London On The Ground
Spitting image: Ben Wilson turns used chewing gum into art
Cross the Millennium Bridge and see tiny artworks painted on old chewing gum in the grid of the walkway.
For years I walked across the Millennium Bridge without noticing the art beneath my feet. As soon as I found out about it, I started to look for examples every time I used the footbridge to cross the Thames between St Paul's Cathedral and the Tate Modern art gallery.
However, I knew nothing about their creator until quite recently.
A few months ago I was crossing the bridge with my cousin, his wife and his sister-in-law. I was telling them about the painted blobs of discarded gum and their mysterious artist, when we spotted him just ahead of us, kneeling on the ground and packing up his things.
We found him to be open and engaging, wearing paint-spattered clothes, a ready smile and a panama hat. He told us his name was Ben Wilson, adding that "people call me the Chewing Gum Man".
He was happy to explain his philosophy of creating free public art without interfering with public or private property.
"Transforming rubbish into art, to find a way to do a form of art where technically it's not criminal damage, since it's not under the jurisdiction of local or national government, hence a form of spontaneous art can happen within our environment."
Ben Wilson is a sculptor and painter, whose story - it turns out - has been widely reported. Born to artistic parents in Cambridge, he grew up in North London, where he lives today. Now in his late 50s and with grown-up children, he has worked in many countries, including the Netherlands, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Finland.
In addition to the chewing gum art that he creates on the Millennium Bridge and on pavements across other parts of London, Ben paints images on tiles, canvas and paper. He has also created 'art environments' and sculptural gardens.
Before painting on a piece of chewed and spat-out gum, he prepares it with a burner to drive out moisture and a layer of lacquer to harden it. Many of the images he paints on the gum are inspired by requests from passers-by. He uses a lighter to dry the paint and more lacquer to seal the final images, which can last for years if left alone.
When I suggested to Ben that he must use very fine paint brushes, he pulled a well-used example from his paint-box to show us. The brush was indeed very fine and its handle was wider towards the brush end, allowing him to grip it like a pen.
It was also encrusted in swirls of paint of all colours, so I remarked that it was a work of art in its own right. He then spontaneously presented me with the brush to keep!
According to his website, Ben Wilson began painting on chewing gum in 2003. This evolved from work he had been doing with cast-off rubbish, such as cigarette butts, tin cans, crisp packets and juice cartons.
Creating art from rubbish "was a very conscious, emotional and political decision to challenge consumerism’s adverse impact on people and the environment," says Ben's website.
Ben Wilson regards chewing gum as the ultimate consumer product. He told The Observer in an interview in November 2021 that it has no food value, does not really biodegrade and its removal from public spaces when discarded is costly and laborious.
“So there is some symbolism in transforming something thoughtlessly spat out into something meaningful,” he said in that interview.
Kneeling with his box of paints and brushes and the rolled-up mat he lies on while painting, his smile told us of his delight in the artistic niche he has carved out with his miniature chewing gum paintings.
"It's political in one sense, but it's a celebration of human creativity. We live in a corporate world and, you know, it's mass production, it's consumerist by its nature, but it's nice to find a way to work outside of the box."
Below are some snaps I took with a mobile phone of Ben Wilson's work on the Millennium Bridge.
To find out more about Ben Wilson, including further (and better quality) images of his chewing gum art and his other work, visit his website at www.benwilsonchewinggumman.com.
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