I recently caught up with the artist Chris Cyprus who through a series of paintings and prints captures the essence of the allotment at http://www.allotmentart.com. It all started with the humble Garden Shed and old rustic Garages for Chris which led Chris to the Allotments where he found inspiration and was overwhelmed by the passion and pride that people had for their plots.
1) Chris, can you tell me how you got into creating art?
In 1998, I was working in the building trade, landscape gardening, laying block paving, fitting kitchens, tiling floors. I've done every kind of manual labour since I left school in 1988 with only one O level grade which was in art. I sustained a back injury in Aug '98 at work, and was out of action for 3 months. In that time I took up painting to ease the boredom and after some surprisingly good results I framed some paintings and displayed them in my local pub. After selling numerous pieces I got the bug for painting and the thrill of selling work spurred me on to a change of direction for a career.
2) Why is the humble allotment of such interest to you?
After 8 years painting local landscapes and working from home I was getting well known for my paintings but noticing that in the local galleries that all the work by local artists was all kind of the same thing. A lot of art I was looking at was really 'safe' and commercial, very good but nothing really stood out with a different view of the every day subjects that the area had to offer. I was beginning to realise that if you are to have a successful career in the art world, you can’t just be a good a 'good painter' you really have to stand out and have a strong identity. In 2004, I took a studio at Woodend mill, Mossley. I then really began my professional career as a painter working on much larger, bolder pieces and started to be more expressive and experimental as an artist. Soon after I started a series of paintings involving garden sheds and old garages at the back of terraced houses, some of which I remember from my childhood on the way to and from school. I quickly started an obsession with seeking these outbuildings that held stories and secrets of the past. There was also a connection with actual painting and the distressed layers of paint and colours on the sheds that seemed to capture a time which led me to the allotments to seek out more.
3) Are you a gardener? What are your highs and lows of gardening?
In 2006, I enlisted myself as a helper to an allotment gardener called Bob Andrew whom was in his 80's. He had a double sized plot at Woodmeadow allotments in Mossley, and had tended his plot for over 40 years. At first It was just for me to get closer to my subjects as it was to be a year long project to cover the season on the allotment. Apart from the aesthetic side to gardening and landscaping, I didn’t have any interest in growing vegetables, but that soon changed as I began to reap the fruits of my labour and getting the best tips from experts like Bob, whom had a knowledge of the soil, climate and the best varieties of vegetables to grow. The plot was in much need of repair and landscaping at first which is a common problem for a lot of allotment gardeners when they first take a plot. It can take a good season just to get to grips with things, what seeds to buy, when and where to plant out? Dealing with slugs and other nasties that are a constant challenges that allotment gardening brings. All these problems are soon forgotten when you dig your first crop of potatoes and share treasured moments with your children picking fruit and podding peas, eating them there and then.
4) How do you think your art impacts on your gardening?
Interesting question, but it's really the opposite way around. All of my art is an immediate reaction to what happens in my life. With my allotment paintings, it is inspired by what happens on my own plot and visits to the numerous allotments I have visited all across the UK in the last 5 years covering this subject. I guess you could say they go hand in hand, that when I’m not on the allotment, I am thinking about them, painting them and that keeps me interested.
5) When creating an art piece how do you go about it?
Painting is like building in many ways. First I get an idea, then I make a drawing but with no detail, more of a 'doodle' I want the detail to be in the content of the painting and not the style. I use photographs just as a reference for colours and forms, like drawing 'wheelbarrows' is one of the hardest thins to draw without any reference.
6) What is the process you go through?
The process is then about making good foundations with the initial composition and under painting, if that’s good then the rest should follow nice and easy, just a case of time , balance of colour and tone.
7) Finally, if you can share one piece of advice with fellow gardeners or wannabe artists what would it be?
My advice to up-coming artist and anyone who is about to take up an allotment is to remain optimistic but with a realistic goal. Set yourself small tasks or projects, remember Rome wasn’t built in a day! As an artist, you need to find your style, that can take years to develop like the soil you tend, you need to work it year on year adding nutrients, adjusting it to suit what you want to grow. I have seen many wannabe artists move in and out of Woodend mill studios over the years, having a rose-tinted view of what is like to be an artist, but the reality is that it's a tough business at the best of times and can be very isolated in the winter months. It is the same on the allotment, people come on thinking they with have bumper crops in their first season with little efforts. This only happens to the lucky ones whom take a well tended plot from the previous owner but soon realise how hard it can be when long periods of bad weather, constant weeding, pest control, digging etc.... SO...decide what you want to grow to eat, make a plan and make notes of what works where, and paint what you want to paint, then find the right market to sell it and not the other way around.