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Build Hollywood

Build Hollywood

Build Hollywood

Build Hollywood

Your Space Or Mine

Ben Wilson aka Chewing Gum Man

We take a miniature personal tour of the city with artist Ben Wilson, the man who turns thoughtless acts into visual gems.

“What’s that man doing lying down there dad?” So piped up a young lad on seeing Ben Wilson sprawled across the ribbed metal floor of London’s Millennium Footbridge. Despite the fact that Wilson was wielding a tiny brush and surrounded by pots of acrylic enamel paint the kid could be forgiven for asking the question because the work itself was so small you had to get on your hands and knees to focus on the teeny-weeny figure! “Good on yer Ben. You’re a star. Your stuff’s better than half of what they’ve got going on over there,” bugled another enthusiastic passerby waving her arm breezily towards Tate Modern.

Suffice to say that Wilson’s trademark paintings on splats of disregarded gum are true crowd pleasers. He can spend hours on a single work. The paintings range in styles. There are black and white calligraphic designs with whirling lines and forms that reveal worlds within worlds. Sometimes he’ll opt for a meticulous painterly representation of people and places that he can see from the site where the gum is found. On other occasions he creates fabulous tiny abstract designs that incorporate dedications to folk, texts painted seemingly with a single brush hair that celebrate or commemorate persons, places or events dear to Wilson or are suggested by people who happen across him at work.

Asked what artists he likes Wilson rattles off various names that suggest the range of his own creative past, “Oh, Jackson Pollock, Andy Goldsworthy, Dave Nash, Andy Warhol, Stik, outsider artists…” Wilson has previously built beautifully crafted wooden sculptures and environments, painted billboards, created assemblages out of litter found in the streets, filled numerous sketchbooks with observational drawing, made ceramic tiles, established trails above the arctic circle and elsewhere across the world. He added, “And the painter printmaker Peter Green was very supportive when I was younger. I like all artists. What’s really most important to me is the immensity of human creativity.”


BUILDHOLLYWOOD’s Your Space Or Mine project seeks to investigate and expand our engagement with urban spaces by working with people who use the city as their canvas and do so in ways that challenge or shift our perception of the environment. Wilson’s miniature art interventions invite closer scrutiny of our surroundings. The paintings plus the relational aspect of their making – the constant conversations with people about the work and a hundred and one other things – encourage a deeper participation, not just with our material locales but also the huge variety of people we share them with.

Wilson’s Your Space Or Mine collaboration took him on a four day tour across London making works that referenced his own past as well as the life experiences and concerns of those close to him. Day one saw Wilson return to his childhood stomping ground in East Barnet. He set up shop next to the local war memorial which stands amidst a splendid crescent of African marigolds. Wilson painted a lush little homage to these plants and, typically, also took the time to deadhead any of the pompom blooms that needed dealing with. Quite by chance a volunteer from the British Legion whose job it was to tend the plot happened by later in the day so that led to another fruitful chat. The second painting Wilson made on this site was a more personal homage to his great uncle Frank who died in the Battle of the Somme. With a glowing border of sky blue, red, green and gold, it’s an exquisite and moving sepia portrait of a young man whose life was tragically cut short by war. The painting conjures another era and reminds us that, in William Faulkner’s words, the past is never dead it’s not even past.

Day two involved a visit to the Kingsmead Estate in Hackney. This is where Wilson’s friend Charmaine grew up in the 1970s and 80s. His tiny circular tribute to her and the area is a captivating rendition of the actual flat Charmaine grew up in. She reminisced, “Seeing Mum on our balcony from as far away as Daubeney Park was an unspoken message to ‘get your backside home’. […] We played Tin Tan Tommy after evening supper where the only resource was an old tin can. Scarpering around the back of flats, in and out of each block was heaps of fun but all that hide ‘n seek enjoyment was curtailed when the council installed lifts and blocked up entrances.” The Kingsmead painting celebrates a childhood spent playing outdoors and a time of simple joys and pleasures.

Throughout lockdown Wilson had been creating a trail of miniature artworks – animals, plants, insects and train themed imagery – for The Parkland Walk Nature Reserve that follows the former Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace railway line. Day three of Wilson’s Your Space Or Mine collaboration saw him set to work on nearby Muswell Hill Broadway. While Wilson was busy with a painterly depiction of figures he’d spotted at a nearby bus stop someone called Liran, and her new born, and her mother, stopped by. Liran and her partner Kosta had asked Wilson to make a painting for them along the old railway line. They’d already given him a few notes on what their painting might feature: rainbow colours, the baby, a train (Larin has a train tattooed on her upper arm) but she wondered if Wilson might also include their dog Bublik? “Of course,” was his ever-genial response, “Maybe send me a side view photo, that’ll look good.”

Wilson’s art, the individual gems and visual treasure trails are part public service then. But while they are intimate, celebratory markers of life stories, the artist Lito Apostolaku reminds us there is always a socio-political dimension to Wilson’s endeavours. She writes that, “The discarded and transformed material evolves from and changes the environment it is in. It also subverts the environment’s sanctioned uses by inserting itself between the cracks, on the thin line that separates public from private, precious from worthless, included from excluded.”

So, it’s places, environmental concerns, the need to be creative and the interpersonal exchanges, all these inform the work. And obviously the random shapes of the repurposed gum Wilson paints on afford inspiration. That miniscule figure apparently hanging from one of the ridges on the floor of the Millennium Bridge just wouldn’t have appeared without the tiny abstract blob that informed its evolution. So many spontaneous, magical transformations hiding in plain sight are reminders to keep our eyes and minds open to the unexpected. His works demand we stay alert to that which is often overlooked. Discovering the miniature wonders re-tunes our attention and senses to the many possible enchanting encounters that every day can have in store. Perhaps that’s his most enduring gift, time and again Ben Wilson aka Chewing Gum Man unlocks our creative engagement with space and place as well as the untold people we share it with.

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