Q & A with Rafael Klein
Rafael Klein has taken part in the Nunhead Art Trail since its conception five years ago. He’s a wonderfully warm and enthusiastic artist who takes me on a journey through his busy and dizzying life — starting in New York, moving through Holland, then Italy, then England, then back to New York, and then finally back to London to roost.
When we meet for our interview, he shows me the studio where he works in the back garden, surrounded by his impressive steel sculptures that are as tall as him. He talks about the transformative power of art, the beauty of London’s lush green landscapes, and his love of metals, while I cuddle his lovely rescue pooch from the Dogs Trust.
How long have you lived in South East London? Where have you lived previously?
I’ve probably lived in South East London for about 25 years. Initially, we lived in Camberwell, on Camberwell Grove in a nice old apartment there, and then we moved to Landells Road, East Dulwich, and then East Dulwich got a little too posh for us. We had a small house and the kids were growing up so we figured we could swap that for a bigger house in Nunhead, and we found this, which is the last time you’d ever have found something like this in Nunhead. It had the studio building out back and all this extra land. So we’ll probably never move. [Laughs.]
We thought we were moving into a very remote, suburban area — then we discovered it’s not remote, it’s very central! It’s zone 2. The other thing we never knew until we moved to Nunhead is how much green there is here. We have Nunhead Cemetery, Brenchley Gardens, One Tree Hill — it’s so green. It’s surrounded by green. It all opened up like a lovely surprise.
So how long have you lived in London?
I’ve lived in London for over 30 years, maybe 32, 33 years. I started off in New York, then spent some time living in Holland and Italy. Then I came to London. I went back to New York for about five years after that, and then I thought
“Okay, now it’s time”.
Time to go back to London?
It’s the trees, it’s the fact that you get such a lively city, but there’s also trees!
I’ve not found the green that we have here in any other city. Paris has maybe five parks.
And the parks in Paris are all so formalised, these big avenues with neat rows of trees. In New York, we have this guy called Olmsted, a landscape architect who created these parks — Central Park, Prospect Park — and it’s very much this English idea of creating nature in a park that come through in those designs. You have a bit of wildness, huge boulders, indigenous trees. London has that.
Naturally! I always think, when I’m walking through Peckham Rye, that this landscape used to be everywhere. Maybe there were a few houses dotted here and there, but this park hasn’t been designed, it’s just always been there, and then it was protected, and then it was developed and designed.
That’s the critical thing — how important it is for people and how much they have to fight to keep those spaces from being overrun by commercial or property developments.
Nick [Cobb] was telling me the story of One Tree Hill and the riots in our interview.
It was going to be developed on and people came out in force! It was an important place for them.
Can you name a few of your favourite, local spots?
One Tree Hill, I love it there. Then there’s Brenchley Gardens — we take the dog there all the time. Peckham Rye is fantastic! They spent all this money — they got a grant — and did it all up. And I also love Dulwich Park, we used to live close to Dulwich Park and that was my first discovery of the green spaces here.
What’s it called?
I have no idea. [Laughs.] It’s my Turkish family-run local cafe. There’s Space at 61 down on Cheltenham Road, too, they’re doing a nice buzzy little thing. And of course, there’s the Ivy House. I don’t drink but I go there! London’s first, community-owned pub.
I feel very strongly that enhancing a public space and using that enhancement as a way to create a sense of ownership and create a sense of public awareness is satisfying for the local community.
So much of your artwork is literally built into local spaces — Nunhead Station, the Horniman School, a park, a traffic island. Why is making those ties between your art and your local community important to you?
In New York, in America, everything is very privately owned. You have Central Park and Prospect Park but that’s about it. Everything else is tied to commercial entities. So it was a big discovery for me when I came to Europe, especially to Italy, seeing the public spaces, seeing the Piazza della Signoria when I was living in Florence — here was a space that had enormous value for human beings, for civilising influence, for sanity, for connections between people.
Having spaces that are communally owned, so that people have a sense of ownership, is important here. So one of my big philosophies with all these projects has been engaging with the local community — whether it’s in a school or a train station or wherever — and make my art a true collaboration. I feel very strongly that enhancing a public space and using that enhancement as a way to create a sense of ownership and create a sense of public awareness is satisfying for the local community.
We did this in Bremington Park, which wasn’t even a park, it was just a cut through that people avoided because it was dangerous and dark. So we worked with landscape artists, with the council, I created a big entrance feature — and the park has been transformed. People are using it, there’s even a “Friends of Brimmington Park” now.
I love making art and I love selling my work, but when you change a public space, when you mark that space and give that space an identity, it’s a wonderful feeling. You’re changing your art and my main thing about creating art is sharing. I’d hate to be the type of artist who works alone in a studio and never shares. I feel fortunate to get to do that.
It has repercussions — it’s like throwing a stone in the water. You never know who it will go out to, who it will speak to, who might be touched by something. I love working in schools for that reason — you have a very large community ready made.
And it means something to other people that way, too.
Exactly. It has repercussions — it’s like throwing a stone in the water. You never know who it will go out to, who it will speak to, who might be touched by something. I love working in schools for that reason — you have a very large community ready made.
How has South East London inspired your art?
It’s this idea about trees — London is a very metropolitan, cosmopolitan place but it has green spaces. And South East London probably more so than any other part of London. The green spaces are so luscious and luxurious!
I’ve done a lot of exhibitions that are just about nature within the city. Now I’m looking into the symbolic uses of trees — I’ve done a touring show about a family tree, which plays with the idea of being connected to trees as well as to each other. It’s really gotten under my skin, the trees of South East London.
That’s something that definitely comes across in your paintings — there’s a road, but there are trees.
It’s all about the dialogue between this very urban or suburban area and the nature that surrounds it. It’s all about the trees.
You’ve done quite a few projects with local schools and school children. Why do you think it’s important to nurture the creative side in children?
Part of it is because I enjoy children’s creativity. You can walk into the school and just plant an idea. It gets them going and when they get going, it’s so beautiful to watch.
Just before I left New York, I got involved with something called Studio in a School. Schools have less and less money to spend on visual art and music, and so we would go into schools and animate the classroom. It was about filling a need I saw but I also had this idea that kids always produce this wonderful artwork and it’s just stuck on a fridge with a fridge magnet and that’s the end of it. And I thought, why shouldn’t their artwork be out there in big and bold and permanent materials? The only difference between a professional artist’s art and a child’s art is technique.
I like to give them a sense of ownership and pride, and make them feel that their creativity matters. I want to empower people to explore their own creativity.
I love the way you’ve tried to incorporate their artwork into different projects — for instance, the gate for the Horniman School. Do you think that teaches them to contribute concretely to the local community?
Even after the child has left that school, the parents remember it, the sibling sees it and says “My brother made that”. It gives a sense that people own their own communities — the school is owned by lots of people, it’s owned by the community. Giving a child an opportunity to change that empowers them. They don’t feel that their environment is something imposed on them but feel that they can make impact on that. I think that’s an important lesson.
I love that — it’s something that definitely comes through looking at your artwork. Thinking about your own childhood, did you want to be an artist as a child?
Always. I was entranced by Superman comics. I used to do all these cartoons, caricatures of all my teachers. I was the official cartoonist for my high school newspaper. Even at college, I was doing that.
But then I started studying fine art, and that hit me like a ton of bricks. I remember being in the Met with one of my lecturers and seeing Turner and I suddenly realised — there’s something here, spiritually. Up until that time, I’d done a lot of graphic art, selling cartoons to magazines, doing signwriting, designs for advertising, and skirting around art. Then suddenly, I had this epiphany and found something beyond all the nice lettering. It hit me really hard.
I thought, why shouldn’t a child’s artwork be out there in big and bold and permanent materials? I like to give them a sense of ownership and pride, and make them feel that their creativity matters. I want to empower people to explore their own creativity.
How old were you?
I was 19 already. It came very late. I always wanted to do art and I did art — at 19, I already had a lot of serious commissions. I was doing drawings for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They had these educational videos and I used to do the sketches for it. But I’d never used an easel or canvas or oil paints.
Then suddenly, it was Turner — who I’m not even particularly keen on anymore! [Laughs.]
What was the first piece of art you remember being incredibly proud of?
I did this big exhibition in Soho, New York, called Tin Temples. It’s the paradigm of everything I’ve ever done since then. I was working on 23rd street in a lovely loft and I made a series of works that were all about the superficiality of the false gods of America. So there was one about cars, an enormous relief painting, with real cars tangled up and hitting each other. Then there was Tin Temple about the cinema, done in relief with metal and canvas. I was very proud of that exhibition. I was 28 — solo exhibition, in Soho, and I still really stand by that work.
You mentioned Turner. Which artists inspired your early years of artwork?
I used to love George Grosz and Edward Burra and Goya and El Greco and Picasso… I loved artists who had great humour in their work. Have you ever heard of Red Grooms? He was a great hero of mine. I could go on forever. What’s interesting are the people you’re still looking at.
Which artists inspire you now?
I keep an exhaustive list. Now, I love a guy called Hernan Bas. Egon Schiele, Alex Katz, Charles Burchfield, Milton Avery… When I was first thinking about sculpture, it was Alexander Calder and David Smith. They had two sides — Smith because he dug into materials with his whole body, welding and cutting and dealing with the material, and Calder because of the whimsy and the lightness. Emily Carr, William Kentridge — I think about his work all the time.
There’s a guy called Fausto Melotti who I often forget to mention. He created works of such delicacy and lightness.
That’s an incredible list — I can’t image how long the exhaustive list is.
I’ve said this to all the artists I’ve interviewed so far, but it’s been true for everyone: your artworks are incredibly versatile — sculptures, paintings, prints. Is that versatility important to you and to your art?
Definitely. When I started out, I was a commercial artist and I could use all kinds of different mediums, which was very handy.
There’s also, though, something to be said about freshness and lightness — I didn’t want to get bogged down in the same thing. The kind of artistry that didn’t work for me was one that was too branded, too trademarked, too much of the same. I like to try new things and look for new ways to freshen my art. I don’t want to get too certain or too comfortable with the way things are.
I want to talk a little about your paintings and sculptures — specifically, your use of metal. Your paintings are enamel on metal and your sculptures are often made out of metal, too. What is it about this medium that speaks to you?
I use a lot of steel, bronze, aluminium… all kinds of metals. But that wasn’t always the case — I started out with printmaking on paper, paintings on canvas. Gradually, though, that changed. I think it had something to do with coming to Europe and seeing all the sculptures.
What metal does for me is it offers a transformative quality, an ability to metamorphose. Like lost-wax, bronze casting — there was a magic I suddenly saw in taking something like wax, something soft and mushy, and then investing that in a bit of plaster, and pouring out this hot, molten, primeval material, and coming out with a sculpture.
I’ve always felt that art should be transformative. When you look at a found-object piece of art, the thing that makes it art is that it’s been transformed. There’s magic and alchemy to it, and that’s at the core of how I think about art. I’m not doing quite so much bronze at the moment, which has that magical, otherworldly quality to it, but even in steel, you’re taking a base metal and heating it and melting it, joining it together with other bits of steel, bending it into all these different forms. I love that transformation process.
That ties in quite closely with what previous artists have said in their interviews about the transformative power of art — Edori [Fertig] was talking about the appeal of taking a found object and giving it a new lease on life, transforming it into something completely new.
It’s the mysterious power of art — to metamorphose mediums and objects and create something new.
That’s something I especially loved about your Cycle Energy project, where you transformed bicycles into an energy source for children to run their school radio station. Is making people more aware of their energy use and trying to find innovative and sustainable energy sources a particular passion project?
Yes, definitely. That’s part of the appeal of working with schools. I’m working on a development for a school in Manchester and that’s a huge part of that project too — trying to incorporate wind and water power into the design of their external spaces.
But it’s not an answer, it’s more of a question for me. The guy I worked with on the Cycle Energy project is from Electric Pedals, based in Copeland Park. Although the reality of cycling to generate energy isn’t practical in the long run — it takes around 60 minutes of cycling to give your phone 60% charge — it has a wonderful and powerful educational use, and it poses an interesting question. What are the different energy sources? How do they work?
For the school in Manchester, I want to broaden that idea into a variety of alternative energy sources. We’re going to have a big rain container to collect all the rain, then we’ll open the gates of the container and that will travel down to a little water mill, and so on and so forth.
What metal does for me is it offers a transformative quality, an ability to metamorphose. I’ve always felt that art should be transformative. When you look at a found-object piece of art, the thing that makes it art is that it’s been transformed. There’s magic and alchemy to it, and that’s at the core of how I think about art.
That’s a really valuable practical lesson to teach children, who so often switch on a light or get into a car and have no idea what’s powering it. It’s an important question for them to start thinking about at a young age.
Do you think that art plays an important role in conveying an important message — for example, making people aware of environmental problems and suggesting innovative solutions — that can often be overlooked otherwise? Reading about it in a textbook usually has a lot less impact.
At the moment, I’m working on a project with the artist Kevin Dean, that doesn’t have enough funding yet, but the idea is to create an enormous sculpture of a fish in Portsmouth, by the sea. There’s a huge problem with plastic waste in the sea and the University of Portsmouth is particularly active in trying to combat that — they’ve discovered this bacteria that eats plastic. So, I’m working with Kevin, with the university, with Aspex Gallery, with the local council, to build this enormous fish and see whether its highly visible presence will actually change people’s behaviour.
There’s a parallel research project going on visiting schools, and getting families, with their children, to make a small fish out of recycled plastic they’ve collected. Only then do they start to think about what they’ve been buying in the shops, and whether or not this or that plastic is recyclable.
For the big fish in Portsmouth, we’ve got a site, we’ve got some funding, but we’re not quite there yet.
The Nunhead Art Trail is just fantastic. You’d be amazed at the range of works. And you’ve got exactly the range of activities that British people love: you’ve got the walking, the poking around other people’s homes, and the surprise of not knowing what gems you’re going to find.
That’s amazing. I hope it gets the support it needs!
You’ve taken part in the Nunhead Art Trail since it started, five years ago. What is enjoyable about inviting people into your home during the Trail?
It’s fantastic. As an artist, there’s this very awkward dichotomy where on one hand, you spend an awful lot of time on your own in your studio. On the other hand, though, you do a big exhibition surrounded by lots of people in one huge burst of socialisation. Opening up your studio is the perfect middle ground. I love talking to people, I love it when they love my art, when they hate it, I love selling my art, I love feedback. It’s very valuable and very refreshing.
And with the Nunhead Art Trail, there’s a real sense of camaraderie with other artists. You’re taking part in something collective. I used to work in Diorama Arts Centre, with 40–50 other artists, then I was working out of Bussey Building, again surrounded by lots of different artists and getting lots of feedback. Now, I have my own studio and although I love being on my own, I like to have that interactive element.
The Nunhead Art Trail offers that. There’s a nice, manageable slow stream of people coming in, your friends drop by, new people pop in… it’s great.
Why would you encourage people to visit?
It’s just fantastic. You’d be amazed at the range of works. And you’ve got exactly the range of activities that British people love: you’ve got the walking, the poking around other people’s homes, and the surprise of not knowing what gems you’re going to find.
Rafael Klein was interviewed by Larissa Scotting.
This year’s Nunhead Art Trail will take place on the 29th and 30th September.