Hilma Af Klint by Damian Elwes 2020

I was exposed to art at a very young age, because my father and grandfather were both portrait painters. I didn’t visit their studios often, but when I did, it left a big impression. Whenever I paint a sky, I think about the time when my dad let me paint the clouds behind one of his subjects.

They both died when I was 15, and though they left me their brushes and equipment, I turned away from painting.

I went to college in America and studied playwriting. As a parting gift, my professor gave me Henri Matisse’s palette knife. Matisse had given it to Alice B. Toklas who had given it to my professor. “You don’t like my playwriting?” I asked. “I like your story telling,” he replied, “but all of your stories are about an artist who hasn’t quite found their thing.”

After graduating, I moved to New York City to work on a Sydney Lumet movie. It was the early 80’s and there was graffiti everywhere. This kind of painting was so alive. You would see a poem by “Samo” (Jean Michel Basquiat) on a wall, and a few days later other graffiti artists had added to it.

One day at work, I was asked to manage crowd control at a subway entrance near Penn Station. When the crowd left, I saw Keith Haring drawing on the walls. I told him that his job looked more fun than mine, and he asked me if I knew how to paint. I said that I loved to draw but couldn’t paint. He offered me some chalk and asked me to help him. I really wanted to but had to do my job on the movie. Keith encouraged me to buy a crate of spray paint and to find an empty wall somewhere in the city. He told me that if you draw with spray paint, it becomes a painting.

The following weekend, I bumped into Keith again in the East Village. He was carrying a six pack, and we discovered that we were going to the same party. He asked me if I had made a painting yet, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He spent that entire evening telling me stories. He had drawn for years before beginning to paint. One night his friends took him to a train yard where he painted on the side of a train. Since then, he had created a painting every day. He told me that he was certain that I was an artist. He said, “I’m going to do you a favour. If you haven’t done a painting by the next time I see you, I won’t talk to you.”

By chance, Sydney Lumet happened to be moving his office from West 56th street to a space below the Sidney Janis Gallery on West 57th Street. I helped with the move and, afterwards, I was left with the keys to a double brownstone that was completely empty and due to be knocked down. The following weekend I went back there with a crate of spray paints. I covered an empty room with images and then passed out because I wasn’t wearing a mask. When I awoke, I blew my nose into my sleeve and a spiral of colours came out! I saw images all over the walls and slowly realised that these had come from my imagination.

Each room in that building became covered with paintings, but one day I arrived to find a lock on the door and a notice which said, “Keep Out Graffiti Artists.” I was able to enter via the roof of a nearby theatre but had to find a better way. Behind the building there was a fire escape which was just two feet from another fire escape attached to the back of a large hotel. I examined each of the windows of that hotel and noticed a room on the seventh floor which looked like it had old furniture and rolls of carpets stacked against the walls. I climbed up there. The window was open but everything inside was covered in six inches of dust. The little bathroom had running water which was a great relief because the water had been cut off to the empty brownstone. I put tape on the latch of the front door and that room became the entrance to my studio.

A few months later, an art dealer from London called Robert Fraser came to New York to find art for the first graffiti show in the UK. Someone told him about me, and he sent his assistant to have a look. He liked my work and was blown away by the entrance to my studio via the hotel and the fire escapes. Robert became my first art dealer and exhibited my early spray paintings alongside those of Jean Michel Basquiat at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh.

After that, I decided to go to Paris to learn to paint with a brush. Robert Fraser advised me to apprentice myself to an experienced artist, but I didn’t know any painters in that city. So, for two years I walked all over Paris searching for any artist studio that I could find. I would ask the artist if I could make a drawing or painting of their workspace. At the end of the day, they would look at my artwork and then give me the address of a friend. That was my art school.

Later, after falling in love with my wife Lewanne, I went to live in Colombia for seven years to make paintings of threatened rainforests. With Monet as inspiration, I joined large canvases together to create panoramas that viewers could walk around inside.

The last painting which I created in Colombia was about global warming. It was a floor painting describing a flowering cloud forest near the crater of an active volcano. When the painting was exhibited in Santa Monica in 1999 visitors could walk all over it and were transported into a different, exotic world.

During our time in Colombia, the internet had emerged. On returning to Los Angeles, I bought a computer, and the first thing that I Googled was Picasso’s Bateau Lavoir Studio. I had tried to visit that place in Paris years before only to discover that the original building had burned down in the 70’s. My Google search produced seven photographs from Picasso’s time there. I began drawing from them and soon discovered the arms of some “Demoiselles” at the edges of two photos. I printed out “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and suddenly I could complete the puzzle and see what Picasso’s studio looked like a century ago.

With so much information now available on the internet, I realised I could reconstruct the studio of any of my favourite artists at specific moments in time when they were excelling. Instead of thinking about the destruction of forests and what we are doing wrong, it seemed more constructive to focus on what we are doing right. Humans are highly creative problem solvers, and artists’ studios are a metaphor for all that potential.

I returned to Paris to search for all the studios of my favourite Modern artists. It was an exciting adventure. After Picasso had some success, he moved down the hill from the Bateau Lavoir to a fancier place in Boulevard Clichy. In that building, I found the top floor studio where Picasso and Braques had developed Cubism. The current occupant had only a vague idea about what had taken place in her home years before. Eventually, I visited every studio in Paris that Matisse or Picasso had occupied and many others.

A few years later, I travelled to the South of France to visit some studios there. I rented a car and drove to Dali’s home just across the border in Spain near Cadaques.

After that, I visited Collioure where Matisse and Derain had made their early Fauvist paintings in 1905. Exactly 100 years later I was trying to find the studio which Matisse had rented during that first summer. I had plenty of research with me including copies of two black and white photos which Matisse had taken of the port from his window and a photocopy of his famous painting “Open Window Collioure” (1905).

Nowadays, there is plenty of Matisse tourism in Collioure. Visitors are directed towards the house in the port that Matisse and his family rented from 1907 onwards. However, I was more interested in finding the 1905 studio where he developed Fauvism.

I showed Matisse’s photos to some elderly men playing boules on the beach and asked if they knew of any house with similar windows. They pointed to a building behind a large tree. It was the same little tree that appeared in Matisse’s photo from 100 years ago.

I walked over to the ground floor of that building and entered a real estate office. The lady at the desk affirmed that she owned the office on the floor above. She was happy to show it to me because she had just redecorated. Sure enough, it now had a linoleum floor, yellow walls, and plenty of generic office furniture, but as soon as the shutters were opened, I knew that I was in the right place. I showed the woman Matisse’s photographs, and she recognized the old balcony railing that had just been replaced.

She let me stay that afternoon to make a gouache painting. I suggested that she remove the linoleum floors, put back the balcony railing, and age the walls because the tourists outside would be delighted to visit this studio. Before departing, I mentioned that I had noticed a Matisse poster on the wall outside her office. She replied that a famous Fauvist painting was coming back to Collioure from Paris for the first time since Matisse had created it. She was on the board of the Collioure Museum, and she invited me to stay for the opening the following week. Unfortunately, I could not attend because I still needed to visit the former studios of Cezanne, Bonnard and Picasso and my own exhibition was opening at Lefevre in London in just a few days.

We went downstairs to look at the poster, and it was Matisse’s “Open Window Collioure” exactly below the window where it had been painted.

In 2018, a French museum invited me to exhibit 30 studio paintings in Paris. By then I was painting studios from all over the world including the studios of my favourite contemporary artists.

The museum director wished to exhibit Matisse’s palette knife in the upcoming show. I brought the palette knife in my hand luggage. The museum had rented a beautiful apartment for my family. It was just across the street from Picasso’s wartime studio in Rue des Grands Augustins. This was intentional because I wished to make a painting of that studio before it was converted into a residence. So, that first evening, I took Matisse’s palette knife out of my luggage and placed it on the mantelpiece in the rented apartment. The next day we discovered that where we were staying had once been the home of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. By chance, Matisse’s palette knife had returned to the exact place in Paris where it had previously resided.

At the beginning of the first Covid lockdown, I had an exhibition opening at Unit London. I had worked for more than a year on the paintings, and although the Paris show had attracted over 100,000 visitors, it now seemed likely that no one would be able to see these new artworks. Luckily, the gallery did an excellent job of presenting the exhibition virtually and there was literally a captive audience. No one could leave their homes, but many people were experiencing the outside world through their laptops or phones. The subject matter of the paintings seemed timely and uplifting. Just when people were beginning to feel trapped and bored in their homes, they saw in the studio paintings how much each of those artists was able to achieve in their own confined spaces.

Instead of writing plays, I like to tell stories through images. My friend and mentor David Hockney once told me that my paintings were too interesting, but I took that as a compliment. I like paintings which continue to reveal new details or ideas over time and awaken our own creativity and curiosity. I dislike paintings which grab our attention once and then hang on a wall for years and cease to be noticed.