Rafael Klein has taken part in the Nunhead Art Trail since its conception five years ago. He’s a wonderfully warm and enthusiastic artist who takes me on a journey through his busy and dizzying life - starting in New York, moving through Holland, then Italy, then England, then back to New York, and then finally back to London to roost.
When we meet for our interview, he shows me the studio where he works in the back garden, surrounded by his impressive steel sculptures that are as tall as him. He talks about the transformative power of art, the beauty of London’s lush green landscapes, and his love of metals, while I cuddle his lovely rescue pooch from the Dogs Trust.
How long have you lived in South East London? Where have you lived previously?
I’ve probably lived in South East London for about 25 years. Initially, we lived in Camberwell, on Camberwell Grove in a nice old apartment there, and then we moved to Landells Road, East Dulwich, and then East Dulwich got a little too posh for us. We had a small house and the kids were growing up so we figured we could swap that for a bigger house in Nunhead, and we found this, which is the last time you’d ever have found something like this in Nunhead. It had the studio building out back and all this extra land. So we’ll probably never move. [Laughs.]
We thought we were moving into a very remote, suburban area - then we discovered it’s not remote, it’s very central! It’s zone 2. The other thing we never knew until we moved to Nunhead is how much green there is here. We have Nunhead Cemetery, Brenchley Gardens, One Tree Hill - it’s so green. It’s surrounded by green. It all opened up like a lovely surprise.
So how long have you lived in London?
I’ve lived in London for over 30 years, maybe 32, 33 years. I started off in New York, then spent some time living in Holland and Italy. Then I came to London. I went back to New York for about five years after that, and then I thought
“Okay, now it’s time”.
Time to go back to London?
It’s the trees, it’s the fact that you get such a lively city, but there’s also trees!
I’ve not found the green that we have here in any other city. Paris has maybe five parks.
And the parks in Paris are all so formalised, these big avenues with neat rows of trees. In New York, we have this guy called Olmsted, a landscape architect who created these parks - Central Park, Prospect Park - and it’s very much this English idea of creating nature in a park that come through in those designs. You have a bit of wildness, huge boulders, indigenous trees. London has that.
Naturally! I always think, when I’m walking through Peckham Rye, that this landscape used to be everywhere. Maybe there were a few houses dotted here and there, but this park hasn’t been designed, it’s just always been there, and then it was protected, and then it was developed and designed.
That’s the critical thing - how important it is for people and how much they have to fight to keep those spaces from being overrun by commercial or property developments.
Nick [Cobb] was telling me the story of One Tree Hill and the riots in our interview.
It was going to be developed on and people came out in force! It was an important place for them.
Can you name a few of your favourite, local spots?
One Tree Hill, I love it there. Then there’s Brenchley Gardens - we take the dog there all the time. Peckham Rye is fantastic! They spent all this money - they got a grant - and did it all up. And I also love Dulwich Park, we used to live close to Dulwich Park and that was my first discovery of the green spaces here.
What’s it called?
I have no idea. [Laughs.] It’s my Turkish family-run local cafe. There’s Space at 61 down on Cheltenham Road, too, they’re doing a nice buzzy little thing. And of course, there’s the Ivy House. I don’t drink but I go there! London’s first, community-owned pub.
I feel very strongly that enhancing a public space and using that enhancement as a way to create a sense of ownership and create a sense of public awareness is satisfying for the local community.
So much of your artwork is literally built into local spaces - Nunhead Station, the Horniman School, a park, a traffic island. Why is making those ties between your art and your local community important to you?
In New York, in America, everything is very privately owned. You have Central Park and Prospect Park but that’s about it. Everything else is tied to commercial entities. So it was a big discovery for me when I came to Europe, especially to Italy, seeing the public spaces, seeing the Piazza della Signoria when I was living in Florence - here was a space that had enormous value for human beings, for civilising influence, for sanity, for connections between people.
Having spaces that are communally owned, so that people have a sense of ownership, is important here. So one of my big philosophies with all these projects has been engaging with the local community - whether it’s in a school or a train station or wherever - and make my art a true collaboration. I feel very strongly that enhancing a public space and using that enhancement as a way to create a sense of ownership and create a sense of public awareness is satisfying for the local community.
We did this in Bremington Park, which wasn’t even a park, it was just a cut through that people avoided because it was dangerous and dark. So we worked with landscape artists, with the council, I created a big entrance feature - and the park has been transformed. People are using it, there’s even a “Friends of Brimmington Park” now.
I love making art and I love selling my work, but when you change a public space, when you mark that space and give that space an identity, it’s a wonderful feeling. You’re changing your art and my main thing about creating art is sharing. I’d hate to be the type of artist who works alone in a studio and never shares. I feel fortunate to get to do that.
It has repercussions - it’s like throwing a stone in the water. You never know who it will go out to, who it will speak to, who might be touched by something. I love working in schools for that reason - you have a very large community ready made.
And it means something to other people that way, too.
Exactly. It has repercussions - it’s like throwing a stone in the water. You never know who it will go out to, who it will speak to, who might be touched by something. I love working in schools for that reason - you have a very large community ready made.
How has South East London inspired your art?
It’s this idea about trees - London is a very metropolitan, cosmopolitan place but it has green spaces. And South East London probably more so than any other part of London. The green spaces are so luscious and luxurious!
I’ve done a lot of exhibitions that are just about nature within the city. Now I’m looking into the symbolic uses of trees - I’ve done a touring show about a family tree, which plays with the idea of being connected to trees as well as to each other. It’s really gotten under my skin, the trees of South East London.
That’s something that definitely comes across in your paintings - there’s a road, but there are trees.
It’s all about the dialogue between this very urban or suburban area and the nature that surrounds it. It’s all about the trees.
You’ve done quite a few projects with local schools and school children. Why do you think it’s important to nurture the creative side in children?
Part of it is because I enjoy children’s creativity. You can walk into the school and just plant an idea. It gets them going and when they get going, it’s so beautiful to watch.
Just before I left New York, I got involved with something called Studio in a School. Schools have less and less money to spend on visual art and music, and so we would go into schools and animate the classroom. It was about filling a need I saw but I also had this idea that kids always produce this wonderful artwork and it’s just stuck on a fridge with a fridge magnet and that’s the end of it. And I thought, why shouldn’t their artwork be out there in big and bold and permanent materials? The only difference between a professional artist’s art and a child’s art is technique.
I like to give them a sense of ownership and pride, and make them feel that their creativity matters. I want to empower people to explore their own creativity.
I love the way you’ve tried to incorporate their artwork into different projects - for instance, the gate for the Horniman School. Do you think that teaches them to contribute concretely to the local community?
Even after the child has left that school, the parents remember it, the sibling sees it and says “My brother made that”. It gives a sense that people own their own communities - the school is owned by lots of people, it’s owned by the community. Giving a child an opportunity to change that empowers them. They don’t feel that their environment is something imposed on them but feel that they can make impact on that. I think that’s an important lesson.
I love that - it’s something that definitely comes through looking at your artwork. Thinking about your own childhood, did you want to be an artist as a child?
Always. I was entranced by Superman comics. I used to do all these cartoons, caricatures of all my teachers. I was the official cartoonist for my high school newspaper. Even at college, I was doing that.
But then I started studying fine art, and that hit me like a ton of bricks. I remember being in the Met with one of my lecturers and seeing Turner and I suddenly realised - there’s something here, spiritually. Up until that time, I’d done a lot of graphic art, selling cartoons to magazines, doing signwriting, designs for advertising, and skirting around art. Then suddenly, I had this epiphany and found something beyond all the nice lettering. It hit me really hard.
I thought, why shouldn’t a child's artwork be out there in big and bold and permanent materials? I like to give them a sense of ownership and pride, and make them feel that their creativity matters. I want to empower people to explore their own creativity.
How old were you?
I was 19 already. It came very late. I always wanted to do art and I did art - at 19, I already had a lot of serious commissions. I was doing drawings for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They had these educational videos and I used to do the sketches for it. But I’d never used an easel or canvas or oil paints.
Then suddenly, it was Turner - who I’m not even particularly keen on anymore! [Laughs.]
What was the first piece of art you remember being incredibly proud of?
I did this big exhibition in Soho, New York, called Tin Temples. It’s the paradigm of everything I’ve ever done since then. I was working on 23rd street in a lovely loft and I made a series of works that were all about the superficiality of the false gods of America. So there was one about cars, an enormous relief painting, with real cars tangled up and hitting each other. Then there was Tin Temple about the cinema, done in relief with metal and canvas. I was very proud of that exhibition. I was 28 - solo exhibition, in Soho, and I still really stand by that work.
You mentioned Turner. Which artists inspired your early years of artwork?
I used to love George Grosz and Edward Burra and Goya and El Greco and Picasso… I loved artists who had great humour in their work. Have you ever heard of Red Grooms? He was a great hero of mine. I could go on forever. What’s interesting are the people you’re still looking at.
Which artists inspire you now?
I keep an exhaustive list. Now, I love a guy called Hernan Bas. Egon Schiele, Alex Katz, Charles Burchfield, Milton Avery… When I was first thinking about sculpture, it was Alexander Calder and David Smith. They had two sides - Smith because he dug into materials with his whole body, welding and cutting and dealing with the material, and Calder because of the whimsy and the lightness. Emily Carr, William Kentridge - I think about his work all the time.
There’s a guy called Fausto Melotti who I often forget to mention. He created works of such delicacy and lightness.
That’s an incredible list - I can’t image how long the exhaustive list is.
I’ve said this to all the artists I’ve interviewed so far, but it’s been true for everyone: your artworks are incredibly versatile - sculptures, paintings, prints. Is that versatility important to you and to your art?
Definitely. When I started out, I was a commercial artist and I could use all kinds of different mediums, which was very handy.
There’s also, though, something to be said about freshness and lightness - I didn’t want to get bogged down in the same thing. The kind of artistry that didn’t work for me was one that was too branded, too trademarked, too much of the same. I like to try new things and look for new ways to freshen my art. I don’t want to get too certain or too comfortable with the way things are.
I want to talk a little about your paintings and sculptures - specifically, your use of metal. Your paintings are enamel on metal and your sculptures are often made out of metal, too. What is it about this medium that speaks to you?
I use a lot of steel, bronze, aluminium… all kinds of metals. But that wasn’t always the case - I started out with printmaking on paper, paintings on canvas. Gradually, though, that changed. I think it had something to do with coming to Europe and seeing all the sculptures.
What metal does for me is it offers a transformative quality, an ability to metamorphose. Like lost-wax, bronze casting - there was a magic I suddenly saw in taking something like wax, something soft and mushy, and then investing that in a bit of plaster, and pouring out this hot, molten, primeval material, and coming out with a sculpture.
I’ve always felt that art should be transformative. When you look at a found-object piece of art, the thing that makes it art is that it’s been transformed. There’s magic and alchemy to it, and that’s at the core of how I think about art. I’m not doing quite so much bronze at the moment, which has that magical, otherworldly quality to it, but even in steel, you’re taking a base metal and heating it and melting it, joining it together with other bits of steel, bending it into all these different forms. I love that transformation process.
That ties in quite closely with what previous artists have said in their interviews about the transformative power of art - Edori [Fertig] was talking about the appeal of taking a found object and giving it a new lease on life, transforming it into something completely new.
It’s the mysterious power of art - to metamorphose mediums and objects and create something new.
That’s something I especially loved about your Cycle Energy project, where you transformed bicycles into an energy source for children to run their school radio station. Is making people more aware of their energy use and trying to find innovative and sustainable energy sources a particular passion project?
Yes, definitely. That’s part of the appeal of working with schools. I’m working on a development for a school in Manchester and that’s a huge part of that project too - trying to incorporate wind and water power into the design of their external spaces.
But it’s not an answer, it’s more of a question for me. The guy I worked with on the Cycle Energy project is from Electric Pedals, based in Copeland Park. Although the reality of cycling to generate energy isn’t practical in the long run - it takes around 60 minutes of cycling to give your phone 60% charge - it has a wonderful and powerful educational use, and it poses an interesting question. What are the different energy sources? How do they work?
For the school in Manchester, I want to broaden that idea into a variety of alternative energy sources. We’re going to have a big rain container to collect all the rain, then we’ll open the gates of the container and that will travel down to a little water mill, and so on and so forth.
What metal does for me is it offers a transformative quality, an ability to metamorphose. I’ve always felt that art should be transformative. When you look at a found-object piece of art, the thing that makes it art is that it’s been transformed. There’s magic and alchemy to it, and that’s at the core of how I think about art.
That’s a really valuable practical lesson to teach children, who so often switch on a light or get into a car and have no idea what’s powering it. It’s an important question for them to start thinking about at a young age.
Do you think that art plays an important role in conveying an important message - for example, making people aware of environmental problems and suggesting innovative solutions - that can often be overlooked otherwise? Reading about it in a textbook usually has a lot less impact.
At the moment, I’m working on a project with the artist Kevin Dean, that doesn’t have enough funding yet, but the idea is to create an enormous sculpture of a fish in Portsmouth, by the sea. There’s a huge problem with plastic waste in the sea and the University of Portsmouth is particularly active in trying to combat that - they’ve discovered this bacteria that eats plastic. So, I’m working with Kevin, with the university, with Aspex Gallery, with the local council, to build this enormous fish and see whether its highly visible presence will actually change people’s behaviour.
There’s a parallel research project going on visiting schools, and getting families, with their children, to make a small fish out of recycled plastic they’ve collected. Only then do they start to think about what they’ve been buying in the shops, and whether or not this or that plastic is recyclable.
For the big fish in Portsmouth, we’ve got a site, we’ve got some funding, but we’re not quite there yet.
The Nunhead Art Trail is just fantastic. You’d be amazed at the range of works. And you’ve got exactly the range of activities that British people love: you’ve got the walking, the poking around other people’s homes, and the surprise of not knowing what gems you’re going to find.
That’s amazing. I hope it gets the support it needs!
You’ve taken part in the Nunhead Art Trail since it started, five years ago. What is enjoyable about inviting people into your home during the Trail?
It’s fantastic. As an artist, there’s this very awkward dichotomy where on one hand, you spend an awful lot of time on your own in your studio. On the other hand, though, you do a big exhibition surrounded by lots of people in one huge burst of socialisation. Opening up your studio is the perfect middle ground. I love talking to people, I love it when they love my art, when they hate it, I love selling my art, I love feedback. It’s very valuable and very refreshing.
And with the Nunhead Art Trail, there’s a real sense of camaraderie with other artists. You’re taking part in something collective. I used to work in Diorama Arts Centre, with 40-50 other artists, then I was working out of Bussey Building, again surrounded by lots of different artists and getting lots of feedback. Now, I have my own studio and although I love being on my own, I like to have that interactive element.
The Nunhead Art Trail offers that. There’s a nice, manageable slow stream of people coming in, your friends drop by, new people pop in… it’s great.
Why would you encourage people to visit?
It’s just fantastic. You’d be amazed at the range of works. And you’ve got exactly the range of activities that British people love: you’ve got the walking, the poking around other people’s homes, and the surprise of not knowing what gems you’re going to find.
Rafael Klein was interviewed by Larissa Scotting.
This year’s Nunhead Art Trail will take place on the 29th and 30th September.
Edori Fertig is a previous participant in the Nunhead Art Trail. We meet on a Thursday evening in her beautiful East Dulwich home, where she’s lived for 30 years with her partner. She tells me it’s changed very little since then - their only “renovation” was installing a new unit in the kitchen. It’s perfect just the way it is. It’s had 30 years of character permeating its floors and ceilings and staircases and walls.
Edori’s art is as characterful as her home, as magical as her name (invented by her parents), and as colourful as she is. We talk over a cup of tea about the fantastic jackets she’s designed for her band, the importance of recycling in art, and the way South East London continually inspires her and her artwork.
How long have you lived in South East London? Where have you lived previously?
We’ve lived in this house since 1988. Before that, I was in Deptford in a housing coop, and before that, I was in Boston, and before that, Rhode Island.
When did you first think “I want to be an artist”?
The age of five, four, three. That’s all I wanted to do. I was a kid drawing with pen in little notebooks and it’s all I wanted to do.
Which artists inspired your early years of artwork?
Frida Kahlo was a predominant influence because I loved how personal her work is, the surreal aspect of it, the colour, the Mexican influence, the folk art influence… A mixture of her, and maybe Picasso, Matisse, Chagalle.
Which artists inspire you now?
Recently, with the jackets, I’ve been looking at more textile-based people, in particular Nudie Cohn. He was a Hollywood tailor. I sing in a band, and the band wanted these Nudie-style suits. We were doing a take on country Western and everyone wanted these very elaborate jackets. Before that, I’d started a group called Skip Sisters and we used to make things out of rubbish.
Why out of rubbish?
I like anything made out of humble materials. I like that you can find a jacket in a charity shop and you can just fix it up - I love going to Deptford Market and really finding a bargain. A lot of art, for me, starts from a found object. It’s about seeing what it says to me and elevating its status into something precious, when it might have been overlooked initially. The jackets are all about making something out of very little, in that way.
I love that - you’re recycling materials and giving the objects a new life.
And it’s a political statement, too, I suppose. Why create new things when we have so much stuff already in the world, things that have hardly any life? It’s used once and then thrown away. I’m interested in a culture of slow and thoughtful, rather than quick and throwaway. That’s what I try to instil in my students - we just spent a whole unit just on cardboard.
Your artworks are incredibly diverse - you use so many different mediums. Is that fluidity important to you and to your art?
I wish I could stick to one thing! But my nature just doesn’t tend that way. I’m a multitasker. I start one thing on the kitchen table, then I start at something else, then I move to another place and do something different. I grab time all over the place and do a million things at a time.
As educators, you have to know a little bit about a lot of things. I test things out to teach the kids and I run with it then run on to another thing. I wish I could be on one trajectory but it’s never worked for me. In one day, I’ll do a drawing, write lyrics for a new song, practice singing, do an illustration… I’ll make a pair of earrings or figure out what to do with all these plastic bags lying around. This weekend, I’m learning how to make patches at the London Embroidery Studio.
What advice would you give someone deciding they want to be an artist today?
Marry money! [Laughs.]
You will always be an artist if you keep your imagination open and you work at it, like anything else in life. If you can, try to maybe find another way - commercial arts, maybe - of making a living, because it’s virtually impossible. There are over 50,000 artists in London alone. How many of them are able to make a living from their art? Most will be teaching or doing something else alongside their art. My husband was a housing officer. Caroline [Cobb, one of the organisers of the Nunhead Art Trail] was a housing officer. Nick [Cobb, Caroline’s partner and another organiser] teaches.
What advice would you give someone struggling to be an artist, then?
Everything you do should be artistic. It should be thoughtful and individual. That can shine through.
Unfortunately, artists frequently aren’t valued as much as other professions may be valued. The Nunhead Art Trail is a wonderful way of connecting with other artists and giving each other and each other’s work value, meaning, a purpose - it’s for the community. And it brightens lives.
Why do you think art and artists are valuable to a community?
Artists are the ones who have always recycled, in part because we never have money! We’re inventive and we think outside the box. We’re great illusionists. And some of the struggle makes good art sometimes. [Laughs.]
Art is an equaliser. It’s democratic. Everybody can do it - it’s a bridge maker. It should create bridges, connect languages, connect ideas, create and build instead of alienating and dividing.
How has the South East London community inspired and informed your art?
Whenever anybody was doing up their houses, I would collect lino from their homes and make mosaics out of them. My art is physically rooted in my friends’ homes in the area. I did a whole series called Nunhead Walls, which were composites of wallpapers from houses and photographs I found in markets around South London. I’m inspired by the past and history of this area, and those old photographs became a literal part of the fabric of our home here.
Things I found in the garden became things, too - my garden is a constant source of joy, I’m always drawing it and making it. Then there’s the markets, the charity shops. I’m very influenced by South East London.
I love that you’ve incorporated other people’s histories - their memories, their photographs - into your artwork, giving it a new life.
People have had to become very economical about what they keep and what they’re sentimental about. You’ll find photo albums at the market where people wrote on the back of each picture and then they wound up in the market - that’s somebody’s whole history and story! There’s something very tragic about it. I call it urban archaeology. And so I make something out of it so I can give it new meaning.
I think artists are actually natural collectors and hoarders - maybe less so now, in the digital era - but you’re drawn to objects all the time and you see treasures all the time that people will overlook.
What is most special about inviting someone into your home or studio during the Nunhead Art Trail?
It’s like inviting people into your internal world - it can feel very vulnerable. The more you do it, the easier it gets, but it’s still very revealing. It can give new meaning and value to your art because someone else has a response to it. For me, that’s very positive because you’ve communicated something outside of yourself. If I make work but nobody sees it, the process isn’t complete for me.
You’re never finished - I’ve never felt like anything I’ve exhibited is good enough, I always think it could be better or bigger. But that’s the constant journey.
What are your favourite spots in the area?
Why would you encourage artists to take part in the Nunhead Art Trail?
They should participate if they want to share what they’re doing and through their art, want to connect to others. Everyone might be doing it for different reasons - maybe it’s to sell your work, maybe it’s to promote your classes… But it’s just a really nice community event to show the local colour and soul of a place. It gives colour to Nunhead, it makes it unique.
Why should people visit the Nunhead Art Trail?
To enjoy a day seeing Nunhead through artists’ eyes. How lovely is that?
Edori Fertig was interviewed by Larissa Scotting.
This year’s Nunhead Art Trail will take place on the 29th and 30th September.
Nick Cobb is one of the brains behind the Nunhead Art Trail. On a sunny evening in May, we meet in his Nunhead home - where he’s lived with his partner, Caroline, for nearly 30 years - to discuss his art, South East London, and the stories that have inspired his work. So much of his art is closely linked to his home here and the stories this place has to offer, that it's impossible not to weave these three things together. One example: in 2015/2016, he crafted an incredible, 21-feet long model of Rye Lane. Read about his imaginative take on the local high street here.
I also meet their cat, Shelly (who scales and settles inside his latest artwork, currently being exhibited in the Dulwich Artists’ Open House festival), and the three chickens in the back garden, a recent addition to the household.
How long have you lived in Nunhead and where have you lived previously?
We’ve lived in Nunhead for nearly 30 years. Certainly 28. Probably close to 28 in this house and we lived in Peckham for about seven years before that. It’s always been South East London.
Did you grow up in London?
Yes, South East London, Blackheath and Lee Green. At art school, we lived in Wimbledon and Tooting for two years, but the whole bulk has been in South East London.
Which artists inspired your earlier years of artwork?
The earlier years would have been a fascination with early twentieth-century art: Picasso, Braque, and Cézanne. They wanted to radically alter representational art. Then that would have led to abstract art, I always found that a fascinating period.
Which artists inspire you now?
I’ve moved into two areas - a certain kind of photography and this model making. With photography, there’s a man called James Welling, who partly inspired the idea of being much more playful with photography. He did some interesting things with filters.
From the world of cinema, there’s a filmmaker called Aleksandr Sokurov who made a film called Mother and Son (1997) and in that film, he was clearly distorting the lens of the film camera. You don’t see that very much - he was using mirrors, apparently. He even placed large sheets of glass in front of the camera and people painted the landscape scenes onto those translucent panes. It gives some scenes in that film a really bizarre and magical quality. That was the standout film that got me thinking.
There was a group of Japanese photographers from the 1960s, too, called Provoke. There’s a book from that period that I have, Kamaitachi by Eikoh Hosoe. In this book, Hosoe depicts a mythical story about a rice demon who attacks the harvesters in his childhood hometown. This is what influences me quite a lot - the idea that there are fairy tales, myths, legends, that you can make a photography series about.
Then there’s this famous photography book by another Japanese photographer, Masahisa Fukase, called The Solitude of Ravens. It’s an award-winning photography book from 1986. Again, there’s a story associated with this book - his marriage broke down and after his wife divorced him, he took these incredible photographs of these ravens. It's all coming back to me now, the connections with birds and ravens.
All these photographers were comfortable with the idea of graininess, breaking all the rules of composition, being quite playful with photography. And nearly all of it was black and white.
There seems to be a clear thought process happening for you - you just looked at these photographs and realised there was a connection to your current art [like The Crow of One Tree Hill, pictured below]. A lot of art is about seeing something, taking something from it, and creating your own something out of that. How important is that process for you? Do you feel it consciously happening?
Well, there was a clear break around the turn of the century when I was painting these abstract paintings and there was a problem with how long they took to paint, how big they had to be, and it was difficult to sell them. No one took on these pictures. I wanted a clean break from that and I thought that making things, photographing things, telling stories was the complete opposite - the abstract pictures didn’t have any feeling of narrative or figuration in them. I started making these little models of things and photographing them. The photographs worked, for me, if I could build in a little narrative.
The first model I made with a view to photographing it was of Picasso painting this breakthrough painting called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). I researched the six-month period of his life when he was doing that - his relationship with his partner, the child, the dog, the dog had puppies, he adopted a child and it didn’t work out… all these things were going on as he painted this picture and it made for interesting background. I made these models out of plasticine and guessed what his studio would have looked like, based on around four photographs that exist.
You’re looking for stories and creating your artworks from those stories.
For the models, stories emerged. I had a little model of a container ship and created a photo book of the container ship - it’s about its journey across from the Gulf up to the North Sea and up to the Arctic. These photographs are all of models I was making with a view to photographing them and making a photo story.
You use a lot of different mediums. Do you have a favourite? Is versatility important to you and important to your art?
I was brought up, in art school, with this idea that you had one good idea and you stuck with it, you worked at that for tens of years. This mirror that I use for the photographs has been fascinating to me for about four years now, although maybe at some point I’ll exhaust it. I’ve hardly taken any other kind of photographs. With photography, it would only make sense to me to do something odd.
The models, similarly, have been very fascinating for a while too. This boat was shown in its early, skeletal stage last year in our back garden for the Nunhead Art Trail. I told people, “I’ve found something in the garden, I’ve dug it out”.
Did people believe you?
I started spinning this yarn - by the end, I’d say “You don’t believe this, do you?”. It’s very tricky, when you want to sell some of those stories, you don’t want people to feel they’ve been falsely taken in!
I love this thread about stories.
Yes, they’ve become a critical part of the art. With the boat [points to another artwork], there’s this giant robot figure involved - what is it doing there? What is this boat? What’s in the containers? Sometimes, the story is there and you’re providing the narrative, but it’s perhaps a little better sometimes to suggest ideas without being too specific. That’s quite an important thing with art, you don’t want to provide all the answers.
Somebody bought one of those pieces, who had enjoyed a great young life, full of acid house parties and trippy things and drugs, and I thought to myself that this mirror - especially when I’m bending and distorting it - can look very much like the illustrations people do for LSD experiences.
Exactly, that’s the first thing that sprung to mind for me. With The Crow of One Tree Hill, you’ve got this bird that is traditionally an ominous symbol, contrasted so strongly with the bright and vivid colours you’ve affected with the mirror - it seems as if this dreamy quality is edging towards a nightmare. What was the thought process there?
There is an explanation, which I didn’t provide at the time. Now that a couple of years have passed and the work is finished and in the past, I don’t mind saying. I started that series very soon after my dad died. Various things were coming together - I’ve always enjoyed Ted Hughes’ Crow. He uses this character that draws on extraordinary mythological associations, they’re fantastic poems. There was a book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, where a father used those very same Ted Hughes poems to explain the mother’s death to his sons. I’d read that.
And I had actually seen a pheasant up at One Tree Hill. That’s where it started, really. I was going up with the mirror, thinking I should just use the local woods. I’d gone off to all these other locations, where Cézanne had painted, Monet had painted, I’d gone off to more exciting places and then I thought I’ve got this nice wood here, full of stories. When I went up there, I came across a pheasant crossing Brenchley Gardens. I think I thought that maybe I should do a story about a pheasant of One Tree Hill, but I didn’t in the end because the crow has this powerful symbolism and story surrounding it. My dad died at the end of the year and then I was up there thinking about these photographs in early January.
You see, there are all these stories right there in One Tree Hill, from Queen Elizabeth I resting under the Oak of Honour, to the huge riots - an estimate of 15,000 people took part - that erupted to keep the forest public in October 1897. The local population were up in arms when this golf course tried to fence the area off from the public. It’s full of all these stories.
My next question almost seems redundant, you’ve talked extensively about this already. How do you think South East London has informed your art?
You should start thinking about your own backyard. You don’t need to go off to exotic places to find the magic that’s around you.
Wasn’t it Cézanne who painted Mont St Victoire over and over again? And that was right in his back garden.
He’s an artist who has influenced me a lot and I’m going to visit that area this summer. We went last year but they closed off a huge area of the landscape because they were worried about the huge fires raging. Hopefully, I can use the mirror down there this year. The photographs I took down in the South of France last year focused on the fires, which are in a large part caused by humans and by the environmental problems we’ve raised. Some of this informs my work.
I’m not trying to provide the answers, though. This idea of using stories, myths, fairytales - it’s a way of trying to get people to engage with the landscape. If there’s some kind of issue we have with our relationship with nature today, it could be answered by understanding how fairytales worked in the past. Many fairy tales are about woodlands and forests, about people getting lost in them and stories unfolding within them. The idea that we’re distanced from nature in the city when it’s right here in our backyard, just up in One Tree Hill - it’s never been built on, so it still has some kind of connection to the great North Wood and you can imagine that in the soil of One Tree Hill, there’s some kind of connection to the forested areas that were once here.
Framing it that way, you’re using fairytales and myths in your artwork to try and weave nature back into our lives.
Something like that - we need better stories about this situation we’re in. This story that we’re in here with our technology and nature’s out there is wrong. We are connected but everything we do seems to harm nature. So how do we get over that? How do we create a better story about what’s going on there?
Winding down now. What is the most special thing about inviting people into your studio or home during the Nunhead Art Trail?
I actually showed my artwork in two local pubs for the first two years and the school in the third. I was reluctant to exhibit in my own house just because you feel stuck to your base - if you’re at the pub, you don’t have to be there the whole time, you can visit other people’s exhibits.
But a lot of people come around and you have these conversations with people who say interesting things that are very good to hear. You don’t get that when you put your work in a gallery, it’s much more difficult to get that feedback from people. You get insights into how people are viewing them, which can help you think about what you’re trying to say. And it’s a whole variety of people you get feedback from.
Why do you think artists should take part in the Nunhead Art Trail?
It’s a great opportunity to interact with all kinds of different people. You might even inspire them to create themselves.
Why do you think people should visit the Nunhead Art Trail?
It’s a fantastic way to get around and see what a community is doing. It’s very easy access. It’s a creative, busy weekend.
Finally. Can you name a few of your favourite spots in the area?
One Tree Hill definitely gets a mention. The Ivy House is my local. And I do enjoy working in my local primary school. I work there from 3 PM - 6 PM in the after-school club. You get to do art projects with the kids and I enjoy that local job.
Nick Cobb was interviewed by Larissa Scotting.
This year’s Nunhead Art Trail will take place on the 29th and 30th September.