Earlier this year we were invited by artist Ben Edge to visit his London studio. Ben's work explores narrative, character and folklore. Among other outputs, he paints, plays music and has started making video work. He is enormously knowledgeable about folk customs and was kind enough to answer some questions for us:
HERESY: Tell us about the video you worked on with Fat White Family, how did you get involved in that? I heard you might have made an appearance too?
BEN: Yes that right! Well I've known Saul, Nathan and Lias for quite some time from when they were playing in their previous band called the Saudis. Also at the time I was in a band called Thee Spivs and we used to play gigs supporting one another all over London. The recent collaboration came about as me and Saul had chatted a few times about doing an album cover for him that never quite happened but it put the idea in my mind of painting a portrait of him. So I did last year and when he came to see it finished, he bought the other members of the Fat Whites with him and a few days later Lias asked if they could use my painting of the Burryman for their latest single ‘Tastes good with the money’ and then after that they came over to my studio again accompanied by the director Fiona Godivier and asked me to work with them on a music video for the song ‘when I leave’ as they wanted my “Pagan Wisdom” for the art direction. It was great fun making it and I appeared wearing a Wart Hog mask in the video.
This is a question we get asked a lot too, but how did you get into folklore?
Well I find it difficult to pinpoint exactly but for me folklore is something that surrounds us all, the stories that are passed down to us by our families, the traditions and superstitions we inherit and the day to day cultures that we are apart of, but to tell you something more specific to me I think it began with my own family the ‘Edges’ and the eccentric characters and great storytellers that I happened to be surrounded by. Some examples of these were my Grandfathers stories of his everyday life working at Smithfield’s meat Market, the stories of old London filled with Guns and Gangsters as well as the funny individual stories told by my Dad and uncles about growing up in a council flat in Brixton full of exotic animals, such as snakes, lizards, chimpanzee’s and black widows. Also tales of distant relatives such as a great grandfather in Ireland that was mauled to death by a bull whilst working as a slaughter man. My Grandfather was also a believer in the Green Man and would take us into the woods and tell us that you could hear him if you listened hard enough. So anyway to summarise, I think it was what I call my own ‘Family Lore’ that made me feel part of a lineage and something far bigger than myself and this for me is the magic and importance of Folklore.
We're always making excuses for not going to as many folk events as we'd like to, you seem like you're doing a good job of getting out there. Can you tell us about some of the ones you've been most excited by/into/found most interesting?
I have been to so many remarkable events that I could tell you something interesting and exciting about each of them but to whittle it down to a few I’ll begin with the May Day celebrations in Padstow, Cornwall, where every year on the 1st of May two ‘Obby Osses’ (That are a kind of Hobby Horse wearing a tribal mask) perform a fertility dance through the streets of town to celebrate the coming of summer and the death of winter. Each Oss has a band of followers that play accordion and perform the ‘May song’ that you can also hear being sung by near enough the whole community of Padstow that come out to celebrate May Day in force. It is an incredible thing to witness and the atmosphere and emotion is electric. People are literally in tears of joy and to hear the ‘May Song’ being sung with such passion and feeling sends shivers down the spine even thinking about it. It really is something that wouldn’t look out of place happening within an African tribe and to find something like this taking place in England has inspired me to no end.
Another of my favourites happens every year in August in the town of South Queensferry in Scotland. The Burryman’s day. This tradition is said to hark back to ancient times where a scape goat would be selected to carry the sins of the town and is covered head to toe in sticky Burdock seeds that scratch and irritate the skin. During the day the towns folk come out from their houses to give him whiskey to ease the pain of his burden in exchange for a ‘Burr’ that brings them good luck for the year. This tradition may sound like something out of Pagan times but it is happening now and following the Burryman for his 8 mile gruelling hike through the town of South Queensferry truly is both a very cleansing and drunken experience.
Lastly It has to be the Flaming Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary in Devon, Where every year on Bonfire night Tar Barrels are set on fire and run through the streets by members of the community that are known as ‘Barrel Roller’s’ . To carry a Barrel is a great honour and a real rite of passage and children as young as seven begin the festivities with the ‘Children Barrels’ , with many of them shedding tears of fear that soon turn into smiles of elation after braving the barrel and ensuring the survival of the tradition. The event ends with the gigantic Midnight Barrel, that is an honour saved for the most experienced of ’Barrel Rollers’ this Barrel is huge and the intense heat that comes off of it , the smell of the tar and the shouting and screaming and sheer drama of it all have been etched into my brain for life.
What's left on the folk-bucket list?
Well I attempted to visit the Surva festival in Bulgaria this year to see the amazing Kukeri dancers, that for me draws many parallels to Britain’s Folk traditions but unfortunately is was cancelled due to a water crisis in the town of Pernik where it takes place. So I will definitely be going back for that next year. In Britain I’d like to go to ‘Up Hellya’ that takes place in Orkney on the Shetland Islands as well as doing a bit more of an overall investigation into the tradition of Mumming, which is a kind of folk play and visiting various groups across the UK. I am also yet to witness the Hooden Horse tradition of Kent that is definitely on the list.
There seems to be a growing interest in British folk at the moment, have you got any thoughts on this, or why it may be?
I think this is to do with people wanting to reconnect to a time when human beings lived in harmony with the natural world. As culture becomes more global, commercial and urbanised and with the rising fear of climate change I think it has become a form of activism to practice and engage with your local folklore and folk customs. It’s very hard to care about something that you don’t feel a sincere connection to, so it is my belief that by taking the time to honour the seasons and to celebrate the practices of your ancestors is a way of reconnecting with nature and our ancient selves giving Folk culture a whole new level of importance and meaning within the 21st century.
One of the things that we find most engaging about the subject of folklore is using it to explore the idea of 'Britishness'. British identity seems like a bit of a touchy subject at the moment, folklore seems to provide a route to looking at aspects of British culture in a positive light, would you agree with that?
Yes I do, I think it has been the case for a long time that when people think of Britain they think of red coats, slavery, oppression and the empire and this is not something that growing up in Britain you really want to be associated with, but this all comes from the top. British Folk culture for me has has nothing to do with the past mistakes instigated by the ruling classes, folk culture grew from the ground with the oppressed peasants that found ways of reclaiming control of there own lives and destinies through superstitions, ritual practice and creativity.
We've always seen folk-culture being firmly linked with the pub, in many ways pubs were the places where all these customs and narratives are sort of archived. Have you got any favourite places to go and indulge in this most sacred of rituals that is 'having a pint'?
Haha yes many of Britain’s folk tales and beliefs are also preserved in the Pub names of Britain. My favourite Pubs have changed as I have moved around but the most significant for me would be The Griffin in Shoreditch where I had my first ever pint ,The weavers in Southborough, Kent (that has sadly gone now), The Dolphin in Hackney where I spent many a good evening and lastly Quinns in Camden that for a while felt like you were stepping in to the Wild west.
Talk to me a bit about your practice, did you always want to be a painter?
Yes I think I always knew that I was an artist, it was the only thing that came completely naturally to me and that I wanted to do. I also write songs but I have never seen that as a separate its just another way of expressing an idea.
Did you study painting? How did you find the process of being educated in something as vast and subjective as an art practice?
Yes I studied at the Sir John Cass school of art, that is part of London metropolitan University. I don’t think nowadays that you are really educated on how to make art technique wise. Even when you go to art school I still think finding your own style is a self taught thing. Although there are the ‘current trends’ that seem to influence the type of work being made and what you are taught about in lectures. However I always felt like I was on my own in what I was doing and I think the teachers realised this by the end and would just show me the work of artists that they thought id connect with and that could inspire me to take my work to the next level.
Portraiture is clearly a very important part of your work, what do you think has drawn you to this?
Again going back to my family and the eccentric characters that I was surrounded by. This made me interested in people and their stories and this really is what my portraits do visually.
What artists are you into at the moment?
I love the work of the ceramicist Claire Partington, the Photographs of Charles Freger and also the intricate paintings of the Greek painter Emmanouil Bitsakis, the magical paintings of my good friend David Harrison and lastly the overall creative vibe of Alex Merry, that makes paintings, illustrations as well as creating incredible Folk costumes and masks that she describes as ‘beasts’ for various Morris Sides including her own all girl Morris side ‘Boss Morris’ . All of these artists explore themes of folklore and mythology with a contemporary approach and I am sure fans of Heresy would also be into all of these.
What is the most magic place in Britain?
The streets of Padstow during May day, Stonehenge at sunrise during the Summer Solstice and swimming in the mixed pond on Hampstead Heath.
You can find more of Ben's work HERE
Below is a recent song Ben has recorded, played over some of his own 'customs' footage