Wallflower Dispatches

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The WD Interview – Ben Wilson, Chewing Gum Artist

January 22nd, 2010 · 2 Comments · Arts & Culture, The WD Interview

The next time you are loitering outside the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly in London, ignore the big names exhibiting at Burlington House and instead look out for a small colourful painting in the road. It is the work of artist Ben Wilson, who over the past five years has painted around 10,000 pieces of chewing gum in the capital.

Ben Wilson’s passion for art was shaped from a very young age. “My father is an artist and so it’s in my blood,” he says. “He did a lot of painting and ceramics, and lots of performance art. I was given a lot of space to explore what I wanted to do and treated as an equal. He gave me opportunities to learn and absorb information if I was excited about something.”

Although he disliked the rigidity of the school system, Wilson studied art at Middlesex, which he found to be a mixed blessing: “I hated the overanalysing of art. Half way through the course I escaped to the grounds next door.”

“Next door” turned out to be a theological college – in Wilson’s words ‘a beautiful site with an old arboretum’ – and Wilson found himself interested in working in the actual grounds itself. “I tried building sculptures in my school and I was excited about the scale. I used to spend my time clearing up everyone’s rubbish all the time and making sculptures out of wood,” he explains, adding: “Then you would walk along and find out that someone had gone joy-riding and they had exploded the sculpture.”

These oversized sculptures fulfilled one of Wilson’s main objectives in creating art: “From the word go, I was always very conscious about making something that was accessible to people, in the sense that it was something that people could make their own mind up about.”

The other aim was to forge a close relationship with the environment Wilson was working in: “I work in an intuitive kind of way, the thing evolves out of silence and stillness. If you have too much of a rigid idea you can’t really communicate with a place that you work in.”

It is hard to imagine finding this stillness in Central London and Wilson agrees, adding: “I have arrived at that.”

So how did he come up with the idea of painting chewing gum? “I did lots of pictures with cigarette butts and crisps packets.

In October 2004, I painted a trail of pictures from Barnet to the West End. I started in Barnet by the common in the countryside and ended up right in urban centre – I wanted to see what would happen. I was doing the pictures for myself.”

What kind of feedback did he have? “It was amazing: People just kept on stopping, a lot of elderly people, kids bunking off school… And I had a positive response.”

However, Wilson soon found himself in trouble with the police: “The first time I got stopped by the police was when I was doing a portrait of a Westie dog, Eddie, the little white dog. I did a whole series of pictures of little dogs.”

Ben Wilson recounts his encounters with the police with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment: “I was arrested and had my DNA taken by force. That wasn’t funny. For months afterwards I still couldn’t work from the pain and bruising.”

What was the offense? “Oh, criminal damage, painting on a piece of chewing gum,” says Wilson. Is it criminal damage? “No,” he says briefly, before adding: “Leaving chewing gum on the street is criminal damage, but I haven’t done that.”

What followed was an ongoing court case but the charges were thrown out: “You do get to know the police. Barnet Police stood up for me and did a witness statement on my behalf, saying ‘We like what he does’. That’s what saved me.”

So is it crazy to carry on? “Doing chewing gum pictures is the sanest thing I have ever done. It’s beautiful really although I say it so myself. Because I have developed a technique which is sound.”

How To Paint a Piece of Chewing Gum

Wilson prefers to call this technique an ‘invention’: “The white chewing gums are not very good they will spread too big,” he explains. “I heat the gum up with a blowtorch. The size of the chewing gum can range from about one centimeter to about four centimetres. You melt the gum and it naturally finds its own level.” Afterwards he uses acrylic to paint on them.

Wilson only started heating up the gum when he found that people want the images to last. “They last because of the technique, but it is fate as well,” he says. “I understand now that there are only so many areas where they can actually happen. You think about the area in terms of patterns. If you have people passing every second, the chewing gum can be damaged, it can be walked on or rained on within minutes of completion.”

How does he handle the commissions? “Commission is the wrong word, I call it requests,” clarifies Wilson. “I didn’t ask to do pictures of people, people ask me. That’s very important.”

He doesn’t charge for the paintings or the time, insisting: “No, no, no it’s a request. People can give me money if they want.”

Instead he appears to find his reward in meeting people: “With the requests people open up and reveal something about their lives – I am still quite amazed about the way it happens. It allows people to reflect aspects of their lives.”

Pavement Philosophies

After five years on the pavement, Wilson has been affected by what he has observed and he has had a lot of time of reflection. “You see a lot of stuff. The immensity of people and just generally people’s positive attitude. I do see amazing resourcefulness.”

“But I do see some patterns, which I find abhorrent. One of them is how things are becoming homogenised; chain stores, uniformity…” Ben Wilson says: “Advertising and public spaces are very controlled. Really, advertisers have a monopoly over public space (and the public mind).”

He seems bewildered by the effect his idea has had: “Advertising is getting more and more into people’s faces all the time and then I am painting a piece of chewing gum and I am getting all this mayhem. I have been maybe questioned 500-700 times by the police, spot-searched….”

But overall his attitude is very positive: “At the same time I am amazed by the individuality of the people and the beauty and diversity of places that I come across, so I am generally quite hopeful.”

He says he doesn’t know how much public money the council spends on having chewing gum removed from the pavement and thinks it’s been cut dramatically since the financial crisis:  “It’s an opportunity!!”

Wilson’s passion and complete belief in what he does overshadows some of the more commercial work he has undertaken over the past few years something barely mentioned in the interview.

Wilson’s work is exhibited at the Contemporary Folk Art Museum, Kaustinen in Finland, the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, the Lehniner Institut für Kultur und Handwerk near Berlin and the Musgrave-Kinley Outsider Art Collection at the Museum of Modern Art, Dublin. On the subject he says briefly: “I do sell quite a bit of work, I want to make enough money to survive but it’s doing it the right way.”

Painting chewing gum in the road – is it art or vandalism? “Everyone is affecting the environment just by being a human being. I call it ‘urban tumbleweed’ which is human hair, grey hair, black hair dyed hair… you see it flowing around in the shopping malls mixed in with rubbish, wrappers.”

Concludes Wilson: “I am caring about the environment I am working in – in my rucksack I have a dustpan and brush and I will be sweeping up glass or sick all the time. It’s definitely art, but I wouldn’t actually worry if you called it vandalism.”

To view more of Ben Wilson’s chewing gum art, click here
For more information on Ben Wilson, see here

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Danni // Jul 19, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    I’ve often wondered what this chap was doing lying on the pavements around Muswell Hill. I love his work, and admire Ben’s tenacity for continuing despite the impediments meted out by the local constabulary. I took some photos of Ben’s work to show the folks back home in Australia, as we just don’t see this kind of innovative approach to art in the community. Graffiti, yes, but painted chewing gum – that’s totally new. While taking the photos, many people stopped after me to look at what I was doing and commented on how lovely these little artworks were. I hope it inspires more people to take a closer look at where they live. Good on you Ben, you make a trip to the shops more interesting than before!

  • 2 Mysenseoftaste // Oct 18, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Great post ; mine below : http://mysenseoftaste.wordpress.com/2011/10/18/le-street-art-selon-yourope/

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