Colin Self, artist, on an oak tree in his garden
GB Tell me why you chose your oak tree.
CS I have a book that I bought off a doctor’s wife a few years ago and it’s photographed by someone who was training to be a pilot in 1917. He took the photos from what was a glorified kite with an engine, photographing Norwich from the air and in one of the photos, rural middle distance, stands my oak tree. Now urbanised with houses, supermarkets and motorways, my tree stands magnificent one hundred years later.
GB Was it already a mature oak in the 1917 picture?
CS When the elm tree had to come down I did count the tree rings and I counted it back to 1803 which is interesting. This oak was planted at the same time as part of land enclosures of the once vast Mousehold Heath.
GB Tell me what’s beautiful about the oak tree.
CS I’ve answered this in part – but it’s said that an oak tree supports a thousand other dependent forms of life. My surname Self is Saxon and was originally Seawulf – pirates or invaders. They were tree worshippers, this is in my bones too.
GB Have you drawn the oak?
CS I’ve done watercolours.
GB Have you always loved trees? Were you brought up in the countryside?
CS I was brought up two and a half miles to the east of Norwich, surrounded by three gorgeous living forests owned by the Gurney family, and to the east of this near Norwich, Mousehold Heath.
GB There’s so much nature in your work even though you’re more well known for the Cold War themes.
CS It must seem strange. But in reality we are not routed and we are not rocks. I am simply following other courses and channels in life than being a serf or peasant to the wishes of arts equivalent to music’s old tin pan alley, where agents controlled the songwriters, controlled the singers and thus controlled who did what – i.e. life in blinkers and both parts of music behoven to the suppressing system. The Bible says there are seven ages in life and I for one am open to them on a far higher level than mere ‘trade’. You can’t define me as being a nature boy or a city slicker. I’m not trying to be anything in particular, it’s just a daily energy.
GB How many sofas have you done?
CS More than I have now – most have been thieved.
GB Tell me how you ended up working with Robert Fraser. He didn’t have any training.
CS Yes he did have training. He worked under top galleries in New York and another city in the USA. He had huge sensitivity and intelligence. When I was with John Kasmin for nine months as a 22 year old (shows you how much those dumb posh Slade lecturers knew about art…they actually rejected David Hockney prior to me!) About a bit after the end of that period I heard Robert Fraser was interested in me. One Saturday morning I went to a phone box, looked in the directory…all I found was Frasers greeting cards…phoned them and they’d never heard of any Robert Fraser, so I simply left it and a year later he knocked at my door in Hornsey after his visit to Richard Hamilton a mile away. Richard was lovely and valued me so highly as an artist. I once paid him a casual visit and he said to me, “Colin! You should have come here yesterday! Duchamp was here!” (Oh! Bugger)
GB You have a whole series called Power and Beauty. Tell me about those.
CS Yes, those are some prints I did in the 60s. Some came from 1920s Hutchinson’s Animals magazines. I would cut interesting images out – store them away – get them out years later and if some no longer registered to me I’d abandon them. After a decade I was left with the few that made the prints.
GB I feel like beauty was a dirty word in the art world at that time.
CS Maybe that’s why I used it.
GB Did you look for beauty in the nuclear war works?
CS No, I looked for a human response to evil.
GB It was such a huge uncontrollable thing.
CS I was dying inside with this world crisis. Then my chemistry changed when I went to the Slade art school in the big cold city. Since I was victimised at the ethno racist Slade and put in the worst three students work – for what? Nothing but class prejudice from Andrew Forge and my awful tutor Thomas Monnington. It was a finishing school for posh boys and girls who always got the prizes and the grants as many of them simply went shopping. I connected with influential Terry Atkinson from Barnsley (who they failed), George Hainsworth and his two buddies from Leeds, Joe Keyes from Sidcup. Then Peter Blake and David Hockney did visiting crits on all the Slade work. Independently of each other they thought all the Slade work was pseudo Bomberg and pseudo Nicholas de Stael rubbish, then they came to mine and thought I was an original. Some of my nuclear work started coming out of me in my final term. I thought, what’s better, the world’s best painting of a bowl of fruit or the world’s worst picture of a nuclear bomber? I’d do this best/worst thing, which was almost like the later punk. The nuclear bomber was significant. I felt the power of subject was better than being able to paint in a nice way. That’s how it started. I felt that subject had such a power in its own right. I’d gone through what psychologists would call my years of non-being. I could have never have gone on a march in a duffel coat with a banner, so I protested in my own way through art. So I did the aeroplanes. Also, I saw one day in a paper that when Braque was an old man he did some really wonky bird images relating to what he was to me thinking about those dark political days. Those really made an impression on me. This man who was the son of a painter and decorator, like I am too, who’d invented cubism.
GB Are you still interested in the cold war? It’s really going off right now.
CS No. I think all sorts of things. My new works are really all about packaging. I’m 76 now and I’m seeing art in literally everything – every moment, whether it’s a stone or a cardboard tea packet. I don’t have a scientific process for this, but everything I see in the world now, I’m estimating the amount of artness in it. I can use anything at the minute. I see the artness in everything.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
CS I think in simple maths you can get the lowest common denominator. I think if one takes that attitude one can see beauty in almost anything.
GB So you can see art in anything and you can see beauty in anything?
CS Yes. Don’t you think? I don’t think artness in things should be confined to people who paint pictures on canvas. This photo of our tree was taken by my wife, Jess. and it’s got the final setting of the supermoon in the background. But if I wake up first in the morning and look at sleeping Jess I just adore her aura as she sleeps…..
Colin Self has a show of new work at the Fairhurst Gallery in Norwich in March.
Colin Self, alongside one of history’s greatest comic icons, Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves). I think we should all just be friends will explore the friendship between these two inimitable artists and their relationship to the ‘art world’ at large.