Friday, December 29, 2006

Art Space Talk: Bill Lewis

I recently interviewed artist Bill Lewis. Mr. Lewis is a founder-member of The Medway Poets and the Stuckists art group. He studied art at Medway College, where he met Billy Childish. He later met Charles Thomson. All of them, with Miriam Carney, Sexon Ming, and Rob Early formed The Medway Poets group. The group turned out to be the foundation of the Stuckists movement.

Mr. Lewis has published six books of poetry and three of short stories. His writing is included in The Green Man (Viking Press), World Fantasy Award winner, as well as The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (1997)and (1998). His work was also published in The Grandchildren of Albion, edited by Michael Horowitz. (On a side-note, Mr. Lewis helped edit 'Six Turkish Tales' (Hangman Books 1987) by Tracey Emin).

In 2005 he founded The Medway Delta Press. The first project was a limited edition set of 3 CDs entitled Voices From The Medway Delta, featuring work by Billy Childish, Sexton Ming, Chris Broderick, Bill Lewis, and other key names in the Medway scene. The Medway Delta Press has also published a DVD documentary by Carol Lynn on Stuckism.

Mr. Lewis gave up working visually for over fifteen years. However, in 1997 he started to produce prints and paintings again. His paintings are full of energy. They are marked by a strong use of color and an expressive use of the brush. The art he produces today is full of the intensity that was customary in his earlier work.

Q. You were one of the 12 founder members of the Stuckists art group. How did you meet Charles Thomson, Billy Childish, and the others?

A. "Charles Thomson Billy Childish and Sexton Ming and myself were members of the Medway Poets Group along with Rob Earl and Miriam Carney. We got together in 1977/78 and carried out poetry reading and performances in the Medway Towns and North Kent. Reading at the first Kent Literature Festival in Gravesend. We soon got a reputation as giving lively performances.

In 1981 we read (thanks to Richard Burns) at the Cambridge International Poetry Festival and in 1982, just as the group split up, ITV made a documentary about us and filmed our last performance.

Perhaps I should give you a very brief history of how we all got together. In 1977 I was a mature student doing a Foundation Course at the Medway College of Art and Design where I met Billy Childish. I was already in a poetry and performance group called the Outcrowd with my childhood friend Rob Earl and I invited Billy to read with us in Maidstone. Alan Denman who was a lecturer at the College started a cabaret evening at a local pub called The York which, by the way, was not just one of the roughest pubs in the Medway Towns but also in the whole of England. Also reading with us was Philip Absolon who though not a member of the Medway Poets often came to the venues and performed. Sexton Ming turned up one evening after hearing about us somewhere and asked if he could read. That's basically how we all got together. As you can see by the names I have mentioned, the core of the original Stuckist group came out of this time. Also worth mentioning is Sanchia Lewis (no relation) and Sheila Clarke who were both ex-girlfriends of Billy Childish. Sanchia certainly came to those evenings. At the end of that period Billy's then girlfriend Tracey Emin read with us and appears on the Medway Poets LP record.

Although not part of that group I should also mention Joe Machine who attended a poetry class I was teaching on the Isle of Sheppy in 1991 (I think). He was by far the best of my students on that class and we kept in touch. I think that the North Kent area and the Medway Towns is the birth place of Stuckism."

Q. You've been featured prominently in all the key Stuckist shows, including The Stuckists Punk Victorian held in 2004 at the Walker Art Gallery for the Liverpool Biennial. Care to share any of your experiences?
A. "I really don't know how to answer this question. All I can say is that I think that some of the shows were extremely good and others I didn't think were so good.

I think that the best of them probably was the 2004 Walker gallery show. It was good to see all that work gathered together in one place. What was most interesting was the diversity of painting styles but what held them together was the unflinching exploration of the themes. For example the confrontation of the human shadow and the individual approach to spirituality, sexuality and politics."

Q. Concerning the sincerity of Stuckism, you've said the following: "People are never sure if we are being ironic or not. We are not. We are coming from the heart.". Do you think people take Stuckism serious? How do you think assumptions can be changed?

A. "I think a percentage of the people viewing stuckism take it seriously. We have many supporters around the world but they are not often amongst the rich and the powerful and do not always have access to the media. Our detractors rely on the lie of objectivity. Objectivity is always used as an answer to any idea that challenges the status quo but objectivity doesn't exist. All art is subjective. The problem with irony is that everyone has been ironic for so long that they have to keep checking themselves to see if they are being ironic, they might be in danger of saying something that they actually mean. Then they have to backtrack on what they have said.

Assumptions about Stuckism can only be changed with a full and open dialogue with those who do not agree with us. At the moment they are free to make statements about us and we do not often have the means to challenge those statements or even show a different view. I think Charles Thomson has done some great work in publicising us but there is more to us than publicity stunts and I wish we had a better platform to show this. The problem is that people come to our exhibitions with pre-conceived ideas and prejudices."

Q. I'd like to take you back to 1975. You started a series of poetry readings called 'Outcrowd' with Rob Earl. Can you tell our readers a little about that? Did that work influence your future paintings?

A. "I have probably answered a lot of this in a previous part of the interview but I would like to say that those Outcrowd readings were important to me in the sense of them being a school for me to learn to perform my work. My poetry has always been the first art form for me but then I often get to a point where the things that I want to express will not work in words and I have to paint them. When I say have to paint I really mean I have to paint otherwise I start to feel sick. The writing and the painting are not separate but compliment each other and are a process by which my psyche is completed. See it as an electrical circuit that has to be completed. At the outcrowd readings I realised that the reading out of a poem (sometimes singing it) is as important as writing it because the audience give it a power which is ... I was going to say magical and I think that is the only word that will do. Poetry and painting both started in the caves of our ancestors as a magical and spiritual experience. There is a famous cave painting of a dancing Shaman wearing antlers and with the eyes of an owl. I think looking at that picture that it was probably painted on that wall by that Shaman, I can't prove it but I bet he was singing a spell or a prayer as he did it. It's a strange and almost supernatural feeling when you perform a poem and the audience connects with it."

Q. In 1977 you attended MedWay College of Art and Design on a year Foundation Art course, where you met Billy Childish. What was that experience like?

A. "I can remember meeting Billy on the first day of college. I have to say though I didn't really mix socially with many of the students, including Billy, we met at a few parties and we had some good conversations. I think we respected each other. We really got to know each other better after I left. By that time those of us that were serious about our work were out there doing it. It is odd how those artists who have that approach would some how congregate together without realising it. Meeting Billy, Philip Absolon and a few other people were the only good things (for me) that came out of college. I never saw a paintbrush the whole time I was there and the reason I went there was because I wanted someone to show me how to paint properly."

Q. In 1979 you joined up with Childish, Charles Thomson, Sexton Ming, Rob Earl, and Miriam Carney to found The Medway Poets poetry group. Can you tell us about that experience? How did working with so many creative minds influence/inspire you?

A. "We obviously influenced each other but I couldn't give you any definite examples. I think we all respected each other's work enough to give honest criticism. Billy and Sexton were probably the closest to each other at the time and I can see Sexton's off beat humour creeping into some of Billy's work and vice versa. We were all better at performing than we were writing at the time. We were learning our craft. Our writing I believe came to maturity after the group had finished working together."

Q. I read that you knew Tracey Emin and that you helped edit her short stories for her first book, Six Turkish Tales (Hangman Books 1987). What can you tell our readers about that period in your life?

A. "There is not much to say about this except that I typed up the stories for her, I made some editorial suggestions and handed them back to Billy who was publishing them Hangman Books. I think Tracey has a lot of talent but I am not sure how interested she is in literature. For me, I suppose, literature is almost a religion. We all need an editor, I have one, his name is Michael O'Connor.

I used to see a lot of Billy and Tracey at that time. Tracey was living in Rochester in a flat near the castle. In the flat above her lived Eugene Doyen (the film maker and photographer). Billy had been going out with Tracey since he and Sanchia had split up which must have been around 1982. I remember going there quite often and having tea.

There are certain places in Medway that we often used to meet socially, perhaps certain cafes such as Grutts (named after a poem by Ivor Cutler) some people called this the poets cafe (Without an accent over the e!) that was a great place. There were masks hanging on the wall, some by tribal some carved by Billy Childish and paintings by Sexton and Micky Hampshire (of the Milkshakes). I would often find Billy in there playing chess or working on a poem in one of those brown covered notebooks of his. Another place was the house at 107 Rochester Street. Sexton had illuminated the walls with paintings of strange creatures from his unconscious mind ! The new owners I believe painted over them. Sometimes I'd meet up with Billy and Tracey and we would go into the Rose and Crown. I used this in one of my pieces of writing."

Q. You've published six books of poetry and three of short stories. Where does your art and poetry meet? Are they one in the same? Or do you go about each with a different angle?

A. "I think I covered this in an earlier answer. One thing about the painting I will say is that the paintings are like magic mirrors for me. I often find things in them months or years after I have painted them that explain something about myself. Although some of the imagery that I use is a mystery even to me."

Q. In 2005 you founded The Medway Delta Press. The first project was a limited edition set of 3 CDs entitled Voices From The Medway Delta, featuring work by Billy Childish, Sexton Ming, Chris Broderick, and other key names in the Medway scene. Can you tell us about The Medway Delta Press? What do you see for it in the future?

A. "We want to celebrate Medway as a unique and special area.I know that every town has artists and musicians and writers living in it. What is different about Medway is that there is a unique sound. When I say sound I am not just talking about the music but in the voices of the writers as well. Medway is being regenerated at the moment and it looks as if we are going to become a new city I believe that artists of all kinds will play a central part in that regeneration and that the Medway Delta Press can help lead the way ... this probably sounds pretentious but as I am always telling my writing students: Be as pretentious as you can and then try and live up to it!!"

Q. What is your opinion about conceptual art?

A. "A lot of the stuff that calls itself conceptual art isn't. The concepts are often there but not the art. I think what we are doing is conceptual art, our paintings are full of concepts, the difference is we paint them. I see Stuckism/Remodernism as an experiment rather than an attack. We have gone back to the beginning of Modernism and started again, trying not to take the Post-Modernist route. Who knows, we may end up doing the same things as the Brit Artists ... but I don't think so. It is an exciting experiment and you are all welcome to take part in it ... we are not elitist!"

Q. When did you first discover that art would be an important part of your adult life?

A. "When I was five years old. My teacher, Miss Wenn, asked me what I was going to do when I grew up and I said "be an artist"."

Q. How has society influenced your art? Are there any social implications in your art?

A. "Probably only in the way I paint and that's because I am not formally trained so some people would say I am a bad painter simply because of that. One of the things that we have tried to do in Remodernism is to make people re-evaluate what is and is not a good painting. Art is not an exercise in formalism it is a message from the heart.

I do think that it is a mistake to moralise in your work but every person who has a conscious, whether they are an artist or not, should tackle those things that need to be addressed in their lives."

Q. On average, how long does it take you create one painting?

A. "It is impossible to say .. some take weeks a couple have taken years."

Q. Do you have any 'studio rituals'? As in, do you listen to certain types of music while working? What helps to get you in the mood for working?

A. "I like to listen to music when I paint. Usually classical music or French Chanson."

Q. If you could pinpoint the characteristics of people who collect your art, what would they be?

A. "There is a lot of mythological imagery and symbolism in my work and so they are usually people are interested in those things."

Q. Discuss one of your pieces. What were you thinking when you created it?

A. "Notes on "Kissing The Minotaur" (image above).

Carl Jung said there are only three ways of dealing with the Shadow. Two of them are disastrous. One is to deny it exists which leaves it unchecked, to grow and become powerful. The Shadow ends up by casting us instead of the other way around. The second way is to project it onto other people in the way that the Nazi’s did with the Jews and thereby demonizing them. These two ways leads in the end to genocide. The third and only correct way is to embrace the Shadow; to make friends with the Shadow. Theseus is a failed hero because he killed the Shadow which explains why he abandons Ariadne (his much needed feminine side) on the Isle of Naxos. In my painting Theseus is redeemed by embracing instead of murdering his own dark side, therefore taming the beast within him in an act of love."

Q. Why did you choose the medium(s) that you use?

A. "I use acrylic paint because it is water based and I am messy painter and my wife gets cross when paint is dropped on the floor and this is easier to clean !!!

I like to work in layers and then use scouring pads (the sort you use for washing up) to rub some of the colour off so the colour underneath shines through. I always paint the entire canvas with Titanium White then apply the lighter colours because I like my paintings to have an inner glow."

Q.Where can we see more of your art?

A. "Wikipedia has some and I intend to set up a website in due course to feature more of it. There is some on the stuckist website but they are earlier paintings and I do not like them as they do not represent what I am doing now."

Q. Are you represented by a gallery? Do you have any upcoming exhibits?
A. "I am not represented by a gallery and there is nothing in the pipeline .... but I am open to offers !! There is a possible exhibition in France and one in Germany but nothing definite yet."

Q. What trends do you see in the 'art world'?

A. "It seems as if the art establishment has discovered painting again. Of course a lot of that had to do with Stuckism although they will never credit us with it !"

Q. Any tips for emerging artists?

A. "Yeah, paint what matters to you and don't shy away from exploring the dark side, it is the only way through to the light."

Q. Has your work ever been censored? If so, how did you deal with it?

A. "Once that I can remember. A painting of an angel was removed from a exhibition in Medway because the Council thought it might upset people with strong religious ideas. How could I deal with it? I had to accept it, they were running the show .. the other 10 paintings stayed and I think that they were probably more controversial if anything but too subtle for my censors to pick up on it."

Q. What was the toughest point in your career as an artist? Have you ever hit rock-bottom?

A. "It is a constant struggle. I think my work is probably of least interest to gallery owners than most of the other Stuckists but it is what I do so I can't stop."

Q. In one sentence... why do you create art?

A. "I have to."

Q. What can you tell our readers about the art scene in your area?

A. "As I have said before Medway has a brilliant and unique art scene but it is often overlooked by those who have the resources to help it nevertheless it flourishes."

Q. Has politics ever entered your art?

A. "More so with my writing, for instance in 1989 I carried out a series of poetry readings in Nicaragua in support of the revolution and against the illegal covert war carried out by the United States. Also I have read at demonstrations outside of the Papal Nuncio and the US embassy in London on behalf of Native American Rights and against the war in Iraq (both of them!). Also throughout the 1980's I read in support of Human Rights in Chile, one of my poems, The Red Guitar, dedicated to the murdered songwriter Victor Jara was published in Chile Fights. My poems have been translated into Spanish and broadcast on a rebel radio station in El Salvador. In 1987 I organised a Medway Poets Reunion Tour on behalf of Amnesty International."

Q. Does religion, faith, or the lack thereof play a part in your art?

A. "Religion no, spirituality yes. I believe as a European, like every European, I have a Christian and Pagan component in my cultural identity. I am not a lover of organised religion. I think that Christianity is a great myth ... and as Gandhi said "we should try it sometime".

When I say myth I mean something that is true because all myths are true. I have little time for facts as all facts have a political bias to them whereas myths are eternal.

I teach courses on mythology having studied it for a good half of my life. The work of Joseph Campbell has been a major influence on me and also the writings of the American theologian and prophet Matthew Fox."

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the 'art world'?

A. "My art is very personal and it is something that I need to do for me. In saying that I am a human being and all human beings share the same biology and spirit so I hope that what is useful to me may also be useful to those who read my poems, stories or look at my poems."
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Bill Lewis. Feel free to critique or discuss his work.

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

1 comment:

wagnoir said...

Well done. As a Stuckist myself, I have profound respect to Bill's works.