Interview with Stuart Semple

It all started when you thought you nearly died. How did that pan out? Well, it was pretty horrible. I mean, I did actually die. I died for, I don’t know, a few seconds. I still have the print out of the ECG, you know, where it flat lined. So I did die. Before that, I was at art college, you know. Pretty much like everyone else, drawing shoes and plants and flowers, you know, and then after that – see the problem with that was that I came out, I didn’t know what really caused it. It was an allergy, but they couldn’t tell me what to.

They gave me a list of about 50 things it could be.

What do you remember? Like –

What, of the actual like illness? Erm, well I knew it was going to happen because the doctors told me there was basically nothing they could do. And I sort of said goodbye to all my family and everything.

And erm, yeah, said goodbye to all my family. And then it kind of happened and erm.

What did it feel like? Well it wasn’t like, everyone says there’s this white light and this tunnel and stuff, but it was nothing like that. My life didn’t flash in front of my eyes or anything like that. But what it felt like was like … I don’t know how to describe it, it’s like I became – at the moment I feel separate from everything but I felt like I was more and more part of everything? Like I was losing my individuality, you know, I was becoming part of everything else? And it was slipping, you know, and I sort of held – but I was very conscious that I held on, and I was like, I’m not ready to do it and, you know, it’s not going to happen, and it was almost like I fought it.

Almost like you drift in and become a part of everything else, everything around you. Yeah.

The walls and the table... Absolutely, yeah, that’s what it was like and erm, but I fought, and I sort of held on, and then the next morning and I sort of woke up, or whatever, I came round.

So you fought? Yeah. I think, I believe that at that point, you know, at least for me it was a choice; I could have gone along with it, and I can see that old people, or people in a lot of pain, or whatever, would be happy to sort of drift off, you know? But I was 19 and I wasn’t ready for that.

Kind of like, what you really want to watch the film and you’re like, I’m really tired and you know that you could go, but – Yeah, exactly. No, no, no I want to watch the end.

So, from that, you suddenly went, right – Yeah, that, I was like yeah, okay, two things, one was, I don’t know if this is going to happen again, and if it does, I don’t know if I could fight it, you know, ‘cause no one could tell me what caused it, but anything I eat or drink could do this to me again, so this is crazy, so I better get on with whatever it is that I’m going to do because I might not be here next week. So I started making stuff, madly, you know, just making making, painting painting painting, and I left art school, erm, didn’t want to go back, couldn’t see the point of it, ‘cause I didn’t know how long I had, so I was sort of, really really, you know, and this was like, you know, 12/13 years ago now, whatever it is, so, you know, obviously I didn’t die, I carried on, got use to that now [laughs].

So that was that. That was what sort of started it all.

Yeah, and you built up this huge collection of stuff, didn’t you? Yeah, I started making these pictures every day, two or three of them, and erm

Canvases? Paper, works on paper. Just drawing, to help what was going on, because – psychologically – I was very anxious about everything, obviously, and the swelling went down, but, mentally, I was pretty … cut up, you know? So just started making these pictures and putting them on eBay. And put three of them a day on eBay, and that was back in the day there were no blogs or social networks, so this was like ’97, you know, I still had a dial-up modem in those days [laughs] and jpegs loaded really slowly. But people started to collect these things and come on every night to bid on them at the same time, and this sort or community built up to who were sort of following the storyline of these drawings, you know, and I made about 3000 of them over three years, and sold three of them every day and that was kind of how it started.

And they all sold? Yeah, they all sold. Yeah, sometimes for a couple of quid, sometimes for a hundred, it depended.

And that was the first instance of things really starting to sell? Yeah, and connecting to other people as well who were sort of into what I was trying to do. And then it grew from there into canvases and then it exhibitions, so yeah.

Amazing. So really, it wasn’t like someone came along and said, Hey, do you want to put some stuff in an art gallery. No, not at all. It’s almost like you see it with music now, well you did with MySpace and things when that first came out. Musicians would put their stuff up and they’d get offers from labels and people would start following them and get into their music, it felt a lot like that. It was quite organic.

And you, there’s quite a lot of stuff that you’ve kind of said about capturing childhood and that. I know what you mean. Is that like something where you’d go back to some place and you’d go – I remember how I use to feel then about something or other. Yeah. And it’s like, why doesn’t it feel like that now? You know, it’s like, you’d watch ET as a kid or Karate Kid or something and it’d just feel awesome. And you’d watch it now as an adult and you’re like, why hasn’t it got the same effect? You know, I miss that, I miss that feeling.

So is that what a lot of your stuff is, trying to get back to that feeling. I think that’s a big part of it, but now, it seems to have gone past that and it’s got to a point more where it’s about how I feel about where I am now. So it’s more up to date now and it sort of deals with … I don’t know, this kind bombardment of the world, you know. This kind of constant attack of information, you know and right to silence, there is no silence. And that’s kind of what I’m talking about in the new stuff.

So, you, do you want to be a superhero? [laughs] Do I want to be a superhero? I don’t know, not, could be cool? I don’t know. Yeah maybe. Depends what – but then you’ve got responsibilities of saving people and doing things, haven’t you? I like the idea of having powers. That’d be cool.

What do you think your powers would be? I don’t know, I like, I really like Smallville, it’s one of my favourite things. So I like it that you can go really, really fast, so like, I like the idea that the world would be going really slowly and you’d be going really fast so you could kind of get ahead in what you’re doing, so that’d be good.

[laughs] Yeah, but not time travel? I don’t know, maybe. Time travel could get really complicated though.

It always gets really complicated with time travel though, ‘cause they can never remember what they’ve done where and what it’s going to affect when. So I’d probably just get into a mess, wouldn’t I?

Yeah, it would do. But you do quite a bit of charity stuff, don’t you? Yep.

What sort of things do you do?

Okay. Well, quite a few things. I’m quite involved in Amnesty – Art for Amnesty. And also, a charity called MIND, which is the leading mental health charity. And, erm, obviously after my allergies, I was left very anxious about the world and very isolated, and the doctors didn’t really help me very much, but my art did, so one of the things I’ve done with MIND is I’ve established this creative therapies fund, which I try and raise money for and awareness for. So that people in any mental distress – so they might be grieving or if they’ve lost their job or just, depressed or anything, can have access to creative therapies, so like drawing and painting in a therapeutic environment, which really helps.

Do you always know what you’re putting on to the canvas? No. Sometimes, I do. The good stuff is when it’s a surprise. See I find like if I get too in the way and start trying force something to do something, you know, my head takes over. Then I kind of, I get predictable results but they’re often disappointing. And the best stuff is almost when I get out of the way and I don’t know where the hell it comes from and I lose track of time and something happens and I take a step back and, oh my god, what on earth is that, and it’ll take me ages to work out what the hell I’ve made.

So you go back afterwards rather than saying, "I want to express this" and then doing it - you just do it. Yeah, I think like, I read a thing and it said in the old days this word, I think it’s the word genius came from some ancient language of something and it meant like genie and it wasn’t in our heads it was something outside us, that was inspiration, you know, so it was like a god or a deity, this genie that could give us inspiration and it would come from outside us. And it’s only quite recently that we’ve got the idea that we have to be solely responsible for big ideas, and we have to do it, and it’s all down to us – the great artist, whatever. Like in those days, it was like floating in the ether, and if you were in the right frame of mind you could catch it. I like the idea of catching inspire and it going through you, you know, and if it’s not there then it’s not my fault and if it is there, and I’ve made a great thing, it’s not ‘cause I’m clever, it’s because I was lucky that day, so you can’t get egotistical about success.

Otherwise you can get annoyed at yourself as to why it doesn’t look right.

Yeah then you get frustrated and all that stuff.

Is that what that one is? (points to a canvas with its face to the wall)

It happens all the time and I think the more things you make the harder it gets actually. ‘Cause you’ve covered ground already and you don’t want to do the same thing twice, and you don’t want to fall into a pattern of you might have done a few successful things and, you know, the temptation is to repeat yourself, I think.

Yeah completely. So do you get a sense of when you’ve got a new something new on the horizon, a new vibe. A new look?

Yeah. See something. You start noticing it in lots of different things. I’m very conscious of, sort of, visual trends, I suppose. Yeah, fashion, fashion editorial music video, I can see little traces of things. Like ages, years before that happened, like, even I moved back to like hand drawn typography and some that sort of surfer kind of LA vibe that came in a couple of years ago, like, I could see it bubbling on peoples’ tumblr sometimes things like that. and I see it out of the corner out of my eye I can feel it and see it build, it’s kind of weird.

But I do notice when something’s bubbling, but you’ve got to embrace it, I think. The thing is in those early stages, it’s sort of embryonic. It needs you to grab it and do something with it or it fades away – it’s too fragile. It’s like sometimes I get annoyed when I’m tied up in making something and I can feel that there’s something else that I should be doing and I can’t get to it because I need to finish what I’m doing first, and I come back to it and it’s kind of gone.

What happens if you hit like the creative block. Do you get them? Elton John never does apparently.

Oh, rubbish. How’s he doing that? I don’t know.

All dressed up every day.

[laughs] Yeah, maybe that’s what I’m doing wrong. [laughs]. No, I get them all the time. I don’t know how you answer.

So what sort of things do you do there when you’ve got it? Obviously you seem quite calm, you accepted it and you just go –

I’ve got to do something else. Well actually, that’s why I’ve got quite a few other things going on. I might do a music video or smart direction or fashion stuff, whatever. I’ve got a whole ream of what my art is; it’s not just painting. There are times when you just can’t paint. The art world doesn’t really understand that. I mean, I can’t paint 12 hours a day every day for my whole life, I just can’t. and you’re smashing your head against a brick wall. I’ll come in here I’ll come in here at nine and leave and nine every day religiously. And I’ll and paint, but it might not be a painting day, it might not happen. And you know I’ll do some illustration or some design stuff, whatever, then come back to it. Quite often I’ll get lost in something else, like making a video or collaboration with a band or something, and that I’ll come back to the painting and it’ll refresh me or I’ve learnt something new there, or something’s happened.

Yeah, cool. So which side of do you enjoy most? Is there a side you enjoy the most?

Painting’s my thing. It’s not always fun, but it’s a challenge and it’s one of those things that you can never master, you know, it’s like, it’s a forever thing. ‘Cause that always nags away at me, whatever I do. But if I’m making a film or something, I still approach it as a painter. It’s the only thing I know, so I’m making pictures and I’m telling stories and dealing with the same stuff. It’s truly an extent, the whole thing is part of the same thing.

So a band may come to you and say we want to do a film.

I mean, I get a lot of bands. Yeah all the time. They’ll write in and you know what do you think of this? And I get so many demos sent, and most of the time I’m not interested. I’ll only do it if I’m absolutely mad passionate about it. And I’ve had some really big ones. Really, really big artists. But quite often it’s the indie ones that ask, the ones that don’t have any money, the ones that have really good work, the ones I can collaboration and work with really closely and can make something really good together.

Not a man in a suit, or whatever. Yeah. I did some stuff with Lady Gaga about three years ago. And it was horrible, you know, it was the least creative thing I’ve ever done. It’s just this guy at the label in the marketing department telling me what to do and how to do it, you know? And yeah, it was just no kind of … it felt really disingenuous. There was nothing in it. It wasn’t my work, I wasn’t even proud of it. And then this other band called Officers, who were like … awesome, they are my favourite band.

A lot of it, your work is based around pop art and culture and that. Do you influenced directly by the music or do you create your own with soundtracks to them?

I think … it’s two things. The music gives me an energy. You listen to music and physically the paint changes, your arm moves differently. But also lyrics are really important. You’ve seen my blackboard, all of that is song lyrics. So it might just be a little phrase I’ll hear and I’ll write it down. And it might become a painting. I wrote on that masking tape over there, ‘This crystal city’s going to fall apart’. And then it started the action and images.

What do you choose to listen to?

I don’t know. I mean I, I don’t know. I suppose … kind of rock? But alternative rock? But also like, I don’t know, I love Radiohead, Conor Oberst, Bright Eyes. But you know, a lot of the 80s stuff, The Cure.

Do you ask a lot of questions, do you spend a lot of time pondering stuff?

Yeah. But then I find actually the thing with painting is sometimes you can work it out by doing it. Do you know what I mean? You have a starting popint, and then chip away at it, and then tit starts to uncover.

Did you grow up down here?


Did you know you wanted to get into this early on?

Yeah, but I didn’t know it was a job. I didn’t have a clue about that. I remember going to a museum, I was about 8, and I saw Van Gogh for the first time. And it was like, you can’t imagine, it was like WOAH, it just hit me, it was the sun flowers, it was like BAM, what is that?! and my mum was like, an artist made it. And I was like, I wanna be an artist! It wasn’t like a job or anything. It wasn’t until. An artist didn’t make any money, and they chop their ear off, like Van Gogh, and all that. and I didn’t really know. And Bournemouth didn’t really have a creative class or a creative culture, you know. It didn’t exist. So there wasn’t that. it was either you get, didn’t seem to be an option to do that.

Did you ever feel like, because it was like a smaller town, it wasn’t always acceptable to behave or be that way, you were kind of more hemmed in?

Yeah, absolutely, I mean like, you know, I got beaten up, I was 16/17 for looking weird, you know. And I didn’t fit in and I knew I had to leave. I didn’t have that choice and then I got to London, I think I was like 22 and like oh my God, I’m amongst my own kind! I’m not weird! There’s people a million times weirder than me! Oh my God, I’m actually quite normal, wow. [laughs] and it was a huge relief, really, ‘cause, I’m not an alien, this is alright. There’s people living like this and it’s acceptable and they’re not bad people, you know. They’re like, alright, you know.

I like your happy clouds.

Aw, thank you. They were cool.

How did you fire them up on through, were they like made out of foam bubbles?

Yeah, bubbles, like soap bubbles. And in the bubble instead of air there’s helium, so they float. They were fun to make.

That’s great, what a nice little idea.

Yeah, it was weird. That was one of those, you know, where you don’t know where it comes from; you just find yourself doing it. And you almost think about it afterwards, and you go, woah, God, Thank God I didn’t think about that, I would have talked myself out of it. That’s impossible, you can’t do that, that’s ridiculous.

You do a bit in fashion then?

I did Mon Clare. Fashion wise, I did Morgan and Wills, Jack Wills. I designed a few things for them. This is a cardigan I did for autumn so knitwear. And, it was inspired by my Grandad, because when he died I inherited this blue button. And I use to make things in the garden with my garden, so I designed this gardening jumper.

And when you get asked to do these things, do you ever get to a point where you think, woah, this is quite hairy?

I don’t know. The thing is, you’ve got to be really confident that you’re an artist doing this. I’m not a fashion designer, I’m not really an art director, I’m an artist and that’s it. So if I do it as me, then that’s cool, you know. But sometimes you can get obsessed in art, but I don’t know how, whatever, no you’re doing it as a piece of art.

So you never look at is I’m following the rules that, you know, a fashion designer would follow.

Yeah, ‘cause I don’t know those [laughs]. I’ve never been to fashion school. I just try and come up with the narrative, or something that’s interesting. Like, with the cardigan, when I designed the pattern, there’s like bird houses here. I knew I wanted the pockets to be really slouchy so you could keep things in and I wanted to put patches on the arm like your nana had sewn them up.

You’ve done a couple of films you say?

Yeah. More like, I’ve done sort of art films that would be like projected in a gallery, then music videos. I don’t know, but they’re a struggle ‘cause, you know, they’re a challenge, there’s so many people involved in making. I don’t know, it’s really hard, I find that I’m not assertive enough, sometimes.

When you’re on set, you mean?

You know, like, I really want you to get this. And people can’t see what’s in my head. And I’m like, no, whatever you do: just get that, get that, get that. And I’ll have producers sometimes who’ll say there isn’t time, and I’m like, please while you’re in that caravan, please, and then I find in the edit we don’t have it. And sometimes, one film I made, we got a really big, really good director in, but, I went through the vision with him again and again and again and again and then he interpreted it, you know. And for the sake of time, what can I do, but let him get on with this thing, and you get something that’s not quite it? So I’ve struggled with that.

How do you feel about London now? Do you still like it?

I did my stint there, but I’m happy here, and it’s not that far. But I do miss, I miss the culture of it, the opportunity to see things. Thing with it is it’s just so damn expensive. Studios and thing. You know, I’d sell a big painting that’ll last [me] 5 minutes. You sell one down here and it’s like, woah, what shall we do this month?

They’re selling quite a lot now aren’t they, yours.

Yeah, but they’re also taking a lot longer, which is the problem [laughs]

You making them bigger all the time?

No, not necessarily. These are the same size, but they’re just taking ages. Like last year, I finished 3 paintings.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m reading 2 things at the moment. The biography of Michael Jackson, the definitive one that’s one like that thick, which is really fascinating. It’s awesome. It’s absolutely unbelievable. So there’s that and then Jack Keroauc’s On The Road? But the original manuscript, the unedited one.

Do you want to get bigger in terms of the name?

I don’t know, I just want to get better, you know what I mean. Like a lot of people ask do you want to be Damien Hirst, and sell £10 million, and I’m like no. I just want to keep doing what I’m doing till I’m 80. I’m not interested in making lots of money or getting famous and just painting pictures.


Yeah, I think that was the thing with the Gaga thing, it just wasn’t me. I get art dealers the same, you know, they’ll sell something out really quickly ,and they’ll ring me and they’ll put pressure on me, and say they’ll say look I’ve they’ve sold, like one lady, I’ve sold your next print addition. And I was like, oh have you? ‘Cause I haven’t even come up with what it is yet. You know, can I actually at least have the idea for it before you sell it.

What do you think of Damien Hirst for example, he does his stuff, but he doesn’t do all the work, just gets other people on it.

I think it’s different things. I understand if you’re making a massive sculptural piece, which I do sometimes. You don’t have, like, for instance, my structures, I don’t make them. Jon Jones makes them, he’s the best structure maker. I can have a go, but it’d be shit. I understand that aspect. If he’s making a big sculpture, say 12 foot high bronze of a pregnant lady cut in half. Okay, you can’t expect a guy to make that, but I think painting’s different, you know, I don’t buy the idea that he’s getting other people to paint his pictures, I don’t like that. But I think, you know, a big sculpture or a film, whatever, yeah.

Like Ainsley Harriet cous-cous, he had nothing to do with that.

Yeah, he just whacked his name on it. Yeah, he turned up to this thing, and was like, I’ve got to go now. It’s alright if it’s like cous-cous. I mean, Hirst’s alright, you know. I think he’s one of these that he’s had a few good ideas and kept repeating them ‘cause they sell well. You know, like he’s got style.

Do you kind of sometimes think, do you want to do diff things, like, you know, more installations, like digital.

So, last year I made only digital stuff, which is why I only did one or a couple of paintings. Which was an iTunes LP, which is the world’s first art LP for iTunes, ‘cause you can buy it in the music store next to everything else. I’ll do it full screen. So it runs inside iTunes. It’s collaboration between me and my friend in the Prodigy. So you’ve got tunes, moving pictures, print, book, and making credits. And then a print, which is a jpeg or a PDF that you can print out big. And you’ve got a book and then it’s got a comic, which is like an interactive comic.

Yeah, you can download it for £7.99 and it’s all my work and accessible and, yeah.

That’s an hour. I reckon that’s probably good though.

[laughs] You’ve got my whole life story on there.


Massive thanks to Stuart for his time, see his work over at