In his first solo show at CNB Gallery, Camden based artist and musician Ben Edge delivers a series of remarkable human histories. Fusing landscape and portraiture with Northern Renaissance symbolism and the stylistic traits of Folk Art, Edge’s paintings are meticulously researched biographies. Occasionally referencing eccentric figures within his own family, Edge believes we are each a ‘little extraordinary’, and looks to reinterpret the often overlooked narratives of inspirational people. After Nyne’s Laura Frances Green catches nine minutes with Edge to talk artistic compulsion, unorthodox experiences, and exceptional characters.
As your first solo show, do you feel you have been given more curatorial freedom than in previous group shows?
Yeah I would say so. As with group shows, the curator selects a group of artists whose work connects or compliments one another. So it’s really their job to bring that all together. With a solo show all the work connects naturally so it’s a different type of experience and more of a collaboration between the artist and curator.
Growing up between Southborough, Kent and Shoreditch, London, and now based in Camden Town, what role, if any, does location play in your practice?
Well my paintings are often set within a landscape. The places that I choose are specific to the person’s story that I am telling. It is often areas that they grew up, childhood homes or significant places where key events in their biographies took place. So location is very important when I am creating a composition. Regarding my own location, I think that growing up in between places meant that one place wasn’t all I knew and as a result I never felt that I fully belonged anywhere and this allowed me to view both places with familiarity and distance. I think this would have definitely had an impact on my outlook in general and informed me as an artist. Now I live in Camden Town I have the same slight detached feeling and enjoy watching all the interesting characters that you get living here.
How do you reference your own family for inspiration?
In some cases I reference them directly and make portraits of family members. In this exhibition there is a painting of Chief Dan George who I am related to. He was a Native of Canada and head of the Tsleil Waututh tribe in North Vancouver. In later life he became a famous actor staring in westerns such as Little Big Man and the Outlaw Josey Wales. So his story was incredibly inspiring and stories from my immediate family have also fascinated me. My grandfather for example (who I have also painted in the past) worked at Smithfield’s meat market for the majority of his life but in his spare time was an Animal Handler. When I would go round to visit him his flat would be full of snakes, lizards, tarantulas and even once a tiger cub that had been leant to him by a friend who worked at the circus. He was full of great stories and so were my family in general and this without doubt has sparked a genuine interest in people and the art of story telling in my work.
How does biography play a role in your work?
When I am drawn to a person it is first and foremost for what they have decided to do with their lives and then I work back through their biography to investigate what life experiences made them become the person they became.
Your works are described as ‘celebrating the extraordinary lives of ordinary people’, yet the individuals you portray seem anything but ordinary. Do you think each of us is a little remarkable?
Yes without doubt. I think we are all a little extraordinary in some way or another. Not all extraordinary stories and people will get public attention or recognition. Not everyone wants that or are part of that kind of culture and things are also forgotten over time. The people that I am often drawn to I see as unsung heroes and I take great pleasure in retelling their stories to a new audience.
Tell us a little about your ‘Outsiders’ series and the inspiration behind depicting Outsider artists.
As someone who for as long as they can remember has always created things, I am interested in where the artistic impulse originates in both myself and the human race in general. Many of these individuals that come under the bracket of Outsider artists have received little or no training and often don’t even consider themselves artists and have no awareness of the contemporary art world. I think for this reason I was drawn to depict Outsider artists as their biographies give us a much purer insight into why we create. I was also interested in their individual characters and life stories and found these very inspirational in their own right. This series really brought a lot of my interests together and it’s where I feel that I first found myself as an artist. Ever since I’ve never had to worry about what I am going to paint next.
How much research time is amassed in the creation of your portraits?
The research side of my work is something that I really enjoy. My usual process is to find any books available on the subject that I am interested in as well as any available films and documentaries. Once I have done this I can then start to paint my own picture of how I perceive the person. So there is quite a lot of research that I do, but it doesn’t feel like work.
Is the research carried out before or alongside the production process?
The research is done before. I generally research my next subject whilst I’m working on my current painting. I actually enjoy the process of painting and researching equally so it’s great to have found a way of doing both simultaneously.
How do you utilise Folk and Renaissance techniques and styles to tell very human stories?
The craft, attention to detail and obsessional qualities that can be found in Folk Art has had a big impact on my painting technique. Compositionally, I am influenced by Northern Renaissance painters such as Hans Memling and other painters of this period. I love the stillness and detail of these paintings and the religious iconography and how these artists constructed their compositions to tell stories. I also think these art forms share something in common. They can be enjoyed at face value for the way they are painted and the craft involved and also for the stories and ideas within the paintings. This is what I hope to achieve with my work.
‘Ben Edge: Folk Renaissance’ runs from 14th March – 16th April 2017 at CNB Gallery, Shoreditch
Image: ‘Self Portrait with Mirror’ (2015)