The Interview: Woolton artist Paul Curtis talks to YM Liverpool
Ever since painting his popular interactive wings mural on a Baltic Triangle wall, Woolton artist Paul Curtis has been leaving his creative mark all over the city.
With his artworks appearing everywhere from restaurants and retail parks to housing developments and even the set of a forthcoming Danny Boyle film, Paul tells us about his inspirations, dream projects and rise to prominence in Liverpool.
Interview by Natasha Young
You rediscovered art after leaving a career in the North Sea oil and gas industry. What was your art background before that, did you study it?
The highest qualification I had in art was a GCSE. I wanted to carry on doing it but career advice talked me out of it so I did sciences instead.
I did a bit of art as a hobby but, even then, once I started working it took too much time.
Was ‘For All Liverpool’s Liver Birds’ your first public artwork when you took art up again?
The first piece I did was for my niece’s nursery but obviously that’s not public.
There wasn’t that much work and I was trying to cold sell, so I did some pieces for the restaurant Cargo but I still wasn’t getting enough work. That’s when I decided to do ‘For All Liverpool’s Liver Birds’, because I didn’t have anything that was public enough to show what I could do.
Where did the idea come from to make it something people could interact with?
Originally I was going to do something very different – a picture of a woman which I think would have looked good but probably wouldn’t have received anywhere near as much interaction.
I thought if I did something people will want to take a photo in front of that would be ideal, as one of the reasons I was doing it was to get my name out, and I wanted to do something that has a connection to Liverpool.
“I woke up and there were 39 messages from people I didn’t know sending me photographs of themselves with the wings.”
How prepared were you for the attention it received in the end?
It was unbelievable.
Because of where it was I thought people might take a photo of it when they’ve had a few drinks. After I did it though, I went to bed that night and I wasn’t really prepared because I wasn’t that good on social media but I woke up in the morning and there was something like 39 messages from people I didn’t know sending me photographs of themselves with the wings.
It was lovely to see and I said to myself that if it does get the attention then I might not be an artist anymore because I needed to get work, but at least I’ll have done something I can point to, even if I ended up doing something else. I was lucky people liked it so much that it meant I could be an artist.
How much of a turning point was that mural for you in terms of it leading to other projects?
Massive because it was make or break for me. I was getting to the point where I was thinking ‘am I that good? Is there enough business and enough interest to do something like this?’
I’d said it was the last throw of the dice and if people don’t like it or it doesn’t work then that’s fine and I’ll get on with doing something else.
Initially there was a lot of interest from the public but the work only followed maybe a month or later, and since then it’s been consistent.
Your artwork is prominent around Liverpool now, at sites ranging from restaurants to housing projects. How do you feel seeing it everywhere?
I’ve been lucky because I’ve been given some prominent places to paint in, which is great because it’s easier to get a wall when someone has commissioned and actually asked for it. People seem more suspicious when you just ask if you can paint on their wall.
It’s kind of funny because I think it annoys my friends when we walk around town and I say ‘I painted that one!’
How much of your own ideas do you get to include in your creations, and how much is led by a brief?
It varies. It’s a balance because if I’ve been commissioned then I advise as an artist, but ultimately [the client is] buying something so you have to respect what they want.
The painting I did for Coffee & Fandisha (main picture) is the branch of a coffee plant, and they just said they want something that will work with the building so they gave me a lot of freedom and it worked really well.
Others try to shoehorn the interactive thing in and it doesn’t always work so I have to tell people.
Even if I’m working on something I wouldn’t have thought to do, it’s still practice and learning a different style.
I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had chance to do my own artwork, but I’m planning to do some so it’s 100% my own choice then.
Where do you take inspiration from as an artist when you’re working on your own projects?
The stuff I do on canvas is more Edward Hopperstyle 1930s elegance and all that. Sometimes I do street scenes but I don’t know how well they translate to murals.
When I do murals I think about what would work well with walls. It’s a blank canvas but it’s not the same as painting on a canvas.
I haven’t gone down the political and protest routes – I try to keep my artwork as something that will make people smile.
I’m not against the other type of art but street art is a little forced on people so I think you should try and keep it likeable. That’s just my opinion though.
What would be your dream project or space to work on?
I’ve seen stuff on social media where people have done the sides of huge buildings. I’d love the chance to work on a really big project but that would have to be commissioned because the cost of doing something like that would be too much to take on.
Do you look outside of Liverpool?
It’s a double-edged sword because here in Liverpool people like to use me because I’m local, which is great but then every city is like that. Moving out of your city is a little harder because people say ‘why didn’t we use a local artist?’
One of the issues in Liverpool is we have so many listed buildings and conservation areas that you can’t really use them, and I wouldn’t paint on an architecturally significant building because I don’t think that’s right.
In some cities where the buildings are not as beautiful as here there are more walls to paint.
You shared a picture of yourself with director Danny Boyle on social media, having produced artwork for his forthcoming Beatles-related film. How did this come about?
A production company left a message on my website but for some reason I didn’t see it until two days later.
It was a very short message and I’d have expected it to be more detailed so I was sceptical at first. Then literally, as I read it, the phone went and it was them.
They’d seen my work on Edge Lane at Liverpool Shopping Park and because of the nature of the film and how the scene was being shot in Lime Street, which was undergoing work so it didn’t look great in the background in some areas, they needed a cover that showed a connection to Liverpool and a connection to it being a station to make it obvious to the viewer. That’s why the piece showed a combination of buildings, including Lime Street, and it’s got a train in there.
It was great, it came out of the blue really.
Did you help position your work on set and meet people involved in the film?
Yeah. We set it up overnight and they said ‘Danny said he wants to meet you in the morning’.
I went down and met him and he’s a really nice bloke. We chatted for five or 10 minutes, he went off to do some filming and directing stuff, and then he came back as I was helping the guys put some stuff in place and said to me that it’d be nice to get a photo.
I know he was doing it to help me but the way he did it was nice, it was the measure of the guy because I was a bit too shy to ask for a photo.
You’ve mentioned a documentary is being made about your art. Can you tell us more about that?
A production company in London is thinking about putting this together. They want to make it and see if they can get interest.
At the moment it’s still in the planning stage – they’re trying to discuss the best way to do it so we’ll see what comes of it.