From Living South:
Shades of Gray
From Peckham school teacher to internationally renowned artist, Ed Gray gets around. His latest exhibition, Time Out Of Mind: Painting and drawings from the floating world, sees him travel farther afield to the likes of Thailand, Japan and Mexico searching for the soul of the city. Living South quizzes him on his inspirations, his travels and his love of south east London
You were a school teacher in Peckham, what inspired you to pursue your passion for art as a career?
That began a long time before the teaching. I managed to keep the two careers going for a while but it became harder and harder to be a good teacher and devote enough time to painting as things began to take off. I never set out to make a living through selling art, so I would have kept painting whatever the situation was with selling work.
In fact, teaching helped me to manage my time better and become more professional. I miss interacting with pupils but we often get them down to the gallery to see the work and learn about the wider world of making a career as an artist.
Tell us about your south London links…
I was born in Roehampton and grew up in Putney. Unfortunately, I was priced out of Putney and moved to Brixton because I loved the market, then to Walworth (near East Street market) and now I live in Bermondsey, back in proximity to the river that I loved as a boy. South east London has given me so much – affordable studios, a strong artistic heritage and a wonderful gallery in GXgallery.
Do you have a favourite local haunt?
My local, The Angel in Rotherhithe is a quiet pub with views that let you dream away the day all too easily.
What is it about London and urban scenes in general that inspire you?
It’s the people. I spend a lot of time walking the streets with my sketchbook and looking. As a boy I drew faces endlessly. I am driven to reflect the energy and drive of the people that make this city tick. I understand so much more about the city and ultimately myself through this process. When it works – the drawing – it’s a joy. Sometimes I struggle when I am self-conscious and my eye is not really looking.
Do you paint from photographs or set up your easel there and then on the street?
It has to come from the street initially. It may take a few days to find the right place to draw – the right energy needs to be in that place. Then I try and blend in, find a quiet alcove or alley, and forget about myself. I revisit the scene to photograph the buildings and then go back to the studio and work from my drawings of the people and the space, photographs of the architecture and my memories. William Wordsworth spoke of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” and that’s how I feel in the studio.
Tell us a tale of an interesting encounter on the streets of south London…
I met a very old Jamaican in Brixton who had come over on the Windrush and told me tales of 1950s Brixton. But it’s more what happens after that that interests me, like when people come to see the finished work in the gallery and they know someone in the painting. I am always amazed that they can recognize themselves.
Tell us about your book, Glitter and Grime…
I had thought for a long time about putting together a book linking my work from my first 10 years as an artist (from 1997-2007 – I stopped painting for a year after art college in 1996, when my Elephant and Castle studio was made into flats) that would include paintings from London, New York and a residency I was awarded in Bermuda. The title reflects both the process and content of the work. The paintings often begin as grimy charcoal drawings from which glittering varnished canvases emerge. The cities I paint are also places of glittering towers and grimy streets.
What is it that you find so fascinating about people and cities?
It’s the idea of a city as a vessel that all human life pours through. People uproot their lives to seek something better in cities and have done for generations. Cities bring people together. My parents were from Grimsby and Birmingham but left as soon as they were able for the bright lights of London. My wife came from Sweden to settle here. Cities are in a state of flux that I want to try to reflect in every painting that I make.
Your new show, Time out of Mind: Paintings and Drawings from the Floating World, is your sixth at GXgallery. What can people expect to see?
This year’s show is my most ambitious yet. I wanted to spend more time in the streets making drawings as most of my time was spent in the studio working on the paintings. I spent nine months travelling and working in six major world cities; Mexico City, Bangkok, Tokyo, LA , San Francisco and New York.
Most were new to me and presented very real challenges; trying to find the soul of the city in a short space of time and trying to draw and paint on the road. I chose those countries because they were the inspiration for artists and cultures that have influenced me; Diego Rivera, Edward Hopper, Hokusai, the San Francisco Bay artists, Buddhism. So the show’s about taking time out to focus on a new reality.
Did working in these places change the way you work?
Very much so. In Mexico my work became more colourful and playful. I used glitter, real flies and even real fried grasshoppers (a local delicacy) on my canvases. The mood of the paintings changes with every city. The light changes. In Japan it was hard because there was so much to draw. I had blisters on my fingers. It was cold and wet on the streets. I had to be disciplined with myself. My paintings became very controlled and formal, much like Japanese society itself, and yet there was still humour and warmth to be found.
Time out of Mind: Paintings and Drawings from the Floating World runs from 22 May to 11 June at GXgallery, 43 Denmark Hill SE5 8RS; 020 7703 8396; www.gxgallery.com