The lyrics from Baz Luhrmann’s spoken word song, ‘Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)’ have provided guidance and comfort to me since their first utterance from my CD Walkman when I was a child (seriously – give it a listen). And speaking to OSSUMpaul in Telfords brings to mind one of the later verses:
‘Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life…
the most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don’t.’
As OSSUMpaul walks me through the story of how a percussionist becomes a chef, becomes an estate agent, becomes a lawn specialist, becomes a tree surgeon, becomes a chainsaw artist and illustrator (finally finding his way back to his early passion – art), I know I’m in the company of a creative nomad.
Don’t get me wrong, he’s nowhere near forty, but his eclectic career path, which culminates in doing what he loves, gives hope to those of us who feel a little lost. And it’s an apt reminder that our stories, even when they don’t subscribe to society’s idea of progression, make us interesting; they’re proof we’re not just standing still.
OSSUMpaul’s collection of jobs acted as breadcrumbs, leading him on a seemingly random path. Working for Greenthumb, a lawn treatment company made him realise that he loved being in the great outdoors, so he went to college to study herbiculture and tree surgery. ‘I thought it would be great to be up high, climbing trees with a chainsaw. I was scared of heights but that gave me respect for what I was doing.’
When his tree surgery work experience fell through, he ended up contacting Simon O’Rourke. ‘He’s one of the best chainsaw sculpture artists in the UK. I met him at Chester Art Fair and had his business card. I remembered how much I used to love doing art at school and gave him a call. After that Si would give me the odd commission alongside doing the tree surgery – which brought me back to what I’ve always wanted to do. You couldn’t write it.’
Understandably I have a lot of questions about life as a chainsaw artist – especially creating detail. ‘Every sculpture is original, that’s the beauty of how I work. I like to go off on a whim and start from a different place each time. There are some rules; you have to strip it down, take large chunks off. It’s quick and almost entirely all done with a chainsaw (save for some sanding). There are different size bars and I use smaller tips for finer detail, just like a painter having a range of brushes.’
He’s often asked to create owls from a tree stumps in private back gardens and no longer needs to sketch beforehand, just gets stuck in – pretty impressive stuff. Luckily, his biggest project to date is publically available. ‘I did the Fallen for the Fallen Project for the Countess of Chester Park (run by The Land Trust). They approached me on the day I decided to start doing this full time. I carved poppies from the Upton War Memorial to the Countess, ending in a massive carved bench. The tree was roughly a hundred years old and taken down in Chester. One side of the bench looks like trenches with sandbags, then soldiers shaking hands and finally going back to Britain. The message is that people still died from side effects from the war, like the mustard gas. It’s a reminder that it wasn’t just the soldiers that fell during battle who lost their lives.’
OSSUMpaul worked on the project for three weeks, spread across three months, as he wanted people to visit and see it develop. ‘They gave me a lot of reign over creative input. The thing with wood is you find blemishes and have to adapt the design as you go, like a large, dark patch that would mask important detail. It’s a nice form, you need to have that freedom.’
He admits that the work was physically exhausting (though won’t admit to sitting on the bench he was creating when he needed a break – which would’ve been too tempting for me to resist). So it’s a good job he’s returned to art in another way too, which involves a lot of sofa time. ‘I started drawing a lot again after about a nine-year break, heavily influenced by how into skating I was when I was younger – the whacky skateboard art and street art.’
His illustration style, which is now clearly established, goes beyond the aesthetic. ‘I’ve got really bad anxiety so the dripping look of my work is how I feel sometimes like I’m melting. I like bringing that into it – I don’t like conventions. I also like playing with anatomy. I struggle to focus but not with art; it calms me down and I never get bored.’
He’s already started working with local bands on their album covers and merch, such as Sustinere and Campfire Social. ‘Music has always been a massive part of my life and I’m quite a visual person – a lot of the music I listen to now, is what I was listening to when I was younger and skating. If a band has cool artwork it drives me to listen to them. I met Tom (Campfire Social) when we were kids and part of a big group of alternatives that used to hang around in Chester Park, and also through the gigging scene – at battle of the bands.’
You can grab his prints in the amazing shop, 2nd Floor (top of Northgate Street). For Southerners, two of his pieces will soon be available at Steak of the Art restaurant. The less mobile will have to wait for his online shop (coming as part of his website revamp this year).
But he’s not stopping there for 2019 aspirations; ‘I’m talking to someone about doing a wacky skating illustrated documentary, talking about the art scene in the North West. And I’d love to have my own gallery show – maybe a studio in Chester, a workshop gallery. I’m also thinking about my own brand of clothing; minimalist stuff that’s a bit different. I’m working on a business plan for this year!’
As if that’s not enough, he’ll be contributing a sculpture project to Chester Supertrees – transforming Hoole roundabout into a biodiverse wonderland (you can read more about that here) and long-term he’d love to travel. ‘It’s hard with chainsaw carving; there’s a lot of gear to transport and chainsaw pants are the hottest thing in the world. Maybe when it’s cold I could travel around doing graffiti art. I just bought a lot of spray paints.’
Sounds like we’ll be seeing a lot of OSSUMpaul this year; he’s keen to make exciting things happen on his doorstep. ‘I’d like to see more street art in Chester, more events like the one at Alexanders. I remember when the Northern Quarter in Manchester, was the grim part of the city but now it’s transformed; these horrid buildings which look stunning thanks to graffiti art – Chester would look so cool. I’d never suggest ruining anything historical – but we could make the city beautiful where it’s currently not. Chester’s a hard place for artwork, there are a lot of small galleries but they’re very similar and local artists find it hard to sell here, but not in Manchester, Liverpool etc. Thankfully, the music scene’s getting better, places like this (Telfords) are really pushing that. I’d love to be involved with bringing more art culture to Chester.’
In the meantime, he’ll make do with walking around the city, drinking it in (and occasionally drinking a coffee from Chalk too). ‘I tend to just wander and take the time to appreciate it. I do it every week with a friend, walk the walls down to the river.’
It turns out that a little meandering can lead you to exactly where you’re meant to be and clear up head space for enjoying the simple things. OSSUMpaul’s proof that if you can’t hard sell a house, transform your joy of cooking for yourself into cooking for others (even if you try for six years) or maintain an interest in trees (‘once you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all’), it probably doesn’t matter – it’s all part of your story.
‘This is the only time that I’ve not given a shit that I’m skint – not that I’d love not to be. Very few of my mates are doing what they went to Uni to study. If it’s not flowing naturally you’re never going to produce the work that you want to. In the past, I was so money driven, but I don’t want to waste any more of my life with that as a focus. Making an experience of your life is the best thing you can do.’