Music is the Answer

Well, hasn’t it been some time? 

It often plagues my mind that I’ve not written a new post. I’ve learnt that it’s incredibly helpful for me to write this stuff down and get it out of my head for evaluation purposes, even if I’ve not got any readers (which isn’t the case – I see you three visitors haha). 

Last year turned out great. I’m sure I’ll be able to discuss more across other posts and you’ll understand from them how great it was, but for what was a breakout year for me as a solo artist (when I truly thought I’d be sat around twiddling my thumbs) I was genuinely surprised and downright humbled by just how busy I was. 

Anyway, let’s dive in with a little background story.

During the NTRPRNRS bricks-and-mortar store days (aka 51-53 Store) we managed to secure some investment funding from renowned Stoke creative company, ‘Appetite’, to develop one of many crumbling sites in the cultural quarter of Hanley, the City Centre of Stoke-on-Trent. 

This location in particular I imagine was merely meant to be a temporary measure when it was first created. A last remaining attempt to retain a small element of the structure from ‘Peppers’ car garage from the 1960s. The windows were removed and replaced with a makeshift hoarding. No doubt it had been replaced at numerous points by the time we were to engage with them but there they just about stood.

In previous years, M & GP had tried their hands at sprucing the site up with their lively characters and colourways but no amount of paint can fix shit wood and so the boards had since fallen apart, with the pieces somewhat drifting onto our radar.

As part of the initial ‘New Horizons’ project at that time, the plan was to restore and redevelop city centre locations with new murals and as the skyline changed around us, so would the public artwork.

By 2015, the mural programme had started well and with the financial assistance of Appetite & ACE too, things were moving. These investments saw us secure a third artist under the NH project and so we chose F. She in turn politely accepted our commission to paint the boarding which at the time of her arrival we’d had completely replaced alongside integral steel works to boot.

It’s worth noting that, of all the public art projects I’ve played a part in, this was probably the most enjoyed by the public. People love a well-executed bird, that’s for sure! There’s something about nature that captivates people instantly. Perhaps it’s the familiarity? One thing for certain is, that it requires zero imagination to understand what it is, and what it represents and therefore in turn no explanation nor continued questions. 

Without getting too far into the history of previous companies (and their many, many forms) things slowed down and this meant energies and time being repurposed into new directions. Applying for funding wasn’t at the forefront of the mural work being sought out anymore and finding mural work that would see us as artists at the helm began to grow more and more. 

Fast forward and we find ourselves in 2021, and by this point, the global pandemic was well underway. We’d been able to secure multiple projects of a larger scale and our understanding of what went into murals had grown infinitely. 

Hanley had changed once again. Arm fulls of businesses had come and gone in our time. The Cultural Quarter was doing well and hadn’t, at the time, shown too many signs of falling apart, especially given what was going on globally with COVID-19. 

S & N at the Slamwich Club were going from strength to strength and whilst eating there one lazy lunchtime, I’d gotten into a conversation about their next venture ‘The Backyard’. 

To me, The Backyard was a visual summary of every ounce of progress and growth the city centre had achieved over the previous 10 years. I seldom go ‘out-out’ these days, and the clubs and bars that existed at the time felt overdone to me. The Backyard was almost a reward it seemed. A new, vibrant space with its finger on the pulse of what younger clientele both want and need to enjoy their city as I once had. 

The conversation soon turned to the aesthetic and naturally to the now faded-looking boards from 2015’s commission, needing to be updated in the coming months.

On a side note, It always seems to rain in the midlands. Summer here can at times be a very damp, grey time and having said that, what would follow from our initial conversation in Slamwich club felt like nothing but a downpour, leading to the boarding installed in 2015, quite literally falling apart in places. 

In late 2022, I leave my former business. And conversations with S & N pick up about the new summer season of 2023. A meeting is held at my new studio to discuss the ideas they have and how they could be rolled out. 

Now, this is, I think, where I currently find myself having the most fun work work. Clubs and bars often have the wildest ideas. They like to be bold and aren’t ever afraid of going big with their thinking. That’s certainly not to say that ‘anything goes’, but traditional ways of thinking are out of the window that’s for sure! 

The birds had flown their nest, so to speak.

Both of the owners were on the same page as me. They enjoyed the routes I was exploring at the time (FYI I still am!) and were more than excited to encourage the growth of the direction within my practice and genuinely helped support the ideas I had brought to the table. 

What makes this a break-out piece of work for me is that I feel I’m currently, and quite tentatively dipping my toes into painted digital collage. Something that has plenty of quintessential digital elements but of course, hand painted. The colourways inside the venue were well established by this point so bringing them out to the forefront and having them spilling out onto Albion Street was my springboard. 

S has a particular fondness for checkerboard patterns which for me worked a treat as a starting point. I enjoy having a block of black & white in my work with a shot of colour here and there. So the checkerboard pattern began emblazoned across the double entrance doors. 

The pattern work from here on was purely experimental. It was compiled from clusters of colour, printing them out and slicing them up into bands, then pasting them back down creating new shapes to work with. I have to keep reminding myself, that what I’m creating isn’t traditional Graphic Design. Not everything in life requires such militant briefs and for it to necessarily ‘make sense’ to us. We can, but often don’t, allow ourselves the opportunity for things to remain loose and enjoy small things being shown to us, just because they can exist. As designers we often overlook this, constantly trying to find meaning in every single mark we make. It’s unnecessary. Such attitudes are the reason that websites based on ‘Arty bollocks Art statements’ (you know the one) exist. It’s a way for us to justify experimentation to a client… but more importantly, to ourselves, which, like several things, is something I’d like to work on eradicating from my practice altogether. 

Part of my focus for painting murals is to balance the space I’m given with multiple design elements. I say balance, as the patterns I’ve noticed in my work, and the kinds of decisions I tend to rely on, balance to make the compositions work. What I mean by this, is subtle but complimentary colour choices, considered uses of space and form perhaps at scale, tonal work, whether that be from texturised areas or found from figurative elements and select typography that resonates from the piece itself are what I’m in pursuit of currently.

Originally, the figurative part of this mural was the one and only Grace Jones. The famous portrait of her smoking. Something that I could illustrate and make my own. Having played around with the scale, the type element was to complement the image. ‘Her famous song, Slave to the Rhythm’ was bounced around. A direct link to the forbiddable Grace herself and of course an obvious nod, to what the entrepreneurs behind The Backyard had wanted to gift to the city centre, that of music. 

The Backyard, you must understand is more than an open-top venue that gets kissed by the sun (when it’s out). It was to be a breakaway, a retreat even, away from the rest of the city. Its vaulted walls isolate you from everything else. It’s transformative whilst still present, allowing you to submerge yourself in its weekly offerings. From House to hip-hop nights, through to live bands and Dub-Reggae, its summer programme is packed to the hilt with a diverse music selection to draw crowds in. 

Upon reflection, it was obvious to us that Grace perhaps was, too abstract and narrow a route, to survive the next eight years like F’s birds before me. It needed to continue the playful themes I had in mind, but not be too specific to a genre or even a figure. The type aspect also needed revising to mirror The Backyard’s passion for music!

The second we’d established this I was immediately transformed back to the time I saw the video that surfaced online of Seth Troxler performing alongside the Martinez Brothers. From memory, it’s nearing the peak of the night somewhere and Seth plays the classic ‘Music is the Answer’ by Danny Tenaglia. I’m instantly reminded of how much fun he’s having dropping this tune, and then, in turn, I’m instantly taken to similar experiences of my own. So with that said, I committed to these lyrics to adorn the wall. Big ol’ straight letters to dominate the piece!

A few characters were illustrated to accompany the overall message and that as they say, was that. 

The installation was in no way an easy one. The piece itself looks simple enough to recreate, but by trying to turn my practice more eco-friendly and limit the amount of spray paint I use, it became increasingly difficult to work when it rained almost every day, on and off for nearly 6 weeks, but we move! 

With assistance from A & P, it worked out well in the end. A mural that I’m immensely pleased to say I stuck with. 

Music is the answer.

:: Drops mic ::

This is the second of these mural reviews and so I’m now going to adopt the same approach to evaluate as I did for the Gone to War mural…

Spanning 10 weeks in total (completely due to rain, a holiday and then Glastonbury), I learnt quite a few things: 

  • Working on a slope can be a nightmare. There is no way a scissor lift would have coped with the inclined base and a cherry picker would have been complete overkill. 
  • Scaffolding is quicker all around but just so expensive in comparison to the aforementioned. To have a semi-permanent scaffolding rig would have been great but would have posed a security risk for the venue so wasn’t an option. 
  • Erecting and stripping the tower daily was a ballache – factor in an assistant for jobs such as these 
  • Just in general… factor in an assistant for jobs such as these.
  • Have a backup radio, I broke my ye olde faithful and didn’t get around to purchasing another for some time.
  • The area in which I was working at was a private car park during the daytime – arranging to block off parking zones for the tower and for working, in general, is a must.
  • Stand firm in your decisions around the weather. No amount of buckling is worth disappointing yourself, and your client(s) and having a job go on longer than necessary. Having said that, you can’t control the weather especially as unpredictable as it is in the UK. 
  • Going bigger is fun!
  • I still need to make time for tonal work!
  • Pounce patterns are a gift and a curse (Fuck the wind) [Huge props to D for the pounce patterns!)
  • Working solo can be incredibly liberating. The lack of pressure from others is bliss
  • Valspar paints from B&Q are a treat to work with. Not the cheapest product mind, but the colour range is extensive, its intensity isn’t to be messed with, drying times are rapid and the fact it’s all water-based and not full of carcinogens is a massive +++ for me!
  • Try where possible to work with clients who trust you and give you the flexibility you deserve as a designer/artist. It’s the biggest compliment and the most freeing to help advance your style
  • Hanley needs more investment and more folk with bold ideas. Bring on people who think and act like the owners of the Slamwich Club & The Backyard in abundance, please! Our high streets are desperately in need of people with vision like these!
  • Support local, support independent always.