Ben’s Gumpics

Ben Wilson is known for his brightly-coloured artworks. They are unusual in as much as they are created on chewing gum, which is stuck to the pavement, having been flattened by many passing shoes. They are, of course, miniatures. Many of such artworks can be found on the pavements of Muswell Hill in North London. He agreed for a sample of them to be displayed on the site. He hopes to get a bit more exposure for the artworks; but also some feedback and even some engagement in the form of a discussion, as to their purpose and success.

I first met Ben lying on a coat on the pavement at Muswell Hill Broadway (Ben was on the pavement, not me). He was painting a picture on a piece of chewing gum, stuck to the pavement, just like the one below. Giving life meaning is the name of the game of this site and so I immediately took an interest. I was already aware of the gumpics and had thought that they gave meaning to the Broadway in general and of the people, who looked at them in particular. Ben and I had an engaging chat, which I decided to follow up for the benefit of the website and possibly also of Ben.

My first impression of Ben was of an unusual person (he is), a bit quirky (he is), a bit single-minded (he is) and off-centre (he is). I also thought he was a bit of a one trick pony (he is definitely not). I was lucky, following another encounter with my 2 grandsons, to be invited to his home.

It is a revelation. Ali Baba is not off the starting block, when it comes to Ben’s home. His artistic prowess is phenomenal. First, he creates more types of art, that I have had hot dinners. There are, of course, gumpics, in exhibition programmes, oil paintings of all sorts and sizes, oil, acrylic, water colour and other types of paintings too. In addition to the paintings, there are photographs, mostly of sculptures in- and out-of-doors. There are also sculptures themselves – small, medium, big and enormous, especially environmental ones. There are also artworks of other materials with other forms of both structure and content. Ben’s home is in a basement flat, leading to a back garden. The giant environmental sculptures are in the garden, mostly of wood, lying on the ground or on plinths in the air.

Of course, as soon as I got home, I looked Ben up on the internet. He is in fact a fully paid up artist with an international reputation. Also, one with a cause and a mission. And one with sufficient conviction to drop out to advance them. An artist indeed and one who deserves our attention. This requires more thought on my part on how well he provides meaning to our lives up the Broadway and on his gum and what we can do to support him in his travails. (To be continued).

Here is an extract from his Wikipedia entry – Wilson studied art at Middlesex University, but disliked the “overanalysing” in formal art education and dropped out.[5] He preferred to use found wood to create sculptures, as he had done as a child.[2][5] An artist with a strong distaste for industrial waste, cars and rubbish, Wilson took to carving sculptures in wooded areas.[4] He would later find many of his carvings vandalized and destroyed.[4] He had already created collages that incorporated collected bits of litter and had painted over billboards and advertisements in an effort to beautify the urban environment, an effort that brought him trouble with the law.[4] He came on the idea of painting chewing gum, which required no gallery, bureaucracy, or permit[4] and was not defacing property, since the gum was already discarded. He began painting gum on Barnet High Street, intending to create a trail into the centre of London.[4]

Wilson does not confine himself to painting gum and has worked on large constructions in Finland,[6] Australia and the United States, where he was artist-in-residence at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and created a large sculpture in Baltimore, Maryland.[3] He also produces “normal-sized” paintings, which he occasionally sells.[3]

Wilson has exhibited at the Contemporary Folk Art Museum in Kaustinen, Finland, the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, the Lehniner Institut für Kunst und Handwerk near Berlin, the Musgrave-Kinley Outsider Art Collection at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin[5] and La Halle Saint Pierre in Paris.[2]

Wilson started experimenting with occasional chewing-gum paintings in 1998, and in October 2004 began working on them full-time.[4] He has created more than 10,000 of these works on pavements all over the UK and parts of Europe,[7] although most of his work is found in Muswell Hill.

Wilson first heats the gum with a small blow torch, then coats the gum with three layers of acrylic enamel. He uses special acrylic paints to paint his pictures, finishing each with a clear lacquer seal.[3] The paintings take from two hours to three days to produce.[8] Subject matter ranges from personal requests to animals, portraits[3] or whatever whimsy pops into his head,[6] such as “Gum Henge”, a miniature painting of Stonehenge.[9]

Britain spends £150 million annually cleaning chewing gum from pavement.[10] Wilson was arrested in 2005 in Trafalgar Square[11] and once in 2009. However, he says that “technically, it is not criminal damage, because you are painting the gum, not the pavement.”[11] Wilson does not consider himself to be a graffiti artist,[6] but has come to know graffiti writers through his work.[11]

Kids are not allowed to feel any connection with where they live … They can’t play in the streets because they are likely to get run over; then you have the national curriculum, and all this testing at school, and no opportunity to play or to make things, and everything you do outside is recorded on surveillance cameras. The only imagery that children see around them are billboards and TV; every part of their environment is out of bounds or sold off. That’s why they don’t care about their streets. This is a small way of connecting people.— Ben Wilson, The Observer

Wilson has also secretly placed small black-and-white painted tiles at 300–400 London tube stations, dated and numbered as part of a newer guerilla project, first written about in 2018.[12]

GUMPIC 1 – David, Luciane, Luiza and Sofia.

JL interviewed Ben Wilson by ‘phone.  JL took notes during the interview and they are written up here. BW has had the chance to read and edit them, as he sees fit. Both of them had the above picture in view during the interview for easy reference.

Ben said that he remembered the picture well. It was created in 2018, as indicated. It is to be found in front of the Muswell Hill Toyshop on the Broadway. David and Lucien are the parents of Luisa and Sofia, their 2 daughters. The picture was requested by the parents to celebrate a family visit to the toyshop. The picture shows the 2 daughters, a unicorn and the date.

The picture has no title. Like the rest of Ben’s pictures it derives from a social context, such as a request, as in this case. Ben likes his pictures to evolve with their own life and existence. He does not like to feel them to be constrained in any way, even by way of a title. However, he agrees for me to call them ‘gumpics’ and number them to make it easier for people to access and to navigate round them on the blogsite. 

Ben does not grade his gumpics nor is prepared to give them ratings. In fact, he makes no judgemental/assessment distinctions of this kind at all between them. Rather, they are intended to celebrate the requester and the subject matter, as here. However, each gumpic has its own particular format, history and territory. 

For example, this Gumpic 1 occupies a very ‘good’ place on the Broadway, that is, in front of the toyshop, which is a very popular place for shoppers and their children and so is easily seen by many passing people. The gumpic is quite ‘solid’ and for this reason has lasted well. The technique is ‘OK’. The painting was ‘pleasing’ to do. It has an ‘interesting’ structure – circles within circles and ‘bright’ colours – red, yellow, green, white etc. The composition is also interesting, comprising – names, numbers and in particular children and a unicorn (much beloved of children according to Ben). The whole gumpic – ‘fits well together’. It took Ben about 2-3 hours to complete.

Ben was ready to say more about the general aspects of his art, how it came to be like it is, his approach and framework, his values and understanding of it. However, JL preferred for these more general aspects to be addressed little by little during further future characterisation of other gumpics.

Ben Wilson (July, 2014; July 2018) – ‘CWTCH Dragon’

Ben Wilson – ‘Leona, Debbie, Emma and Sarah’

Ben Wilson (2017) ‘Harith and Okhail’

Ben Wilson – ‘Julia, Ali, Wesam and Maya’

Ben Wilson (2019) ‘Chewing Gum Picture – Jon, Kazi, Amy, Muswell Hill Police’

Ben Wilson (2018) – ‘Renee and Ivan’

Ben Wilson (2019) – ‘Mountain Walking in Snow’

Close Menu