How I Survived Art Education and Made It Into the Art World

I was lucky enough to enter the art world at a stage when urban art was just about to take off. I started out showing in small group exhibitions around 2005 with artists like Banksy and a few others. The scene then exploded.

Last week was the big opening of my latest sold out solo exhibition called Self. I'm exhibiting a new series of self-portraits and I've been humbled and blown away by the response. Peter Gabriel and Jude Law among others I can't mention all attended and bought pieces on the opening night. Throughout my career I've won awards and been part of exhibitions at the Tate Britain to the Royal Academy. I have work in private collections all over the world and this has paved the way for me to paint full time for the last 15 years. I find it difficult to talk about my accolades as it makes me cringe but bear with me as I'm trying to put things in context here.

I was born in Swindon to working class immigrants where English was a second language in the house. My father was a sheet metal worker and my mother a cleaner. The doors of the art world didn't fling open for me. I had to fight my way in and build my own door and the step too. I was naïve but determined to succeed but there was never a guarantee of ever making it.

I've been thinking a great deal about Chris Bryant's comments about not having an arts culture dominated by the likes of Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt. I think these artists are great. I just think it's sad that there's a struggle to find working-class actors because only 'posh ones' (Jimmy McGovern) are cultivated through the system and that dictates what gets made.

I think the biggest problem I faced as a teenager growing up in a non-descript commuter town at a rough comprehensive school was that there was no way of being shown a pathway into the arts. You don't know that there are corridors of learning if you are not shown doorways where you can enter. As a child I could recite the whole cast of East Enders and not know one old master or even know Picasso was a painter.

What they fail to realise when they cut arts funding in schools its not about painting apples and pears and learning about acting but about making the brain think in creative ways. Do you think the first astronauts who traveled to the moon started off by writing an equation at the age of four? They IMAGINED first and then they connected the dots afterwards.

When looking back at my life I now feel extremely lucky to have got through the hurdles that were in place by the very same system that was there to help me. If I hadn't met the two tutors who made me believe I could do what I could do I don't think I would have tried for as long as I did before giving up.

I realised early on that making my way through an art education wouldn't be easy so I decided to take my own action. I studied painting but I decided to teach myself graphic design. I left university and got a job in Brighton as a designer. I ended up there for three and half years which covered the rent on tiny shared flat and a tiny shared studio and I painted religiously every night.

I was lucky enough to enter the art world at a stage when urban art was just about to take off. I started out showing in small group exhibitions around 2005 with artists like Banksy and a few others. The scene then exploded. What I thought was interesting about it was that it by passed the traditional route of how art was seen and exposed to people. In a lot of ways I see it like the equivalent to what punk was to the music scene. It broke rules and created new trends. Old shop fronts or disused warehouse suddenly became galleries over night for a few days. It was accessible and you didn't necessary need an education to understand it. Tony Blair had just committed troops to the Iraq war after a million people marched against it and people including artists with no formal education were pissed off.

In a lot of ways people like Banksy, myself and the urban movement bypassed the traditional art system of going to expensive art schools in London such as the RCA and Chelsea. I'm not knocking the system as I would have loved to have gone there at the time, I just couldn't afford it and it was never a realistic avenue for me. I'm glad I fell into this movement at the beginning as it paved the way for me to be here today. I was one of the lucky ones but I'm sure there are many others who wont be. I only hope that when spending on school music and benefits are cut, popular culture doesn't lose its bite when it prices out the working class.


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