Updated: Nov 2, 2020
Art was always my thing. That kid in class who could draw things. The odd one out who saw the world a bit differently from everyone else. It gave me a sense of purpose and a safety net when things didn't go well. I always knew I would end up doing something creative, I didn't have much of a choice, its how my brain is wired.
Growing up, I dreamt of being an animator for Pixar or whoever would let me draw things all day. I wanted to tell stories, bring characters to life, make movies. In my pop-punk influenced teenage years, I could pretty much draw every character from The Simpsons. Classmates would have me draw them as a caricature in that style and pay me a couple of quid for the doodle I did when I was supposed to be learning French or working out the angle of a triangle in math class.
It was in my later teen years that things took a turn for me and the way I used art. With things taking a turn for the worse at home, depression and anxiety became the norm for me. I lost focus and direction and flunked my A-levels. My dream of going to university to study animation became an impossibility and things began to spiral out of my control. Art was my safety net. When I couldn't explain what I was feeling, I drew it. When the frustration became too much to process, I painted it, trapping those emotions in an acrylic prison on canvas.
This self-inflicted spiral lasted years as I bounced from one job to another. Whether I was pouring coffee for people or putting sale stickers on CD's, my wages were spent on creative ways to distract my mind. Music was a massive part of my life at this point and I played in a couple of crappy punk bands, jamming on a bass guitar like my hero Mark Hoppus. I always had a thirst for learning new things, and without university being an option, I would watch youtube videos on how to learn photoshop, how to start a clothing company, etc. It was a huge new resource to learn how to be creative and actually do something with the new skills I was picking up.
I became an entrepreneur and taught myself business and art in my own way. If I couldn't bring myself to study the traditional way, I would do it in my own way. Trial and error, outside the box ideas and being stubborn. I set up a clothing company on Myspace, printing up t-shirts with the wages I made from making cappuccino's and learning how to improve my photoshop skills, code up HTML banners for my profile and marketing it to people who might want one. I needed an audience to promote the clothing too and where better than at a local gig but why just go to a show when I could organise the whole thing myself? Venture number two got, and I learned how to book bands, organise venues, sell tickets and manage the shows. It was like a double life, stock boy by day, student and entrepreneur by night.
I needed to find new ways to learn more. There's only so much youtube can teach you, and I wanted a different kind of platform to learn through. After being fired as a barista for giving away too many free hot chocolates to pretty girls, I moved from one job to another. It was at one of these temporary positions, working in a stock room somewhere that a co-worker asked me if I had heard of The Princes Trust. I went home that evening and went online to learn more about the charity that would go on to change my life. The next day, I emailed the Trust, and within a few days, I had a meeting lined up. I was applying to be part of the business programme they ran. I put my business plan together, built my first spreadsheet, ironed my finest flannel shirt and had my first meeting. I explained my circumstances, my ideas, my goals and to my amazement, I was awarded a start up business loan, a mentor and places on various courses that would help me learn from professionals and experts in their fields.
As well as I thought things were going with my university alternative, things were still affecting me at home. My parents had divorced by this point, and I was living with my Dad and the crazy woman who had cast her wicked spell on him. I had gone from being depressed about my family splitting up and the shit storm that ensued with that, to a new breed of drama and angst. My Dad was always supportive of me forging my own path in life, learning in my own way and helping me when I needed to build a spreadsheet. This new person in his life seemed to hate this support he showed me, and I was regularly used as a catalyst for grief and arguments. Over a couple of torturous years, being kicked out, stolen from and verbally abused had become the new norm. A number of different doctors and therapists were now saying I bared all the hallmarks of Aspergers Syndrome and I developed eating disorders and agoraphobia. I was a big cocktail of fucked up, and I was once again turning to art as a release instead of using it for professional reasons. I was locked in my room, bass amp pushed up against the door so no one could get in, drawing, painting and writing to have an escape from it.
I put my paintings, doodles, and ramblings on a personal myspace page and got chatting to a girl in America about it. She asked me what the art was about and I openly said I painted to deal with the stresses I was going through. "Art helps me stay alive" was the gist of the conversation. After a week of not hearing from her, a message popped up in my chat box. She never told me in previous conversations that she was suicidal, attempting to take her life several times prior to speaking with me. After hearing about my art and how it helped me, she was inspired to give it a shot too. With nothing left to lose, she put pencil to paper, paint to canvas and found a release for the pain that required a paintbrush instead of a razor blade. She thanked me for saving her life and giving her a cure.
This experience woke something up in me. I was going down a spiral I didn't realise I had the cure for too. After doing some research, soul searching and sharing the story of the girl in America to several friends and family, I realised I was practicing a form of art therapy. Art was my cure too. It always had been, it just took hearing it from a different perspective to understand what I was naturally doing.
On my 22nd birthday, free of the drama at home, my Dad told me that it was time for a new chapter. I set up a new myspace page and I called it Art Is The Cure. I shared my story, I urged others to use creativity in the same way and encouraged others to reach out to me if they had similar experiences. I felt my purpose return, I had a new direction and meaning to my life. I took everything I had learned from The Princes Trust, setting up a clothing company and booking punk rock gigs and dedicated my life to trying to inspire others to use art in this life-changing, therapeutic way.
Soon after setting up Art Is The Cure, I wrote to The Princes Trust to thank them for inspiring me to pursue this new dream and giving me the tools and experiences to make a go of it. They responded with an invitation to become an ambassador for their charity. Still shy, socially anxious and underprepared to take on such a role, the Trust offered to support me further with courses on public speaking, confidence and leadership training. After a few months of going on courses and exercises, I was asked to speak at a fundraising event for the charity. To offer something in return for helping me further, I offered to do a painting that could be auctioned off on the night. My turn came to speak, I walked on stage in front of a pre arranged easel with a canvas on it, and I grabbed the microphone with my shaking sweaty hand and jumped in at the deep end. I told my story to 500 people in an auditorium of my experiences in life, with the trust and how it had inspired me to use my art to make a difference in other peoples lives. I finished by picking up a stencil I had cut of HRH Prince Charles and spray painted it onto the canvas. I left the stage, shaking more than before I went on to applause that I still remember to this day. I overcame my fears and my anxiety and didn't drown in it.
I went on to speak at a bunch more events set up by the trust over the next year, meeting some fantastic people along the way and growing in confidence with every experience. New opportunities began to present themselves for Art Is The Cure, and I got the chance to run art workshops with Teens Unite Fighting Cancer for the young people they help and support. During this time, I was pushing Art Is The Cure and creating a movement online and developing a makeshift support network for other young people discovering art therapy for the first time.
By the end of 2009, I found myself on a different kind of stage. Inside the o2 arena in London, I was shaking the hand of someone from the TV show Dragons Den who was handing me a Vinspired award for the work I was doing with Art Is The Cure and The Princes Trust. I was named as the most inspirational young volunteer in the UK at their inaugural award ceremony. This was the affirmation I needed to give me the personal confidence to take a new step in life and make the move to London. A further honour followed shortly after this when I was invited by the Trust to come to St James Palace for an audience with HRH himself. After doing so many paintings of Prince Charles at charity auctions, I was now shaking the hand of the man himself and having a conversation in his back garden. I was able to gift him with a painting to keep and received a hand-signed letter thanking me after we met. I had gone from awkward kid painting in his bedroom to deal with stress and anxiety, to gifting a painting to royalty and being personally thanked for my efforts and work I was doing with Art Is The Cure. If anything is going to give you a confidence boost to take another step forward in life, that'll do the trick.
During my time growing Art Is The Cure and doing artwork for Princes Trust charity auctions, I was developing my own artwork and becoming more confident with it. I had discovered stencil art and street art and was heavily inspired by artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey and found myself cutting stencils of people and things I found interesting and challenging. At a fashion show called London Edge, I was exhibiting a few Art Is The Cure t-shirts and paintings where I met Julian, a graffiti artist who was doing live artwork at the event. We got talking, and I was invited to his studio in south London to do a piece of street art. Within a few months of my first visit to the studio to collaborate, Julian was moving into a new studio in a bigger warehouse opposite, and I found myself moving to London and setting up a space to live in this cold, graffiti-covered warehouse near Croydon. I was home. I didn't care that there wasn't a shower, that foxes broke in or that it was so cold I had to wear three hoodies sometimes. I got to paint every day, I had a bigger space to explore my creative potential and was living alone and chasing my dreams to be a real artist.
I worked with Julian's graffiti company to help pay my rent, painting at music festivals, corporate events, and conventions. I got to learn new skills for fantastic artists and had the time and freedom to push my own ideas. After nearly a year of working on these kinds of projects, building up my confidence levels with spray paint and stencils, I decided to do a large scale piece of street art under my own name. It was the start of 2011, and the hype was building for the anticipated royal wedding that was happening in the spring. I was playing on photoshop one cold January morning while sitting underneath a duvet in two hoodies and wearing gloves. I thought it would be funny to see Prince William and his bride to be out of their usual fancy attire and in something more relatable. I took inspiration from my punk rock background and photoshopped Will and Kate as Sid Vicious from the Sex Pistols and his girlfriend, Nancy. After showing it to a few friends and getting good feedback, I decided this was the piece I had to do. I cut the stencils and took them to Southbank skate park with a couple of friends who helped me paint a massive union jack flag for the royal couple to be displayed on in all their punk rock glory for the passing public to enjoy. What I thought was going to be a bit of a laugh with a couple of friends soon turned into a much bigger deal than I ever anticipated. A passing photographer saw us working on it and put in a call to some press contacts to come and check it out. By the end of the day, I was spraying the final layer of the stencil with multiple paparazzi photographing me and a Japanese TV crew filming the proceedings. That night we watched online as the story spread into new outlets and countries that reached the other side of the world. The next morning I was being filmed by BBC news in front of the mural, having commuters read about it in the Metro and my phone blowing up with emails from people wanting me to exhibit in galleries, offers of print deals and clothing companies wanting to do a range of products for me. I didn't know what was going on, but clearly, I had struck a nerve and wanted to ride the wave that this piece was causing.
Within a month of painting the mural, I was exhibiting on New Bond Street in Opera Gallery, hanging in the same room as Banksy, Picasso, and Warhol. Every piece I painted on the street was being photographed by following paparazzi, and I was being regularly filmed for global news channels, tv documentaries and interviewed for magazines. The problem was that it was all happening way too fast. I had never even exhibited in a gallery before, and now I'm one of the most talked about artists in the UK. I didn't know what I was doing half the time, and I was a complete novice, trying to pass it all off with confidence, but the reality was that back in my studio, I realised how out of my depth I was. I was trying to keep up with the demand for new work, trying to understand how to transition my work onto canvas and come up with new ideas at the same time. As amazing as the exposure was, I wasn't ready to be a gallery artist. I needed time to understand the opportunity I was being presented with and how to best move forward with it. I wanted to make art I was proud of and not what I was being asked to make. I didn't want to be the new Banksy or whatever the press was writing about me, I wanted to be Rich Simmons. After going to Baku as part of a press visit for a magazine cover feature, I realised the time was now to push myself to explore my own style of art and try something new.
I stepped away from Opera Gallery to pursue a new opportunity with a small independent gallery called Imitate Modern in the summer of 2012. They saw potential in my work and liked my new ideas and placed a couple of pieces in a group show. People must have liked the work because I was quickly offered my first solo exhibition later that year. After a year of locking myself away in my studio, I finally felt ready to present myself as an original artist and be worthy of this opportunity I was being given. The show was called Just Be You Tiful and being at the opening night, seeing the work filling the gallery with my name on the window and a room full of people enjoying my efforts was the proudest moment of my life.