Andrew Burns Colwill has always made his living as an artist whether it was painting buildings, sets or canvases. At one point four buildings on Bristol’s (then popular punk scene Park Street) were canvases for his work. Though leaving school without qualifications his talent meant he always worked in art from painting backdrops and scenic work for TV (Blot on the Landscape and Robin of Sherwood amongst others) and theatre or on the streets.
Of his time at Bristol Old Vic he says ‘I spent a great winter at the Old Vic doing the scenic work for Peter Pan amongst others. It was second nature for me painting quickly and large as I’d been doing it around Bristol pubs and bars for years.’
Always a prolific artist he was constantly creating new work. In the early days he used untreated canvas, developing techniques using curtain linings stretched over hand made frames and household paints just to get he work out there.
He says that in the 80’s he painted 100’s of paintings often selling them very cheaply to fund his drug habit at the time. In 1987 he created a spectacular exhibition at Ashton Court Mansion attracting over a 1,000 visitors.
‘In 1987 when the show was put on I was supremely confident in my work, I was selling a lot of work privately and also a limited edition print run of Royal York Crescent which I brought out shortly after the exhibition. I thought at the back of my mind that the exhibition might promote the print run I was doing. But the truth of it was I was so stoned, I was a heroine addict at that time and I was painting at an incredible rate and selling as quickly as I could very very cheaply to get my next hit.
‘I hired Ashton Court because I liked the look of it, it was a great looking place. The work I was doing at the time was massive – 8ft x 10 ft flats which I got from the Old Vic. They were throwing them out so I grabbed them and then thought what am I going to do with them? Was I confident yes – my work had always sold. Was I stable? No Erratic? Yes. I just thought it would be a great idea to hire the mansion. I liked the mansion, I still like the mansion, I take my dogs over there now when I want to chill out and think about a piece of work. It just seemed a good idea at the time.
‘What did I expect form the exhibition? What does any artist expect from an exhibition I was only 29 at the time pretty heavily into drugs (not a nice habit) and I was selling work. Fame and fortune overnight? That would have killed me. Recognition I suppose and obviously money to keep me going. Also my son was born that year in the summertime so I suppose it might bring in some money to start things going with him. It’s a bit of a hazy time and hazy area for me. I was very confused at that time, lying to a lot of other people, lying to myself about where I was going and what I was going to do.’
His work was featured in a four page spread in the then popular ‘Bristol Illustrated’ magazine.
Those were the heady times which were fuelled by his addiction to heroine. Many of his friends on the same path at the time did not make it through. He went to rehab a couple of times which in those days he says was basically being given a prescription of methodone. On his third attempt he took his ‘scrip’ and went for a two week holiday to Greece to escape the scene.
‘I wanted to clean up – get off drugs. I took off from Bristol in 1990 and went for a two week holiday to Cyprus. After two weeks I decided I wasn’t going to come back to the problems, the drugs and the whole way of life so stayed there. It was a good time, but I wasn’t well and was drinking very heavily.
‘I needed to stay away for what I thought would be a few years but ended up being ten years. I replaced the drugs with alcohol for a fair amount of years so Cyprus is still a bit of a blur.
From there he travelled to Pathos and Anti-Paros.
‘For me in Greece philosophies and ways of life started to become prominent. On the one hand I saw the northern European tourists, the professionals coming away from the system and loosing it like kids, getting wrecked – you could see the real selves coming out with the alcohol and whatever. On the other hand I saw this Greek philosophical community (they are brought up with it from school). You could see some of the Greeks looking back to the days when they were growing up and wishing it was like that again.
‘On the islands in the 50’s and 60’s and before that families used to give their favoured sons fertile lands up in the mountains where they could farm and the not so favoured would be given coastline where they could fish. With the advent of tourism I saw these not so prominent family members becoming the nouveau riche – they fell in with the tour companies building large hotels – some of them couldn’t read or write. It showed me another perspective of life.
‘I kept on painting, people loved my work. By the time I left most of the streets in lower Pathos was mine and Vicky (my partner)’s work in the restaurants, bars and discos. This was from the hand painted signs outside and murals and artwork inside.
‘Greece for me was a brilliant place, a gentle place to come down and gain some sort of sense. I still needed to cut the booze which I started to do around the year 2000. Slowly the mist started to disappear and when that happens you have you have to face yourself, face your inhibitions, face your fears, why were you the way you were, why you were running away and what were you were so frightened of. And slowly I came out the mist.
‘So Greece enhanced my work and gave me a far better perspective on the human race. It is a lovely place, I think of it as my second home and I will go back there again when I am ready.
About returning to Bristol in 2000 after ten years away he says:
‘Bristol is a lovely city, I was born here, my grandfathers were born here, my great grandfathers were born here. Bristol is in my blood very much so. I think the first thing I noticed when I came back to this town in 2000 was the amount of traffic unbelievable from the ten years earlier when I left.
‘One of the saddest things is the disappearance of the pubs. I remember as a kid the early 60’s going to see grandpa in the pub grandfather round the docks. It was the social hub that the pub offered. It was the place if you needed something you went down the pub to find out if somebody had it. That just seemed to have disappeared big time by the year the time I got back and it is still disappearing which is so sad. A very English phenomenon gone, disappearing through money and real estate. Pubs don’t just need to be about booze they can be so much more than that. I don’t drink heavily anymore but I still love a couple of pints at the end of the day and it’s the social aspect that a public house offers it’s great. It’s about the people you meet whether it’s doing a crossword or two or having a chat. Bristol had changed in that regard.
‘The clubs and music scene is still very lively, as it always was. When I was singing in a band we were playing around various pubs and bars in Bristol and it hasn’t changed a lot since then.
‘The art scene here is very strong I think it always will be. It’s an arty city, it’s a creative city and I feel very lucky to have been born here. It also has all it’s dark sides which run along like everything in life. It’s a balance for the positive there is always a negative.
‘On the positive sides I’ve noticed is Bristol has changed and Britain is changing with more continental style cafes. When we have the weather it’s great going down Whiteladies Road and brilliant seeing the hub of life and chit chat, booze, and cafe life.
‘Bristol is still a beautiful city and I’m very lucky to still be here. ‘
Now older and wiser he reflects:
‘For all my experience crazy life and the drugs and the alcohol, I think one of the most important thing for an artist, for me personally, when we depart from this plane is to have left something that people can look at and to give them an amount of enjoyment. Leave something for everyone – a piece of art that talks.
‘That was what dawned on me on Greece that my talent should be used. I had been given the gift of painting and I should use it. I’d been selling paintings since I was about 14 years old and now I should do something with it, say something. That is foremost with me. And that is what was missing at the Ashton Court exhibition. An artist should look at and try to understand and portray what he sees hopefully for the better and before he dies be able to say something – that is important.’
And so onto his powerful new show 20/50 Vision: Tomorrow’s Habitat. He says:
“The show title, 20/50 vision, is a play on the term 20/20 vision and how my life experience has given me a slightly warped perspective of the world.
20/50 vision for me has two aspects; firstly a point of view that sometimes makes people a little uncomfortable but offers a wider and alternative perspective to the norm, and secondly my interpretation of how we as a species may be faring socially and economically by the year 2050.”
In his new exhibition Burns Colwill certainly ‘says something’ – about society, the environment, climate change, how we communicate and what the path could hold for the human race in the future. His work draws on his experience which you can see directly and indirectly his paintings for this exhibition. It makes comment, the paintings talk, always beautifully crafted some are more challenging for the viewer – vast genetically modified beef growing vats the size of buildings, babies cultivated and grown outside the human body, a screaming polar bear on what looks like an iceberg – then you realise it is on plastic waste not ice. Then there are his beautiful birds stood on engine parts instead of branches. It is work that both pushes the envelope in commentary but also draws you in with it’s lyrical, gentle accessible style, his pieces have a juxtaposition of beauty and message and yes they definitely say something.
Andrew Burns Colwill’s latest exhibition 20/50 Vision: Tomorrow’s Habitat can be seen at It’s All 2 Much from 20 May to 4 June 2017
Opening Times • Thursday 12:00 – 18:00 • Friday 1200 – 18:00 • Saturday 13:00 – 19:00
Address: 11 – 13 Stokes Croft, Bristol BS1 3PY.
A wonderful, honest and insightful interview. I look forward to the exhibition.
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