We had the absolute pleasure of chatting with the incredible Oli Fowler, the London artist bursting with energy, creativity and infectious optimism! We discussed his grand master plan for becoming an artist, his Del Boy streak, his mother’s influential record collection, and ‘passing on feelings’ through his spirited feel good screenprints!
Oli, it’s so great for you to make this time to chat with us! To set the mood can you start by describing your signature aesthetic in a few words?
Retro, disco, feel good vibes! Every time I do a piece of work now, I apply those words. I ask, ‘Is it retro? Is it disco? And has it got a feel good vibe?’ It doesn’t have to be all of them at once. I have to give credit to Dave Buonaguidi for coming up with that phrase - I sat down with him, and asked ‘How would you describe my work?’ and he said “Retro, disco, feel good vibes!”, straight away!
And it’s bang on! Now to go back to the beginning, could you tell us a bit about your upbringing? Were you surrounded by creatives?
I am the oldest of five kids, my dad was always working, and mum was always at home looking after us. The creative streak runs in my mum’s side of the family, my uncle David is a classical guitar player, and probably the most creative, one day he just picked up a book on how to build a guitar, and said, “I'm going to learn how to build a classical guitar”, and so he built a small one, and it was amazing, and now he is sought after around the world, especially with flamenco guitars. Mum was always making stuff, she would always make costumes for us as kids. When we had grown up a bit, she wanted to go back to university, so she went to do 2D Design degree when she was 40. She was definitely a creative, she loved drawing. I got the get up and go from my dad’s side though. My dad was a proper wheeler dealer, always working and selling shit on the side, stolen goods and stuff, and I liked that, that Del Boy sort of thing. He would drive a truck into the village, swing open the back doors and everyone would come running to buy sportswear! I was like, wow, you don’t have to do a ‘proper’ job. So a bit of my mum and my dad come together as one in me, the creative with the hustle.
I always wanted to be something when I was younger, I wanted to be like the older kids, I got pushed around a bit but I had the gift of the gab so I managed to talk my way out of sticky situations. I remember one kid calling me a try-hard. I always felt a little bit out of place, I wasn’t taken seriously by lots of people and nobody thought I was going anywhere, and that was because I hadn’t found my place yet. I started working hard when I was about 21, I used to work in a Threshers Wine Shop, and my boss at the time was a real arsehole, he used to slap me around, because I wasn’t taking it seriously. I was just mucking around, he used to cuff me round the head and stuff. Eventually instead of being upset about it, I was like, ‘I am going to work my ass off and be so good at this job you can’t say anything to me. I am going to show you how this is done!’ and I started working really hard so he couldn’t pick on me. That was when I started growing up, and taking things seriously. I was very good at retail and selling things, when I moved to London I worked at Selfridges selling Levi’s, I got a kick out of winning customers over, that was my dad’s thing.
"I see it as work, but everyday is fun for me, everyday it is like playing a game."
It sounds like you thrive off of communication with other people, and that makes total sense with your message based art! I love that cohesion between the sides of your family, and your idea of not seeing what your dad did as work. Do you see what you do now as work, or does it take some other form, is it a challenge for you or more of a release?
I see it as work, but everyday is fun for me, everyday it is like playing a game. I plan out the game the day before, and think if I play it right, and everything goes smoothly without any hiccups, then I am going to win. I think that all the time, I almost feel like I am living in a film, nothing is ever the same though because the artwork changes, it is always a challenge. I think to myself ‘I made those mistakes last time, so what am I going to change this time?’ That's what's great about screenprinting, to be an artist and to screenprint your own work yourself gives you a lot of freedom, and it lets you move around and change things as you are going along. And if you make a mistake, it's cool, it's part of the process…
Years ago, I went to see the print archives at the Tate gallery, they took out the huge screen prints, I could look at the Warhol’s, the Lichenstein’s, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow some of these are so badly printed!’ There was bleeds and mis-registration, but they were beautiful images, so it's not necessarily about the technicalities, it's about the idea - It's about how it looks when you step back and admire, not necessarily up close.
But saying that, you have clearly mastered the technique, and you are an exceptional screen printer!
Thank you, but I don't feel like that, I always feel like I could be better. I have mastered aspects of it, but a master screen printer is 20 years of experience really, and I have been doing it solidly now for 12 years, so there is a long way to go. It just takes a really long time to get to grips with the different materials, and to mix colours, to make screens, what types of emulsions to use, what type of positives to use, what types of equipment to use, different types of squeegee… it just goes on and on and on. And that is the fun of it, you are always discovering!
And it sounds like that really suits your personality? It gives you the option to not just rest on your laurels, there is always another challenge around the corner, or something you can change and improve.
And that is the game that I play! Some years ago I was making artwork that was selling well, but it became too samey, to easy, and I couldn’t do it anymore, I walked away from it because I can’t live my life like that, I need things to be a challenge. It is like going back to being a child and being called a “try-hard”, I want to try-hard, I want to always be on my toes because I want to be lying on my deathbed smiling. I want to know that I have put everything into it, so yes going back to your earlier question, it has to be a challenge all the time.
And yet you seem to find this remarkable way of balancing this challenge with the spirit of playfulness. You refer to the challenge of your practice as a “game”, and I love how that speaks to this element of playfulness and fun. Talking of fun, a lot of your work references 70s disco culture, what is your relationship with that world?
It’s always been about colour for me, I have always been into blocks of colour. Ever since I was 5 years old when I was saying to mum, “What are these pictures in this book?” and she was like, “They are screen prints.” She got me a pop art book, and told me about Andy Warhol, and (Insert another pop artist here?) Robert Rauschenberg, Peter Blake to name a few and I loved it, all the colours! My work has always been really colourful, and I can’t see myself doing anything else, so then you ask yourself, ‘Well what goes with colour? What do I really like in my life that gives me that chance to be colourful? … Disco!’ You have to match up those things that you really love. I collect music, I am into jazz funk and all that, and the two go well together. The font I use came from walking down the street, looking at the shop signs, mainly Chinese takeaway shops, and I was like, ‘Why does that feel so nice?’ so I started putting these elements together, and it grew from there.
"I just want it to be in your face and colourful"
Fascinating, and totally unexpected that you came to disco club culture through colour! Tell us about your other influences and inspiration in the art world?
When I think about influences in the art world, I actually think more about design, Terrence Conran’s House Book for example, I love the furniture and the way that colours sit together. I was also really into the street art movement, I really like Adam Neate’s work, also really colourful. Other big influences are album covers, I love the airbrush artwork in the 70s and would love to know how to do airbrushing, apparently it is such a hard skill, it takes years and years to learn. Maybe one day I will get a chance to learn it. You could probably do it all on illustrator now, but that wouldn't satisfy me, there has to be the spray, and solvent, and masks, and it has to go wrong and get messy, otherwise I don’t feel like I have achieved anything physically.
So it’s really about the process and nature of the material experience for you. What is it about the screenprinting method particularly that you love?
The block colour, and the way you can control it. It is not like having a digital print, I can do a print, clean the screen, and then test out another colour, mix it, change it. It is a very artistic process. I can chop and change as I go along. I like the control I have over it. I would like to try aquatint etching, or something like that in the future, maybe when I am an old man. I have this image in my head of coming down the staircase with a coffee and cigarette in the morning, and doing my etching. I do think about it a lot, I would love to do these prints as etchings, I love that gritty look. One of the things I have thought of in the past is mixed media, so I would like to do the colours screen printed, and then have a layer of etching over the top. It is just one of those things that I haven’t got round to yet, but it is there in my head.
That’s a great vision! And what about your relationship with typography?
I enjoy thinking about typography, I look through magazines and scan them, or I buy old typography books and scan them or cut out the letters, because it looks a bit more rough and hand drawn. With the new work I am doing for you, I have picked out a set of five different fonts that I really like. I like trying new things and I wanted to bring in something new to the body of work, so I will try out these new fonts and see how it goes. I have got to try, I can’t rest on my laurels, I can’t do that, I would rather try and fail, otherwise it all gets a little bit samey. I don’t know loads about typography, I usually select fonts by walking down the street, and if I see something I like I will take a photograph and go on a font forum and ask people what it is, and then someone from across the world will say it is this, and I will be like, ‘Cheers!’, and use that!
We are so excited about your new works! Can you tell us a bit about your phrases and how you come up with them?
I want them to be poppy. I have pages of ideas, and then I cross them out and knock them down to two, then I give them a go. I don’t want to be too clever about it, I tried that in the past, and you can start getting really deep about it and conceptual with the words, but I’m like, ‘What am I trying to say?’ I just want it to be in your face and colourful, and it is about screen printing as well. For me, it is not just about what it says, it is about the technicality that has gone into the work through the process of screen printing, that is a lot of work on its own. I like things to be punchy, and as the work evolves, I start adding shadows and shading, and I want things to stand out or look 3D.
It sounds like you are bursting with ideas, so there is always something to experiment with. You are never going to get bored!
It is important to have them, it keeps me motivated, but it is really still to do with the technique. This thing I have been doing recently with the rainbow colours and layers, that has taken me like a year to learn how to do. I wanted to get it right and make it look nice, and I know what I am doing now. I don’t just want to stick to that now though, I always want to be trying a few different ideas.
What has been your proudest moment in your artistic career?
To be honest I am just proud that I can do my artwork, and that I am able to support myself now. When I was on the shop floor in Selfridges, I was planning my future on receipts, thinking ‘How do I get out of retail? How do I go from having a monthly wage, to having nothing, and then get back up on my feet?’ I thought, ‘I have just got to do this, to quit everything and start all over again’, I thought ‘Oli, now is your chance, you need to make some money.’ I went back to university to study Graphic Design when I was 30, why?, because they give you a massive loan and I can learn how to screenprint! It was the hardest decision of my life to do that, and the most crazy journey, but it all worked out! I even moved to Dalston so I could be right next to the studio, and worked in a pub round the corner. It was all planned.
"If you have got something to show, you have to talk and shout about it, and don't be afraid of criticism and trolls, don’t be afraid of people saying your work is sh*t. If you believe in yourself, you just keep going, it is really that simple."
That is amazing, it feels like you really took control, and you were using the system to your advantage.
I think I was playing the system! I am still paying back my student loan, so they win, but at least I could get that money to help me on my way. My parents didn't have any money, and I didn’t, so I thought, ‘How can I buy materials at the same time?’ and that is how I did it. I managed to do it in conjunction with my University projects as well!
I am still hearing this theme of this wheeler dealer approach to life, and it sounds like it has really benefited your artistic career? Not in an evasive way, but an honest hard working way.
I think it would benefit anyone. If you have got something to show, you have to talk and shout about it, and don't be afraid of criticism and trolls, don’t be afraid of people saying your work is sh*t. If you believe in yourself, you just keep going, it is really that simple. It is a long game and I am not making millions or anything like that, but at least I can cover my ass, and I am happy. My advice to young people who are into art is just to keep on going. Almost as if you are naive, just be so naive about it, and don’t think about it too much. Spend money, get into debt, get out of debt, just keep on going. That is how I am doing it, I am not there yet!
Amazing! That will really speak to a lot of people I’m sure. So your proudest moment is just the fact that you did that and you are still doing it, your hardest decision has paid off!
Yes! There are other things I have done I am proud of, for example an illustration job for the Museum of London, and that was really fun. They are really nice guys and they were really open to what I was doing, it was a different style of work, more collage cut out sort of stuff. You guys at Smithson Gallery taking me on, that's also been a big thing for me that I am really proud of. But yes, my biggest achievement is being self-sufficient, that is at the root of it all.
And we are proud to represent you! What has been the most memorable response to your artwork?
I might make something and be like ‘Is that going to work? I’m not sure,’ but then you post it out there and it's like boom! Now that’s a memorable response, because you got it right. And then you try and do it again, and it’s like, ‘Oh f**k it didn’t work!’ I went to the David Hockney exhibition and there was a plaque that said, “If I knew a formula, I would be doing it everyday”, but there is no formula, and that is why his work is always different, and I’m inspired by that.
It can also be as simple as getting a personal message from a collector, or someone sending me a proud picture of my art being on their wall framed really nicely. It is more like that for me, if I see my artwork in somebody's house, and they have taken the time to take a picture of it, you think, ‘Yes, we have got there!’
As a gallery, we are always trying to encourage our collectors to share images of their artworks on the wall, because it is so valuable for artists to actually see where their work has ended up, and like you say it’s always a proud moment.
It’s that simple, it is like the final resting place. When an artwork sells, I think, ‘Ah, it’s going out to a new home - like it’s a new puppy!’ The artwork goes on its journey, and then you get the photograph when it's on the wall, and you think, ‘Finally, that is in its place.’
Who’s work do you have on your walls?
Back in the street art days in 2007 the street artist Adam Neate left loads of artwork on the streets painted on bits of cardboard, so I picked up two of his pieces and put them on my wall. I eventually sold them at Sotheby’s for £10,000! That gave me the money to pay off my debt, to buy my first Apple Mac, to buy a bike - I needed that money, it helped me so much. It was only last year that I contacted Adam to tell him the story, he said, “Man, that is fantastic, that is exactly the sort of story I wanted!” He lives in Brazil now and is a fantastic artist. One day I will be able to afford more of his artwork again.
I have also collected other street artists, Antony Micallef, I have some RYCA ,I love his style of printing, I have some Cyclops, Sweet Toof, Pure Evil, I have a Mister Feeney one off spray painted stencil of Rik Mayall, I have also got a Sarah Gwyer - it’s one of the only times I have seen something on Instagram and gone ‘Wow!’. She does the amazing embroidered portraits, it is very textured, you can see all the detail in the face, I don’t know how she did it! Eventually when I have my own studio I will invest in more art and have them on the walls around the screenprinting equipment, I’m looking forward to that day!
What an enviable collection for street art enthusiasts! So we've talked about influences and inspiration within the art & design world, but what about outside of it? What other stuff are you in to?
I really love chefs! I am really into cooking and people that cook. I am really influenced by Jamiroquai, I just love their music. I love the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, I am a f**king massive fan of them! I am really into Earth Wind and Fire, the saxophonist Ronnie Laws I absolutely love. I am really into ghosts and ghost stories! The podcast Jim Harold’s Campfire is great, it will scare the sh*t out of you! We are talking interdimensional stuff, ghosts, UFOs… I am into guitar, I have played for 16 years. I am really into dance music, like house music. A lot of people ask me if it is just disco, and I’m like, ‘No!’ I love house music, and electronic music, anything funky. With house music, there is soulful house, or gospel house… The ironic thing about doing disco inspired artwork is that now I am more of an observer of the scene, I loved dancing and partying when I was younger, but I wasn't getting any artwork done! But now, I am doing the artwork, so can’t go and party as much, you can’t have it both ways. You can't be part of the disco scene, be really part of it, and do artwork at the same time. It's the other way round now, and I like it. I just collect the music, I have got about 1,500 records, I love going through them and looking at the album covers and artists and typography.
"I don’t want to be too whimsical about it. I want to bring some edge to it, with a little bit of fun. I don’t want to be talking about my past. I want people to connect with their past."
What an incredible diverse set of stuff! Chefs, ghosts, gospel house - Love it! It sounds like a lot of your inspiration comes from music culture?
I must tell you how I got into music? I started off in my family house listening to 80s music, and then we got our first CD player in about 1989, and mum bought Scritti Politti, and that was like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ Around about 1990 I started doing a paper round, I was getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning, putting on Ceefax on TV and listening to cocktail jazz music, like Spyro Gyra and Grover Washington Jr. One day, my mum came down early, and saw me sitting there listening to this music, I said, “This is amazing, what is this?” and she said, “It’s jazz funk, go and look at my record collection!” and I was like, “What? You have a record collection!?” So I went and looked through and she had everything that was on the television, so that was how I got into it! I used to be a little shit, and I wasn’t round that much, but now that I have grown up I’m so grateful and I’ve told her how much of an influence she is, and she is really proud. I haven’t got any kids yet, but it will happen sometime soon, and I’m really hoping I can pass on that feeling that I got to them.
I love this idea of ‘passing on a feeling’, I feel like that is exactly what your artwork does!
I want people to look at my work and feel like they have felt it already, when they were younger. It’s not just about nostalgia because I want it to be current and memorable, but I want to pass on these feelings I have. I remember all these dreams I had about playing arcade games and having old things from the early 80s and 90s. I have got these images in my head of when I was younger, but it is all mixed up with music, and the Terrence Conran House Book! I don’t want to be too whimsical about it, I want to bring some edge to it, with a little bit of fun. I don’t want to be talking about my past, I want people to connect with their past.
So your work is about capturing a certain energy, a spirit, a feeling and passing that on - I love that! Can you tell us any more about the new collection for us at Smithson?
The new work I am doing for you, feels like a different way of passing on feelings. I am starting to bring in more collage cut outs, a lot more images are coming back into the work mixed with different typefaces. I have had these magazines and stuff that I found in America for over a year now, and I have been looking through them and seeing ideas - it’s amazing, it reminds me of back in the day looking through magazines and giggling at the lady with big hair! I have learnt that it is not just about the images on the page, it could be a bar of colour, a texture, or a number. If you are in the right frame of mind, it will click, and you will suddenly get an idea. It is just about taking the time to look at stuff.
And do you allow those ideas to filter into your head and you trust they will be there, or do you record them in some way?
Because I work my ideas up on a computer I rarely do sketches, but I do write lists. I have these A4 books, and I just write stuff down. I was looking at your other artist interviews the other day, and I saw Nick Grindrod, I absolutely love his work, but I saw some of his sketchbooks in the shots and I thought, ‘F**k, all I have got is lists!’ I was like, ‘His pictures are so good, I need to be doing drawing!’ This is the problem, I can’t look too much at other artists because I suddenly think, ‘They are doing that, so I have got to do it!’ Anyone would get that feeling from looking at someone else's work, so I try to switch off, I try to just keep to myself and do it my way, which is with lists.
And that is staying true to you and your way of working! But yes, we are so bombarded by external images and influences every day, it can be hard to wade through that mud and keep seeing clearly what defines your own practice. Is there anything that you need to remind yourself of from time to time?
That is another reason screen printing is great, because of the escapism. When you have your mind on the job, you are not thinking about anything else. You can’t go on your phone, or look at your emails, or talk to people. You are in your own world.
Yes I need to remind myself to rest, to sleep well, to play computer games on the weekend, and to see my family. I have struggled with sleeping in the past, but now it’s so important, switching off your phone, going to bed, making sure the temperature is right, and just going to sleep. And when I wake up, I am just like, ‘Yeah!’ I get up and fly off, it is such a great feeling! Getting up at 5 am and doing the washing up, having some breakfast, going printing. It doesn’t last for long, it lasts until about midday, but I feel that energy and appreciate it for as long as it lasts.
I really appreciate the simplicity of those points, and yet how important they are for feeding our creative imagination, and our souls and wellbeing.
You have to make tweaks in your life, it gets harder as you get older, I never used to have a problem sleeping when I was a kid! It is such a simple thing, to rest, to sleep well, don’t watch too much telly, get off of Netflix, I hate Netflix! But this computer game thing, I am getting really into it, something that is keeping me busy, I am not just laying on the sofa doing nothing. I have a lot of energy, and I want to keep doing stuff until I fall over really.
And so much of that energy charges through your artwork!
It is about life, init! It is like what I said earlier, I feel like I am in a film. It is like the Truman Show, people are challenging me, and I’ve got to do this, and there will be something at the end of the rainbow! I am not religious, but I can’t help but believe there is an afterlife, I think there is something else out there, I don’t think it ends when you die, it goes on, and it is such an exciting thing. Thinking about an afterlife gives me so much hope and makes me so happy, it makes me feel good about getting older. Today I was thinking about being 20 years old, and what I was doing around then, and then thinking that I am 41 now and what I have done in that time? and what I am going to have done in another 20 years? F***ing hell, I am going to be 60!
My girlfriend is French, so hopefully I will be living in Nice in the South of France, that is where she is from. She said the other day that she imagines me holding a baby with a straw hat on and a glass of wine, going like ‘Hey, welcome everyone!’. I think I am going to be in France, I have to follow her and give her her time. I will be working from France and have a studio on the side of the house, and I will be cooking pizzas in the garden, and hopefully, I will be in a really happy place.
Cheers to that, I have absolutely no doubt you will achieve that dream! Just to finish off Oli Fowler, if you could scream one of your screen printed phrases from the rooftops right now, which one would it be?
Disco is the perfect love affair!!!