The illumination of ordinary, perhaps mundane subjects is the mark of a gifted artist or designer. Manchester-based artist Oliver East is one such artist who has, through the healthy embrace of sideways thinking and seizing the moment when inspiration strikes, has managed to do exactly that.
It’s impossible to lazily sum up East’s career to date by starting the sentence with: ‘perhaps best known for’ as he has, since graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University, given various audiences something to remember. His series of comic books, including the landmark Trains Are… Mint series, have been lauded by many of his peers and his artwork is in a vast number of British homes, as his illustrations adorn the sleeves of Elbow’s recent albums and singles.
Viewing his work, it’s easy to assume that his style of painting in diluted colours, overlaid with sharp, witty commentary is the distillation of years honing his brushwork, but East stresses that drawing and painting was far from his mind when he started out, saying: “I studied art, but didn’t draw until I left University. At University I got hooked on turning things into pinhole cameras and I was doing that for a couple of years.”
“My degree show was a 10ft by 5ft train set with each of the carriages turned into a colour pinhole camera, taking pictures of the scenery as it passed by. From there I tried to turn a two man tent into a pinhole camera and set it up on a caravan site to take pictures, but it didn’t work. I’d had an exhibition organised and I had no pictures from the tent because it failed, so I had two days to get something sorted.
“The exhibition turned out to be the failed two man tent camera in the middle of the room as a sculpture and then a load of text all over the walls featuring the conversation I’d had with caravan park owners and little skits about how it’d gone wrong. I enjoyed that more than if it had worked, so then I got really intrigued about the process of making art and how it can go wrong, just doing things without thinking too much about them and hoping for the best.”
The exhibition in question took place at Salford University’s Glass Box Gallery shortly after graduating and it wasn’t long before other people in the local contemporary art scene picked up East’s scent. The artist-led International 3 gallery in Manchester provided another opportunity to for East to exhibit, an invitation which struck up a longstanding relationship and provided a springboard for his practice of ‘just doing things and hoping for the best’ to develop further.
He says: “The exhibition was again about the process of making work. I decided to read Doctor Doolittle to a herd of cows in Stretford. It was kind of a comment on my stammer, but really it was more about the process of trying to read a book to some cows. After the show I didn’t want to wait for another exhibition opportunity to produce something so, despite the fact I’d never drawn before, I decided to draw and write about my attempts to walk from the ‘House of Fires’ fireplace shop on Chester Road, near my home in Old Trafford, to Black Hill in the Peak District in as straight a line as I could. These stories became the first small comic books that I printed and gave away for free and that process really turned me on.”
The production of self-financed (or funded with borrowed means) comics is where East’s story gets really interesting, not only for the end product itself, but also for the ideas and inspirations that led him to take on apparently unremarkable journeys in the pursuit of an unknown end. The series of comics that include titles like Trains Are… Mint and Proper Go Well High have seen East walking the route of railway lines, drawing the experience of his journey in as much or as little detail he feels necessary, adding written commentary to provide occasional insight into the dialogue, thoughts and incidents that occurred along the way.
Discussing the first of these comics, East recalls: “The first colour book was a walk I did from Oxford Road to Blackpool North sticking as close as I could to the train tracks without trespassing, so the route was taken out of my hands. Part of that was in homage to my mum who was a bit bored growing up in Wythenshawe when she was 15 and her and her mate walked from home to Blackpool North Station in one go. They got the train back and slept for two days afterwards. I did it in three goes and it took 27 hours. I could’ve done it all in one go, but I didn’t want it to be about a test of endurance. I wanted it to be about the environment.”
Undertaking similar walks between Manchester and Liverpool, and perhaps most remarkably between Berlin and Germany’s border with Poland, the artist has ended up with not only considerable mileage under his belt, but has also had success in finding an enthusiastic publisher for his collected works. Rather than leaving fans and enthusiasts to scrap over first editions or wait for reissues, East’s work is now collected into hardback volumes by Blank Slate Books, with another (Trains Are…Mint #4) scheduled for release in summer 2011.
It is the beauty within the ordinary which provides a clear link to Elbow, a group of friends which have become nationally adored since winning the Mercury Music Prize in 2008 with their album Seldom Seen Kid. Their lyrics, often in homage to their hometown of Manchester and the friends around them, seem in sync with East’s own artistic interest in the wonder to be found in the hum drum. The album featured a painting of Piccadilly Station, drawn by East and which now hangs in Manchester Art Gallery, given as a gift to lead singer Guy Garvey, which he duly donated to the city.
East is honest about the origins of his share in the band’s success, saying: “There was a bit of nepotism at play. I worked in a bar called the Temple of Convenience and one night Guy and Pete (Turner – bassist) were discussing the new album and what to do about the artwork. I just asked them: “can I do it?” and they said “yes, alright”. But, although they were mates at the time, I had to be good enough to do it.”
As a picture of the station it requires some translation, local knowledge or understanding of East’s previous work, being a cluster of white boxes on a brownish red background. He explains: “It’s partly because I can’t draw and I couldn’t draw Piccadilly Station so I often simplify things down to a few core ingredients. It’s the modern bit at the back of the station, isn’t it? It worked also, because Guy kept plugging the fact that people will see the picture as an icon on their iTunes desktop, so it also works as a recognisable symbol in that sense.”
Although friends in high places can often help provide the luck needed to be a successful artist, East’s work needed to do the talking to win the right to continue his professional relationship with the band as the art direction for Elbows latest album, Build a Rocket Boys! went out to competitive pitch. East eventually won the job, but not before a contest with an unnamed Turner Prize-winning artist. An achievement not to be underestimated and a happy extension of a harmonious relationship which has more recently provided East with the opportunity to apply his unique style to animation for the band’s Open Arms video – an experience he describes as ‘awesome’.
Despite such success and the new opportunities that brings, he is at pains to defend the love of his working life, which remains the comics and books of which he is clearly very proud. Having emerged as a challenging artist in the embrace of at least one leading gallery, he has arguably found himself working in far more accessible art forms. East bristles at any assumption that his published work has a diminished value versus other artistic disciplines.
He says: “The kind of comics I make could stand up against any kind of gallery art as ‘worthy’. There are things you can do in comics that you can’t do in any other art form. People have trouble with the word ‘comic’ and some people bow to that prejudice and say they work in the ‘sequential arts’ which is just a nonsense term. ‘Film’ isn’t a perfect way to describe an art form either, but it’s just a word that they’ve got. Friends of mine, who like what I do, physically recoil if I say that comics are what I do. I dunno what they’d call it, but that’s their problem. It’s not as if, if I called it something else more people would buy it, so comics are fine by me.”
In a short conversation with East there are almost too many ideas and too rich a recent history to condense into an article shorter than an essay, proving that it’s probably best to track down his books to get a real sense of how the extraordinary ordinariness of the subjects he explores come to life. In concluding the conversation, East demonstrates a sense of achievement coupled with a hint of his apparently characteristic short-termism by saying: “If it all ended now I have four books to show my son, a couple of album sleeves and a picture in the art gallery. I have left my mark.”
Info: Oliver East lives and works in Manchester and is one of the best known names in the vibrant British small press scene.
Images, from top:
1) (L – R): A page from Trains Are…Mint, artwork for Elbow’s Grounds for Divorce single, a page from Proper Go Well High.
2) Image from Pinhole Camera Two-Man Tent exhibition.
3) Image still from Elbow’s Open Arms animated video.
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