The next time you stick your Juicy Fruit under the table or throw it on to the sidewalk (which you really shouldn’t do) think of it like you’ve just tossed an artist a canvas. Literally – gum is London artist Ben Wilson’s canvas.
We recently sat down with the artist on the Millennial Bridge in London as he finished painting a tiny picture on a blob of discarded chewing gum—a woman in a bikini sunning herself. After being at it for ten years, Londoners can find paintings of just about anything sprinkled throughout their city: animals, portraits, landscapes, and messages of commemoration and love. All on pieces of ABC gum. Gross? A little. Fabulous? Absolutely.
The start of the chewing gum artist
Ben Wilson credits his childhood for developing his creativity.
“I grew up in an artistic environment where anything was possible. My mother was an illustrator and my father did ceramics as well as painting. When I was about two, I started working with clay,” he adds. “I was always encouraged to go in the direction that I wanted.”
When he was 17, he started building wooden sculptures around Barnett, where he grew up. He loved working in the environment and would constantly venture off path into the woodland areas (Hadley Forest) to create.
“My work would evolve out of the place in which I was working,” he says. “Rather than imposing the idea on the place, the idea would come out of the place.” As a sculptor, he traveled to Finland, Serbia, the U.S. and Australia.
Making London his canvas
After completing a project in Finland that kept him away from his wife and two kids for too long, Ben decided to refocus and to make London his canvas.
He recalls that he created his first piece of chewing gum art in Muswell Hill, as he lived nearby.
We asked him what motivated him to see a piece of chewing gum and paint it.
Ben said: “I was upset by all the garbage and sense of disconnectedness where people just affect things in a slightly detached way. When people detach from the environment, that’s when the environment gets destroyed and that’s also when people destroy each other.”
He adds: “When a person throws a chewing gum, it’s a thoughtless action. I’m changing that around. People think they don’t have an effect. But all the people that chew gum and throw it on the street, they created that.”
Starting out, a lot of people tried to stop him. Ben was arrested and his DNA was taken by force. “I was even beaten because someone thought I shouldn’t be working in the city of London,” he says.
Keeping at it for others
But Ben refused to stop.
Why? Because people just kept coming up to him requesting pictures.
“They would say to me, ‘It’s my birthday. I’m 16, can you do 16 candles? Or can you do best friends for life? Or SIPs forever? We’re like sisters.’ And then the gangs wanted their tags. And someone wanted a picture of their dog. The pictures end up being about people and people are all alive and it’s all there,” he says.
He’s driven by the fact that he has found out so much about people and their lives through doing the artwork itself.
From doing pictures of kids from Bangladesh and Somalia, Ben thrives connecting with people from all different walks of life.
“It’s nice if people request pictures with words in a foreign language,” he says. “Other people who find these pictures might think ‘how did that end up there?’ and that’s something that I really like.”
Initially, he found it interesting that people kept trying to arrest him. They kept telling him that he couldn’t do what he was doing.
“Well why can’t I? It’s a right for me to be creative in my environment,” he says. “I’m doing work that’s for the people. It’s about social cohesion. Every time I do a picture for a different person, it’s making links between people. If someone doesn’t like this, then they are also within their rights to remove it.”
After a decade of experience, he knows that legally he can’t be arrested for painting on a piece of chewing gum. His work is also transient, as it doesn’t last forever.
Ben uses art as a means to explore, but he doesn’t define himself as an artist, and he’s interested in all creative processes.
“A tree is a tree. It doesn’t have to say it’s a tree to be a tree. It is what it is. It exists. I do what I do,” he says. “I’m interested in seeing how a child dances or how a human takes another person’s hands, or how people tend to things or to each other, or how a person cuts a hedge. Whatever they do that’s in the everyday is what I find exciting.”
His inspiration: People
It’s no surprise that Ben’s inspiration is other people.
“Each person is completely unique,” he says. “Often when I’m working in the streets, I’m not only impacted by the physical landscape, but by the social landscape as well. The pictures that I paint are influenced by the people that I encounter.”
That’s why Van Gogh is one of his favorite artists. “He explored the everyday landscape and showed that there is beauty in everything. For example, he painted a picture of his chair and things that were part of his everyday life. To me, that is a celebration of the everyday.”
The driving force: Connecting with others
Ben knows that his pictures have improved the life of Londoners.
“People come up to me all the time and say how it makes them happy,” he says. “I remember one time on a Friday night, I was about to stop working, and I saw this whole big gang of kids coming in my direction and then they started shaking me by the hand and they said thank you. They were all really pleased because I had done all their tags.”
He says that he also deals with helping people to commemorate loved ones.
“People ask me to do pictures of very close friends that have died. Sometimes the person they know has been murdered,” Ben says. “Sometimes, I get a big blow and a person tells me that they are dying of cancer.”
Occasionally, Ben does the picture then and there, and sometimes the person rushes off. Kids usually stay with him the whole time, which means they have continuous input in the creative process.
Using discarded chewing gum to give back
He knows he is making a contribution by working with something that people have rejected in society. “That’s partly why I paint on the gum because it’s something that people find disgusting and I can work with that. People make judgments about it and I like that juxtaposition between horrible and nice because it creates equilibrium.” Ben feels he has a right to be creative in his environment and bring to life things that aren’t just about money.
We asked Ben how we could best support him. And he said: “Celebrate your own creative thinking in terms of whatever that might be for you.”
Ben says the biggest thing he’s learned is about people and their lives. “I have a lot of quiet moments with people on the street. They come over and we have a moment where they need something or someone. That is success. It’s really enjoyable to be there with people because we all need each other so much.”
His biggest regret is losing two years of request books when his father died. “I have let all those people down,” he says.
The chewing gum artist says he’s going to collaborate with a friend and do chewing gum pictures in her series of paintings. “It’s going to be a picture of a picture.” He’s also thinking about doing a book. And without skipping a beat, he says he’s excited by his children’s creativity. “If I can help with that in whatever form that takes, I’m there.”
Photos by: Stephanie Sadler of Little London Observationist