There is a retiree named Pearline in Muswell Hill, London, who for her 108th birthday received a specially commissioned painting. The artwork is small, a little larger than a 50 cent coin and glued to a stone slab outside its front door.
Ben Wilson, also known as “Chewing Gum Man,” was waiting for a nearby bus when the woman’s daughter asked him to paint the discarded piece of gum. He was more than happy to oblige and produced a tiny, colorful piece of art with a portrait in the center (below).
“She is going to be 108 years old,” he said. I. “I could not believe it. A relative approached me at the bus stop – I’m from the area – and asked me to take this photo for her. I thought, yes, it has to be done.
Wilson has been turning old pieces of chewing gum into intricate pieces of art for nearly two decades, and nowadays it usually works on demand.
It is, he says, “positive action”, and finding a “creative solution to a problem”. He is estimated to have painted over 10,000 over the years, in the UK and Europe. He once painted a discarded bubble gum circle outside an art center in Senja, northern Norway, in the Arctic Circle. Each year, it is covered with snow and is revealed when the snow melts.
Wilson explains, “You take something that’s thrown away. Eraser by its nature is plastic. It’s disgusting. It’s about thinking creatively in your immediate surroundings and using the freedom you have to do something exciting. It’s a different art form and not one that has really happened before. I love the way you work with the environment and the creativity that comes with it – I also love connecting with people and communities and getting to know the people who walk past my artwork every day.
Wilson says that people who encounter his artwork in their communities could become its stewards, much like famous street art, or even council-backed artwork erected in parks, on beaches, in recreation grounds. and in city centers. These chewing gum collections are not officially commissioned but neither are they renegades. They are in “no man’s land,” Wilson says.
“Technically, this is not criminal damage, because it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the local government – the gum belongs to the person who spat it out,” explains the artist. “It allows art to happen and helps freedom of expression.”
Wilson’s paintings can be spontaneous, but they often pay homage to their surroundings. On Parkland Walk in north London, a trail, funded by the Friends of Parkland Walk, evokes the animals that live in the woods. His miniature images capture everything from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to frying in a greasy spoon. Wilson says he still considers what the impact of his art will be.
“That’s what’s exciting – I explore communities and regions and art comes out of it, but it’s also immersed in it,” he says. “I am also a sculptor and I started doing big projects in the woods, carving trees. I think the two are quite similar.
Wilson transcends typical and traditional methods. Who before him has never thought of producing tiny paints on flabby pieces of chewed polymer?
For years, the sidewalks of Europe have been dotted with old pieces, and Wilson’s bright and playful illustrations are undoubtedly an improvement. And they are also desirable. Once outside the offices of The Economist magazine in London, a photo of completed chewing gum was stolen within 24 hours. He said to me, “I’m dealing with garbage problems. I don’t think some people really care. They can be thoughtless. Someone who spits out some chewing gum has created a problem, and this echoes broader issues with drinking. I’m not saying I’m on a great crusade, but I don’t like certain aspects of our society.
Wilson says he likes people signing dedications and that his job depends on “any number of variables.” Just, he says, it’s nice when people ask, and his list of commandments is long. Each piece has meaning and each takes time. It is not an easy environment to work.
“I use acrylic and enamel paint. First I use a burner to heat the gum, and the older the gum the better, because it contains less moisture. I put a hairspray in the gum to then harden it and spread it a little.
“Then I create the image. I have hundreds of requests and I am very seduced because I really appreciate it. I like to celebrate the people who ask me and the place where I work. But I can’t do the same.
Wilson says he revisits many of his works for storage. Sometimes he has to sweep up broken glass. He once cleaned up a bunch of sick people. “I’m trying to find as many as I can,” he says. But as much as he cares about the exhibition of his pieces – he had them much earlier in the year, during a retrospective at the Hoxton Gallery – he also reveled in a little mystery.
“I just like to do my best for the people who ask me to do the job,” he says. “But I don’t want to completely destroy the mystery. I like to see people discover my work – come across it. School children could see one and have their own perception. They could learn how subjective everything is. They could also appropriate, in a way.
And as the “Chewing Gum Man,” he brought people a little bit of fleeting magic as they walked the streets.
“People never really get the whole story,” Wilson says. “Each work is a snapshot of you, of me and of reality. It’s complex.