Portland artist Jesse Narens is most at home in nature. Artworks with tree motifs, raindrops and layers of mark making reflect the forests and coastlines of the Pacific Northwest. Collected and followed by a global audience, Narens’ work is both lucid and magical, with creatures that seem to emerge, disappear and re-emerge from an ethereal plane. What draws one to the artist’s work is an individual preference, but there is no denying an ineffable quality of being transported to another world – sometimes primal, sometimes whimsical – vaguely familiar, if not altogether forgotten.
It is easy to make comparisons to visionary art when one looks at the works of Narens, although the artist would eschew any hierarchy – spiritual or otherwise – between the artist and other living beings. In the creative process, Narens becomes one with both subject and object and returns both artist and audience to their wild essence of being. Narens’ work embodies a transitory moment that is the quintessence of life, death, and art.
TTDOG met with Jesse Narens earlier this year and began a dialogue with the artist in advance of their upcoming show Asleep in A Field, opening Friday 4 August in Portland. Narens describes the artist’s career to date.
I started painting at the end of 2010 after my friend and artist Jesse Reno suggested trying out some alternative techniques. Prior to that I had never painted before. I focused on ceramics in high school, and dropped out of art college in less than a semester because I felt like they were creating artists, not letting people just be artists. I have always done something creative with my time.
I do whatever I feel like doing, creatively, at any given time. Painting and music are my go-tos , but every so often I get the urge to try something else.
Collaboration and a sense of community with other artists has always been important to Narens. As a teenager, the artist created showcases for their own and other artists’ works.
The shows I was hosting when I was 15-20 were one night music and art shows at different venues around the Chicagoland area, made up of people from the midwest that I found online, back when Myspace was popular. I showed my own work and played music at those events.
I’ve always enjoyed sharing the things I like with friends, so when I started playing music and making art it just made sense to try and be an event organizer or curator of some sort.
Collaboration extends as well to the audience where meaning-making becomes an adventure between artist, subject, object and audience.
My paintings, titles and music never really have specific meanings. I am trying to create a feeling. The feeling I get when I am in the woods or on the coast in the Pacific Northwest. Where people see bear and wolves, I just see a generic animal form, usually.
Sometimes I choose words just for the way they sound or to further push the atmosphere in the painting. It’s also important that all of the elements (music, words, painting, etc) are taken in together at the same time to get the full experience of my art.
Observing Narens’ recent body of work, one gets a sense of both forthrightness and mystery that allows the artist to give birth to and express the unutterable. Whether seemingly benign or ferocious, the creatures in Narens’ works seem to belong to a world that adults, living in contemporary society, are no longer able to see, let alone access and engage. Returning to a clarity and confusion akin to that of childhood, Narens leads us back to our own natural connection to the wild that we have distanced ourselves from, over time. To do this, Narens draws upon motifs of the natural world.
Looking back on pieces I can remember making in high school, most of them were tree related; people with branch arms, bark texture on my ceramic pieces…I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and I don’t remember experiencing much nature before the age of 20 when I moved to the Pacific Northwest. The few experiences I did have before then were all very memorable, and while I might not have thought about it then, I recognize now that the feelings I have now when I am out in nature have always been the same. It’s the only place where I feel I can just be. It’s the only place that feels correct to me. When I go back home I tend to spend a lot of time worrying about things that shouldn’t matter, but we have made them matter. I paint the places and things that make me feel good.
I find my greatest joy in nature.
As an intuitive artist, Narens’ artistic process mirrors the cycles of the natural world. The artist composes and decomposes each piece over and over again. Each layer, rather than adding armour and complexity, seems to strip away artifice and repression and restores freedom of vision. There is no attempt to obscure what has come before and the history of mark making, evident in the pieces, is like a treasure map the artist has left behind, to lead the audience to a sense of uninhibited being.
I don’t have the final piece in mind before it’s done. I just start painting, whether or not I have an idea, and the piece evolves as my mind processes what I’m seeing and thinking about at that time. Pieces get to a point where they definitely look like they could be called finished, but something just doesn’t feel right to me. I’ll paint over “finished” pieces again and again until they are done. Even pieces that are done might someday become unfinished again. If I have to sit with them for a long time, at some point, my mind might be in a different place than it was when a particular piece was finished, and I will no longer feel connected to it, so I paint over it. When I sit down and examine why I do certain things, I feel like working this way is a lesson in letting go and embracing change.
I get stuck at some point in almost every piece. Usually when they get to a finished looking point, but I don’t like it. To move forward, I usually have to paint over the parts I like the most. It frees up the piece to become something drastically different at that point. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, but it’s almost always the answer.
Narens does not create artworks for archival purposes, and believes that decomposition is as valid as composition in the making of art. For Narens, an artwork has a life that continues beyond the moment when the artist and the subject have transmuted the mystery of creation into form. What happens beyond that moment is a part of the life cycle of the art and Narens delights in seeing, for instance, works weathered in nature or by time. An ecosystem of its own, Narens’ art is in a constant state of flux and adaptation.
I don’t like making products for the sake of having things to buy. Sometimes I draw something and want it on a shirt for myself, so I get maybe 20 shirts made. When I do make something like a shirt or a book, I only make a small number to keep the items special to whoever ends up getting one. I try to make things on my own, or work with friends so I can keep the prices as low as possible.
Narens work is primarily self expression, yet the artist aims to allow their artwork to be a catalyst for a return to the wild. Using social media, Narens showcases the natural world through the artist’s own adventures as much as showcasing their artworks, encouraging followers to get outdoors. On occasion, Narens has left free artworks at natural sites as incentive. Having experienced nature, followers may be encouraged to protect the wilds. Yet, in the face of our society’s failure to protect ecosystems and natural preserves and our failure to act to avert the catastrophic impacts of climate change, Narens accepts the limits and responsibilities of one’s own place in the lifecycle of this living planet.
I’m alive, so I’ll live the best life I can, but I don’t have much hope for humans.
The earth will fix itself when we are gone, if we can’t learn to live with it.
Even though I feel this way, that doesn’t mean I’ve given up. I’ll continue to try and inspire people to care about the planet, and to share and support the work of people who I think are doing a better job than I am, like E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and Archangel Ancient Tree Archive.
While humankind may provide no solace for Narens, it is to the pockets of community, cultivated by the artist throughout life, that Narens turns.
I am currently going through a big transition in my life, so at the moment I am most grateful for the friends in my life that have been around since I was young.
Like an old friend, Narens has returned to the artists’ roots, performing live music with art at the upcoming exhibition, Asleep in A Field. For many of Narens’ fans, this will be the first opportunity to experience the artist’s music (performed under the name Ghost&Flower) with Narens’ artworks.
The last time I played music live was in 2011 and the last time I played music where my art was on display was probably 2008.
As with my visual art, my music is for me. And with music, I am again chasing a feeling that I don’t get from anything else, and I can’t express it in words, but when I am making music I very quickly go somewhere else in my head. I’ve recorded very little over the last 12 years of playing music live. I make music the same way I paint. It’s improvised, and I build layers through loops. I use a prepared guitar instead of electronic instruments, and build most of my rhythmic parts with a contact mic to play the room. Recording, even live, takes me out of the headspace that I am doing music for, so it’s no fun for me.
I went to a Bang On A Can marathon show when I was around 18 that had a big impact on my music. The show was something like 12 hours of non stop experimental music, but at the beginning they encouraged you to come and go as you wanted because doing so meant that each person would have their own unique experience with what they heard.
I’ve played so many great shows that I wish I had recordings of, but I know they would have gone different if it was being recorded. I like knowing that everyone who has seen me play had a unique experience that no one else will ever know.
Asleep In A Field opens Friday, August 4th in Portland and runs through Tuesday, September 5th at True Measure Gallery. Jesse Narens will play live music under the name Ghost&Flower on opening night, at sunset. For those interested in purchasing artworks but who cannot attend the exhibition, contact Jesse Narens (Jesse@Jessenarens.com) or True Measure Gallery.
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In a city like Los Angeles, whole industries are based on revision of reality. One Georgia-born artist, turned LA native, C. Michael Frey, seeks to capture the sublime in the every day world. His exhibition “Clouds” is currently showing in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. With this collection, Frey invites viewers to “get lost in a sense of wonderment and escape.”
Frey achieved a B.F.A. in painting and drawing from the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia and later moved to New York City to pursue his art. There, Frey worked in a commercial photographer’s studio, where he honed his skills in digital illustration and photographic retouching. An award winning artist, Frey’s work has been featured in advertising campaigns, on album covers, and in magazines such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, Numéro, V, and Wired.
We caught up with Frey in Los Angeles about his upcoming exhibition of Clouds, and his other current works.
TTDOG: Tell us about the move from painting and digital design to photography. Why Clouds?
CMF: I’ve always used photography as part of my creative process, so I don’t really feel I’ve moved away from painting. It’s more of an exploration of another medium that has happened organically.
The Cloud photos weren’t really planned. I moved to Los Angeles about ten years ago from New York and the sky feels so different here. It’s expansive and seems limitless. If I’m having a bad day or feeling stressed, I can easily escape in nature by taking a walk around the neighborhood or going for a hike. The open sky puts things in perspective. We seldom have clouds, but when we do the sunsets are often amazing. I started photographing these moments and really wanted to capture the drama of the clouds and take a subject that is generally seen as pedestrian in art and reveal the sublime nature of these clouds. Clouds are representative of the creative process itself: daydreaming and romanticism. There is a quote by Henry David Thoreau: “you must not blame me if I do talk to clouds.” This communion with and escape to nature and finding divinity in nature that the Transcendentalists strived for really resonates with me.
Romanticism is about the heart and idealism. Clouds are great symbols of idealism to me. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve so not engaging my heart isn’t really an option.
TTDOG: When you say spirituality in this context, do you mean Judeo-Christian concepts of heaven being in the sky?
CMF: It can mean that, but it doesn’t have to. Even in non western and pagan traditions, the sky is held in high regard, often where the gods reside. But specifically for me, spirituality is about a connectedness to our environment. It’s more about recognizing the power of Nature and how there’s a seemingly “other” world happening above us all the time.
TTDOG: What is your creative process? Does it differ for photography, art and design?
CMF: With painting I always have a clear idea of what I want to paint and a plan before I take paintbrush to canvas. I mostly paint people and photography has been instrumental in capturing subjects and developing the image I want to create. Usually a subject will sit for me and I take a series of photographs. I’ll edit the shoot and pick my favourites and then start manipulating them on the computer until they are close to what I want to recreate in a painting. I’ll print out images I refer to while I’m painting. But it’s not so much about just recreating what I see. It’s about the feeling. When I paint someone’s portrait, I really want to show their essence. Georgia O’Keefe said: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” This really sums up what I’m trying to accomplish as a painter.
With photography it’s a much more simplified process that’s about being in the moment and being a witness to that moment. I capture what I see in front of me. There’s no planning and I’m not controlling the subject. With the Clouds photo series, I’m zooming in on details to find something that’s compelling. In a way it’s much more freeing than developing a painting that I spend weeks working on. The tedious part comes with editing thousands of images down to the best ones and getting the printing right. With the Clouds series, I wanted to capture the same ephemeral nature of clouds with the printing, so I had them mounted on acrylic to get a sense of lightness and light. It also helps the colours to pop and gives the images a gem-like quality.
Graphic design is a totally different animal that requires a mindset that is often the opposite of what I’m doing when I paint or take photographs for myself. With design, I’m always trying to communicate to a specific audience for a client. It’s not about my message. I may be using many of the same tools, but the goals are different. In creating art, whether it be a painting or photograph, I’m trying to inspire or challenge a viewer to think about things or view things differently, which can sometimes be uncomfortable. With graphic design, you generally aren’t trying to challenge the viewer. It’s more about positive engagement and commerce. Good design usually makes the viewer feel good whereas good art may leave the viewer crying in the fetal position.
TTDOG: Goodness! I’m not going to your gallery with you!
CMF: I meant that more figuratively but I did have someone start bawling in front of one of my paintings, once.
TTDOG: I think if I were to start bawling in front of your cloud series, it would be in a healing way; they are full of joy and love and even innocence.
CMF: Yes, and it’s actually a big change in the subject matter of my work. The paintings of my earlier years are very dark, intense and melancholy.
TTDOG: To what do you attribute this change?
CMF: Mostly, deciding that being an artist doesn’t have to be about suffering. At 41, I’ve also become content in who I am as a person. Presently, life is more about what I can accomplish now and being happy in the moment rather than struggling to figure it all out.
TTDOG: I know that you paint from a sense of deep connection to something bigger than yourself. Do you experience the same connection with photography?
CMF: They are very different experiences. When I’m painting I can go into a very meditative state where I lose track of time and really just start feeling what I’m creating. There’s a flow to it where I feel like I start to channel that creative muse. There is also a lot of time spent just looking and thinking. There is something very therapeutic about it that I don’t experience from anything else.
Photography is much more about a single moment in time. It can actually be frustrating because the camera separates you from the subject. The real challenge in photography is capturing what the subject is making you feel.
TTDOG: How much of the feel of the cloud photos is from digital manipulation? What do you make of those purists who define photography as only that which is captured in camera?
CMF: For the Cloud photos, there is very little digital manipulation beside some colour tweaks to make prints match what I’m seeing on screen. For the most part they are cropped the way I have shot them. I try to find the most interesting moment happening at the time and shoot many frames so I have options.
I can understand why some people define photography that way, but I’m no purist. It gets boring to have too many rules.
TTDOG: Your photographs in the cloud series have a painterly quality to them. Some of them have a feel of a Rothko or an Agnes Martin, in that the colour and subtle gradations draw the viewer in to a meditative state. How, if at all, do you think your painting has influenced your photography?
CMF: That’s a very flattering comparison. Thank you. My most recent paintings have been minimalist portraits that use colour gradients. I’ve become interested in the way colour and subtlety can have an impact, rather than spelling everything out with great detail and realism. That interest has definitely carried over to my cloud photos. I like the idea of breaking things down to their most basic parts.
Minimalism is very freeing, I think. It allows you to see things you’ve never noticed before in a new way. It’s amazing to me how a single colour can evoke emotion.
I want people to have an emotive response through colour when seeing my work but it’s not as simple as if I paint someone’s portrait in blue that I want them to feel sad. Mostly I’m using colour, when I paint, to relate to the individual I’m painting. I guess it’s more about how I see them and the aura they give off. With the clouds, I don’t have any control over that.
Of course I’m in control of what I choose to photograph. But how the subject changes while I’m photographing, I have no control over. I love the ephemeral nature of the Clouds for that reason. If I’m not fast enough I can miss out.
And definitely through the editing process, it’s all about what speaks to me and what I find interesting.
I have a long work history working in print so I’ve learned the technical ins and outs of how to get a print to look the way you want. But, having a printer who you are confident in is definitely vital. Luckily most printers these days have colour profiles available if you are making digital c-prints. But, there is still a lot of trial and error.
TTDOG: Who are your influences?
CMF: In general, I really love old masters like Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Jacques-Louis David. I’ve always been drawn to figurative work and especially artists who know how to manipulate light and expertly render the human form. Cindy Sherman has been a big influence on the subject matter of my painting. I used to primarily paint self portraits and have always been drawn to exploring the concepts of identity and perception.
The cloud photos have been a big change in the type of art I make. When creating the cloud photos, I thought a lot about William Turner’s cloud study paintings. His expressive use of colour captures the power of nature in a way that I wanted to communicate through these photos. It also made me think a lot about color theory and has influenced my recent portraits which are much more minimalist in colour. I’ve developed a great appreciation for modern minimalist artists that play with colour and spectrum like Josef Albers, Elisworth Kelly and James Turrell.
TTDOG: You mentioned colour theory before, when we were looking at some artworks together. Can you explain more about that for those of us who are unfamiliar with it?
CMF: Color theory is understanding how different colours relate to each other and how they interact when they are combined. Color created by light and color created by pigment work very differently. It can get rather technical and complicated, especially when you are trying to get a photograph to match what you are seeing on a digital screen.
Colour created through light is additive. If you combine Red, Green and Blue, you get white and there are millions of colour variations. The opposite is true with paint, which is subtractive. Mixing those colours together in pigment would leave you with a muddy mess. And the spectrum is much more narrow with pigments: there are only thousands of colours that can be reproduced.
TTDOG: You have some pretty exciting work that has come out of this collection. Tell us about that.
CMF: Yes, Urban Outfitters recently contacted me about doing an artist partnership with them using some of my Cloud images. The images will be printed on a variety of products like tapestries and bedding as well as clothing. The first pieces of the line will be available this coming holiday season.
TTDOG: Will there be more photo series?
CMF: I intend to continue photographing clouds as long as they are in the sky, which is hopefully a few more years, at least. I’m not sure where this series will lead; I’m just going to see where it goes naturally. I’ve been thinking of ideas for how to mix the Cloud images with painting. But in my heart, I’m more of a painter than a photographer. Ideally I’d like to be able to work successfully in a variety of mediums, and for there to still be a common thread that can be seen.
TTDOG: Artists have a certain reputation for being free spirits and promiscuous. But you are married, settled and stable. How has this helped or hindered your work?
CMF: For the most part it’s given me the space and ability to work freely without having to worry so much about income. My husband, Tim, is very supportive of my work. If anything I’m sure he wishes I were more prolific and spent more time painting. It is challenging to work as a freelance designer and manage my time so that I have time to paint.
In western culture we have a very romanticized view of the ‘starving artist.’ When I was younger, I had the notion that one needed a lot of drama and sadness in their life to be an artist. That’s not very sustainable or interesting after a certain age. I’m very grateful for the happiness I’ve found being in a happy, long term marriage. It’s been freeing for me to let go of my preconceived notions of what life as an artist and particularly a gay man, should look like. I’m not really one to look back and question what could have been. Life is a journey about learning, and I’m grateful for the choices I’ve made that have led me to the life I have today.
TTDOG: You have exhibited Clouds in a West Hollywood shop at now an Eagle Rock craft beer tasting room. They are not conventional venues. What made you choose to show this collection in this way? Why do you suppose more artists are exhibiting in this way?
CMF: I originally showed my Cloud series at TENOVERSIX in West Hollywood. The owners are great friends of mine and I’ve been doing design work for them since they opened. They’ve an amazing eye for everything from fashion to housewares to art. I was honoured that they showed my Cloud photos.
Craft Beer Cellar, where I’m showing the Clouds from Saturday night is in Eagle Rock, a couple of blocks from my house. They opened about a year ago and recently started showing art. I’ve become friends with the owners and asked them if they would be willing to show my work. Eagle Rock has a unique art and social scene and in many ways feels more like a small town than just a neighborhood in LA. I haven’t been showing my work in Los Angeles until recently. I’ve mostly been focused on my graphic design business and haven’t been putting my art out there. Honestly, I find the art world extremely intimidating, but I’m getting over that and am taking the first steps to have my work seen.
I think more artists are showing their work in unconventional spaces because there is so much competition out there for gallery shows , and there are also just a lot more interesting spaces that people can interact with your work these days. But non-gallery spaces like coffee shops and restaurants have always been great starting points for getting your work out there so people can see it. You have to start somewhere.
TTDOG: What’s next for you?
CMF: I really hope to show more of my work in the coming year, get in some group shows, and hopefully have a solo show in a gallery. I’m going to continue to grow my portrait series and cloud photos. I’d love to create a book with the Clouds, but the expense of printing a fine art book is rather prohibitive. If I could find a publisher, that would be wonderful.
TTDOG: Where do you find your greatest joy and for what are you most grateful?
CMF: I find my greatest joy in sharing food with friends and loved ones. I love to cook – it’s a quick creative outlet that helps me be more social and share my talents with other people. There’s something very comforting about providing nourishment for others. We host a weekly potluck for friends that has become something I look forward to each week.
I’m most grateful for my relationship with my husband. Tim is my rock. He’s my biggest support, but he also grounds me, gives me very practical critiques in my design work and art, and keeps me balanced.
***UPDATE: Clouds will be showing again from 6 Feb-12 Feb at Space 15 Twenty, 1520 N Cahuenga Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90028. Closing event will be held on 12 Feb 11am- 2pm***
(Previously, there was a Clouds opening event Saturday, 10 September, at Craft Beer Cellar at 5 p.m. as part of the NELA Second Saturday Art Walk. Craft Beer Cellar is located at 1353 Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90041. Tel: 323-206-5164.)
Images from the exhibition will be on sale at the shop and tap room and via Frey’s website. The show runs now through the end of September.
For more on C. Michael Frey, follow him at:
To commission Frey, send him an email at:
High costs and chemical contamination of fresh food is leading more and more individuals to seek to grow at least a portion of their own food, themselves. But as global populations continue to shift from being rural to city dwellers, gardening can be a challenge.
Urban gardening seeks to fill this void. Urban gardening is the practice of growing food within a city environment and can involve animal husbandry. It is a way of mixing urban style and design with nature and can reduce food miles by growing foods local to their use. Urban gardens help improve biodiversity, reduce urban rainwater runoff and help to mitigate the”heat island” effect caused by the concentration of infrastructure and lack of passageways of cooling air in cities. While most cities are far from the ideal envisioned by forward thinking urban planners, it is possible, with vertical farming, hydroponics, various agricultural technologies, and visionary architectural design, to conceive of a future where cities grow most of what the residents need, within the city confines. In the meantime, current urban gardens, like those on the High Line in Manhattan, provide relaxing green spaces for residents and revitalise business in the area.
Making the most of this growing trend is Nomadic Community Gardens, situated in the heart of the hip East End section of London known as Shoreditch. Nomadic Community Gardens works with city developers to care for disused urban spaces in a “meanwhile” use as they await planning permission to build. The space provides a venue for not only gardening but for community gathering of all kinds. The gardens are called “nomadic” because everything is portable and can be moved to a new location. Beds are built on pallettes to be transportable and to prevent contamination of and by the ground.
On Sunday 1 May, Nomadic Community Gardens celebrated a first birthday. The joyous celebration comes after several years of hard work to gain land use permission and a year of tenancy in the garden. The success of the community garden is largely due to the vision and dedication of James (Jimmy) Wheale, co-founder and Director of Nomadic Community Gardens and the next in our series of individuals using their skills to make a difference.
We met with Wheale earlier in the spring to discuss the social enterprise that has brought new life to a disused space off Brick Lane.
“I came across and idea in Berlin, when I was living there several years ago. It was a meanwhile use of space in an old carpark that they’d gotten the permission to use and so they created a cafe and a garden in a sort of foresty area and I thought: ‘Wow! There’s no reason this kind of thing can’t happen here.'”
Wheale admits “Continental Europe are light years ahead of us in terms of using space for the meanwhile time period and with a concentration on the creation of communities and the qualitative benefits that they bring to people’s lives,” yet, he was determined to turn his idea into a reality, in London.
When Wheale returned from Berlin, he described the idea to his friend, Junior, who had moved into a flat near to a disused space. Over the next couple of years, the two developed a winning proposal for the disused land, and when the land was sold to London Newcastle, they pitched the idea to the new owners.
“We’re attempting to act as a conduit between a corporation that finds it difficult to reach communities and the communities who need resources and who need space. Our project is there to find space and organise it so that communities can make use of it and if local authorities support what we’re doing it becomes more attractive to development companies who are trying to get permission from local authorities to do developments. If they can subside something in the meantime it almost offsets the damage that can happen in development.”
“Luckily for us,” Wheale says “their leadership has vision and believes in social responsibility and so they allowed it.”
London Newcastle quickly gave approval and although the team hoped to have access to the space in February 2015, in order to prepare the land for the growing season, they only gained access in May. This meant that there was a tremendous push to get garden beds ready for the remainder of the growing season. Fortunately, they built over 100 beds, and because of the position of the garden between two railway lines, without overshadowing buildings, the conditions were perfect for growing vegetables. In a densely occupied city like London, Wheale notes, this “breadth of horizon is unheard of.” With such a great deal of sunlight, the vegetables grew quickly in the first season and gave the residents the boost they needed to their enthusiasm for urban gardening.
The space was initially leased to Nomadic Community Gardens, to act as caretakers, on an initial 6 month lease. Wheale admits that he couldn’t demonstrate to the owners that he had done this sort of work before and that the plan would work, and he credits London Newcastle for their faith in the team.
“They took a real chance on us,” he says.
The lease has now been renewed, but the garden could be given 2 months notice, at any time, to vacate the space.
“But, you know, that’s part of the deal,” he adds.
In anticipation of this, Wheale has been talking with other landowners about taking the garden elsewhere, when London Newcastle begins to develop the land. Wheale explains that the intent of the project has never been to reclaim land from development but to make use of the resources, for the community, in the meantime.
Beds in the garden are free to residents and the garden is self supporting through the hosting of events that generate a minimal income to cover basic running expenses. Wheale hopes that in future gardens, development companies could subsidize start up costs to allow gardens to focus on being self sustaining once they are operating. In this way, the garden does not need to apply for funds from limited charity funding sources.
“Obviously we’ll never be earning big bucks,” Wheale says “but it doesn’t need it.”
For the Shoreditch Nomadic Gardens, Wheale used in his own savings for start up costs to get the ball rolling. Some of his investment has been repaid, though he admits that not all of it has.
“The boss always gets paid last,” he says, smiling.
At present, the garden is tended by volunteers, but Wheale has plans to pay certain key roles in the garden and if the garden concept spreads to other areas, he hopes to be able to provide employment opportunities, training and skills development along with community garden resources.
Wheale has a degree in Cultural Studies and has developed an eclectic set of skills. He worked in construction, and gained problem solving skills and determination in his time in the theatre industry. He has managed bars, where he learned to create ambiance and to nurture the social relationships of a community. Wheale also has prior experience with organic gardening. He argues that bringing vegetation into the urban environment is important for increasing biodiversity, and allows wildlife to flourish. The gardens also provide habitat for bees, which are currently under threat in many countries.
Vegetation, Wheale says, “softens the urban environment so you’re not always facing hard, impenetrable surfaces and there is a sort of therapeutic and health benefit to vegetative life, whether it’s just walking around it or growing it and tending to it and reaping rewards from it.”
Whilst Wheale likes the idea of offsetting carbon emissions with more vegetation, his main reason for creating the garden, was the social aspect and potential to improve urban quality of life.
“One of the most important things for people is quality of life. We are the sum of our relationships, and I saw that spaces in cities were being restricted with austerity measures and space is really where we get to build those relationships. Creating a community garden I thought was important, with the idea of growing vegetables because I felt that was a universal language that would create more cohesion as they all share in an activity. And that grew into trying to meet the more diverse needs of people in the community.”
In our trips to the garden, TTDOG experienced the great ambience of camaraderie and community. Friendships have been established and grown through the experience of being a part of the community garden. TTDOG asked Wheale how community became so important to him.
“It really came from my studies. It opened my eyes to the way society is structured and the way that structure affects people’s experiences, and I think that there is something to be said for support networks. We need to feel like people are caring for us and know our name. Anonymity is a really dangerous kind of experience to fall into and the way that society is organised and the way it atomises people not only affects their quality of life but also means that they’re under a level of consciousness that isn’t really benefitting them. They’re sort of really propping up something that is benefitting out of them.”
The garden has a wide reach through what Wheale calls various “spheres of influence” from the sphere of the immediate community that tends to their beds to the wider community that comes to the garden for workshops and social events to an even wider sphere of tourists who visit the garden and take ideas back to their own communities. And, because they have so much manpower and materials now, the team at the garden has been able to help other community projects, building beds for other gardens, and hosting workshops for other community gardens.
Nomadic Community Gardens currently hosts skills training in pallete furniture building, pallets bed building and basic DIY skills. There is also knowledge sharing in gardening.
Individuals experience a sense of satisfaction from the relaxed atmosphere and previously frictious relations between different communities have been eased and bridges built between members of these communities who have come together in the garden.
There are cafes in the garden and market stalls can be established to accommodate people’s enterprise.
The garden plays host to street artists who paint the walls with beautiful murals, musicians who jam on music nights and interactive theatre events.
TTDOG wondered how the community might respond when the landlord chooses to develop the land, removing this wonderful oasis for gathering, learning, sharing and gardening. Wheale philosophised that there may be a saturation point for community resources, when their impact begins to ebb. This may be because people have had the benefit of it, learned the skills they wanted to learn, or the limit is reached in terms of the number of beds. At that point, the garden can become more exclusionary than inclusionary and moving to a new location allows a new community to reap the benefits of the life cycle of the public space.
And, when there is a void that is left behind, this can create the impetus for the community, who has had the benefit of the space, to create it for themselves. His hope is that this can create a kind of community activism to rejuvenate and develop their own public spaces.
TTDOG asked Wheale’s advice on creating a community garden using meantime use:
“Come to me and I’ll give you the lowdown. I underestimated what it was going to take to get this project off the ground. There is a whole world of stuff that you have to do from writing literature that inspires people to having the practical knowledge of how to build things to the social knowledge of how to manage relationships, create and hold space and see yourself as the gatekeeper and not the possessor, how to relinquish control and allow stuff to happen organically, and, how to have discipline to turn up and work and inspire. One of the things is also creating the relationships with the PLCs and have them believe in you. You have to come with a proper proposal and a plan and some sort of strategy.
It’s no mean feat. You need to have a bit of self confidence and self love, because there’s been so many times when you think: ‘Should I just walk away?'”
Wheale looks around at what he and his team have created, and continues:
“It’s not an easy task and it looks great because it’s come through the really hard work of people that believe in it. But the only way to have more of these gardens is if the communities run them, themselves. I’d like to provide consultancy and maybe have some sort of a manual and some Youtube videos.”
“You’ve got to be the change you want to see in the world. One of the beauties of consciousness is that you can learn by doing. You don’t have to necessarily know how to do, before you do. There needs to be a certain conviction and a direction of purposeful intention that you go towards a goal and stick with it. Appreciate the down times and have gratitude for when it’s all coming together. You just have to start and you’ll find your way. And you may have a couple of false starts but it’s about the personal journey.
We’re all destined for greatness as long as we tread that road.”
As is our practice at TTDOG, we asked Wheale:
For what are you grateful and where do you find your greatest joy?
“I’m grateful for the experience to experience life. We are eternal spirits that have entered a soul to experience this space time. And I’m grateful for the tools that I have to experience it. I’m just happy to try to make the most use of them as I can in my lifetime and hopefully encourage others to live to the maximum of our potential and the fullness of our being.”
“My greatest joy is in that experience: the emotions that come from the sensory communications that we have in our life. As much joy as I can feast myself on, really. And not without sadness. I think sadness is as valid an emotion as joy and happiness is. You need to sit with your pain and work through your demons and I think that everybody has insecurities and everyone has something traumatic happen to them and those are the two defining experiences of our lives, and those are the important things to work on.
Once you work on those, the door is open for more joy.”
Nomadic Community Gardens is located off Brick Lane and is open Monday – Sunday 10 am to 10 pm. The garden hosts special events and workshops daily. Meeting of Styles UK will hold a major event on the UK bank holiday 27, 28, 29th in the garden with dozens of artists gathering in an annual Paint Jam. The public is welcome to come and watch live painting, enjoy food, music and drinks in a relaxed community setting.
We kick off 2016 with the first in a series of articles featuring individuals who are making a difference in the world – where they are, with the talents they have – through Service. Our first interview features the UK artist Louis Masai, who uses his skills as a contemporary fine artist and muralist to give a voice to the voiceless and promote environmental conservation.
The global climate summit COP 21 concluded last month and Louis Masai traveled to Paris to add to his works with the environmental NGO, Synchronicity Earth, on endangered species. In advance of the climate talks, he painted a coral mural outside Paris which is part of a series of murals he is painting in several countries.
In September, Louis Masai began the series by creating the largest mural he has painted to date, in London. The painting depicted a coral reef with various reef dependent species to highlight the biodiversity of marine ecosystems and corals under threat. The work was the artist’s first interactive piece, with members of the public suggesting species to include in his design as he painted, and the work received tremendous media attention. The artist has gone on to paint smaller coral follow-up pieces in Ireland, South London and Paris.
Marine ecosystems are vitally important to life on the planet. Oceans cover more than 2/3 of the surface, and plankton in marine ecosystems provide 50% of the world’s oxygen as well as food and livelihoods for vast numbers of the global population, particularly for the world’s poor. As part of the marine ecosystem, coral reefs are home to a multitude of marine life but with climate change, coastal runoff, overfishing and marine pollution, 75% of the world’s coral reefs are currently under threat with some environmentalists projecting that 90% of the worlds reefs will be under threat by 2030. The worlds largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef, barely remained off the UNESCO endangered list in 2015 and remains under a severe threat watch for the next several years.
These threats have serious implications for mankind. Seagrasses and mangroves have been lost with the worsening health of marine ecosystems. When coupled with coral losses and degradation, this has promoted the growth of disease spreading algal blooms in coastal waters which threaten to change disease vectors for masses of populations of humans and terrestrial wildlife. The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) scientists responsible for projections about the likelihood of climate change and the risks and impacts of that climate change confirm in their 5th Assessment report the vulnerability of coral reefs. The existing and projected degradation of coral reefs exacerbates the threat of sea level rise to coastal systems and low-lying areas and this will persist, even if the world manages to stabilise temperatures.
The environmental threat from degradation of the world’s reefs and marine ecosystems is extreme and it will take the concerted effort of the world’s population to improve our combined destiny. Digesting this grave information is not easy but Louis Masai has teamed up with Synchronicity Earth to help raise awareness by making all the frightening statistics more accessible and personal.
Whilst the COP 21 Climate Change summit was underway in Paris, we had the opportunity to connect with the artist via email for an interview.
TTDOG: You have shied away from the term activist in the past, but I know that you care deeply about the rapid wave of extinctions of species and of biodiversity loss. You have expanded beyond individual species and animals now to a much wider crisis – that of the vanishing coral reefs and, therefore, of entire marine ecosystems. You have painted in Paris at the start of COP21 where all the world’s leaders gathered to set the agenda that will affect the world’s climate which is arguably at a tipping point. What does this wider vision and forum mean to you and how do you hope your work will impact on leaders, environmentalists and individuals?
LM: Well, to be honest, I doubt very much that politicians that aren’t already engaged in the thoughts of environmental issues will become altered by stumbling upon my coral hearts in Paris or by the other paintings that I have done. In fact, they are probably blissfully unaware that I am doing it. There are other art projects happening in Paris that might reach them, but even still, I don’t personally believe that visual language can reach an unethical mind. However, I do believe that the people that vote governments in to power will be affected by visual language and I also believe that these images can inform the general public and, hopefully, unite the people to encourage the right politicians to lead countries and represent us at environmental summits.
Environmentalists love my work for the simple reason that it addresses issues that they are concerned with; It depicts them in an attractive way, and it helps to reach the wider audience. And, as individuals, I think 1 in 10 people will take note and allow for the message to override the actual image itself. I hope so, anyway.
TTDOG: You have said before that you inject a human element in your work. Have you done this in your recent series of coral paintings with synchronicity earth? In what way?
LM: Well the big coral mural I did in London doesn’t depict human juxtaposition in the way that my other work does, but if you look into the centre of the shape, there is a heart shaped hole which I have coined “the keyhole” which means the biodiversity that I have created is a padlock. Every keyhole has a key.
The coral hearts that I painted in South London, Paris and before in Ireland are the keys. This idea of keys and lock symbolises that to unlock a sustainable ecosystem, like the coral reef, we must all have a key to invest into its survival. The keys become metaphors for the human itself, and thus, the juxtaposition of human and animal becomes a little bit more obvious. Essentially all my coral paintings are connected together in some way because of the heart, which by the way is not shaped like I have painted them, this shape is a human interpretation.
TTDOG: Your work seems to focus on environmental crisis. What drives you to give a voice to those who do not have one within your paintings and then to engage and include so called marginalised people who are not otherwise part of the environmental discussion through interaction with your art?
LM: I haven’t ever stopped to figure that out, it’s just something that happened naturally, over time. I guess I’m just creating large real life jigsaw puzzles.
TTDOG: Your name is “Masai” and it is a word that seems both sacred and integral to your painting. Would you be willing to share how you gained the name and how it’s meaning infuses your work? What does it mean to you to call your followers “Masai Tribe?”
LM: I have fond memories of wild tales from my Opa about my dad in the Cameroons (now part of Nigeria and the Country of Cameroon) and it is those stories twinned with the Archeological treasures we had at home that steered me in the direction of tribal cultures. I soon discovered an amazing book called Africa Adorned (By Angela Fisher). I became fixated with a tall tribe bearing spears and shields, dressed in beautiful red tartans.
I later understood them to be the Masai warrior tribe.
I have a particular interest in the idea of one’s creation and the way that a person can shape and define who and what they are perceived to be by the general public. Being that I am an artist and one that engages in the public domain on a daily basis, I realised that my love of graffiti and the ideology of fame through a moniker or alter ego was, in many ways, no different from the inventions of the band names and frontmen that I was listening to, on my records. It’s also not uncommon for fine artists to invent their own names. Man Ray, for example, even took it a step further and his name became the art itself. Again, I found this very interesting and something that I wanted to incorporate with my own work.
With these factors all combined and running around my busy head some 8 or 9 years ago, I decided that I wanted a powerful name that I hoped could one day become as important as the work i was creating. I feel it’s starting to approach that place now, especially as my work is about raising awareness for endangered species and threatened ecosystems. The Masai are shepherds which is a nice link to the idea of an artist collecting consciousness amongst the peoples for animal welfare.
The reason for using Masai tribe in my social media is as a way to remind my followers that we are all unified in the success of one mans objectives. If mine is to spread awareness then it’s the tribe’s to move it from my page to theirs and further. I feel the word tribe removes any superiority amongst us.
TTDOG: I admire the way you have worked so incredibly hard and collaborated with activists to both make a living as an artist and to make a difference in the world. Both the art world and the world of socio/environmental/political change are really challenging. People often fear that they alone can’t make a difference. What would you say to them?
LM: Well, to start with, it depends what that one man standing solo is trying to achieve. You can’t play football on your own, but you can play a game with that ball on your own. So I guess what I’m saying is that if you want to make a difference and you feel isolated and alone then change the way you address it or go and knock and some doors and get a full team of football fans to play with you.
For me words like “original”, “unique” and “individual” are misused words because someone else has done it before, thought it before, and there will be many to follow. What i mean is that there are many more “you”’s out there and they care just as much, so find them. Your mission is to create the links, make a tribe and spread the message further.
Throughout his career, Louis has been evolving, creating connections and spreading his message. Although not always connecting his painting with specific conservation projects, he has long had a special ability to paint character-filled animals. Painting for several group and solo contemporary art gallery exhibitions, he also honed his skills with public murals in London and in several other countries. Louis’ evolving relationship with visual communication between animals as subjects and the public as viewer matured through several series of works, and began to focus on raising awareness of endangered species. His earlier work with Synchronicity Earth marked the passing of the 50th anniversary of the IUCN Red List for endangered species.
Shortly after this project, TTDOG had the pleasure to meet the artist at his solo exhibition “Batteries Not Included”, in London. There, Louis spoke about his work with Synchronicity Earth and of the importance for the public to understand and act now on the IUCN Red List for endangered species. His deeply moving connection with his subjects and his conviction to try to make a change was palpable to all in attendance.
A film by Synchronicity Earth was launched at the opening of the exhibition and provides a glimpse into the passion and purpose of Louis Masai and the Synchronicity Earth Team.
The project has been featured in social media by environmentalists such as Greenpeace, and Ecowatch, activist sites like Films for Action and the trend setting site Bored Panda as well as mainstream media. As the debate around banning neonics continues in countries like USA and Canada, and as Europe and the global South works to revive the pollinator population, the project provides a perfect example of how communities are both impacted by and can impact upon bee colony health.
Although the global climate meeting of the Conference of Parties 21 concluded late last year with a landmark climate agreement to end fossil fuels use and limit carbon emissions, implementing this agreement and limiting the other greenhouse gasses which threaten the climate will be a complicated process involving unpopular political policy and major lifestyle adjustments for the world’s population. We know this work cannot be done by governments alone.
As the world struggles to back away from climate disaster, Louis Masai’s paintings, as real life jigsaw puzzles, help remind even a fraction of his audience that we each hold the key to unlock the preservation of biodiversity.
We asked Louis Masai one final question:
TTDOG: For what are you most grateful, and where do you find your greatest joy?
LM: I just give thanks for the life I live. For me, joy is in nature, so I hope to find ways to preserve it.
For further information on the work of Louis Masai:
Doing Lines, BSMT Space‘s third and final Street Art Exhibition of 2015 opened last night in Dalston. The brain child of Captain Kris, Tony Boy Drawings, The Real Dill, and Obit, Doing Lines promised to be “hyper collaborative art madness” and “an immersive experience,” according to Captain Kris. The show delivered on the promise.
Stepping into the space, one is surrounded on all sides by black and white illustration of the character based genre. The individual illustration style of each artist is present but they merge and interact in ways that create vignettes in true improv fashion.
An overarching story begins to unfold as one examines details of a sea scape, a naughty sexual encounter on one wall, a haven to intoxicants in another corner and a foodscape on yet another wall which provides for the inevitable munchies that will result from a wild night of partying.
The visitor feels as though they have walked into a larger than life comic book where a party is underway. The text is written in reverse, telling us that we have left our everyday existence and entered inside the world of the story that the images are creating.
The party continues with DJ Seeds on the decks spinning wicked tunes and white balloons covering the floor.
It is clear that the artists, Captain Kris, Tony Boy Drawings, The Real Dill and Obit have created a fun time for the visitor, improvising the piece, despite the three days and nights of hard work it took to create. The improv does not end with the artists. We are meant to become a part of the story. The white balloons lay strewn upon the floor and markers lay at the ready for visitors to draw themselves into the story as merry party goers.
And it isn’t just by drawing that one can enter the storyline. A voluptuous naked woman is positioned in a waiting pose for a sexual encounter. She is drawn exactly at the height where a gallery visitor might be inclined to position himself or herself to enjoy the encounter – were the illustration a real woman, or were the visitor made from illustrator’s ink and able to step out of this world and onto the wall.
Masters of mixing performance art with street art, the energy of the piece continued at the opening with live drawing.
All in all, an evening of community and mirth was created between artists, and gallery visitors. A small number of works are available for sale, including a limited edition signed print, and several canvases which had been carefully hung and concealed on the blank walls at the start of the jam. Keeping to the promise to be different from the usual “paintings on walls” shows, the canvases for sale from Doing Lines were completed as a consequence of being part of the blank wall for the improvisational 3-day illustration jam.
A massive amount of fun, the immersive party atmosphere continues at BSMT Space with the Doing Lines walls on exhibition through 14 November.
An explosion of colour characteristic of his vibrant portraits, the fireworks of bonfire night was the perfect backdrop for the opening of an exhibition by one of the most energetic and vibrant artists to have painted on London streets and graced the gallery scene in awhile.
Visitors to the opening were able to chat with Mr Stinkfish about his work and see the photos of people who have captivated him in his travels and subsequently become the subjects of his portraits.
Within each portrait is contained a tale of the momentary captivation of heart and mind, captured in a photograph, and carried in the heart of the painter through to completion of his portrait. Often unaware of the photographer, these interesting moments with intriguing strangers are immortalised in a combination of stencil and freehand paint on canvas.
Many times, Stinkfish has been asked about his choice of colour palette and over again, he replies that it has come organically. Perhaps by considering the indigenous and folk art of Central America, including Colombia and Mexico, one can see that in the context of this art history with their vibrant reds, oranges and yellows, the equally vibrant palette of Stinkfish, a man of the streets, is organic to cultures from which he comes.
These delightful portraits, refreshingly dazzling to the London public are very accessible to aspiring collectors, evidencing the truth of Stinkfish’s ethos of wishing not to exploit his success but merely to be able to continue to make art available to as wide an audience as possible, particularly through the public gallery of the Street.
The exhibition runs through 6 December. Pure evil gallery at 96/98 Leonard Street is open daily from 10-6.
Wednesday night, Graffictti, a group show by Mexican artists Said Dokins, Mazatl, Fusca, Ácaro opened in London. A short exhibition, the show runs through Sunday at the newly opened Hoxton Gallery at 47 Old Street.
Just three months old, the gallery is a large space in a converted grocery store, set in the heavily trafficked Old Street footpath between Whitecross Street and the Old Street tube station. Well lit by day with large windows providing ample light, the gallery invites visitors to a voyage of discovery. Although the ethos of a pop-up exhibition is to be a rough around the edges and “underground” vibe, it was admittedly hard work to find a gallery staff member to provide information.
Despite the gallery experience, this is a must see exhibition. They works are a delight, living up to Hoxton Gallery’s promise to:
“…act as a point of artistic exchange between Mexican artists and the London street art community, showcasing emerging talents…(that) reflect the changing landscape of contemporary Mexico and its deep relation with traditional techniques”
The beauty of Said Dokins’ calligraphy on walls in London is matched by the works in the gallery.
Photographs of works of writing performed with long exposure photography and the tracing of light through space is beyond compare.
Without an explanation of the work, one might presume that the work has been photoshopped rather than produced by photography and meditative focus. In essence, Dokins has managed to leave a trail of perfectly formed letters with light, despite the letters being seen only in his mind’s eye.
Precision of line and detail is reflected in the prints of master carver and painter, Mazatl. His works remind one of the long tradition of graphic art seen in woodcuts dating back to early medieval times.
Beautifully rendered images of death, birth and political repression are conveyed via the natural world and connect with the viewer in a visceral way. A truly gifted artist and craftsman, his images are immediate and engaging. One is entranced by both the detail of line and the overall realism generated.
Juxtaposed against the precise detail of Mazatl, is the delicate terra cotta blush on the three faces of the woman from whose heart emerges a powerful horse. Her illuminated, sun kissed skin offers both warmth and a complex set of imagery that seems at once both familiar and foreign.
Like Frida Kahlo, Fusca mixes what has been termed surrealism with symbols from indigenous and folk art. Fusca’s work evokes the art of the Pueblo people both in the choice of colour palette and in imagery.
The above street piece of the masked figure who has tamed Mazatl’s wild boar is reminiscent of masked Hopi snake dancers, and the horse emerging from the heart reminds the viewer of the central role of the horse in indigenous culture of Northern Mexico and of the role that the Pueblo people played in the development of the horse trade in Northern Mexico and what has become the American Southwest.
Beautiful, captivating and dream like, Fusca’s art takes one on a journey of myth and legend both historical and beyond time.
With political imagery and detailed line reminiscent of Mazatl and a surrealist treatment that gives primacy to the natural world, Ácaro completes the show by evidencing a wide artistic range in the works exhibited.
Art prices range from accessible to that suitable for a more serious amateur collector. The group show closes Sunday and while one should be prepared to really work for an inquiry with gallery staff, the show is one not to miss.
BSMT launched the space with a first contemporary street art show, Underhand. The show was a smash success with art by a range of international street artists.
A third exhibition of Street Art, Doing Lines, with Captain Kris, Obit, The Real Dill and Tony Boy Drawings, opens this Friday, 6 November.
In an art community that is often suspicious of the gallery world and is rife with stories of artists failing to be paid for their sales, what makes this gallery able to command such talented artists in such early days of their positioning in the art world? It appears to come down to credibility as fellow artists, good intentions and a sense of community.
Lara Fiorentino, the gallery owner, is an artist herself, with more than a decade of both fine art and professional decorative painting on her CV. Understanding the art work as well as the disposition of the artist gives her the ability to forge relationships with artists from a wide range of styles and backgrounds. It is her high-end decorative painting skills that helped her transform a dark and dank basement into the beautiful and inviting gallery it is today. But it is perhaps her intuive skill as an artist and a business owner that has served her best.
“I just felt it when I saw this place,” Lara Fiorentino, the gallery, owner said of the BSMT location. “There was no staircase, we had to enter through the landlord’s premises, there was water dripping down and you couldn’t even see the whole space. The walls were bare. It was a mess.” When asked whether it was her ability as an artist to visualise the potential of the space she said: “Yes, I suppose. But I just felt it. And it all comes down to good energy.”
Friends of Lara have said of her that she possesses a rare quality – she embodies the gestalt of the art of the time. It is this good energy which she brings to her endeavours and which makes them a success. An artist herself, she aims to provide a positive creative space for ideas to come to fruition.
“I couldn’t do it without Greg,” she hastens to add. “And Greg couldn’t do it without me. We are a great team.”
Greg Key, her partner, is a Street Art curator with a background as an entertainment and hospitality industry professional. He has spent the past several years building relationships in the Street Art community and gaining the trust of the artists whom he and Lara now represent, at the gallery.
I spoke with Greg before the first group show, Underhand, about his motivation for putting on the show and for donating the gallery commissions for that show to the homeless charity St. Mungos.
“It’s about giving back to the community,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out on the street with artists, as they paint, and I’ve seen how people suffer on the streets. It’s only getting worse.” Regarding the artists, he said: “I want to give back to a great community of artists that has embraced me and accepted me as one of their own. They’re my friends. I want to do something special for them.”
Visiting The Gallery
Entering the gallery, there is a sense of ease and community. One is welcomed warmly by the curators and left to engage with the works of art alone or to engage in spirited dialogue with the curators, as one wishes. One gets the sense that the gallery, although a business, will succeed only by helping the artists to succeed in selling their work and by drawing in buyers to a world that is, in many cases, foreign to their own.
BSMT Space, located underground at 5 Stoke Newington Road in London has also filled 620 sq ft space, two alcoves and additional newly renovated room for the launch of a contemporary art collective and social movement, Food of War. The magazine, Funhouse, also launched at the space in October.
The recipe of good vibes and community seems to be working, with back to back bookings through to the end of year, foreign buyers clamouring for pieces, and celebrity gallery visitors like Gilbert and George making appearances at openings. This cozy space, creating community in the heart of Dalston, is well worth the visit.
Read about BSMT’s first exhibition of Street Art, Underhand
Read about BSMT’s second exhibition of Street Art, Death in Dalston
Read about BSMT’s third exhibition of Street Art, Doing Lines
Read about the launch of Food of War
Death in Dalston, BSMT Space’s second Street Art exhibition curated by Greg Key opened this week in London.
Dubbed “A curious collection of skulls,” the exhibition offers a sometimes sentimental, often whimsical, and sometimes shocking view of physical mortality and of psychological death.
The exhibition coincides with the pagan celebration of Samhain, the secular celebration of Halloween, the Christian marking of All Saint’s Day and the Mexican tradition of welcoming the community of the dead on Dia de Los Meurtos.
That is a lot of death and ghosts to pack into a 600 square foot gallery!
Yet the visitor is greeted with sight of the whimsical “Disco Ate My Brain” by Alfie Black, a massive disco skull made from a sculpted form covered in hand-cut mirrored glass. Given the scale of the piece, it should not surprise that it took over 300 hours to create.
Skeleton Cardboard offers up a wall of merry skeletons complete with his own shrine to commemorate the season.
Nick Flatt’s painting of a skull with gold teeth against a hot pink background offers another thumb of the nose at the Angel of Death.
The cow bone and human hair “shrunken skull” of Donald Trump from the collection by Burt Gilbert is a wink to visitors to acknowledge the dark voodoo desires this will evoke in most people in the run up to the U.S. Election.
Skulls are a common motif on the streets and one might wonder why this theme has captured the imagination of so many Street Artists. We must recall that the skull is a motif in art across the world, from Hamlet’s soliloquy to the skull of his departed friend reminding us that our precarious existence is a choice, to the use of the skull as a reminder of our mortality in the Vanitas paintings of the Dutch Golden Age of painting, to the depictions of Kali wearing a necklace of skulls in Hindu and specifically, Tantric magical iconography.
Triumph over the illusion of life and death in Tantric practice is ritualised by drinking and eating from human skulls, and meditating or making love in burial grounds while the illusion of life without end is challenged by the Vanitas paintings and the words of the Bard.
There is a long tradition of skull imagery in art, yet there is special attraction to the skull in the street art world. Perhaps it is partly a totem that signals street sense and toughness, as it seems to do for heavy metal fans. Perhaps it is that, in a world where graffiti and throw ups must be done quickly, the skull, as a universal symbol, offers an immediate and rapidly delivered message to the viewer.
An affront to the denial of our immortality in a culture that glorifies youth and discards the elderly, the use of the skull by Street Artists of London dismantles our illusions of reality and questions the meaning of our altogether too short existence.
Resistance to the death of independent thought and of our very humanity within in a world where we work to consume like automatons caught in a macabre capitalist system, Street Art challenges our perception of the meaning of life, and particularly, the walking death of our modern existence.
In a world of information overload, the depiction of the human form devoid of flesh flips the message inside out allowing the subtext of the message to smack the viewer in the face and scream: “Wake up, while there is still time!”
This urgency is conveyed by the threads that surround the wonderful threaded skeleton by Perspicere.
Wrapped in a shroud, the viewer is reminded that only a thread separates life from our inevitable death.
Drawing on our cultural references of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven and Hitchcock’s The Birds, Ali Hamish’s suited and booted man is already dead. His skeletal face smiles at the world as his bony hand reaches out, as if to strike a deal. The subject continues to walk through his empty life, complete with his elite corporate job.
In a more sentimental vein, the painting of Alex Illusra Feccia takes as its base, the X-Rays of his brother’s skull, acknowledging for the viewer that we actually suffer the least from our own death. It is the death of our loved ones that causes us grief.
Most poignant of all, perhaps, is the installation by Morgazmik/Morgandy, in memory of two family members lost during the year.
The only piece lacking a skull, the raven conveys death, the crisp autumn leaves evoke the inevitability of the cycle of life and death and the personal mementos of the dead allows what is the artist’s personal loss to touch the viewer and trigger our own pain of loss.
The message hits home: In order to honour the community of the dead we must wake up and live.
Other wonderful pieces by talented artists complete the exhibition designed to meet all of one’s ghoulish needs.
Death in Dalston offers a quick trip through the underworld and runs at BSMT Space only through 2 November so don’t miss out.
Amidst the refugee crisis in Europe, the UK visit of the Dalai Lama, and the celebration in Trafalgar Square of UN World Peace Day, last night, a new Social Movement, Food of War, celebrated its launch event to raise awareness of the linkages between food and war.
Visitors to BSMT space in Dalston were greeted with a multi-media and multi-sensorial event. Music and films played in various alcoves, while paintings and photography challenged the viewer to interrogate the relationship between food and conflict while food and drinks piqued the taste buds as well as the collective unconsciousness. The aim was to make connections between the sensory experience and the intellectual understanding of the represented conflicts.
In the statement by the collective, we are reminded that:
“Above all, food is about power”
Visitors saw this power-play in the intersections of the various food and art to be experienced. Sugar cane juice enlivened the taste buds with the familiar but richer, more essential, flavour of South America as we gazed on Omar Castañeda’s painting “Raped Seeds: Farmers vs Government – Sugar Cane” which depicts farmers greeting police with the traditional Colombian drink. Peasants opposed the Colombian government in 2013 for offering no protection to small farmers under Free Trade Agreements or against big agri-businesses like Monsanto. This opposition, depicted as violent in the press, began as a peaceful but political protest through the universal act of hospitality – sharing of food.
Unlike the Colombian farmer who battles to compete and preserve their heritage seed, Food of War aims to metaphorically plant the seed in the minds of the public and other artists to begin to engage in thought and dialogue around both the current relationships and heritage of Food and War.
Other works evoked different conflicts. A short film by Omar Castaneda and Monica Rubio about the traditional Spanish food, Las Gachas, combined with the taste of the food itself, evoked, for visitors the hardships and resilience of the people during the Spanish Civil War. In another alcove, a documentary film by Quintina Valero accompanied by Italian salad represented the triumph of local communities despite long standing conflicts with the Mafia. Finally, an offering of hummus sat upon a cloth embroidered with a hummus recipe in several languages, representing the conflict in the middle east. All visitors were treated to a slice of cake which bore the edible inscription of the Food of War Manifesto
Photography from the ‘Maiden Women’ project by Omar Castaneda and Quintina Valero documents the role of women and food in the conflict in the eastern Ukraine.
In the final room, a short film by Omar Castaneda juxtaposes violent images of police assault and peasant protest with haunting and powerful music by Carolina Munoz. Work by the opera singer Hyalmar Mitrotti was also represented.
Upon entering the gallery, the visitor was confronted by the painting “Food Inc. Refugees” by Omar Castaneda, which challenges the viewer to make the connections between the way in which our humanity has been called into question over the refugee crisis in Europe. This is represented by the desperate refugees found dead in a lorry normally used to transport dead battery farmed chickens.
Before the launch, I had the opportunity to discuss the Food of War with three of the members of the collective, Omar Castaneda, Hernan Barros and Quintina Valero.
Tell us about your organisation, how it was founded and what are your aims?
Omar: In 2010 we travelled to Palestine and Israel and we saw this connection of food. It was really important in those areas.
For example, to go to a checkpoint you have to leave all your food, if you’re going from the Palestine to the Israeli territories but going the other way, it is no problem. So we thought okay, there are pretty interesting objects and subjects and ideas that we can develop.
We saw all these problems that they had with food and how they managed to appropriate Western brands and make their own in Palestine. There was this kind of ‘fight’ in a way. I want to be a part of it but the world doesn’t want to let us be a part. So we thought okay there’s something important happening around these foods. We – Monica Rubio and I – spent three weeks there. We started working with the project until Monica became busy with having a family and Hernan Barros came on board as part of the art collective. We started developing the whole idea, as a group, and we started writing The Manifesto.
Hernan: There was a lot of discussion with Monica in the beginning because she is a documentarian, Omar is a visual artist and I work with visual effects and I write. So, in the beginning we were thinking this could be a documentary or this could be a cookbook or an exhibition and then we started debating and we thought this could be a Movement so everyone would be welcome to contribute in different ways. And, now we have associated artists. At one point a singer approached us and I thought: “What?” and then Omar said “Of course she can, she can be a part of it!”
Omar and I collaborated and then Quintina joined the movement, once we decided this could be a movement. Quintina is a photojournalist which brings a completely different angle to the work. She is more “hands on” – like a street fighter. She is the type of professional that goes out, takes pictures and interacts with the community and so she brings that quality, which was a little lacking in us, until then.
When she came along, she really liked the idea and she said let’s go to the Ukraine – something is happening in the Ukraine – and so Omar and Quintina went there and worked for over a month. The way that she has really influenced the movement is to be more hands on and interacting with the community.
And so, we welcome everyone who can, in a creative way, explore the relationship between food and war through art, ideally under the principles of our Manifesto, and raise awareness of ongoing and past conflicts.
Omar: For us its really important to have the experience from the people; from the situation. Quintina has the press card so she can travel to places that I cannot, but I’d like to. So it was really interesting the way we collaborated because she is a photojournalist and I am an artist and so sometimes we clash because we have different approaches but I learned a lot from her and she learned a lot from me and we learned how to work together and how to do a project as a collective.
We want to plant the seeds in the minds of people to think that every time we eat something, there is something behind that. Nowadays its so easy to go to the supermarket and we don’t think where food comes from so that’s something we want to do – to make people aware of what’s behind the produce that we eat.
Tell us about your name: Why Food of War and not Food of Peace?
Hernan: We were just discussing this yesterday and we were saying that it is in times of peace that we appreciate the consequences of war and we are grateful that we are not at war. But it is when we are at war that there is this power play, all the time, and that is what we like to explore because food, above all things, is about power. In war, there is a clash of power. We are not pro war, we just like to observe it and dissect it, through food.
Omar: Through our research for our projects we have realised that the things we have nowadays have come from the times of war. We don’t think these two things (food and war) belong together but actually they are really linked. Many of our ‘fast foods’ comes from war – tinned food which came from the Napoleonic war.
Hernan: Think about Spanish food! Where would we be without all the ingredients the Spanish took when they invaded Latin America? They took spices and even potatoes so there would be no patatas bravas without that conflict. It wasn’t a war initially, it was an invasion and then it was a war with the Latin American uprising. And before that, when the Muslims invaded Spain and continued to influence them for some 800 years, it really influenced the food. The Moors were powerful so they took what they wanted from the farms but they didn’t eat pork so the pigs were left for the farmers. So the peasants maximized what they could get from the animal. That’s why we have chorizo and all the pork based foods from Spain. They used everything – they even ate the ears. All the food that remains when we go on a gastronomic tour of Spain is a direct consequence of war. We eat these in times of peace but they come from times of war.
What wars are within scope of interrogation in reciprocal relation to food?
Omar: I’m obsessed with food. I’m really passionate about food. All my projects began because there was a fight between my father and my mother to get control of the kitchen. In order to show that they had power they decided to buy a fridge. My mother bought a fridge and then my father decided to buy a bigger fridge to show: “I’ve got money, I’ve got the power.” And then my mother did the same. In the end, we had 7 fridges. And we weren’t allowed to eat the food inside the fridge.
I know its weird. But that’s an example of how domestic violence can start it off.
Hernan: We haven’t explored that since we created the movement. We started working with wars between countries and religions but we are open to do a piece like that. So far we haven’t but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested. We are open if an artist comes with an interesting proposal that isn’t about war between two countries or two religions, but maybe conflict between two communities or neighbourhoods.
Omar: So its not just war, its the relationship between food and conflict. For example I can have a problem with Hernan and probably I can sort it out over sharing food. In the gallery we have a film with a song about the conflict between the peasants and the government and Monsanto in Colombia so its not just about war between countries, in this case it was within my own country. We like to explore all of that.
Quintina: Yes, carrying on with the same theme, we are exploring a future project around conflicts around water. I have some experience from Spain and how the government and communities are dealing with shortage of supply of water. We can see that the same issues are going on in other countries. So, it is not just food, either. It is food and water and the interactions. And its great to get to work together because everyone brings ideas.
We get so many people sharing things we’d like to explore. At least it gets people starting to think about it.
Hernan: Yes, its like therapy. Last time I was here in this space at the gallery opening, I was talking to people and I say what I do and everyone says – “Oh well, in my country…”
Omar: It’s when you say the two words together that people make the connection. That’s why we aren’t called Food of Peace, because when you put the two together, people say their personal stories. “Food and War? Oh, my brother dah dah dah…”
Your manifesto refers to your group as a movement and that you don’t take sides in your works or have any party affiliation, the word movement implies evolution and change at the level of civil society. How does this manifest with your movement?
Quintina: What we try to do, where there is a conflict, and it is possible, we try to see both sides and document both sides of the story. For example in the Ukraine, there is a conflict in the East. We try to show both sides. At the moment there is only one part in the show but the other part is coming. Without being on one side or the other, we try to raise awareness of the issues. We want to show both sides so they see that the same problems are shared.
Omar: However, we document the wars and the issues but we want to go further and we are planning to do more about those issues. We see ourselves as helping those people that are in conflict, building bridges between the parties that are in conflict. We think we have a social agenda.
Quintina: But, we are also artists…
Hernan: We’re people! We’re always going to have a side, whether we want it or not, and maybe it leaks into the work. You try to be impartial but maybe they don’t even let you go there to the other side . If we tried to do something on North and South Korea, we probably couldn’t go to North Korea and then people will think hmmm…
Quintina: Yes, even in the Ukraine I had that problem. I was with the journalists and as soon as someone was publishing on social media, they would decide you were working with the rebels and wouldn’t let you go to that area. So its quite difficult sometimes. At least if we can only cover one side we try to have someone else cover the other. We try to be neutral.
We work in different ways and we are always learning. We are learning about the issues, we are learning about each other and we are learning from the food. We want to make others aware as well.
Hernan: Yes, it’s like people can go – “Oh, I didn’t know there was something happening there. I didn’t know there was an issue with food in Western Sahara”
Omar: We are working on something now for the 30th anniversary of Chernobyl. We did an exhibition with photographs and propaganda but we are also doing a documentary from different countries. That is coming.
How and why have you selected the dishes and pieces in the show, today?
Omar: We are showing 7 works here tonight and we decided to take the works from artists that have been working with us for a long time and that have most relevance to our message. We chose the food that is familiar to the audience coming today so that they can understand what we’re talking about.
Hernan: Like for instance we took the Las Gachas, Hummus and Italian salad, we have a cake with our manifesto and we have a sugar cane drink to represent the Colombian conflict. And I will ask people to write on edible paper with edible ink. So we cover the Spanish civil war, the middle east conflict, the mafia control in Italy, Colombia peasant opposition and also the Ukraine conflict and the European refugee crisis.
What would you like visitors to take away from this event?
Omar: This is a multidisciplinary art collective so there are multidisciplinary things going on. There are no borders. Food is part of the art, food is part of the cooking, food is something to help you think about the works while you’re eating.
Something is going to happen to them like: “Oh really, I didn’t know about this conflict…wow, hummus…is that going there? Oh the immigrants…” And this idea of carrying away the dead immigrants the way they carry away dead chickens.
I think people are going to start making links through all of these connections.
Hernan: We’re aiming at that connections that normally you don’t make when you are tasting something. I call it the forgotten sense – tasting. The other senses you use for basic survival but you also use them for aesthetic pleasure. But with food, there is very little sense of intellectual connections of something happening behind this or the consequences that brought this dish here. A dish is like a biopsy of what has happened. It’s like cutting a slice of time and space and anything – financially, culturally or socially – can be reflected through a dish.
We are aiming for that to happen if not in this exhibition then it will be the seed for it to start.
Omar: This is our seed and we want to plant the seed for the movement in every person that comes today and make them think.
Quintina: We are open, we are looking for people to come into the group or even some ideas for future projects. It’s just the beginning.
What is the role of community in the themes you address?
Quintina: The way we work is we do research on the problem or conflict, the food related to it, and then when we go there, we interview people from all aspects of the community and then, when we can, we offer a workshop to give back to the community and to include food and drawing and art.
We try to bring a seed to open a door to come back and also to work with local artists. It’s very interactive way we work with the community.
Omar: Also, we contact NGOs or people working in the countries to be able to go to places we need to go, or to give us ideas of where and how to work in the area. Thanks to one of the NGOs we got to go to one of the refugees camps in the Ukraine and that was really powerful. We want to be part of the that to understand the whole situation.
What is the greatest hope for this collective movement? What would be a dream-come-true?
Hernan: To work with as many artists as we can, to increase our knowledge and to raise awareness of as many conflicts as possible. To reach as many people as possible.
Omar: Yes, that’s exactly it.
Quintina: Yes and there are many ways of collaborating. When we went to the Ukraine, they arranged a translator for us, sometimes they give us accommodation, we also hope to be connected to other artist collectives, and people from galleries who want to exhibit our work. There are many ways we can work with people together.
Omar: Yes but at the moment it is just ourselves funding the project…
Quintina: …and we’ve had to delay our second part of the Ukraine project because there isn’t enough funding.
Hernan: We are looking for applying for funding for our projects. We are just at the beginning and we are proving ourselves, still.
Omar: Today we are making our statement and people can talk about us for better or worse and we are putting ourselves on the map.
And finally, because it is the nature of this particular magazine to ask: For what are you most grateful in relation to this work?
Quintina: I am very grateful to be invited to be part of Food of War and the first time they spoke to me about the collective 2 years ago I was very interested and excited and I was pleased when they invited me to be part of the collective. Since then, I have learned a lot from the way they work and the way we work together and the possibilities I’ve had to work on very interesting projects so its very exciting to be part of the group and doing what we do.
Hernan: For me, it is the opportunity to rescue the forgotten sense – taste – and to take it to another level. Every time that I meet someone and I see the way they eat and their cultural background, I am seeing the world through a different lens. I am very grateful because I had that in me but I didn’t know how to channel it. Food of War has given me the excuse to channel it and to pursue it. I don’t just have Vietnamese food because it tastes so good. There is a whole story about how Vietnamese food has evolved through all different wars, through the French invasion, through the Chinese invasion and through the war with the Americans. When you find a eureka moment, when you make all these connections, it makes you happy and you want to share it with everyone. And it’s not just past conflicts; when it’s about current conflicts its even more powerful.
Omar: I’m grateful to understand that food is a very powerful tool to communicate with people and communities. It’s something we take for granted. I don’t know how to explain it. I’m so pleased that working on these projects has given me the ‘salt’ to be happier and to learn more about war as well. Food has that other meaning.
And I would like to thank two of the artists in the show who are not with us today, Carolina Munoz and Hyalmar Mitrotti.
Food of War exhibition is on until 30 September at BSMT Space, 5 Stoke Newington Road, N16 8BH, London.
“Tantrum” courtesy of Food of War