What: Artist and illustrator
Where: London, UK
Website: Paul Bower
Where: London, UK
Website: Paul Bower
Back in the day…I was shit at school. Looking back, I think I faked it. I didn’t get most subjects like maths, science or French but when it came to drawing, I really enjoyed that. I remember once on one of those days when teachers put up all the students’ work, I was walking down a corridor and saw a bunch of people standing and looking at a picture I made. That was really nice and made me feel proud that I could make something that people would stop and take time to look at.
As a kid…When I was younger I always thought I was very timid and quiet. I wouldn't do sports or any of the stuff other kids were into. I remember that primary school was amazing. You went to school, you saw your mates, you played all day (it seemed), you had art lessons with paints and plasticine and clay and collage. And you didn't worry so much about getting it right or wrong. Very natural. High school was a completely different story all together! It was fucking awful. I had so many hang ups. I wasn't cool – a lanky streak of piss who had his mum cut his hair into a bowl cut (even at 16) because he hated hairdressers. I wasn't very clever and nobody picked up on any learning disabilities or problems I had. I was into comics and drawing, Prince, Guns 'n Roses and Salt 'n Pepper. A real geek. Looking back I think I just always knew what I wanted to do and what world I wanted to live in so I kind of just went on my way, even though I thought everybody else knew what they were doing and it was me that didn't have a clue. I had some great friends at the time but puberty was a bastard (as it is for everybody, I guess).
The art path…My art teachers said I wasn't really smart enough to do A levels and that there was no living to be made as an 'artist' so I should go and do graphic design at college. I'd never heard of it before but it turned out to be exactly the right path for me. My parents didn't really get 'art' and are very 'Yorkshire' in their attitude to things, but they totally supported me. Apparently my grandmother once told them that if they let me do what it was that I did, I would always be alright. She was right somehow. I'm really proud to be a Yorkshireman. Especially in London. There is so much fannying around and bullshit and fake drama around here. I obviously love it here but I often think that most people wouldn't do anything unless they could be seen doing it. They can't just get on with it and enjoy it. It's all fake whistles and bells a lot of the time. Up north, we know our muck from our brass! The same can be said about the art and also the design world. I'm not interested in joining either one. I'm quite happy doing what I do though I think you should always take any opportunity that comes your way from all directions.
Illustrated life…I'm an artist and illustrator living in south London where I have been for the past 13 years or so. I studied Graphics and Illustration at Lincoln University (a long time ago). I realised that I always wanted to draw and make things, but didn't like the way we were taught just one discipline. I decided to major in illustration because I wanted to do everything at the same time – typography, graphics, painting, drawing, 3D, photography. Illustration lets you do that while I felt (which isn't the case for everyone) that graphic design was more computer-based and less about art for art's sake.
Along the way…I worked in restaurants, shops, many years in bars and cinemas – whatever gave me the opportunity to draw in the day and work at night. My first creative job was as a window display designer for American Retro in Soho. I was a shop assistant there and one day Sue Tarran the owner asked me to have a go. She was pretty tough (she had to be to last so long in Soho) and I was as green as grass, coming from a small mining village in south Yorkshire. But she kind of saw something in me, I think, and it was the start of something new. Sue let me be very creative with her displays. Once we set fire to sheets of wallpaper and hung it in the window. It was great fun.
While doing that I was working stupid hours at the Dogstar (bar) in Brixton. I would work until two or three in the morning and then start work at American Retro at nine on a Saturday. It was crazy but I looked forward to it, to creating. The Dogstar had such a high turn over of staff and everybody would move on. Sometimes I felt left behind but it was the only way I could build up a body of work – gradually. It was a tough time I guess.
Obstacles…I didn't like the work I had produced at university. It was a good university but it had a very particular approach to art and design, which was great for some but not for me. But that was useful too because you need to know what you don't like in order to find out what you do like! In London I decided to keep the bits I liked and start all over again (I'm still trying to figure it out. But I like that). I started taking my portfolio 'round to magazines and places like the AOI (Association of Illustrators) but all of them told me 'Thank but no thanks'. I once got ripped to shreds and shouted at (in public) by a well-respected woman in the illustration world and told that my work was 'too schizophrenic'. She said I had ten different styles and used ten different mediums, way too many in her opinion. Looking back, I think she had some valid points but she scared the shit out of me! My work was often called schizophrenic. Publishers didn't want me but I found that strange things would come along, out of the blue, that would keep me going.
Confidence, slowly slowly…A gentleman I served drinks to in Brixton got chatting to me one day. He found out what I did and asked me to do art installations in his newly opened café called The Brixton Lounge. Maynard (the gentleman) became a friend and paid me to do whatever I wanted, to draw attention to the place. He never once asked me what I was going to do beforehand. I experimented with all sorts of things including sculpture, which I'd never done previously. My favourite installation was a cloud sculpture with lightbulbs. Every time I did something for the café it was totally different to the last. And each time I got more confident.
A lucky break…After working for years in my tiny bedroom (see the photos), I was encouraged by a boyfriend, artist Jimmy Robert, to hold a show. He worked in a cinema in Soho that had a small corridor for exhibitions and he had a vacancy to fill. I said 'Yes, I'll do it' and 'How long have I got to produce the work?' He said 'Two days!' That was great really because I was quite shy and didn't have time to think about how to do it. I just had to use the work I had built up over time. It got some good and bad reviews. I sold a piece, which I'd broken while cleaning for the show but instead of not using it, I'd written on the frame 'Sorry I broke it'. That became its title. As a result of the show I got an agent, Pocko, who I am still with and I love their style.
I don’t know how it’s all worked out for me. I used to work in my bedroom and then I got my studio because a friend gave it to me and I took over it. And in the end I started to afford it myself and did it up. I keep trying to do stuff and sometimes people like it and sometimes they don’t. That’s just how it is. You have to keep going.
Currently…I am making images, conveying ideas. At the moment, I am making a book cover for Random House, I'm painting a sculpture project for my agency to have a show and I've just got my first proper printing press and am trying to make prints to sell. That will hopefully lead me on to printing my own books and stupid stories for kids and immature adults. Eventually.
Learning…I learnt a lot of things at university but since then I have taken evening courses in animation, life drawing and screen printing to name a few. None of which I use on a daily basis at all but they help my brain to work from different angles and help me work with different mediums. A lot of the stuff I have taught myself which I think is the best way. You don't get to know everything but you also don't learn the 'limitations' that others get taught. One of my favourite designers David Carson was self taught and he just ignored the rule book because he didn't even know it was there.
Favourite work…One of the most important things that anyone has said to me about my work is that my sketchbooks are where my 'real' work lies. I'm still trying to get to the point where I have the confidence to go with my original work and not put it into the next step of 'over finishing' it. That is my goal really.
People, inspiration…All those people who just make stuff for the hell of it. I love it when people just get an idea and go with it. Some of my favourite artists are the unrestricted ones – Jean Michel Basquiat, Peter Blake, Sara Fanelli, David Carson, Eileen Agar, Tim Burton, Jim Henson (Muppets), Hat Show Print (their typography and posters are all amazing), Arthur Adams (Marvel comics), Leigh Bowery (a crazy performance artist/fashion designer). When I used to work at American Retro this guy used to be one of the customers. He had all these amazing outfits. I didn’t see what the point of it was but if you look at what he created it was just amazing.
At the same time, the really tight work of people like Jack Kirby, Mike Mignola, Lane Smith and Chinese paper cuts.
When inspiration runs low…Sometimes I'll spend the afternoon going around the Tate in 10 minutes flat, followed by the comic shops, followed by the record shops, and then Borders or Waterstones. I go to shops and treat them like galleries, especially bookshops. I love bookcovers so walking around a bookshop is like walking around a free gallery, with lots of free art work. If you rush through and let your eyes drift along you instantly know what catches your eye and gets your heart racing again. It gives me a little reminder about what I love doing and how lucky I am to do it. I also get to see all the things I don't like and that helps me clear my head and steer myself back to my own path and go in the right direction. I should do the same on the internet but I find that when I sit in front of it my mind goes blank and I don't know where to start.
Friends…I'm really lucky to have friends that inspire me. They all do such different things and every time I get to see them they seem to have done so much since the last time. Cara the illustrator, Loo the animator, Jo the painter, Katherine the textile designer, Jimmy the performance artist, Itxasne the photographer, etc. The most inspiring people I know are my best friends Clair Tivey (a mad Yorkshire lass down here in London who is a currently a civil servant and has such a positive outlook on life. You can't help but want to take the world on) and Charlotte Ratcliffe, mother of three who remarried her kids' dad after earlier divorcing, did a HND, then a degree, then an MA, while bringing up the kids (the oldest has aspergers, the youngest survived heart desease. I remember her writing her dissertation at the hospital bedside while the kids were sleeping). She's had many jobs, including teaching, even learnt sign language so she didn't miss anyone out. One minute she is cooking a Sunday roast for six, then she is out in the garden building an allotment while it's all in the oven. Then they're whisking the kids off to an art gallery and taking pens and paper along so we can all draw what we see. Very inspiring people. They have absolutely no regard for how things 'ought' to be done. They just do it.
Future…I aim to be more like my friends and people I look up to in the future, as there are loads of things I want to do but have a terrible habit of thinking too long about it rather than just doing it. As well as starting up a range of printed work (posters, cards, fabrics, papers, etc), I'd love to start getting into writing and illustrating my own children's books. I love doing book covers too. It allows me to do typography and illustration at the same time and I love the discipline of it. The famous three 'f's rule of 'Form Follows Function' totally applies here. I was really lucky in that the very first book cover I did won the Victoria and Albert Museum award for Best Book Cover back in 2007 (ooh, get me!), and now I sometimes think there is a bit of pressure to perform but there isn't really. It's all about the fun of it. That should always come through I think. Probably the most important thing I can think of for me. I know my work is sarcastic but it's usually quite positive in it's nature. Even when I'm taking a swipe at something. I want to make stuff and get a reaction from people, for them to say something, whether it’s good or bad. I just hate it when people don’t really say anything at all. That gets on my tits.
Advice…If you are going to spend half your life at work, you might as well try to do something that you enjoy. It scared me to think that I could spend the majority of my life doing something I don't like at all. What I'm doing now is perhaps more a result of that fear than of bravery!
You just do what you need to do. The only thing you need is to feed yourself and have a roof over your head and to be honest, most people in my position can do that. So, if you work to earn enough money to cover the necessities, what else are you going to do with your time?