My Dog Sighs (MDS) is a Portsmouth-based street artist, filmmaker, and author. Formerly a primary school teacher, MDS decided to quit his ‘safe job’ to pursue his passion for independent art. Known initially for his ‘Everyman’ character, a child-like drawing offering uplifting expressions to the people of Portsmouth, MDS went on to coin the term ‘Free Art Friday’, helping to expand and define an international movement of artists who leave their work in the street for passers-by to find and keep. MDS has since staged multiple international sold-out shows and has garnered worldwide acclaim and recognition.
The innocence and naivety of the Everyman character and corresponding quotes seem to embody the kind of wisdom we lose growing up. As an artist, do you think that there is merit in looking at the world from a child’s perspective?
I think very much so. I relate strongly to the freedom I observe in a child-produced piece of work. It fascinates me as an artist. As parents, we all stick our kid's pictures on the fridge. There is so much freedom from a child with a paintbrush in their hands. As adults, we are forced into how things should look and how things should work. With kids, you can have something which is really simple and naïve, but still so powerful. There is a story behind the production of the Everyman work. I used to be a primary school teacher and I was working with a young kid, four or five, reluctant to pick up a paintbrush or a pencil and do anything. I tried to encourage him to create something. Reluctantly, he grabbed a pencil in a fist grip and scribbled on a blue piece of paper. He only took about four seconds before saying, ‘there you go, I've done a picture of you.’ I looked at what was the birth of my Everyman character, and I thought ‘you little shit!’ You've done everything that I've spent my entire life trying to encapsulate. Those moments of emotion that I spent a lifetime trying to develop and there you are picking up a pencil for the first time and doing it. It was the idea that you can simplify things so much, but they can still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and have resonance with the viewer. I tie that in along with phrases, often lyrics, that I've developed and picked up over my life. We have all had our hearts broken at 15 and played that one song over and over. I've got a terrible memory, but in my head, there are snippets and songs that have punctuated my life. It's those lyrics that I tie in with this very naive Everyman character, which I have found is effective when it comes to capturing a viewer. That for me is the success of Everyman and why it's been going for 18, 19 years.
On your website, you offer learning resources for school children of all ages. Is it important that your work connects with children?
It's my historic link with education and the importance of trying to capture and keep that freedom in artists as they go through the education system. I think that I might massively misquote here, I can't remember where it came from. It’s the idea that the artist is the person that was able to keep that child-like play going. Everyone else gets it beat out of them a little bit. Artists are the ones that are still able to play freely. That link with art, children, and education is a powerful one for me. I remember what it was like being a teacher and how difficult it was to try and find things that really connected with kids. By putting education packs together, I've got feet in both camps. One in wanting to make a difference to children, art, and our education. But also knowing what it's like for a teacher trying to scramble around and find decent resources that are going to switch kids on and get them excited. I want kids to walk out of the education system going ‘wow, someone can do this as a job!’ I didn't have that. I had people along the way that inspired me to go on that journey, but I had no idea that it could be a job. It was just these pictures in museums that didn't relate to anything in my life. If I can inspire someone to think that it's possible, that's a massive buzz for me. The worst thing you can say to a child is ‘what is it?’ The best thing you can say is ‘tell me about your picture.’ You can ask the same question, but if you say, ‘tell me about your picture’, you see them light up. They haven't got that ‘oh god, I have to tell you what it is’, they can let you know and by the end, it's just a brown smear because they’ve got so carried away with the story that they're telling, I love it!
From humble beginnings to international acclaim, sold-out shows, and coveted prints and originals. When you step back and evaluate your journey, how has your mindset evolved, and would you still consider yourself a street artist?
Absolutely! To answer the last bit first, absolutely. I'm a street artist before everything else. Selling work in the gallery, print releases, all of those things are there to enable me to have fun on the street. They provide an income, which is great. Rather than having a day job and trying to fit street art around the outside, they provide me with the freedom to have a studio and to have time and space to explore the stuff on the street. That for me always comes first. I have a number of hats - I am a mural painter, I have my work in a gallery, and I do print releases and installations. But it's the street work that leads all of that. The street work is almost my sketchbook as well. The production of work on the street are the things that give me a chance to play and explore. There are time and space limitations. You're working in an outdoor environment and that's exciting. The gallery work follows the street work. It's been a fascinating journey and the street art thing was for shits and giggles. It was a thing I did on evenings and weekends. But there was a real appetite for street art and excitement for what was going on and people wanting to step into that. That's created this new gallery scene, a fantastic opportunity for me to travel the world and paint, do my street work, and do my gallery shows meeting all the other crazy artists on the same pathway. But there's this thing called ‘imposter syndrome.’ I think we all suffer from it somewhere along the line, doesn't matter what career. Everyone else seems to know what they're doing, and we just bumble along. I'm guilty of feeling that. People make statements about me being an ‘internationally acclaimed artists’ and I suppose if I sit and look at what I've done over this journey, that is what it is. But for me, it's someone saying you want to do this? And I'm like, ‘yeah, damn right I want to do it!’ It’s like being in the band, right? Doing the thing that you want to do, the thing that you love to do, the thing that makes you tick. When someone says that they value this, they value this in their society, their community, and they value this enough to spend their hard-earned cash on buying these pieces to hang in their homes, I'm massively humbled. It's a buzz, I pinch myself every day. Maybe that's part of me wanting to put something back into the education system. Do something for other people because I'm the lucky one. I know loads of incredible artists that haven't had the opportunities that I've had even though they're incredibly talented. I know that I'm in a very lucky position and so, doing what I can to help pull other artists up and inspire people to do the same thing, is the payoff for that.
You have said that you initially set out trying to replicate the kind of work you saw in galleries. But, after going gallery to gallery with artwork underarm, you received nothing but rejection. Would you say that it was only after letting go of the pursuit of commercial success and instead, indulging your creativity and allowing yourself to follow whatever inspired you, that you were able to get where you wanted to be?
Absolutely, the idea that I felt I should paint what other people would want led to dead ends and failure right down the line. It was only when I was released from the idea that I was trying to create something for other people and instead, doing it for my passion, pleasure and enjoyment. That's when things started to happen. I often get messages from aspiring artists going ‘how can I be famous?’ If someone asks that question, they're never going to be famous because. What you want is to be utterly passionate about what you do. When you are utterly passionate, when you are completely 100% genuine in the focus of pursuing the best painting you've ever done, that's when people step in and recognise it. It's been the case for me anyway. You can't go into the game to try and be a famous artist or a successful artist. You've just got to do the best you can. Follow your passion and hope it happens. And if it doesn't happen, you’re doing the thing that you want to do so, does it matter? You keep your day job and still do the thing you love in the evenings and weekends. That's cool too as long as you are really genuine and true to that thing that you are striving towards.
Do you think that your journey as an artist - quitting a safe job, working hard, making the art that you want to make - is a fluke or a formula for success? Is it something others can do, and would you recommend it to aspiring artists?
That's a tricky one. Can I recommend it? It's not an easy road. I've got three rules and I try and live by them. They are - one, work hard, two, be nice, and three, there are no excuses. They seem simple but they're quite complex. I was a teacher, and I don't know any teacher that doesn't work ridiculously hard: those that work in the education system. I had that work ethic from spending 20 years in the classroom. I knew that if I was going to step out of this - I have a family to support - I can't just sit in a cafe smoking fags and drinking coffee. I'm working hard, I've got to make this a success. Otherwise, I've got to step back into the day job and I don't want to do that. I want to do this thing that I love. That working hard rule is a tough one. And you have to be a nice guy. That idea of being a dick and not turning up on time. Messing around and being late for stuff. The stereotypical rock star chucking TVs out the window and being a bad boy, just isn’t the case. Most of those massively successful bands are really motivated. Maybe it's part of a cool thing they do to try and give the impression that they're disorganised, but I don't think that's the case. I think they're determined to work hard. We all make mistakes and you've so got to own those mistakes; you've got to stand up when you've messed up and put it right. I've tried to follow those rules as best I can. I try to be as professional as I possibly can be. If I promise something, I try to deliver it on time. It's not always happened but I'm going to do my best. So, is it a fluke? I had some lucky opportunities and they've helped move my career forward. But how you engineer those, I don't know. Maybe it's following those three rules that have allowed my creative development.
You have said that you don’t like to be 'safe and comfortable'. As you move more towards a slightly more traditional ‘indoor’ way of exhibiting your work, how will you maintain immediacy and spontaneity?
Oh gosh! I think I just try and keep fresh. I try and play as much as possible. I try and give myself the freedom to not be tied into doing the same thing all the time. Another quote and I think I've got this one right,
Picasso said, 'inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ I'm not going to sit and wait for the next idea for the painting. I'm going to throw some paint around, sketch, draw, sculpt. I'm going to work in that way. And something I will do along the way will inspire me to make a great piece of work and move things forward. Working in a gallery space can be challenging for street artists because you're used to dealing with outside environments such as community or weather. You want your piece to embed itself into all those things. When you hang work in the white cube of a gallery, you don't have that. That's a challenge. I have been trying to work towards a way of creating the excitement and feel that comes from the street, inside an urban place. My most recent exhibition was in an abandoned ballroom and casino. Rust and peeling paint, the urban aesthetic, those are things that excite me. Trying to capture those elements within my work is a way of keeping true to myself as a street artist. I hope that those things help to create something exciting in the work that I hang in a gallery.
How important is what other people think about your work, or how they are affected by it? How has social media changed things for you in terms of feedback, and is social media always a good thing?
I don't think about other people when I'm producing the work, but I am fascinated by responses. Whether that influences future pieces, I'm not sure. It is interesting to see how connections are made. Sometimes it's fascinating how powerful connections can be made with a piece of work. I don't know if you've ever walked into an art gallery or a museum, thousands of paintings, but there is usually one or two in the space that just draw you back. I walk into a museum and have a look around, I don't know what it is about this one painting, but there's something that's really powerful. When you see that happening with your work, that feeling in other people, that's an incredible thing. I wish I could work out what the recipe is to make those things happen. They’re often not the pieces that you expect. As a painter of eyes and builder of narratives within the reflection of an eye, I often tell personal stories, but I try and make a point of not being too direct as to what those stories are. They have significance to me because I must have a connection with every piece I've planned. There must be some connection because I'm spending weeks working on it. It must tell a story from my perspective at some point. But what's really fascinating is that I can hang that in a gallery, stand next to people looking at it, especially if they don't know who I am, and hear them telling those stories. They're looking at the reflection and they go, ‘oh that's my mum!’ It just reminds them of something. They build this whole story looking at the reflection inside the eye and it makes a connection to them. There's no way that I'm going to nudge them and say, no, you're completely wrong, it's my wife and I or that's my friend Sally etc. As an artist, what you want is people to emotionally connect with your work. I put the reflections in for myself. Every piece is an important part of my journey and experiences throughout my life. They can only come from me. But it is quite incredible to see how other people make that connection. People tell stories about my work that I haven't even considered. As an artist, your role is to hold up a mirror to society and to people that are looking at your work. They can only project their own life experiences; they don't know your journey. They only have their own. By producing the work, you're holding a mirror up to them and you're asking them think about their own life experiences. Does that teardrop under that eye relate to a specific point in their life that they can connect to? I don't know. I can just paint the picture and hope they look and can build their own narrative to it. I've got no control over but it is fascinating.
When I first started, the internet was in its infancy. My work as a street artist was about connecting with unknown people on a one-to-one basis. Only one person would likely spot my work on the street. I didn't start by painting massive murals. I started by creating little tin can sculptures and pieces of art that I dotted around on the streets. I had to imagine the connection a person made because I never saw the person experiencing my work. With the advent of the internet, I could create tiny pieces of work and make connections with thousands, even tens of thousands of people around the world. I think street art benefited from the use of the internet as a way of sharing work. Instead of it being a piece of work that maybe 20 people would see, artists can create work that tens, thousands, or millions of people can see. There's a fantastic artist called Slinkachu. He creates tiny scenes using architectural figures. They're about four millimetres tall. Little lumberjacks or people walking. He would create dioramas on the street and then take beautiful photographs. Tens of thousands of people would walk past and wouldn't see it because the whole sculpture was a two-centimetre cube. But when they're online, you can focus in and see these things. Then it becomes an exciting way of working. So, yeah, the internet has opened things up. I've got fans of my work across the world that might not have seen my work in the flesh but have the opportunity to explore it.
You have got 85k followers on Instagram, why do you feel that so many people have engaged with your work?
Because I've been doing it for a long time. I want to make it so people can't avoid what I do! I work hard at the social media game. I probably spend as much time with my phone in my hand, as I do with the paintbrush in my hand. That's part of self-promotion as an artist and something that you can't ignore. I don't know why people connect with my work. I don't know why people like my work. I'm just pleased that they do and that they've given me the opportunity to follow my passions, and dream of exploring and developing in the way that I have. I have been working on the street for nearly 20 years, so the opportunity to spend time in honing, refining, and developing, has been the most incredible journey. I've got a fantastic fan base and it's a buzz to share the things that excite me, with them. Producing new pieces of work, coming up with a new idea - I'm as keen to share with them as the fanbase are to share the journey with me.
Now that you have international recognition, does commercial success have more influence on your creative direction?
No, not at all. Because if I did it thinking that I could make more money from it, I would lose that essence of specialness. As soon as I've lost the essence of specialness then the work is meaningless, and I go back full circle to where I started - trying to produce work that I think other people would like and failing. That's my reminder. I was in my early 20s painting things that looked like other artists were painting, things I thought people would want to buy and hit dead ends every time. I can't reach that point. The big Inside project that I've just finished is a massive departure from where I've been up until now and a massive risk. I've never sculpted before, I've never worked on inside installations, light or sound. All those things were unknown. I was taking part of what I did, my Quiet Little Voices, which were a very small element of what's known as ‘My Dog Sighs’, and I pushed them to the very front and put everything on the line. You must take those risks because it's the trust in yourself to follow the path that’s important. Everything I've done so far, I have trusted. Something may not be what I've done before, but I'm going to give it a go. I trusted myself to try that and so far, I've been successful. I must be doing something right. I don't know what the formula is, but I've just got to try my very best to carry on doing the thing that I love because it's the thing that has got me here. I've just got to carry on doing that and hope it’s what people want. It helps if I've got success and the value of my work is increasing because it gives me the freedom to do more community-based projects, street-based projects that I don't earn from. The passion projects, the things I'm excited by.
You have said that in the beginning, it took being lost to figure out what you needed to do. Do you now have a clear destination in mind? What does success feel like and how will you know when you get there?
I've got no idea what I'm doing tomorrow. I wake up and play and 90% of it is screwed up and thrown in the bin. But if there's one tiny nugget, that one nugget can inspire a two-year project. There's no format as to whether I'm going to have a successful day or whether it's going to work or not. I just have to trust in my freedom to explore, and to make mistakes, and to embrace those mistakes. I think that idea of happy accidents is powerful. A huge amount of my work is produced without planning. Knock that pot of paint over, use the overspray, it wasn't supposed to happen but see how you can work with it. Don't be afraid to push. It doesn't work every time and my studio is full of those failures. You only learn through failing, don't you? And I think if you are afraid to fail, you are never going to succeed. You need to fail, and fail, and fail, and fail, and be fine with that. Some people use the word 'fail,' some people use the word 'play.' I like to play. Play and play and play. Somewhere along the line, you are going to go 'whoa! I don't know what it is but that's it!' I'm just going to start taking that and developing it further. I had a studio assistant for a while and he used to say, 'oh my god. Paul, you're going into Wonka mode!' On my whiteboard, I'd have a list of things I was supposed to be doing and I couldn't even look at it sometimes. I just had to do whatever this Wonka thing was. Whatever the crappy accident, colour combination, line, or idea that came up. Everything else out of the window. Stop! Get me ten canvases, get me this and that, and then just run and play with it. I don't know what it is. I don't make it happen. I just stumble across it. It makes being organised quite difficult. But, it's an incredibly fun place because you think you know what you're doing one day but it becomes something completely different.
As your work has increased in value, how do you feel about the possibility of the Free Art Friday scheme - and street art in general - being seen as 'Free Cash Friday' by some finders? For example, work created by Banksy as part of his By the Sea project has led to councils fencing off murals and one business owner taking his property off the market to "consider his options" after Banksy painted a mural on it. What does the future hold for street artists as their work becomes increasingly commodified and not purely about social commentary and a way of connecting with and inspiring the people viewing it?
This is a tricky one that I think many street artists are having to try and navigate, and they're navigating it without a map really. Banksy massively so. Generally, if you're a stencil artist and you're spraying on the street, it's pretty tricky to remove and not really financially worth doing so unless you get that value that comes with Banksy pieces. I won't put my house on the market because my house is tripling in value. One of the things that pushed my career forwards was this Free Art Friday project that I've been working on. I have had several people hunting and finding the pieces purely because of the financial value of the work that I produce. It's kind of ironic that it was rubbish in the first place, an empty baked bean tin for example, and what I produced adds value. There was a romance in taking something which was a lost piece of rubbish, putting paint on it, bringing it back to life again, and making it something which someone can have an emotional connection with. That was what Free Art Friday was about. It was about someone going, 'oh, look at that tin, it looks all lonely!' It's funny that someone would pick up these pieces of rubbish and put it on their mantlepiece at home because it had this wonderful melancholic face on it. That's the romance of Free Art Friday. I'm trying to navigate my way through that. I still put work out, I think it was every Friday for 15 years without exception. That's had to change because of the financial issue. I still put work out, but what I tend to do is not share it on social media because it's those people that will know that the can has a value. They may hunt it because they want it but there's this is financial value too. I'd much rather leave it in a city or a country that know nothing about me, and nothing about my work, in the hope that whoever does stumble across it, stumbles across for the right reason. The original reason that went along with that. I am where I am and the value of my work has changed and is continuing to change. I can't ignore that fact. I still love producing work for Free Art Friday. I still love the idea of a mystery treasure hunt that someone will stumble across. Will I make it harder for people to find? Yeah, I think that's one way of doing it. If I'm going to leave a tin can out and it's got a thousand-pound or two-thousand-pound price tag in a gallery, then maybe it's about creating a challenge that makes it harder. The reward at the end is greater because of it. I can't ignore the facts that I wouldn't be doing this now if it wasn't for Banksy and the way that Banksy has created excitement. The Street Art industry has gone from a very quiet subculture where a bunch of us would wander around, looking at stickers on lampposts that 90% of the population would ignore. It's a bit like graffiti still is now, that hidden subculture is communication between a small group of people and Banksy has exploded it. Everybody knows Banksy, my mum knows Banksy, and that's created a market. Not just for his work but other artists' work. I can't ignore those facts but, we're all going along without any direction, there's no book to follow, there's no pathway. You're just going to make your own pathway and hope the decisions you make are the right ones.
I haven't travelled to a city in the world where I haven't been able to reach out to a community of Free Art Friday artists. Australia, Korea, Hong Kong, USA, Israel, everywhere around the world. It's scary to get your work out, it's scary to show your work to other people. Artists are looking for galleries to show their work and it's so hard to do. When you first start, maybe you're still developing but, to put it out on the streets as part of Free Art Friday is a way of getting that first step in. You're putting your work out for a real-life audience, not your mum, dad, and your friends, but a real-life, don't know who the artist is, audience. I think that's a great early entry into art and into sharing art. There are school kids that paint pebbles and leave them around. There are established artists that produce work - Adam Neate famously hid a hundred prints around the City of London. I just think it's an exciting way of getting your work out to an audience that wouldn't normally see it. There are a huge number of galleries especially that prey on those emerging artists. It's pay to play - for £250, you can hang your work in our gallery. That's common in many galleries, they are praying on artists who are desperate to reach an audience.
Do you feel that it is right for street art to be protected with plastic screens and barriers, or should it be left to the elements - and 'vandals'?
Utterly the latter. Left to the elements and the vandals. I produced some work on the building's exterior for Inside and the building owners spoke to me this week and said, ‘look, I have all the pieces you did in the show, can we cut it off the wall and keep it?’ I said, ‘no and if you attempt it, I will get a pot of paint and throw it over it!’ It's ephemeral and that's what makes street art exciting. You can walk down any busy street, Brick Lane for example, and there's street art all over. The thing that makes it exciting is that it's not curated and it's ever-changing. If my work stays there for a year, two years, three years, it becomes wallpaper, invisible, no one takes any notice of it. I would much rather it lasted for four months to six months and then someone else did a fantastic piece over the top. It's frustrating when they don't and they just put a piece of shit over it, but I have no control over that. I must accept that it's part of the game and that's part of what makes street art exciting. That I can walk around the corner and I can see some tat and then see something that will absolutely shift my view on the world or how I live my life. Street art can do that, it can change the way you think about the world. I want street artists to be able to do that. It was of the moment, it was there for everyone to enjoy and then when it's ready to go, it'll go. Not cut off the wall. I've seen some of those Banksy pieces that were cut off the wall. They were so exciting in the place they were in and just like cage animals, now it just doesn't work.
How do you feel about people adding to street artists' work, or even vandalising it? Where is the line between art and vandalism considering even Banksy began mostly thought of as the latter, and who gets to decide?
I have no issues at all with anybody adding to, collaborating with, or vandalising work. That's the freedom of street art and the lack of curation that goes with it. Like I said before, it can be terrible, or it can be brilliant. The fact that no one is deciding what goes up makes it fresh and exciting. I've had plenty of artists do that with me. Sometimes it's incredibly successful and that's wonderful. You have one intention and you paint that on the wall and then someone comes along and does something to it. Famously, there's a South American painter called 'Pez' who paints fish. These naive cartoons that have one big eye. He was bombing his way around London, and I had a piece on the wall, one of my beautifully painted eyes. He created his cartoon fish around the outside of it. Instead of this naive Mickey Mouse eye that goes in the middle of his piece, it was a My Dog Sighs beautiful eye with its shine and reflection. That's just brilliant. The comedic immediacy of taking something and subverting it is lovely. Let's start using that subversive nature of art to excite people.
How important is a venue to you? For example, could Inside have been anywhere else besides the old Grosvenor Casino, and how do you go about finding a suitable place when you have an idea for a project?
Inside could only have happened where it did. Because it was the space that inspired the work that went inside it. The space came first. I was looking for an interesting venue to hang some paintings to have more of a standard show. But when I discovered that space, I realised that it had to be so much more. Finding the space was a fluke, it was an accident, a really happy accident. But I knew I had to create the work for that space. Having done that, I am now thinking, ‘well, okay, so how can I find other spaces and how can I interact with those in different ways?’ The challenge is discovering those spaces and making connections with urban explorers and finding these interesting buildings. It's not as easy as finding a gallery or hiring a space that you can use. That comes with its own challenges. But I think the idea of things being difficult makes it more exciting. When you do finally get there, tick all the boxes, and create something magical, It becomes worth all the hard work. It's so easy to go, ‘ah, you know, trying to find another space like that, that's going to be a ball ache, let's not worry. Let's do something else.’ But we can really surprise someone with a roof cottage in the woods in Wales, or an old factory building in Nottingham. Ask what stories we could tell within that space. I'm beginning to see more and more how valuable space can be for me as an artist. I'm up for trying to find interesting spaces and responding to them in some way. I don't quite know how I will respond and whether it'll be anything like I've done before but the hunts going to be cool. When I find something, I'm going to try and do something interesting with it. It can be stressful at times as well, but you must be open to, 'oh, that wasn't what I thought it was.' Creators are problem solvers, you thought it was going to be this but it's not. It's that. what am I going to do with that? You follow the pathway. ‘Shit, I can't do that. So, can I do this?’ It’s about solving those problems. And they're strange problems. They're not fixing the car or decorating the house. They're these weird abstract problems that you don't know why you need to solve but stumbling across them means that you must. I think that's the freedom and importance of art. These problems wouldn't be solved if we didn't have art and artists, it would all be neat, practical, lifeless. Sometimes we must have emotive and confusing problems. People need to be able to view those to understand how art can change them.
Inside, being the culmination of over a year's work, and from the sounds of it, quite the life-changing adventure, was over after only two weeks, how do you feel about that, and after such a monumental project, is it time for reflection or are you already busy planning your next show?
I suppose coming from the street art background where I expect things not to last, I was fine with the fact that it was ephemeral. It was only on for that short period of time and part of me revelled in that. If it was open for months and months, where is the excitement of needing to go and see it? We had 10,000 people through those doors and those 10,000 know that no one else will ever go to see it. We were there. It was like when Nirvana came to your town and played, the 40 people in the audience went, 'we were there, we experienced that.' Everyone else wished they had, and they hadn't. The exclusivity of it being on for short period of time was exciting. What was crazy is it took nearly two years to build it and it was only open for two weeks which is why it was so important to have a legacy for the project. That's where the book comes in. I made sure that I had a documenter filming and photographing from the first day I walked into the building, until we locked the doors at the very end of that two weeks of opening. It's a massive part of my life, it was completely all-consuming. Walking away and thinking I'm never going to see that again; I'm not going to be in that room again. That room doesn't exist anymore. That space, that world I created is no longer there, it doesn't exist anymore. It was important to have a legacy that followed it through. I'm sat working on the book now, putting the final pieces together, looking through and it's like a memoir. At some point, I'm going to be an old man in an old peoples’ home not remembering who anybody is. But I'm going to flick through the book and go, 'holey moley, I did that.' The book is really precious to me because it's the legacy from all the work that went along with it.
As far as what happens next, I surprise myself at how much it consumed me. There's always a post-show comedown. There's always that. You're busy, busy, busy, then you stop. That feels a bit weird. I wasn't expecting it to hit me quite as hard as it did. I have had to be kind to myself for the first time in a long time. I've had to think about my mental health and my physical well-being. All those things must be put to one side because the focus was getting that mad story told. I'm in a much better place having had a bit of a break from it. But I'm removing the sculptures from this building thinking, ‘I wonder how that would work in a cathedral? What story could I tell if I took this to an abandoned castle or a tunnel?’ You have no control over your brain, it just does these things. I want to go, 'let me switch off for six months, let me just reassess!’ I'm not rushing to put together a project of quite that scale, but I am fascinated by the idea of lost spaces. The building in Portsmouth that I worked in is in the most densely populated city in Europe. It was 3,000 square metres and had been locked up for 40 years. There are buildings like this in every city around the world. There are spaces that have been lost and forgotten. Some of them probably incredible. All of them had a history and many stories to tell. The people that have worked in them, lived in them, played in them, whatever. I like the idea that I can step in and add a new chapter to the building’s history. Maybe a chapter where I create something just before the building gets knocked down with my work inside. Like I said, problem-solving - what if we could do this or do that. My brain is starting to fire up again. I've got to get my body to catch up with that at some point. I'm painting a mural tomorrow just to get my hand back into it again. With my brain fired up and my hands starting to move, I think I'm ready to get going again.
What kind of permanent changes do you think Covid has made to art and artists?
I think it's too early to tell right now. It's had an impact on galleries and how the art buying public connect with artists. For some, it has been more successful because the public is connecting directly with them rather than with galleries. For others, the emotional weight that comes along with Covid has made creating art very difficult. As an artist that spends half of my time and income travelling the world and painting murals for different cities, it's been a major impact and I'm not quite sure how that is going to change. But then part of me also thinks that as a white cis English artist, is it my place to travel to Hong Kong or Shenzhen and paint murals? Am I the right person to put that piece of work out in that place? Does it mean that we as artists begin to look a little bit more into the places that we live? Make statements and explore those things closer to us? I don't know. It's a problem which depends on how the world moves out of this. Hopefully, it will change for the better. We must adapt. I think that's one thing Covid did to everybody whether you are an artist or not. Sometimes something is happening in the world and there is nothing you can do about it. You've got to embrace it and you've got to work your way through and navigate that journey or you fall by the wayside. I don't want to fall by the wayside. I want to take full advantage of whatever situation I am in. This is where I am so I'm going to make most of it.
My Dog Sighs on his book launch:
We've got a whole host of stuff hidden inside the book. There's a poem that you have to discover and find. We're going to hide a token for a Free Art Friday work inside one of the books. Someone who buys the book is going to discover this token and can win a piece of work. Just like the building, which was full of little rabbit holes, the book is the same thing. Let's forget the conventions of what everybody understands a normal book to be. Let's turn it on its head. I don't want it to be a book where someone picks it up and looks through and goes, 'oh look, there's the story of Inside.’ I want someone to pick it up five times and every time they pick it up see something new. Go, 'hang on a minute, if I move these pages, there's a hidden picture here', or 'what's that text?', or 'can I find the Rosetta Stone that solves this mystery so I can read a whole new section of the book?’ really enjoyed delving into that side of it as well.
It's about Inside, but it's also an extension of Inside. It's split into different parts. Part of it is the show reel. It's all the things that you would have seen if you came to the building and wandered around. There were a limited number of people that could do that. I wanted to give everybody who couldn't travel because of Covid, an opportunity to explore the building in the same way that the visitors did. The other half of the book is the journey that it took for me to get to the point where the doors were open. The weeks sweeping the floor and getting rid of the pigeons. The time spent just contemplating the build, the sketches, the learning how to sculpt, and sculpting. The working with the lighting guys, and the sound guys to create these voices. You get to go, 'oh, wow! I saw that sculpture on that massive throne and I saw those things that are hanging from it.' This is what led to that point. This is how it was built, why it was built, and understanding it. It also becomes like the show was - a place for you to discover and stumble across things in unusual ways using the spine, endpapers, and different aspects of the book.
My Dog Sighs on his new print releases And They Went on Forever, Looking Lost, Feeling Found and Our Story Looking Forward:
They're part of that journey that goes with me exploring the idea of eyes as a way of telling stories personal to me. There are three narratives hidden inside the reflection of the eyes. They're not narratives that I'm open to giving to the public because what I am hoping for is that people begin to tell their own stories. I often get asked when I talk to kids in schools, 'what's the best picture you've ever painted?' It's a really frustrating answer for them but the answer is, 'the next one.' There are things that you like and things that you don't, the things that aren't so successful. You take the things that you like, and you bring them forward into your next painting. You look at the things that weren't successful and work on those until you have gotten to a point where you are happy. That goes into your next piece. For me, I'm always hunting for the perfect piece. I kind of hope I don't find it. Once I do, I'll never be able to paint again. These three pieces are the latest of the eyes that I've painted. They're from that lineage of basic naive ones, when I first started painting eyes 12 years ago. They've got so many more elements of things that I've really enjoyed and looked at. I was looking back through them a couple of days ago and thought, 'oh, I forgot how much I love these.' These are special pieces, and I don't want to tell people that might be interested in buying them that there are elements I don't like. But there are elements that I think next time I can do this or that etc. I wouldn't put them out there if they weren't the best of where I am right now. But they are just part of that journey as an artist. Developing, playing, exploring, and moving forward. There's been a chance to play new things. Colour schemes, and styles I haven't worked on. The print guys have just done the most incredible job. Jonathan Lewis brought those prints over to me and they are some of the best that I've ever had done. They are beautiful. They've been made so well, and it was an absolute joy to sign my name and number them. They are going to go out into the world and hopefully people will be able to capture a snapshot of me as an artist on my journey. I do like to play sometimes or get lost in the detail. I must try and remind myself to loosen up and be a little freer as sometimes I can spend a day just painting the highlights on a single eyelash. You can get lost in these little things, but that's the fun of it.
My Dog Sighs on his upcoming movie launch:
Like the book, it's a way of me capturing a moment in time. I was so busy that I haven't really had a chance to think about those processes that I went through to put Inside together. Paul, my filmmaker, was only supposed to follow me for four months because that's how long the project was supposed to last. The poor guy ended up following me for 18 months. He's been with me through tears and tantrums and the whole gambit of putting the show together. And has beautifully captured these steps of the journey. I think we did eight interviews over the 18 months. There are times in the beginning of the first couple of interviews when I was focused on one certain element that never made the final cut, or that ended up being beefed up with steroids and becoming a major part of the show. I'm fascinated to go back and look through and see where my mindset went. The ups and downs through the project. When we thought that we would never be able to open up to the public because of the lockdown. When we lost all our funding because of what was happening with Covid. There's been a real roller coaster journey and I'm so pleased that Paul has been able to capture it and hopefully, edit it together into a story of how an artist works. The things that they go through to produce something that you can walk into, look at, and explore.