Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Painting and poetry in Highgate.

It was such a cold week in October when I came across the Chewing Gum Artist, Ben Wilson, in Highgate. I'd just finished running a workshop at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (HLSI), one of the oldest independent libraries in London. HLSI is a thriving cultural centre on Pond Square with around a thousand members. It has a wonderful library with over 25,000 books, as well as many old prints and documents regularly consulted by scholars. One of its rooms, the Colderidge Room, is dedicated to the great poet who lived the last part of his life in The Grove, a few minutes walk from the square.I have been leading writing workshops at HLSI for several years.

So I was delighted to see Ben working on one of his wonderful miniature paintings outside our door.
Ben Wilson has become a familiar figure on the streets of London in his one man campaign to draw attention to the quantity of gum spat out on our pavements. He believes that the gum is a symbol of our consumer society. "People have too much of everything today and so don't take care of the environment," says Ben.
I have blogged about Ben in a previous post when I met him outside the Royal Academy.

"Will you do a painting for me?" I asked Ben.
"Of course," he said. He handed me the notebook he always carries with him and asked me to draw out what I wanted. But of course, I'm a writer, so I needed words. I told Ben how Coleridge and Keats had famously met in Highgate and shaken hands. Afterwards Coleridge had remarked that Keats "was not long for this world." Had he felt the sickness in Keats' grip? Keats died at the age of 25 from TB. Even Coleridge with his heart problems and addiction to laudanum did better than that, dying in Highgate at the age of 62.
How could we fit all of this onto a piece of chewing gum a bit bigger than a ten pence piece?

"No problem," came Ben's cheery reply.Spoken like a true artist.
First of all he took a picture of myself and fellow writer, Judi Sissons, shaking hands.
Then we agreed on all the wording, including Coleridge, Keats, Highgate, HLSI, my name and whatever else Ben could fit on.
We agreed that Ben would ring me on the morning he started the painting so that I could come along and see the finished product.
I went home on the bus thinking, This is madness, there's no way he'll fit all that plus the handshake onto a piece of flattened gum.
In fact I rang him from the bus and said, "Maybe leave out Coleridge and Keats."
"Fine," he said, "let's see how it goes."
But I needn't have worried.
Ben Wilson is a tremendously talented miniature artist and the final product was absolutely wonderful.

These pictures give an idea of the scale of the work. 
What a wonderful celebration of writing in Highgate.

Ben takes care of his paintings, returning to them over the weeks to see how they are surviving. Kids come up to him and ask him to do their graffiti tags. He enjoys commissions and accepts donations. It can take Ben two hours to complete a painting, lying on the freezing cold pavements of London. He lies so close to the kerb he was even hit by a bus once.
I feel enormously privileged that I have featured in a painting by the Chewing Gum Artist.
And here is the link to the article in the Hampstead and Highgate newspaper.


  1. Those paintings are so cool, I'm very jealous!

  2. That's brilliant. What a shame if they're consigned to the pavements only. I understand him trying to get his message across but I do hope he has some miniature paintings on canvas too, for posterity.

  3. A great story, and an amazing painting!

  4. Hi Miriam,
    This is great! I'm honoured to have posed with you for Ben's wonderful painting! It was lovely to meet him.

    Spookily, only yesterday Ben was featured on the BBC website. There is a video of him working and talking about his paintings.
    I like the fact that he is non-judgemental about the gum and also that they once tried to arrest him but he got off because technically he isn't the one who committed the criminal damage in the first place!

  5. Here's the link to the video.

  6. ----- Original Message -----
    From: Linda Redshaw
    Sent: Friday, November 05, 2010 3:24 PM
    Subject: RE: Highgate, my writing and the chewing gum artist

    Hello Miriam,

    I loved the story of the Chewing Gum Artist; it's like an urban fairytale, a magician who appears to turn discarded, repulsive substance into works of beauty and delight. All power to the Chewing Gum Artist, and what a lovely idea to commission him.


  7. ----- Original Message -----
    From: Anonymous
    Sent: Friday, November 05, 2010 12:15 PM
    Subject: [Miriam Halahmy On Writing] New comment on The Chewing Gum Artist..

    Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The Chewing Gum Artist.":

    I'm glad Ben is getting the recognition he deserves now - he has been famous locally for quite a while & I always feel pleased to see him working when I'm in the Broadway.
    Ruth, an inhabitant of Muswell Hill for 75 years!

  8. Lovely to share this with you Judi,
    I like the idea of an urban fairytale Linda.
    I quite agree with you Ruth about Ben and recognition.

  9. Wow, that's amazing, so much detail on such a small space, really well done.

  10. Great post - and great picture - how cool to have that with your name on it!

  11. Beautiful artwork and a lovely post. Alex

  12. Such a great idea! I love miniatures and these are fantastic - like little clues. Looking forward to following your blog.

  13. I love the idea of these paintings being like little clues, Melissa. I'll tell Ben next time I see him Thanks for becoming a follower. Look out for my blog later this week on my workshops.

  14. I’m not a big fan of art as a commodity so it’s great to see someone like Ben doing his thing. If he becomes as big as Banksy, however, we can all expect paving slabs to disappear under cover of darkness, only to reappear on gallery walls with price tags attached.

  15. The thing is, John, Ben was around before Banksy and he has shown me some of his street art on walls and posters which was very cool. Glad you liked his work.

  16. Miriam - this is a fantastic post. What happens to the chewing gum art? I presume it gets lost in the London grime.

  17. Hi Sue - Ben has told me that the paintings can last up to five years. Mine is nicely protected behind a bollard and so is unlikely to get scraped up. But the street cleaners do steam them off the pavements if they see them.


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