Shortly after passing his master’s degree in fine arts, Goldsmiths graduate Patricio Forrester and his friends began snatching, painting and then returning the neighbours’ bins at night.
“We would take the bin, paint it, and then give it back and see what would happen,” he recalls with a smile. Did the neighbours mind? “Some did, some didn’t. Some would say: ‘Give me my grey bin back!’
“We thought maybe the council would sue us because basically, we were taking their property, but it wasn’t a proper transgression because we were actually transforming somebody else’s things.”
In 2005, Lewisham Council showed their fondness by commissioning bins from Forrester’s public arts company, Artmongers, for New Cross Gate. They found that the amount of recycled rubbish increased by 61 per cent. They have now spread far and wide.
Forrester, 48, might be best known for these art pieces – nonetheless his career stretches way beyond that. It began in Buenos Aires, where he found that he had a natural affinity for art.
“At a very young age my elder sister started asking if I could do her drawings for school,” he says. “I think that was hugely important.”
After moving to London and graduating from Goldsmiths in 1995, Forrester found his niche within the realm of public art. “I didn’t want to carry on making new art for the art world and making collectibles,” he recalls. “I wanted art to play a role in people’s lives but without the money exchange.”
Lewisham council became interested in Forrester’s work after seeing some of his murals in 2001 and 2002, eventually asking him to take a course on “sustainable enterprise”.
“They noticed how [art] became a part of the local economy,” he says. “They said: ‘we want to give you work but we can’t trust you as an individual artist – you need to form a company’”.
His course mate Julian Sharples, became the first Artmongers partner. Forrester explains: “By the end of the course they taught us how to create a company, start a bank account, all of that, and we were actually doing it while they were teaching us. So by the end of it, we came out with a fully-structured company.”
After taking the course together, Forrester and Sharples had a plan: to become very local. “You can’t really make public art with your own head, you have to start a dialogue,” says Forrester. “And sometimes your opportunity is not there, but the idea is.”
The first step towards becoming local was in 2010, when Forrester, local architect John Knepler, and senior strategy advisor Catherine Shovlin introduced Bold Vision, a community charity based in Telegraph Hill and New Cross.
Bold Vision allowed Artmongers to off in a new direction.
“With Bold Vision it was more ‘let’s do community through art’ whereas Artmongers was ‘let’s make art with community’”.
Co-founder Shovlin eventually joined Artmongers in 2011, just as Sharples was leaving. Her role as a strategist included networking, developing, and evaluating different aspects of the company. If strengthening a community was the goal; Artmongers didn’t need to confine themselves to a local area.
In 2015, Artmongers went international, crowdfunding a visit to a Syrian refugee camp and launching the “PEACE ROCKS!” project. It involved dunking rocks in paint – turning them from worthless chunks of stone to works of art.
“What was interesting was that we didn’t go with any ideas except for taking ourselves there and using something that was abandoned there – the rocks on the floor – and that was it really,” explains Forrester.
“Once we started, everyone was so excited and wanted to participate. We had the security man, instead of looking after the door, saying, ‘Hey! I want to do a peace rock!’”
While Artmongers is now traveling the world to create public art, their principle still lies in the benefit that is brought to the local community – whether that is abroad or here in New Cross.
“It’s a great strategy for someone who is not in a hurry,” Forrester explains. “I’m not in a hurry at all.”
Words by Lydia Meester.