Known for his complex carved creations located in unexpected places, Ben Wilson has recently become a familiar figure sprawled on the pavements of London. Having seen many of his sculptures vandalised and destroyed, he has come out of the woods and onto the streets to explore a new medium in a different setting – miniature paintings on discarded chewing-gum.
In previous years Wilson had become enraged by all the rubbish, cars and industrial waste that had become an integral part of urban society. Retreating to the woods, he worked in secret, but he still came face to face with litter. After a while he began to work with the rubbish that he found, collecting cigarette-butts and crisp packets and incorporating them in his collages. Working with old chewing-gum in situ seemed to be a natural progression from this.
Wilson started experimenting with occasional chewing-gum paintings in 1998, but it was not until October 2004 that he decided to work on them full time. For a number of years he had tried to make a difference to the urban environment by painting on billboards and adverts, but this illegal activity often led to conflict with the law. The new medium of chewing-gum freed him to make miniature paintings anywhere in London for himself or anyone else without having to obtain permission, and enabled him to work in the spontaneous manner that he has always treasured. ‘Our environment is very controlled and what we need so very strongly is diversity. Even galleries, museums, publishing companies are all very controlled. I want to be able to do my work and to bypass bureaucracy,’ he asserts.
Starting in Barnet High Street, North London, Wilson embarked on what he intended would become a trail of pictures that people could follow from the most northerly part of London all the way into the city. However, almost two years later, he still focuses the majority of his time in Barnet, where he grew up, and Muswell Hill, where he now resides with his partner Lily and their three children. Having been asked by many people to paint a picture for them or a loved one, he has become deeply involved in the lives of the area’s residents. He explains, ‘I know a lot of the shopkeepers, road sweepers and local police. As I walk down the street, every few steps I think of a picture I have to do for someone. I have all this in my head, which makes me feel closer to the place and the people.’ He hopes his work will encourage in others an awareness of their surroundings and give children a sense of connection with their local environment – something he believes fewer people have these days.