Nick Cobb is one of the brains behind the Nunhead Art Trail. On a sunny evening in May, we meet in his Nunhead home — where he’s lived with his partner, Caroline, for nearly 30 years — to discuss his art, South East London, and the stories that have inspired his work. So much of his art is closely linked to his home here and the stories this place has to offer, that it’s impossible not to weave these three things together. One example: in 2015/2016, he crafted an incredible, 21-feet long model of Rye Lane. Read about his imaginative take on the local high street here.
I also meet their cat, Shelly (who scales and settles inside his latest artwork, currently being exhibited in the Dulwich Artists’ Open House festival), and the three chickens in the back garden, a recent addition to the household.
How long have you lived in Nunhead and where have you lived previously?
We’ve lived in Nunhead for nearly 30 years. Certainly 28. Probably close to 28 in this house and we lived in Peckham for about seven years before that. It’s always been South East London.
Did you grow up in London?
Yes, South East London, Blackheath and Lee Green. At art school, we lived in Wimbledon and Tooting for two years, but the whole bulk has been in South East London.
Which artists inspired your earlier years of artwork?
The earlier years would have been a fascination with early twentieth-century art: Picasso, Braque, and Cézanne. They wanted to radically alter representational art. Then that would have led to abstract art, I always found that a fascinating period.
Which artists inspire you now?
I’ve moved into two areas — a certain kind of photography and this model making. With photography, there’s a man called James Welling, who partly inspired the idea of being much more playful with photography. He did some interesting things with filters.
From the world of cinema, there’s a filmmaker called Aleksandr Sokurov who made a film called Mother and Son (1997) and in that film, he was clearly distorting the lens of the film camera. You don’t see that very much — he was using mirrors, apparently. He even placed large sheets of glass in front of the camera and people painted the landscape scenes onto those translucent panes. It gives some scenes in that film a really bizarre and magical quality. That was the standout film that got me thinking.
There was a group of Japanese photographers from the 1960s, too, called Provoke. There’s a book from that period that I have, Kamaitachi by Eikoh Hosoe. In this book, Hosoe depicts a mythical story about a rice demon who attacks the harvesters in his childhood hometown. This is what influences me quite a lot — the idea that there are fairy tales, myths, legends, that you can make a photography series about.
Then there’s this famous photography book by another Japanese photographer, Masahisa Fukase, called The Solitude of Ravens. It’s an award-winning photography book from 1986. Again, there’s a story associated with this book — his marriage broke down and after his wife divorced him, he took these incredible photographs of these ravens. It’s all coming back to me now, the connections with birds and ravens.
All these photographers were comfortable with the idea of graininess, breaking all the rules of composition, being quite playful with photography. And nearly all of it was black and white.
There seems to be a clear thought process happening for you — you just looked at these photographs and realised there was a connection to your current art [like The Crow of One Tree Hill, pictured below]. A lot of art is about seeing something, taking something from it, and creating your own something out of that. How important is that process for you? Do you feel it consciously happening?
Well, there was a clear break around the turn of the century when I was painting these abstract paintings and there was a problem with how long they took to paint, how big they had to be, and it was difficult to sell them. No one took on these pictures. I wanted a clean break from that and I thought that making things, photographing things, telling stories was the complete opposite — the abstract pictures didn’t have any feeling of narrative or figuration in them. I started making these little models of things and photographing them. The photographs worked, for me, if I could build in a little narrative.
The first model I made with a view to photographing it was of Picasso painting this breakthrough painting called Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). I researched the six-month period of his life when he was doing that — his relationship with his partner, the child, the dog, the dog had puppies, he adopted a child and it didn’t work out… all these things were going on as he painted this picture and it made for interesting background. I made these models out of plasticine and guessed what his studio would have looked like, based on around four photographs that exist.
You’re looking for stories and creating your artworks from those stories.
For the models, stories emerged. I had a little model of a container ship and created a photo book of the container ship — it’s about its journey across from the Gulf up to the North Sea and up to the Arctic. These photographs are all of models I was making with a view to photographing them and making a photo story.
You use a lot of different mediums. Do you have a favourite? Is versatility important to you and important to your art?
I was brought up, in art school, with this idea that you had one good idea and you stuck with it, you worked at that for tens of years. This mirror that I use for the photographs has been fascinating to me for about four years now, although maybe at some point I’ll exhaust it. I’ve hardly taken any other kind of photographs. With photography, it would only make sense to me to do something odd.
The models, similarly, have been very fascinating for a while too. This boat was shown in its early, skeletal stage last year in our back garden for the Nunhead Art Trail. I told people, “I’ve found something in the garden, I’ve dug it out”.
Did people believe you?
I started spinning this yarn — by the end, I’d say “You don’t believe this, do you?”. It’s very tricky, when you want to sell some of those stories, you don’t want people to feel they’ve been falsely taken in!
I love this thread about stories.
Yes, they’ve become a critical part of the art. With the boat [points to another artwork], there’s this giant robot figure involved — what is it doing there? What is this boat? What’s in the containers? Sometimes, the story is there and you’re providing the narrative, but it’s perhaps a little better sometimes to suggest ideas without being too specific. That’s quite an important thing with art, you don’t want to provide all the answers.
Somebody bought one of those pieces, who had enjoyed a great young life, full of acid house parties and trippy things and drugs, and I thought to myself that this mirror — especially when I’m bending and distorting it — can look very much like the illustrations people do for LSD experiences.
Exactly, that’s the first thing that sprung to mind for me. With The Crow of One Tree Hill, you’ve got this bird that is traditionally an ominous symbol, contrasted so strongly with the bright and vivid colours you’ve affected with the mirror — it seems as if this dreamy quality is edging towards a nightmare. What was the thought process there?
There is an explanation, which I didn’t provide at the time. Now that a couple of years have passed and the work is finished and in the past, I don’t mind saying. I started that series very soon after my dad died. Various things were coming together — I’ve always enjoyed Ted Hughes’ Crow. He uses this character that draws on extraordinary mythological associations, they’re fantastic poems. There was a book, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, where a father used those very same Ted Hughes poems to explain the mother’s death to his sons. I’d read that.
And I had actually seen a pheasant up at One Tree Hill. That’s where it started, really. I was going up with the mirror, thinking I should just use the local woods. I’d gone off to all these other locations, where Cézanne had painted, Monet had painted, I’d gone off to more exciting places and then I thought I’ve got this nice wood here, full of stories. When I went up there, I came across a pheasant crossing Brenchley Gardens. I think I thought that maybe I should do a story about a pheasant of One Tree Hill, but I didn’t in the end because the crow has this powerful symbolism and story surrounding it. My dad died at the end of the year and then I was up there thinking about these photographs in early January.
You see, there are all these stories right there in One Tree Hill, from Queen Elizabeth I resting under the Oak of Honour, to the huge riots — an estimate of 15,000 people took part — that erupted to keep the forest public in October 1897. The local population were up in arms when this golf course tried to fence the area off from the public. It’s full of all these stories.
My next question almost seems redundant, you’ve talked extensively about this already. How do you think South East London has informed your art?
You should start thinking about your own backyard. You don’t need to go off to exotic places to find the magic that’s around you.
Wasn’t it Cézanne who painted Mont St Victoire over and over again? And that was right in his back garden.
He’s an artist who has influenced me a lot and I’m going to visit that area this summer. We went last year but they closed off a huge area of the landscape because they were worried about the huge fires raging. Hopefully, I can use the mirror down there this year. The photographs I took down in the South of France last year focused on the fires, which are in a large part caused by humans and by the environmental problems we’ve raised. Some of this informs my work.
I’m not trying to provide the answers, though. This idea of using stories, myths, fairytales — it’s a way of trying to get people to engage with the landscape. If there’s some kind of issue we have with our relationship with nature today, it could be answered by understanding how fairytales worked in the past. Many fairy tales are about woodlands and forests, about people getting lost in them and stories unfolding within them. The idea that we’re distanced from nature in the city when it’s right here in our backyard, just up in One Tree Hill — it’s never been built on, so it still has some kind of connection to the great North Wood and you can imagine that in the soil of One Tree Hill, there’s some kind of connection to the forested areas that were once here.
Framing it that way, you’re using fairytales and myths in your artwork to try and weave nature back into our lives.
Something like that — we need better stories about this situation we’re in. This story that we’re in here with our technology and nature’s out there is wrong. We are connected but everything we do seems to harm nature. So how do we get over that? How do we create a better story about what’s going on there?
Winding down now. What is the most special thing about inviting people into your studio or home during the Nunhead Art Trail?
I actually showed my artwork in two local pubs for the first two years and the school in the third. I was reluctant to exhibit in my own house just because you feel stuck to your base — if you’re at the pub, you don’t have to be there the whole time, you can visit other people’s exhibits.
But a lot of people come around and you have these conversations with people who say interesting things that are very good to hear. You don’t get that when you put your work in a gallery, it’s much more difficult to get that feedback from people. You get insights into how people are viewing them, which can help you think about what you’re trying to say. And it’s a whole variety of people you get feedback from.
Why do you think artists should take part in the Nunhead Art Trail?
It’s a great opportunity to interact with all kinds of different people. You might even inspire them to create themselves.
Why do you think people should visit the Nunhead Art Trail?
It’s a fantastic way to get around and see what a community is doing. It’s very easy access. It’s a creative, busy weekend.
Finally. Can you name a few of your favourite spots in the area?
One Tree Hill definitely gets a mention. The Ivy House is my local. And I do enjoy working in my local primary school. I work there from 3 PM — 6 PM in the after-school club. You get to do art projects with the kids and I enjoy that local job.
Nick Cobb was interviewed by Larissa Scotting.
This year’s Nunhead Art Trail will take place on the 29th and 30th September.