Known for his complex carved creations hidden in the woods, Ben Wilson has found a new form of expression in the streets of London. Lying on his side on the surface of London’s iconic Millennium Bridge, the artist paints a piece of dried chewing gum trodden into the ground.
Wilson views what most people actively avoid or don’t see as an opportunity to transform something thoughtlessly discarded into art. He’s been doing it for over a decade, first in Muswell Hill and Trinity Buoy Wharf, then across the London Millennium Footbridge and into Tate Modern.
Wilson is a man with a lot of ideas. A woodcarver by trade, he started his new art form 10 years ago when he realized the different shapes made by discarded chewing gum were perfect canvases for miniature paintings. He etched designs into flattened gum blobs and then painted them with acrylic enamels. “It’s an exact way of doing things,” he said. “You can’t be careless.”
The result is a stepping-stone mosaic of common land that spans the metropolis. The art, he says, has symbolic significance. Gum, he points out, has no nutritional value and doesn’t biodegrade; the gum removal business is a full-time job. Wilson aims to turn the chewing gum into a reclaimed part of urban life, a place where a stroll through town becomes an art trail.
Despite his aversion to the police, Wilson embraces the risk in his work. He’s gotten arrested several times, but on two occasions, he was charged with criminal damage, which he says the Crown Prosecution Service dropped. He refuses to sign any of his works and instead collaborates with galleries for some income.
His work is both playful and provocative. Wilson lays on the street for hours at a time, painting in any weather and under the watchful eyes of passersby. Tourists often approach him, and he likes that his art inspires them to look closer at the pavements beneath their feet.
Wilson is educated at East Barnet Comprehensive and Middlesex Polytechnic and finds inspiration all around him. He has a long list of family and friends who have encouraged him, but he also gives credit to teachers Eira Pryce, who taught English, and Gus Ball, who taught art studies. He has become a familiar figure in the streets of north London, and his gum painting trails have garnered attention from all over the world. But, while Wilson’s inclination to transform discarded rubbish into art might irk some local councils, the smiles of his audience more than make up for it. He’s been doing this for over a decade and shows no signs of slowing down. He still needs to finish. This is one of the many reasons why his work is so captivating. It’s a glimpse into a hidden world most of us are unaware of. You just have to look down to find it.