1. Why denim?
I often now say: Why not? You can probably get access to more of it and more easily than paint. There is just so much of it around and so many people going through so many pairs. That is what happened to me. I went back to my parents’ home near the end of university and as my mum had realised I was never coming home to live she had started sorting my old room out. There was a pile of old denim, and I was just struck by it. All the shades of blue and the textures layered upon one another. So at the beginning it was in some ways just the aesthetic value of the jeans. But as more of the values of jeans came through to me, I think I realised deep down I had had a relation and connection to denim from the beginning.
I can remember when I was about 14 and going to a family gathering and I wanted to wear my jeans. My mum wouldn’t let me as she didn’t think they were smart. I remember getting there only to find my cousins wearing denim – so in my corduroy I felt really self-conscious. From that day I would only wear jeans.
2. What challenges come when working with that one fabric?
It has been a continual process of learning new techniques when working with the fabric. I still learn piece by piece how to handle it: how best to stop smaller pieces from fraying; how to work with the shades and finding enough of a spectrum to use for the one piece. Sourcing denim is not too hard, but sourcing the right denim is. I have around a thousand pairs but finding that perfect shade is difficult. Often it is in my own wardrobe! Or was.
3. Will you continue to work exclusively in this field?
I would like to think so. There are so many ideas left still undone and new ones coming up all the time. I just wish I could work faster with them. I have thought that one day if I introduced another material it may be leather, like the patches. But I would stay away from bringing in new materials as if I did that, it would just become collage and mixed media. I’d like to think I have pushed it beyond being a gimmick and I am pushing the limits each time with how I can use the fabric and actually continually surprising myself. Denim appears to be everlasting – rising above trends, so let’s hope my work can follow suit!
4. In respect of your artwork, do you consider elements of symbolism or are you directly trying to accurately reproduce an image?
Can I do both? When I first started I thought I would go more abstract – massive pieces with ripped denim. But somehow I have been drawn to do more photorealistic work as I found how to use the denim. I keep pushing it to recreate realism out of the fabric and rather than ripping I have found ways to perfectly cut the denim accurately. I have found it is perfect to recreate metallic objects and parts – like in the diner or tube carriage – so I will try and get photorealistic with that, and then while doing that I will notice another value to the denim so pursue that.
There are my own symbolism and meanings in the work that I use for myself, but I am not one to push this on others. I would hate to try and BS people. It’s not what I’m about. I do what I like, and as jeans are for everyone, I think art should be also. Yes, they have meaning to me, be it a place or person, and I try and put meaning in for myself, not others. There are times when I am trying to record places, like derelict urban areas or the diners, which are declining and mostly now gone. I am loving doing the Americana images in such an American fabric.
Some things that I did try and get the meaning into were ironically the portraits of the icons. I was so, so conflicted doing them – but I was so compelled to do so. I knew images of Dean, Monroe and Brando had been done. Done to death in fact. But while getting into the whole history of denim the biggest impact that I took from a lot of the story was that of the 50s films star who wore denim. Like Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause”. I had in many ways no idea of the impact this had. It was well before I was born and I didn’t imagine a time when people didn’t go to the wardrobe every day and pull out a pair of jeans by default. These stars wearing them seems to have had a massive impact on changing perceptions of this rather simple item of clothes and it just went on and on from there. So in the end I just thought: Screw it, I want to do this and think it is important to do them in the fabric they made famous. It was not lost on me taking such ubiquitous images and putting them together with a material that is also so ubiquitous around the world. Were there any other items that spread more due to pop culture?
5. In some of your American-inspired works there appears to be an abrupt stillness, something similar to the works of Edward Hopper. Are you influenced by any artist or art movement?
Edward Hopper has often been mentioned as a comparison. I think people are particularly referring to “Nighthawks”. I think it was accidental and with a similar subject matter like the diner scenes was likely to happen. I wanted to get in a slight feel of melancholy – the diner scenes are a kind of communal place, which is also so lonely as most people eat alone in them. I am looking more and more into photorealistic painters but this has been a little retrospective. I especially love Estes.
I would certainly say the biggest art movement to influence me may be, for want of a better word, street art. When I was working in London I was influenced by it, and excited by it, before it became really big. I loved the creation that came with it – kind of honest and true without all the pretension. They were also mainly un-art-educated people showing that you didn’t need the art education to do something. So I started doing my own thing. OK, mainly not outside. But I took confidence from that “Anyone can do this” attitude and a fresh approach to art and a new appreciation by a new group of people.
6. Your Urbanscapes work tends to show a lot of youth culture or gritty realism through public transport and graffiti. Is that something you look to achieve?
Yes, I am drawn to this culture and mentality. I love the richness of the urban environment and the depth. I’m not as excited by, say, the rolling fields of the countryside. As mentioned in the question above, I am excited by street art so there is the link. I love the big cities: London and New York to name but two. I feel alive in them. I am sure I will move back to one soon. Where I have been has been good as there has been little distraction. But I think now I need to be somewhere I feel alive and inspired and around other creative people.
7. The portraits you create seem to be in contrast to your other work as they include more vibrant, sexual imagery. Is that dichotomy a conscious choice?
It was at first. But now I am trying to bring more of the portraiture into the Urbanscapes, like in the “Welcome to Utica” piece (which is a scene that happened to me) and also “Journey Home”, on the New York Subway. I don’t want it to be a divide. By trying to catch everyday life – people are such a part of that so I want to bring them into it and to the forefront, not just a crowd of people. People are really what make places. So that has to be there to really make the work come alive I think, or at least traces of people.
I think the techniques have also improved to allow me to do this, as previously if I was to do a portrait I would have to do it on a large scale, as it can be fiddly and also as I am working with material that overlaps. If pieces are lit slightly wrong this can cause shadows. Bigger pieces are not affected as much by this – but now I know ways to work to avoid this.
8. Your work is now incredibly popular throughout Europe, the USA and Asia and you do an incredible amount of travelling. Do you create works for a particular audience and have you been commissioned to produce any works?
Yeah, it feels like I am always having to get on a plane to go to “work” – I think I am based in the wrong place. It has always been a big love of mine to go travelling, so to mix it with work has been awesome; to go to places and meet locals who can show me the more local areas of a place. They are so much better than touristy areas. Often I will build in elements of the place in which I am exhibiting. But it also needs to have relevance to what I want to do and achieve. For example, when I showed in London, I did London-inspired scenes. But this is not just for that reason; I lived there for quite a while, so I did ‘my London’. However for Portugal I started my American Jean body of work.
I have to turn down most commissions at the moment. There is no time because I am getting ready for the gallery shows. It has to be something interesting also, as there is a lot that goes into a commission and luckily I can pick and choose what I can do. Otherwise I would have to accept the offers of people’s pets and children! I’m only half-kidding on this. I’m flattered they would want something by be, but it is not really what I do. Serious commissions do come in though, and they can be really interesting to work on. I can work a little differently and it is a challenge – and more often than not it can show me something new in my work.
9. What plans do you have for the future?
Well, after just getting back from consecutive shows in San Francisco and Brighton it is nice that I now have a few clear months to prepare for my London show in November at the Catto Gallery. It will be a large body of work – so is going to be a pretty full year. So sadly I had to turn down quite a few other things. I have been holding off confirming anything beyond this, as I think I may need a break – but next year looks to be shaping up to be pretty interesting. But that can be revealed later. There may also be a move on the cards! As for the kind of work I am doing, I am going to contrast London and New York in the London show.
10. Are you willing to briefly share your life story?
Ah, where to start? There’s probably is a bit to say – but I know you are a school teacher with young children so will work with that. I was the kid at school who liked art and I guess was known for art. Although, maybe surprisingly I was also into football and other sports, it was always art I wanted to pursue. But somewhere along the line I became discouraged. I grew up in Huddersfield (so yes, Huddersfield Town FC!) People around me always said: Art is a hobby, there is no career in it, so I went down another route. This led me through Uni into advertising, which I enjoyed in London. But I always wanted to do my own thing. Once I got to Australia to work I became disillusioned with adland and really saw something in the work I was doing in my spare time. Luckily I got back into it, but wish I had started sooner (maybe I had to go through that) so I am now in Sweden, and have been for the last three years.
I do think too much of a emphasis is placed on the more academic subjects in school, and this is the same worldwide. The marking system and grading stifles children’s imagination and creativity. It is not just in art but many creative fields. Anyway, before I get on my soapbox, I’ll leave it there.