Alex Fowkes

Artist: Alex Fowkes
Photographer: Ingrid Love

Visual Problem Solving is My Job

We caught up with NIMF 2019 designer Alex Fowkes to talk about his 2019 mural “Manifest”and to find out more about the arts scene in the UK.  

What inspires/influences you as an artist?

Other people’s reactions to my work. Sometimes I use optical illusion techniques, like shadowing and perspective, that people can relate to and understand. People’s reactions to certain things will influence what I do more or less of.

I’m also interested in other people’s work that’s not related to my genre; I was looking at Cassie Suche’s work who is also painting at the festival, her stuff is great, and it’s inspiring because I don’t even understand half of how she does what she does.

And more and more so, surrounding areas influence me, especially when I’m choosing what the piece says. So, there’s the typography—which is the element of how it looks— but also the message of what it says. Where I’m painting will inspire what I use, and I want it to be complementary to the space.

A lot of my work is super graphic, it’s very computer-oriented and I work with flat colors. I used to be a screen printer as well so those are all heavy influences. If anyone ever asked me if I was an artist, I’d always say I was a designer, not an artist. Because of how I work, I mean design is art, but the art sort of lives underneath it, I believe. If you were a graphic designer 20-30 years ago you were called a commercial artist, not an artist. So, I’ve always classified myself as a designer.

And has that changed at all?

No, I think I’ve always thought that. Because I always need a brief. I always need something I’m doing something for. I always need a problem to solve or a message to send. Whereas I think with a lot of artists they still have those needs, but their work doesn’t revolve around it. Sometimes it might be more self-expression, which can be hard to decipher as a viewer. Mine’s always clear, and solid in its message. Because you can read it. *Laughter

We are curious, a lot of your work is centered around words and symbols; what are the relationships between visual art, symbols, and language in your work?

I’m mainly a graphic designer, so visual problem solving is my job. People come to me with a problem and ask me to fix it visually or send a message visually. So, I combine that with the artwork and typography because you have how the lettering and type look, and you have what the actual word means. You can play with those two to either emphasize a certain message or play against each other as to what those words mean. Another element is the hierarchy of how the words read (if they are in a list or phrase). This one in Nelson is only one word, so there isn’t really a hierarchy in the wording, but it’s something I do use.

Tell us about the piece you are creating in Nelson!

I chose the word manifest because I first came to Nelson in 2013 and spent a few months here snowboarding; that was my first exposure to Canada, and to BC. During my time here, I got to understand that the Kootenays have a vibe that no one can explain. Some kind of attraction or ‘thing’ to the mountain range here. I actually feel it in most mountain ranges, to be honest, so maybe it’s mountains in general that have that presence. ‘Manifest’ is about everyone here aspiring to have a goal and a thing you want to do. Mountains attract people that are driven, self-motivated, have a lot of goals and things they want to do. At least, that’s what I believe. And ‘manifest’ speaks to those people: get clear on what you want, achieve it, acknowledge it, thank the universe, and then sweet, keep going.

It’s laid out so that you have to read it from top to bottom so that you’re looking up to the sky when you’re reading it. It was a conscious decision to do that as well. You have to stop and look up to get it. And there’s something in that action as well, combined with that word, that I really like. So, when I’m doing these paintings, how the viewer views it, and from where is quite important to me, because it influences how I fit all the pieces of the puzzle together for the final piece.

What are some of the places your art has taken you? Has living and working as an artist taken you anywhere unexpected?

So, when I was working in the UK, I got some cool gigs, working for Urban Outfitters, helping them with their internal store artwork, so that was really cool. I got sent to Stuttgart, Munich, Paris, Nottingham, and Lester. I did a lot of Europe-based stuff and then moving over here three years ago, I’ve got stuff in downtown Vancouver and Kitsilano, and now there’s a spot here in Nelson. I want to do more in this area, and down the West Coast.

My favorite one I did was in Barcelona, for Terranova. It was 17 paintings in a building, done over the course of three weeks. It’s a three-story building, in the gothic quarter of Barcelona and it has this 25-foot doorway with these giant wooden doors. I painted 17 quotes or directional things inside, so that was really cool.

I’d like to go somewhere that I can paint bigger. This is the biggest I’ve done yet, and I want to go somewhere that allows for bigger paintings, where I can scale-up.

As our international artist for the festival, we would love to hear a bit about where you are from and what the art scene is like there. How does it compare or differ to Nelson/BC/Canada?

I grew up in the centre of the UK, in the Midlands, near a place called Nottingham. I studied there as a graphic designer, and then worked there for a year, and then moved to London for another year, and then became freelance. So, in 2013, I became a full-time, self-employed, freelance designer. I wasn’t doing any murals then; it was all graphic design. I did interior graphics, which is kind of different to murals because it’s artwork that exists in a restaurant or an office, and it wasn’t painting, it was cut vinyl or printed wallpaper. So, murals, kind of, because it’s artwork on a wall, but I call them interior graphics because it’s graphic design.

The scene in London is hectic, competitive, busy, and stressful. It’s also rewarding and has a huge amount of opportunity. But, with that huge amount of opportunity, and that huge amount of stress, it’s quite difficult. It’s a place you either get stuck in, or you live there for a bit and then leave, which is what I did. It’s very different to places here in terms of its pace, but the projects people need from a graphic designer or an artist are very similar. I still do similar kinds of projects here, like packaging, branding, and stuff like that. The mural side of the work is different because it’s harder to get exterior murals in public spaces back home in Europe. That’s because there are older buildings, and more buildings that they don’t want paint on, especially because we don’t have alleyways—they don’t exist because we don’t have blocks. So, opportunities for murals are different. A lot of mine are interior murals, in photography studios, design studios, restaurants, and retail stores. In terms of outdoor public murals, I think I’ve only got one in the UK.

How was your experience here in Nelson?

It’s been pretty awesome, having a very well-organized mural festival with all the welcome vouchers is great. The town is really cool, everyone seems pretty stoked on the idea of having more artwork. The vibe here is relaxed but people still have things they want to do, goals. Which is what the ‘manifest’ thing is all about. I just love being surrounded by mountains and painting.

You can find “Manifest” on the Vernon Street side of the parkade, facing the parking lot of the Hume hotel.

Interviewer: Ingrid Love – 2019

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