWER: She sounds like an extremely cool grandma, that must have been a creatively enriching environment to grow up in!
Yeah, it was a little bit...
Why, after growing up in Essex, did you move to Stroud in Gloucestershire – a very rural town? And does Stroud’s important role in the industrial revolution have significance to your work?
It was pretty much the toss of a coin ending up here. My partner Holly and I grew up in Essex but had travelled and lived all over the place. We both found ourselves back in Essex, where we met and lived together for a while before deciding that we must go and explore a bit to find our forever place. We wanted to track down an interesting and creative environment. After going on a road trip, visiting lots of places, we ended up in Stroud during SITE Festival which is a big art festival. It just seemed like such an amazing town with very creative and interesting people and beautiful landscapes. We decided to stay here for six months, and that was eight or nine years ago now.
How much did the education system affect your artistic development?
I'm not sure really, it was probably negative. I was a nightmare when I was young as I wasn't that into school or anything. I was thrown out of doing my GCSEs for messing about making things with clay. I then started doing a mechanic's course at sixth form. Not exactly sixth form, but that thing you do where you're good with your hands and they try and get you a job. All I cared about at that age was riding a bike, I was obsessed with BMX and skateboarding. It was funny, on my course, they showed me a mini engine and said, "over the next few years, you'll get to rebuild this." I just thought that my grandma showed me how to do that when I was thirteen, so I kind of just left. After that, I guess by fluke, I met a bunch of people who were doing an art course. I've always been into art but after meeting these people on a foundation course, I thought it sounded pretty cool. I went along, checked it out, and somehow talked my way into it. I did that for a while before again being told that I wasn't taking it very seriously so I left that too. Since then, I've just found jobs and stuff. I'm fascinated by skills and learning new things but I'm really bad at being taught in a formal environment. I like a hands-on approach. I've always found it much easier to find a job where you're set up working as a carpenter or something. Because you have access to people who are doing it every day, you can ask stupid questions and do stuff, get your hands dirty and make things. I figured out when I was quite young that this approach worked out way better for me. I've always put making my own stuff ahead of having a job. I've always found jobs that will help me to make things if that makes sense.
That almost sounds like the roadmap for creatives. I've done a few interviews with some of the other ART808 artists, and there seems to be a theme of not getting on with formal education. Like you, they just wanted to do the thing they wanted to do really and not get distracted. Instead of solving obstacles for things you may or may not come across, just tackle the ones between you and where you want to go. What sparked your early interest in street art?
I've always loved graffiti. It's super cliche, but discovering Martha Cooper and subway art, you know? Where I grew up in Chelmsford, there was a hall of fame where a lot of people came from East London. It was a derelict gasworks where people painted. It was reasonably close to my house, so I would regularly go there and see who had painted what. If Essex rockers were doing something, or just see what was going on. I followed that until I was eighteen or nineteen when I moved to Brighton. I had left college and had been working making signage and decided that I wanted to get out of Chelmsford and Brighton looked like a pretty good place. I wrote to a load of sign companies there and was fortunate that a couple of places offered me jobs. I moved down there, and that was the first time I saw what could be described more as 'street art' rather than graffiti. Super early Banksy, he was doing the Cut-out and Keep things everywhere. I remember coming across a Pablo Fiasco typewriter and at that point, I knew quite a bit about colour separation in screen printing, I was really into that kind of stuff. I found this typewriter and I remember it being baffling, I couldn't work out how he'd done it. The main reason I moved to Brighton was that there was a strong BMX scene, the Levels Skatepark was a popular spot. Loads of us used to go out street riding, looking for handrails and stuff. After a point, I realised that I was looking for graffiti and street art to photograph more than anything else. Banksy, Pablo Fiasco, Vinnie Nylon, I became obsessed. When I left Brighton, I worked in Hackney for a long time which was on the edge of Shoreditch when that first wave of really good street art hit. All your classics were painting everywhere, it was cool. I used to do a lot of stencil stuff but I was shy and didn't really want to put my name on anything. I used to make stickers of BMX pedals - I made a screen for them and printed loads and always had 100 in my bag. They were absolutely everywhere. I ended up working for a lot of gig venues setting up PA equipment which got me touring with lots of bands travelling around Europe. It gave me amazing access to, not just meeting interesting people, but seeing street art all over Europe and putting up my stickers up, it was fun. All of my work now is a progression of the stencil and screen printing work. I was hugely inspired by Logan Hicks, his early photographic stuff was amazing. So I got into almost photorealistic stencilling. I'm really lucky that I know quite a lot of these people. Art is such a beautiful thing, it's so easy to communicate with other artists, it's nice. Logan's work inspired me towards a more studio practice. Instead of doing so much on the street, I started doing more work on canvas. There was this point where I had piles of stencils and screens all around me and I realised I preferred them to the other things I was making. So I started working with paper, woodcuts, and eventually, cutting metal.
Do you think being self-taught has been a help or a hindrance to your journey as an artist?
Definitely a help. There's a lot of stuff that, if I had gone through formal education, I may have understood better. There may have been mistakes I wouldn't have made. But I think that being self-taught, the sort of DIY ethic is great because actually making the mistakes is a lot more enriching than hearing about them. So many people within street art are self-taught and have that same kind of resilience of being faced with a problem and kind of enjoying. Finding a problem just represents a way to learn something new to get around it. There's something really cool about that. I think you have a deeper understanding of something if you've been forced to figure it out. It's definitely a positive.
INTERVIEWER: I guess you're probably less precious with each skill that you learn. Everything you acquire is a tool in your arsenal but you can drop it tomorrow if you've learned something better or even find something more interesting. But, if you've gone through formal education, you must worry that you've spent three years or so learning whatever thing and if it doesn't work, you haven't got that learned resilience to adapt.
Yeah, that's a perfect way of putting it. For example, I got into picture framing for a while and was like, I'm gonna learn to make perfect picture frames. I ended up buying this rusty, second-hand corner cut guillotine thing. I just got super into it and ended up rebuilding all these guillotine machines and underpinners. I spent ages researching different woods and machining profiles and then decided that actually, I didn't want picture frames for any of my work and preferred my work without a frame. I've just spent like a year learning all this stuff and collecting these things but you know what? It worked out better not using it and it's still good knowledge.
INTERVIEWER: And the skill might pop up again in the future and be extremely helpful in ways you can't imagine right now, you never know.
You have said that instead of reclaiming vintage hand-painted signs for your canvases, you recreate them yourself. Do you use stencils, or do you use an old-school mahlstick and a signwriting brush?
It's a bit of a combo of everything. I prefer using older stuff if I can. I look like I'm a real hoarder as I'm always finding things and looking out for more. But, some of the original things such as oil signage, can't physically be cut in the way I want because it's enamelled - as soon as you start to introduce heat, the coating will fracture and break apart. Some of it'll be plastic coated, you can never really know what was used. A lot of the time, it's much easier to find a piece of sheet metal and remake it yourself. It probably won't surprise you that I have a lot of scrap metal kicking around my workshop, bits of vans and things from other projects. Like I mentioned earlier, I worked designing and making signage when I first got out of college. I loved sign painting, loved stencilling. So it's normally a bit of a combination of all the different things. Sometimes I'll do a couple of stencil bits to get the block shape and then maybe an outline. I try and faithfully reproduce whatever's there, as well as I can. I want to make it look as authentic as possible, but without cheating anybody. I'm not trying to claim it's original or anything, I just think that there's something enjoyable when nobody else notices that you've made it yourself. Sometimes people assume that it's authentic and it's like, 'no I painted that.' I've fairly recently completed these two ESSO signs that use an old lettering style I think from the early 60s. I've never found one of the signs in real life, but I like them. The two that I've just cut were the ones that I got to display in the Saatchi group show recently. I could only find quite low-res pictures on Google but I enjoy the process of trying to bring terrible photos to life, recreating them has been fun.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, the ESSO V1 and V2 look pretty spot-on. They're really cool. I thought that all your signs were reclaimed. I didn't realise that you're doing it all yourself. But tell me, it must be a tiny bit heartbreaking when you have painted this beautiful sign and now you've got to cut it all to pieces?
I kind of love it. There's something enjoyable about it. There's a really humorous part of the process as well. Once it's cut, there's quite often a point where I want it more scratched. Often, I will literally put it on the floor and slide it about. I've got all sorts of stuff in my workshop, old bits of bike chains and things that you can scratch surfaces with to try and make it look more like it's naturally taken the form that it's taken. I want all my pieces to look like they've grown themselves. Rather than I have made them into what they are, I want them to look organic, a natural process that has happened. It's quite fun having nice paintwork and being like "right, now I have to run a brick over this."
INTERVIEWER: That's quite a contrast to go from doing tiny little brush details to having a brick in your hand. It does look very authentic, I see how the different techniques emulate the manmade and natural elements of the work.
You have said that you use synthetic objects which are often overlooked or considered mundane to create highly intricate sculptures which appear to be, at their heart, celebrations of nature. What for you is the connection between industry and nature and why does that fascinate you?
I think everything just connects in some way. I love derelict buildings for a start. There are lots of rundown mills and other buildings of industry where you can go in and just sense the past in some way. Something is fascinating about nature's ability to take something back. You've only got to leave something for a year and car parks will get covered over, walls and plaster gets blown off, plants grow through. Something is amazing about it. Things are built with such permanents and such strength but they can be undone so quickly. Just by leaving an apple core somewhere, an apple tree will grow and it will take down a wall. One of my favourite examples is in France. Where Notre Dame Cathedral is, there's this amazing old wrought iron fence and this tree has just warped it, popped through and grown to stretch out the bars. Like someone escaping prison. I like that kind of thing. Industry is a strange constant. I think originally it was seen as this weird battle, where we will defeat nature in some way. A lot of Victorian gardening was forcing order. Coal mining, dragging up the earth where we will strain the best out of it. There's something sort of sad and amazing about it. It's a really hard thing to describe, why I find it fascinating. They're kind of opposites but they're so entwined. It's almost the revenge of nature to some degree. A lot of the stuff I make hints at an alternate reality where everything was, for whatever reason, or intervention, stopped. And now, nature is reclaiming its elements and taking everything back. Some of these objects I create and left behind, significant in some way, but faded. The oil tanker is slowly being eroded, but it's one of the symbols of something that's done so much harm and created the situation.
INTERVIEWER: I think your artwork puts across these concepts very well. It sounds like the separation between industry and nature is the illusion, that the seeming solidity of order is ephemeral.
I think one of the really interesting things about making art visual art is that it is a way of explaining something without using words and a lot of ways. And I kind of are quite like not explaining stuff, a lot of the time because I think it allows other people to come to a conclusion. A couple of different people might see my work and come to different conclusions and no one's necessarily right or wrong. But if they all talk about it, it becomes an interesting conversation.
What is the process of selecting a found object? Do you have something in mind, then search for it, or do you look around to find something that inspires you?
What is the process of selecting a found object? Do you have something in mind, then search for it, or do you look around to find something that inspires you?
A total mix of both. Sometimes I find stuff and have to do something with it. It's a nice shape or something. Other times an object is a perfect metaphor for something bigger. The Transit van I did is the perfect metaphor for transport and shifting things. Everyone knows the shape of a Transit van, everyone has seen a transit van, they're just a thing. If you're gonna do a vehicle, something like a Transit van is the archetypal version of that thing. Other times, there's something nice about just seeing things and imagining doing something nice with them. Fire extinguishers came about only because I had a load of them cluttering up my workshop. I was going to take them all away with a load of scrap, but right as I was loading them, I thought to myself that I've never tried cutting one of these, I reckon it would be cool. Now, it's become one of my favourite things to work on, probably the most difficult but definitely worth the outcome.
INTERVIEWER: It seems like an extension of that organic process that applies to all areas of your work. I can imagine you having a good idea and then going out to find scrap then seeing something else and being like, actually, forget that idea I want to work with this thing.
Yeah, I have lots of unfinished stuff. It's nice, I have piles of things that at some point, I might finish or I might not but it was fun to just play about with. Like we were saying earlier, there's something in getting quite a way into a project and then thinking that it's just not working. It might just be not working now so I'll leave it for a few months and reevaluate it.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, it seems like the process is what's precious rather than the thing.
Can you describe the feeling you had when you first had a plasma cutter in your hands?
Just weird excitement I guess. It was like a missing jigsaw piece for loads of stuff I was doing. It was like a weird little spark, suddenly there's a huge amount of stuff that I'd been thinking about without realising, that was now possible. I used to have a studio next to my good friend Dwayne's workshop. He's this amazing crazy Aussie guy. Absolutely incredible metal worker and fabricator. He's the reason I can weld. I could stick metal together before I met him, but he showed me the technical side. He lent me a plasma cutter one day and just told me to have a go and have fun. I ran with it really, it just opened up an entire world of new things I could do. You have these fictional little projects in your head. Like it'd be amazing if I could make a hot air balloon, but you don't ever think that it's something you could necessarily do. And then someone goes, "well actually, hot air balloons are really easy to make, you just get a hot air balloon making machine." It really shifts your perception of what's possible.
What sparked your interest in environmental issues?
I think that's something I've always been aware of. Growing up, my parents were interested to a degree. We used to go to this place called CAT which is in Machynlleth, Wales. It's the Centre for Alternative Technology. For lack of a better word, some hippies bought a slate quarry in the early 70s and built a bit of a commune. They make compost, plant trees, and build buildings. They made this incredible gravity railway that uses a huge pond to fill tanks in a cable car train that then weighs down another one full of people. It's just absolutely full of amazing inventions. But it was also sustainable before anyone was talking about that kind of stuff. I think that's probably one of the things that helped to put that in my head. I got really involved in protest movements and a lot of stuff like that. I went to Climate Camp, which was very similar to Extinction Rebellion before that was a thing. I've just always been one of those quite anti-corporate and interested in the environment kind of kids.
Is the universe that your work creates - one where machines of heavy industry are disregarded and reclaimed by nature - a result of our enlightenment as a species, or is it the result of our failures?
I think it could be either. I'd like to think the former, but probably the latter. Like I mentioned earlier, I like the idea of them being significant objects that created the bigger problems. Things like last-mile shipping, short-haul flights, oil tankers, or the petrochemical industry. They're not 100% to blame but they are a huge part of why we're facing so many problems now. Serious problems. But also, I like the thought that it's the result of an enlightenment where everyone works together and we say, "hey maybe this is more important than corporate profit and maybe we should fix this for generations that are coming after us." Then maybe some of these objects remain as relics to remind us. That's a much more optimistic and nice way of thinking about it. I've been trying to be more optimistic.
INTERVIEWER: It is hard to be optimistic when facing these environmental issues. It seems like such an obvious thing to us as individuals, we can easily get our heads around it. But as a society or species, we seem to be very shortsighted and ignorant. It's strange, isn't it?
It frustrates me because so much of that is manufactured, it's lobbying. It's this 'oh well, you know who we can't do anything, we're just Exon Mobile, it's not that fault!' They spend billions of pounds convincing people that it's their problem. It's frustrating because we could make things so much better. Not like pre-industrial revolution standards because we've had an industrial revolution which has brought colossal increases in health care. There are so many positives that have come out of progression that you can't say it's a wholly bad thing. But also we're at a point where we've got to say, you know, the scales are kind of wrong here, we're doing a great deal of harm and that's impacting a huge, huge part of the world. We have the technology, we have the ability. There's an amazing poster I saw recently in London which read, "the future is here, It's just not distributed fairly yet." That's such a beautiful and well-phrased thing. We can live in relative luxury here where we're not gonna see a lot of the major problems caused by climate change for quite a while, but there's an awful lot of places in the world that are already seeing crazy problems. It's just part of life now that there's gonna be huge floods, there's gonna be droughts. It's easy for us to ignore but really, it's everybody's problem. It should be a bigger thing than it is, and it's just kind of being greenwashed away. It's become a byline to sell washing powder or whatever pseudo green products make people feel better. It's frustrating but you have to try and stay optimistic and find positives.
INTERVIEWER: Well, it's that or nihilism anyway and I think optimism is definitely more productive and beneficial. There are always things we can do on an individual level to make the situation better.
What inspired the use of light in your 'Illuminated' series? Was it an organic development from looking at the shadows cast by your work, or did it evolve as a finished idea?
Probably an evolution again. I love casting shadows, like I mentioned, I worked for a lot of bands. I did rigging and setting up lighting. I've always been fascinated by light and projection. There's something cool about throwing shadows and making a relatively small object have a huge presence with only a candle. That's something I'm playing about with more at the moment, more light orientated stuff.
INTERVIEWER: The shadows blew my mind, they added a whole new dimension to the work. Being able to see the shape of plants when you're not distracted by the texture of the work or the writing was incredible, seeing this cast shadow of life coming from this metal sign.
It is interesting like you say, how much different, how much more realistic the shadow becomes because you don't have the text and you don't have the texture. I really enjoy that weird contradiction. There's something fun about it.
What's next for you? Are you working on anything exciting that you would like to tell us about?
I'm having a little bit of time off at the moment. Not completely time off, but I'm trying to avoid agreeing to anything for a few months because of having a child and moving home. I've got a lot of studio stuff I'm working on. New shadow generating stuff and hopefully, a series of work where I create pieces to cast shadows with specific places in mind so that I can take them and photograph them in situ. It's sometimes nice to not be working towards the next thing and just take a bit of time to play around. Not feel pressured to do a particular piece or a particular show. It's nice to play with all this daft stuff that I got at a car boot last June and haven't had a chance to do anything with. Maybe I'll sit and paint on some of that and see if I like it enough to cut it out. Or just play around and mess about for a bit and see what happens next year.
INTERVIEWER: It sounds like you need that time as an artist to grow. I think artists can become stunted in their development just doing show after show. I can imagine losing that spark. It's good that you can afford that although I'm sure you will be very busy in the next few months when the baby arrives.
I always try and put aside some time. I mean, when you're being asked to do stuff, it's always really cool. I love doing shows, especially building sculptures and installation stuff. I'm terrible at saying no. In Stroud, there's an amazing local magazine called Good on Paper, it's a free gig listing for the arts. Because Stroud is a small town but a wide area, they do a party every year to get everyone together. There's always such an amazing lineup because so many cool musicians live around here. So, yeah, I've just agreed to do an installation for that which will probably be a light thing or something, I'm not sure yet as February is miles away.