Wasp Elder is a socially engaged artist who paints pictures populated by enigmatic figures and unstressed backgrounds, enticing a sentiment of an obscure journey. His paintings present an evocative combination of solitary figures, collaged scenes, close-ups, obscured features, and potential catastrophe. Through this working process he is able to present often marginalised figures through a dignified representation. Highlighting their humanity outside of the conflict that is seen to define them.
I contacted the artist via email and sent him a few questions and below are his answers:
Hello! I’m a painter and muralist from the UK, currently living and travelling in my LDV converted minibus. Before the minibus was inhabitable, I lived in Berlin where I rented a studio – this gave me a workspace in between travelling. Before Berlin, I lived and worked in Cardiff, Wales. I often think of Wales as my spiritual homestead – I spent several years there, where I co-ran a DIY multi-functional art-space called The Abacus. Also during my time there, I co-ran a street art project called Empty Walls.
Some artists claim that street art and graffiti fall under the umbrella of illegal work, while murals are more commissioned, therefor legal and understood as painting. Do you agree with these distinctions or not? And why?
As far as I’m concerned, what matters is having a personal connection to an image. That might stem from the meaning you’ve applied to it, or perhaps the original inspiration that informed its creation – the point is, it means something to the person who created it. I would encourage people to look for what speaks to them, to experience and explore the feelings that the image inspires, rather than trying to make solid distinctions between movements and whether they’re illegal or not.
Do you consider yourself a muralist/street artist? And why did you choose the streets to express yourself?
I do consider myself an artist, but I identify more with ‘painter’ and ‘muralist’. For me, painting is about trying to communicate with people and being socially engaged with my environment. I find working outside is the best place to do that. The majority of our public space is saturated with corporate advertising, put there by people who don’t care about communities but instead want to profit from people’s insecurity.
This forms part of the motivation behind why I make art in public spaces. There’s an element of wanting to try and combat these companies and give people something else to look at, rather than being sold to all the time. I feel strongly that we should have more control over advertising space and have more effective regulations put in place to prevent corporate companies from force-feeding us their products and services.
As with most things, it’s communication that’s so important. When we fail to connect with each other or are unable to share insight and knowledge, the upshot is often an insular, ignorant and barren space that is starved of expansive thought or creative inspiration. Not a space I like to live in!
I often find working in public spaces challenging on that level, and am always really conscious of speaking with people in an open way that invites discussion. Sometimes you’ll meet people who strongly disagree with you, and I think that’s important too. Being challenged helps you to solidify why it matters to you; it forces you to think about your motives and your intentions. I think these experiences help you to learn truths about the world around you in a much more honest and stark way – far more than the narrow, passive perspectives that are presented through channels like social media.
My recent mural for the Inspire festival in Canada was really challenging. It was my first mural outside of Europe and my largest to date. I originally sent a few designs in that were rejected because they weren’t about ‘place’. So, I decided to base the mural on the Mi’kmaq tribe, who are a first nations people indigenous to Canada. This required a fair bit of research on my part and led to some incredible discoveries about the history of Canada and the appalling mistreatment of indigenous peoples – not just in Canada, but throughout the world. It’s shocking how badly children were mistreated during the infamous ‘residential school programme’ – if you don’t know the story, I’d encourage you to look it up. In 1996, the last residential school in Canada was closed down, bringing to light horrifying stories about the methods used to sever indigenous children from the influences of their families and to assimilate them into the dominant “Canadian” culture.
We must continue to scrutinise the Catholic Church, as well as the Canadian Government – they both have so much to answer for. The building I was due to paint on was an acadian university, situated on unceded Mi’kmaq land. So, before starting any work, we waited to receive their blessing. I decided to paint the first ever documented Mi’kmaq women, a lady named Molly Muise. We raised their flag on my lift as a sign of solidarity to the Mi’kmaq and other first nations indigenous people. My hope was that it would help to create a sense of place and be a symbol of unity. I often think it’s not just about the painting, but how I can work with people. The end result of my time working on the mural was thanks in part to the open dialogue I had with the festival organisers.
While some claim the physical danger of working outdoors makes women reluctant to participate, do you think women are changing the status quo of street art which is kind of still a boys’ club?
I think that even stating there’s a physical danger that makes women reluctant to participate could arguably be part of the issue you’ve just raised. I’m terrified of heights and often paint walls with my partner, Helen, who is always fine with working at height. It’s such a strange concept that physical dangers are only relevant to women in this industry – why can’t men be just as susceptible?
The largest mural in the UK was painted by Nomad Clan, two female painters. I think it’s wrong to assume that physical dangers put women off any more than they might put men off. I’d argue that the greater, and more obvious problem, is the attitude of some men – inside and out of the scene – who fuel this myth that there isn’t equal physical ‘danger’ to both men and women. My question would be, how to do we eliminate the idea of street art being an exclusive boy’s club?
Good question. Generally speaking, I think it’s weird, but good. We all know social media enables us to connect with each other quickly and easily – it serves a purpose for sure and reflects the communication expectations of the world that we live in. To me, a larger problem that can affect us all is that we don’t allow culture to be considered through a more intimate process. One thing that, in my opinion, has a negative effect on us all is the amount of information we receive from social media and where it comes from.
Here’s an example … I use a photographic reference for every painting I make, and it’s often hard to find out exactly what’s going on in them, or where they come from. Photographs are the most accurate representations of our reality and have the capacity to highlight some of the most tense political problems that arise globally. The problem with pictures though, is that there are so many of them and they often get blurred and distorted out of context. Take UKIP’s advert during the EU referendum: they used a photo of migrants and refugees, accompanied by the slogan ‘breaking point’. The very clear inference was that migration to the UK is an issue exclusive to non-white people. These are base – and predictable – scare tactics that blur truth into a kind of slurred racist propaganda.
When it comes to painting a photo, this is where it becomes interesting for me. There’s a point at which the photo gets left behind and the experience is more about the process of painting. It outgrows the original photo and instead becomes about the paint and the actual act of making the image into something physical. Paintings can be experienced physically – they can be stimulating, arresting, inspiring and moving on a really profound level. These things can’t be felt via social media.
Outside of the creating realm, away from screens, what activities occupy your time? Is it difficult to find a balance between “work” and “play”?
Recently I visited a friend of mine in Cornwall, UK. A few year ago, he set up his own organic farm. He recently bought the land with his partner and has been working it for a year now, harvesting and living off it. I went down to see him and spend some time learning about permaculture, as well as helping to harvest. Art is something that underpins everything I do, and being out in the open where there is no phone or internet signal, surrounded by nature and fresh air … these things help to restore my energy and balance.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m traveling in my van at the moment so a lot my of time is spent looking for places to park up for the night in the countryside – a place that has no internet, or digital distraction, just me and the van. I do a lot of walking and exploring, as well as spending my time reading books – just normal things really.
I’ll be painting at some more festivals over the last few weeks of summer, and I’ll also be exhibiting work at Moniker art fair with the gallery that represents me – 1963 gallery .
Any words of advice for aspiring new artists?
Work as hard as you can. Keep on working even when opportunities don’t present themselves to you. As an artist, working full time brings many pressures and demands that will ask you to shape your work in ways you might not want to. I would encourage you to learn how to approach your work with a sense of modesty and integrity – this is so important because it allows you to work quietly and in ways that support your ideas and agenda.
One more thing I’d say is this: surround yourself with with people who are going to challenge you. Listen. So many people say they listen, but actually, they’re simply waiting to speak. They’re not really hearing what the other person is saying. This means that they miss the opportunity to have meaningful conversations that will help confirm their own identity as an artist and inspire new ideas.
Thank you for your time, and we wish you the best of luck!