Basquiat in London, spraypaint + acrylic on canvas, 2015
Bull IV, mixed media on canvas, 2015
Keith Haring, digital painting on paper, 2015
Midas, digital painting on paper, 2015
Basquiat, oil on canvas, 2015
Basquiat at the ICA, oil and acrylic on canvas, 2015
2014-5 CONTEMPORARY STUDIOS
When I decided to take up painting, I moved to Paris and visited scores of contemporary artists' studios. I would offer to make a painting of the studio in return for being able to watch the artist at work and to learn from them. Each artist's studio tells a unique story. Later in life, I developed a series of paintings that uses the artist studio as a metaphor for human creativity.
"Jeff Koons' Studio" gouache on board, 19 x 19 in, 2015 Damian Elwes
"Ai Wei Wei's Studio," gouache on board, 18 x 23 in, 2015, Damian Elwes
In 2008, Ai Wei Wei created "Bubble" in his immense Beijing studio. The light in the studio is reflected in each of the blue ceramic sculptures. In the background, one can see a wooden sphere which is based on a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci called "Divine Proportions."
"Peter Doig's Studio," gouache on board, 17 x 23 in, 2014, Damian Elwes
"Lucian Freud's Studio," gouache on board, 19 x 23 in, 2014, Damian Elwes
"Calder's Kitchen," gouache on board, 19 x 19 in, 2014, Damian Elwes
"Salvador Dali's Studio," gouache on board, 17 x 23 in, Damian Elwes
I spent several hours in Dali's Cadaques studio making this painting. After finishing the two walls, I went up to the roof and completed the landscape that had been partially visible through the two windows. The idea was inspired by an artwork in which Dali floated Velasquez's "Las Meninas" studio in the clouds.
"Warhol's Factory," acrylic on canvas, 62 x 72 in, Damian Elwes
I was lucky enough to know Andy Warhol and always wanted to make a painting of his studio.
"Giacometti's Studio," gouache on board, 19 x 19 in, Damian Elwes
"Magritte's Studio", mixed media on canvas, 58 x 66 in, 2014, Damian Elwes
Despite his success, the painting activities of René Magritte were confined to a small corner of his living room in Belgium. Meanwhile, his paintings were always reaching out beyond the bounds of reality. He often painted an imaginary ocean outside this urban window. In "Personal Values" (1952), he filled the next door room with out-sized versions of his possessions.
2014 CORAL REEFs
"The Great Barrier Reef" is a series of five adjoining paintings.
"The Great Barrier Reef I," mixed media on canvas, 70 x 108 in (1.8 x 2.7 m) 2015, Damian Elwes
I made this painting because I love diving but have become concerned about the plight of our oceans. Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost since 1985.
"The Great Barrier Reef III," mixed media on canvas, 70 x 108 in (1.8 x 2.7 m) 2015, Damian Elwes
All living things are connected. If there is a God then his spirit is in everything. One reason why we should not destroy the natural world is because it is morally wrong. It is also the very thing that sustains us. In order for our descendants to survive and flourish we must protect all the oceans, forests and other species.
"The Great Barrier Reef IV," mixed media on canvas, 70 x 108 in (1.8 x 2.7 m) 2015, Damian Elwes
In order for our descendants to survive and flourish we must protect all the oceans, forests and other species.
"The Great Barrier Reef V," mixed media on canvas, 70 x 108 in (1.8 x 2.7 m) 2015, Damian Elwes
5 paintings can join together to describe a part of "The Great Barrier Reef"
In this photo, the paintings hang in the rectangular space of my studio. They can also hang freely from a ceiling (using invisible fishing line). This allows them to fit into almost any space.
I am currently designing an art garden for the L.A. River Project. A version of "The Great Barrier Reef" will be on a curved wall in the garden.
This installation can easily and inexpensively be installed in any space around the world. Hopefully, it can be used to help raise awareness about the conservation of the oceans.
"The Great Barrier Reef" + "Source of the Amazon"
In another part of the Art Garden, the painting "Source of the Amazon" will be on the floor, and visitors will be able to walk all over it looking at the hundreds of exotic, flowering plants.
"Whip Coral," mixed media on canvas, 54 x 48 in, (1.37 x 1.32cm) 2015, Damian Elwes
2003-14 20th CENTURY STUDIOS
Each studio that I paint is a learning experience. It also appeals to the detective and historian in me. These paintings could not have been made without the Internet or art libraries. It is a challenge to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. First I decide upon a moment in time when something extraordinary was going on for a particular artist. Then I gather all the evidence of what that artist was doing up to that moment and how his studio was set up. If the studio still exists, I go to the location and experience all the things that have not changed.
"Cezanne's Studio during the creation of the Card Players," gouache on board, 17 x 23 in, 2014, Damian Elwes
"The Card Players" is a series of five paintings that Cezanne made from 1892-95. These paintings were created at a pivotal moment in his career. The various paintings from this series are intimate and tentative like his still-lifes but also monumental like the mountain that he loved to paint. Within my painting, there is "The Card Players" (1894-95) from the Musée d'Orsay, and "The Card Players" (1892-94) from the Barnes Foundation which is on the easel.
"Gauguin's Studio in Tahiti in 1895," mixed media on canvas, 62 x 72 in, 2003, Damian Elwes
The further one goes back in time, the more challenging it is to create a particular studio. I looked through Sotheby's and Christie's catalogues for all of Gauguin's belongings that have ever been sold. The trunk is the one that he brought from Paris while the bed, the armchair, bottles, bowls and fruit appeared in paintings from that period. It was also imperative to read Gauguin's diaries and written descriptions by people who visited him. This painting is owned by Donald Sutherland who played Gauguin in the film "Wolf at the Door."
"Monet's first Studio at Giverny," mixed media on canvas, 62 x 72 in, 2004, Damian Elwes
Monet's first studio at Giverny was in his house, and it remains mostly intact. Unfortunately, the view of the garden outside was obscured by the construction of a larger outdoor studio where he created the "Water Lilies" series.
"Gauguin's Studio," mixed media on canvas, 66 x 86 in, 2006
I have painted each of the seven studios that Gauguin had in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands. This is the most accurate one from that series. It is the only studio that Gauguin built for himself (1898-99), and luckily, there is one surviving photograph of the interior and one of the exterior. Those images are very grainy and difficult to read, but after drawing them over and over again, I began to make out the digging tools and other elements among the straw on the ground.
"Cezanne's Studio during the creation of the Large Bathers," gouache on board, 18 x 23 in, 2008, Damian Elwes
Cezanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence is now a museum. Tours go through it every 20 minutes, but they allowed me to sit at his little desk to make a sketch. The tour guide kept repeating how nothing had changed since Cezanne's death, but I suddenly realized that all the studio furniture was out of place. There is a photo of Cezanne sitting in front of this canvas of "The Large Bathers" (1895-1906) with the stove behind it, but what may have confused the museum staff is that the stove has been moved. I located the place where it used to be, and sure enough, there was a line of green and blue paint across the floor boards where the easel had been.
Gauguin's Studio in the Marquesas Islands, mixed media on canvas, 62 x 72 in, 2005, Damian Elwes
Tahiti was not the Garden of Eden that Gauguin had hoped for. He was desperately poor and painted some of his masterpieces on burlap sacks. He even had to take a job at the Post Office. At the end of his life, he moved to the Marquesas Islands where he found a more perfect environment for creating his incredible paintings.
"Matisse's Studio in Collioure," mixed media on canvas, 66 x 66 in, 2005, Damian Elwes
This little port on the south coast of France attracts tourism because it was here that Matisse and Derain spent their summers painting. After 1907, Matisse would rent a house in the Port which is visible through the window. However, in 1905, he took a photo through this window from a studio where he was inventing Fauvism. 100 years later, I asked the old men playing boules on the beach where they thought that old photo was taken. They agreed that the only building with the windows above the doors was right behind us. The little tree in my painting is now huge, and the table and chairs on the beach are situated where there is now a bustling restaurant. I had located his Fauvist studio. Amazingly, the current occupants were unaware that Matisse had been here.
"Picasso's Studio at the Bateau Lavoir," mixed media on canvas, 52 x 84 in, Damian Elwes
In 2015, the Fleming Museum created an exhibition about 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,' and they asked me to come and talk about Picasso. MOMA does not loan out 'Les Demoiselles.' So the Fleming has taken my painting of 'Picasso's Bateau Lavoir Studio' and projected it into the entire space of a room using computer technology. Visitors entering the exhibition find themselves in Picasso's studio at the moment when he had just finished his masterpiece. My painting contains all of the various influences that led to this breakthrough moment when Picasso became the preeminent painter in Paris. It was a thrilling experience, and I can imagine how museums in the future could use any of my studio paintings in a similar way. Visitors were able to pick up an iPad and point it towards any of the Demoiselles in order to see all of Picasso's sketches that led to the creation of that woman.
"Picasso's Studio at Boulevard Clichy," gouache on board, 17 x 23 in, 2010, Damian Elwes
When Cubism became a success, Picasso moved down the hill from the Bateau Lavoir to a 19th century studio building. A century later, I stood in front of this place and tried to deduce which was Picasso's studio. I had a photo that he had taken of Sacre Coeur from his window. All of the top floor windows were curved like the one in the photo, but only the studio on the top right corner had a view of Sacre Coeur. So I went upstairs and knocked on the door, but there was no response. I started knocking on adjacent doors, but just then the owner arrived. She only let me in because she was curious to know if this was truly Picasso's apartment. I showed her all the evidence, and she let me make my painting.
"Picasso's Studio at Rue Schoelcher in 1914," watercolor and charcoal, 14 x 18 in, Damian Elwes
All the studios start off as watercolor and charcoal drawings like this one. They then become gouaches and then sometimes they become large canvases. Sydney Picasso helped me to locate all of her father-in-law's studios in Paris. She said that none of the Picasso family had been to this one, but she knew that it was currently occupied by an architect. When he answered the door, I asked him how the studio had changed architecturally since Picasso's time? He invited me in and kindly let me make this painting.
Picasso's Studio at Rue de la Boetie, mixed media on canvas, 48 x 54 in, Damian Elwes
By 1918, Picasso had moved to a bourgeoise neighborhood near to the Champs Elyssée. In the only photographs from this period, he was wearing a suit and tie while painting. He had been in his neoclassical phase since marrying a Russian ballet dancer. However, he suddenly fell in love with a young girl called Marie Thérèse Walters, and his work began to evolve. He also produced his first sculptures, and there is one on the shelf, another on the mantlepiece and a third below the easel.
"Frida Kahlo's Studio in Coyoacan," mixed media on canvas, 62 x 72 in, 2008
It is fun to vista Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul in Mexico City. The whole house is very colorful, but sadly, this first studio of hers is now an empty shell. Even the window and door has been filled in. Nevertheless, I stood there with all the information that I had gathered over the years and began to imagine just how the room was when Frida was working there.
"Matisse's Studio in Nice," mixed media on canvas, 60 x 60 in, 2006
Matisse liked to make paintings that contained a window into another world, and so I tried to echo that here. I drove along the coast visiting studios in the South of France. As I approached Nice, the sea changed to such a distinct color of blue, and I wanted that to be the focal point of this painting.
"Frida Kahlo's upstairs Studio at the Casa Azul," mixed media on canvas, 62 x 72 in, 2007, Damian Elwes
Diego Rivera constructed this upstairs studio for Frida while she was away in Paris enjoying her first success. The French Surrealists had embraced her as one their own, Duchamp had organized her show and Picasso had made her a pair of earrings. When she returned, she told Diego that she did not feel like a Surrealist but simply painted the world as she saw it. While there in her studio, I noticed how the Casa Azul seemed to disappear into the infinite distance as it would in a Dali image. So I tried to capture this in my painting.
"Picasso's Studio in Cannes," mixed media, 62 x72 in, 2005, Damian Elwes
This was the first painting that I made of Picasso's Studio in Cannes. While making this painting, I discovered that Picasso was using almost all the rooms on the ground floor of his art deco villa as studios. I then decided to join eight paintings together so that one could walk around the ground floor and see the hundreds of artworks that he was in the process of making in 1956.
"Picasso's Studio in Villa La Californie", mixed media on canvas, 66 x66 in, 2015, Damian Elwes
While making the installation "Picasso's Villa," I learned so much about Picasso's process. The shape of Picasso's studio and the windows on the right must have reminded him of Velasquez's studio in "Las Meninas." Picasso began decorating his own studio with the art that he was creating in order to replicate the studio in "Las Meninas." Then he went upstairs and painted fifty versions of Velasquez's painting.
The goddess series began in 2010.
"Harmony," 44 x 54 inches (1.1 x 1.37 m)
In the mythology of some Amazonian tribes the souce of the river is a woman and all life comes from her. So I decided to surround the floor painting with images of that woman asleep in that environment.
London Exhibition, 2010 with Nirvana, Origin, Harmony
The goddess series began in 2010. The idea was to surround the Amazon floor painting with contemporary cave paintings of women.
Desire, 60 x74 inches (1.52 x 1.88m) 2010
"Perception l," in the studio (2010) 68 x 68 inches (1.68 x 1.68 m)
"Peace," 44 x 54 inches (1.12 x 1.37m) 2014
"Spirit," 60 x74 inches (1.52 x 1.88m) 2014
"Nirvana," 68 x 68 inches (1.68 x 1.68 m) with "Amazon"
2005 PICASSO'S VILLA
Eight paintings connect to describe the ground floor of Picasso's Villa La Californie in Cannes. A visitor entering the front door of Picasso's home in April, 1956 would be be confronted by this view.
Picasso was producing an extraordinary amount of art at this moment in his life, and he allowed several photographers to come and record this. Among them were Edward Quinn and David Duncan Douglas (who I managed to talk to about this project). I spread out all the photographs that were taken and put them together like a jigsaw puzzle before beginning my painting.
"Picasso's Villa," paintings I + II, each 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m)
"In this installation, Elwes deals with the most prodigious artist of our time during one of his most intense phases of creativity. In the mid-fifties, Picasso had just fallen in love with his last wife Jaqueline. His great rival Matisse had recently died, and he had no one to compete with. Luckily, Jaqueline's face reminded him of one of the women in Delacroix's masterpiece, 'Women of Algiers,' and thus began a series of paintings in which Picasso pitted his talents against those of the old master. Suddenly, the whole ground floor of his villa was filled to the brim with portraits of Jaqueline interspersed with representations of himself as bull, owl, goat and satyr. Elwes' work describes a period after April, 1956 when Picasso had just completed several paintings of his own studio, a rare occurrence. He then made an amazing painting of his muse in his studio. In that painting, Jaqueline is looking at a blank canvas on an easel. It is a meditation on the making of art. In that very moment, Picasso seems to be pondering the exact same thing as Elwes: what is the source of his creativity?"
extract from an essay by Fred Hoffman (Curator of the Basquiat retrospectives at MOCA and the Brooklyn Museum)
"Picasso's Villa," The Grand Salon, each painting 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m)
After entering the front door of the villa, this is the room on the opposite side that leads to the garden. Each month, the Madoura Pottery would deliver several crates of ceramics, and this is where most of them were unpacked and painted. Sydney Picasso spent several hours examining the installation and told me many stories about the details. On the right above the sofa, there is a bullfight painting made by Claude Picasso for his father with the inscription, "pour mon papa cheri." Above that is a painting of a bowl of cherries which was a secret portrait of Claude's mother, Francoise Gilot. On the the sofa rests a kite which Picasso made for Paloma and Claude. In the center of the room, Picasso is taking apart the children's stroller in order to create a sculpture.
"Picasso's Villa," The Dining Room, each painting 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m)
"These paintings are literally a feast for the eye and mind. Each of Elwes’ paintings is the result of copious research, from which he has assembled all extant documentation on any and every item which Picasso surrounded himself with. These include all the notebooks, sketches, African masks, works in production (such as paintings, prints, ceramics and sculpture), as well as gifts from friends, articles of clothing and even artworks by his own children. All of these 'things' have been included in Elwes’ work with the goal of accurately documenting the conditions in which the master worked."
(extract from an essay by Fred Hoffman)
The entire painting wraps around three walls. This image shows half of it.
"Picasso's Villa," Painting Studio I, 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m) Damian Elwes
In the center is a mirrored door. To the right is a painting called "The Shadow." In that painting, Francoise Gilot is asleep on a sofa the day before she left Picasso. He entered the room, and his shadow fell over her body. On the left easel is a painting of his new wife sitting in the rocking chair looking at an empty canvas on the easel.
"Picasso's Villa," Painting Studio II, 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m) Damian Elwes
This is the other side of the painting studio. On the mantlepiece, there are two bottles of absinthe and a sculpture of a boy's head that was in Picasso's Bateau Lavoir studio fifty years earlier. On the sculpture stand to the right, there is a red, toy bus made for his children. The chair in the center is now on display at the Picasso Museum in Paris. On the chair is a newspaper which Picasso used as his palette. The newspaper absorbed the oil from his colors allowing them to dry far more rapidly. This was how Picasso was able to produce so many paintings.
"Picasso's Villa," Grand Salon II, 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m) Damian Elwes
On the easel to the left is a print of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." The work surrounding it seems to be influenced by that painting. Jacqueline, dressed as one of Delacroix's "Women of Algiers," appears in two paintings and in three ceramic plates on the floor. The other ceramics are of goats, owls, bulls and satyrs, creatures that Picasso identified with.
"Picasso's Villa," Grand Salon II, 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m) Damian Elwes
There is a book of poems by Rimbaud on the table by the window. In the corner of the room is sculpture made out of pipes. Some artworks in this painting (like that sculpture in the corner and the kite on the sofa) have not survived the test of time.
"Picasso's Villa," Dining Room II, 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m) Damian Elwes
On the shelf in the center of the wall, there is a bust of Dora Maar, an African sculpture, a bird cage and a gold clock that was a gift from Picasso's art dealer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler.
"Picasso's Villa," Dining Room I, 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m) Damian Elwes
On the chair to the left is a painting by Picasso of his studio. On the chair in the center is a painting of his wife in the studio looking at a painting of the studio on an easel.
"Picasso's Villa," Dining Room III, 66 x 66 in (1.68 x 1.68 m) Damian Elwes
Tiles that Picasso and his daughter Paloma have painted are displayed on the table. On the right wall is another little painting by Paloma of her step-mother, a bullfight announcement, a boomerang and the famous "Bull's Head" sculpture made from a bicycle seat and handlebars. Throughout my painting are French newspapers from April, 1956 that can actually be read.
This painting describes a source of the Amazon River that exists at the top of an active volcano in southern Colombia. It is a giant floor painting and visitors find themselves walking over hundreds of exotic, flowering plants while searching for the source of the river.
"Source of the Amazon," 280 x 300 inches (711.2 x 762 cm) 1996-97
In Colombia, we would wake each day at 5am and have coffee on our balcony, gazing at the rainforest which extended into the distance. A beautiful snow-covered volcano protruded from the forest, but by 6am, it had vanished into the clouds. In January each year, the volcano was not covered in snow and could be seen all day. It was summer up there, and I began to ask the local indians about it. Most people warned me not to go up there because the volcano was active and exploded every few years. A friend told me that just below the crater there was an extraordinary plateau where the Amazon River had a source.
One January, my friend and I drove a jeep as far as we could up the volcano. We put on plastic suits and rubber boots and climbed the rest of the way through a cloud forest. It was like nothing else I had ever experienced on earth. There was no ground. We crawled through tunnels in the foliage. Sometimes we were deep down and saw strange grubs and caterpillars living there.
We were carrying ropes and tent pegs. When we reached the colorful plateau at the top of the volcano, we found the river source and made a grid over it using the ropes. Over the next eighteen months, I described this plateau in a vast, landscape painting.
The stream of water coming out of the ground split into three major rivers. The Magdalena travelled north through Colombia to the Caribbean. The Naranjo travelled west to the Pacific, and the Amazon travelled east all the way across the continent through the jungles of Brazil to the Atlantic Ocean.
This colorful, rain-drenched ecosystem seemed like it could exist at the bottom of the sea. This was summer, and all the plants were flowering. Every few years, the volcano explodes and molten lava kills all life on this plateau. But the rain is constant, the river continues to come up from the ground, and life begins again. It is the kind of ecosystem that existed millions of years before humanity and one that should exist millions of years from now.
"Source of the Amazon" Damian Elwes
Here is one of the four panels on the wall of my studio. (70 x 300 inches) Each canvas panel contains three rectangular paintings.
"Source of the Amazon IX," 72 x 100 in
When I made this painting from 1996-97, I was thinking about our vulnerability in the face of global warming, deforestation and other man-made disasters.
The panels fit together on the ground. This artwork has so far been exhibited in Los Angeles and London, and visitors could walk all over it. The galleries observed that each visitor spent an average of thirty minutes with this artwork.
I created this painting because it can easily and inexpensively be installed anywhere around the world and hopefully be used to raise awareness about the importance of conservation.
"…open your eyes to painting and…stop thinking. Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to "walk about" into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?" -Wassily Kandinsky, 1910
I lived close to a rainforest in Colombia for seven years and almost every day I encountered some miracle of nature.
Fallen Tree, 1998
This painting is about the cycle of life.
One day, some Colombian indians took me to a primary forest of mahogany on the top of a mountain. Those trees rose several hundred feet into the air, like Greek columns, before branching out into a canopy. Eventually, we came to a clearing where an old tree had crumpled to the ground. As it decayed, it nourished new saplings.
"Forest of Statues" 1997
Twelve adjoining panels that form a circular painting.
I based the dimensions of this circle on the "Hunting Lodge" at Avesbury. It is likely that such places were once surrounded by trees. The ancient stone columns would have created windows looking into the forest.
As I made this painting, I began to think that trees may have had a spiritual significance to those early people. I exhibited this piece at the Richard Salmon Gallery in London in 1998. During that exhibition, an ancient circle of upturned oak trees was exposed on the coast of England.
"Forest of Statues," 1997-1998
This particular forest in Colombia is very close to an ancient stone circle. There are also many tombs, guarded by stone statues of indian warriors. Humans once lived in this forest, and it now survives as a national park. The art that they left behind has helped to protect and preserve this small forest.
"Forest of Statues," 1997-98
On my first visit to this mountainous region of southern Colombia, the rainforest surrounded us as far as the eye could see. It is not like that any more. The few forests that survive are on mountaintops, and even those are threatened. When a forest is burned down, it is like a vision of hell: black, overturned tree stumps and not a blade of grass or a bird that flies over.
"Edge of the Forest VI, VII + VIII," 1996
12 paintings join together to create a 360 degree square panorama. The paintings surround the viewer on all four sides.
This is the first of the five large landscape installations that I created in Colombia.
"Edge of the Forest V," 1997
Each painting in this series contains a pathway leading to a different place.
"Edge of the Forest Vll," 1997
I made this painting when we had just moved to Colombia, and my wife was pregnant with our first child. I was thinking a lot about the little baby in the womb.
"Edge of the Forest VIll," 1997
The paintings surround the viewer just as the womb surrounds a baby.
"Edge of the Forest X," 1997
In life, we constantly encounter different paths.
"Edge of the Forest XI," mixed media on canvas, 74 inches x 69 inches
This is a path into the forest. On the other side of the installation is the path into the home. Those were my choices at that time in my life: to live in the country where I had grown up or to venture further into the forest. I chose the path into the forest because I wanted to do whatever I could to save it.
This painting is currently on exhibit at ESMOA which is a very cool new museum in Los Angeles.
It describes a rounded mountain where indian tribes once lived and where they left painted statues. Beyond it, to the left, is the volcano Puracé. That is the active volcano which has an exotic plateau just below the crater which I described in my vast landscape painting, "Source of the Amazon."
"Edge of the Forest X, XI, XII," 1997
My friend, David Hockney once said to me, "What could be more spiritual than abstraction?"
"Trees," I replied.
A few days later he came to see my exhibition at Bergamot Station. And so began his extraordinary series of paintings of English trees.
1980s GRAFFITI NY + LONDON
From 1983-84, I painted graffiti in an abandoned building in New York City. Soon my work was hanging beside the paintings of Basquiat and Haring in an exhibition called "Paris/New York" by the Robert Fraser Gallery. The following year, I painted graffiti in London.
"New York Rooftops I," spray paint, 8 x 14 ft, 1984, Damian Elwes
After college, I worked on a film in New York. It was the early 80s, and there was new graffiti everywhere. You'd see a Basquiat poem on a wall, and then return a week later to find that other artists had added to it. I had thought of painting as being rather static and dead, but this kind of painting was alive and metamorphosing every day.
"Boys," spray paint, 5 x 7 ft, Damian Elwes
One day on the film set, I had to keep a crowd waiting inside the entrance of a subway station. Keith Haring appeared and started making an artwork on top of a poster, and we struck up a conversation. I told him how much I would love to paint graffiti. He invited me to have a go, but I said that I didn't think I could paint over his work. Later, we went to a party together, and he encouraged me to buy some spray paint and find myself a wall.
"Abstract Graffiti," spray paint, 1984
I knew about a building on West 56th Street and 7th Avenue that was empty and condemned to be torn down. My boss, Sidney Lumet, had just moved out, but I still had the keys. One weekend, I bought spray paint, and filled a room with color. I passed out . Upon awakening, I blew my nose and colors came out. I looked around and saw that the walls were filled with my imagination and I was hooked.
"New York Rooftops II," 8 x 16 ft, 1984, Damian Elwes
Over the next year I filled all the rooms with paintings and even painted the roof, but the city kept putting large locks on the door and signs saying, 'KEEP OUT GRAFFITI ARTIST.' Behind my empty building, the fire escape was only a couple of feet from the fire escape of the Hotel Wellington. I spied a dark room that was full of rolled carpets and furniture. I climbed up and found the window open. The bathroom had running water. That 7th floor room became the entrance to my studio.
English art dealer Robert Fraser came to New York looking for graffiti artists for an exhibition called "Paris/New York." I took his assistant to the Hotel Wellington on 7th Avenue. By then, the hotel staff thought that I lived there. I bought a newspaper, as I did every day, and the bellboy said, "Good morning Mr. Elwes." We took an elevator to the 7th floor. I opened the door to the room with a credit card and we stepped out of the window and climbed across to the fire escape of my building on 56th Street. He and Fraser liked my paintings and invited me to be a part of the exhibition with Basquiat and Haring.
"Derelict house near the Post Office Tower in London," spray paint, 1985, Damian Elwes
Back in London I started painting graffiti in the streets. I searched for interesting walls that could frame and be a part of potential paintings. My brothers and I had grown up in London in the sixties, and the bomb sites left over from the war had been our playgrounds.
"Explosion," spray paint, 1985, Damian Elwes
This was an empty building on the corner of the Kings Road opposite Safeway. None of my friends knew that I was painting graffiti. It seemed safer to keep quiet about it.
"Camden Town," spray paint, 1985, Damian Elwes
I also liked temporary walls that already had beautiful colors going on.
"Fish," spray paint, Earls Court Road, London 1985 Damian Elwes
Robert Fraser wanted me to stay in London and do a solo show on Cork Street. He said, "Do you know that you are the only English graffiti artist at this time?" He tried to persuade me by taking me to meet Basquiat. We had a great connection, but I was determined to go to Paris and learn how to paint with a brush. Robert asked to see my Paris paintings in six months, but by then, he had succumbed to Aids. He was one of the great art dealers, and I am still very grateful that he showed such belief in me.
Some of my favorite paintings in the world are the bulls etched in the cave walls of Lascaux and Altamira.
"Bull III," mixed media on canvas, 77 x 100 in (1.9 x 2.54m) 1994-2014
For me, painting a bull is also about facing fears because I was almost killed by a Spanish fighting bull when I was a child.
"Bull I," mixed media on canvas, 72 x 101 in, (1.8 x 2.5m) 1992-93
Each year, I start a new bull painting with my children and their school friends. The bull paintings usually take many years to complete.
"Bull XII," mixed media on canvas 71 x 90 inches (1.8 x 2.29 m) 2005-2014, Damian Elwes
My father and grandfather were both painters. Painting is something that has been handed down from generation to generation. When I make a bull painting, I feel a connection to the early cave painters.
"Bullfight," felt tip pens, 12 x 16 in, Damian Elwes
I made this artwork a few weeks after being gored during a Spanish fiesta. I was nine years old.