Professional Builder talks to a builder who has got recycling down to a fine art.
One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure – and that’s certainly true of one south east London-based floor layer. We are now encouraged to recycle and reuse the waste we produce at every turn – to the extent that it has become a commodity in its own right – but in the hands of Michael Connell it is transformed into stunning works of art. The 63 year old has for decades been scavenging the waste building materials that are his inspiration from the building sites he works on, and today his Catford back garden is a colourful fixture of the local community, attracting over 200 admirers when he throws open the gates over two weekends every summer.
Merely calling it a shed does not do justice to the labyrinthine gallery that Michael has constructed at the bottom of his garden. It is here that the artistic labours of more than 30 years are first created then stored, each of which have been hewn from the humblest of raw materials. Insulation board, plasterers’ scrim, plywood and pipe lagging are amongst the discarded detritus of construction that Michael coverts, which he then carves, shapes and paints into magnificent forms.
“I’m very interested in fusions of art and nature, and that’s why my work is in the garden. The shed is in itself a huge work of installation art, built around two trees, and was previously one of the finalists in George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces. I make a living from the building trade but art is my passion, and I have big plans for my garden. I plan to hold a fashion show here in the summer, for instance, where local designers – who also make use of recycled materials – can display their works on a catwalk, and I’m hoping to host more art exhibitions as well.
Indeed, the floor screeder may be into his sixties but he shows no sign of slowing down, and his shed, which he has called Povera, is constantly evolving, as his creativity adds to what is already a considerable collection. The subjects on which Michael focuses his artistic eye are as varied as the colour palette he utilises. A huge mural is dedicated to the long struggle for the emancipation of slavery, for instance, whilst another charts Barack Obama’s journey to the White House. There are scenes of the crucifixion, cellos and guitars expertly sculpted from insulation, as well as more abstract designs. Pieces of broken glass are built up into complex mosaics, whilst lengths of pipe lagging and rope stand for the roots and branches of trees. Much of Michael’s prodigious output is designed to reflect and mimic nature, with the tunnel like structures along which his work hangs redolent of the fauna of a living cave.
At the tender age of 10, Michael made the journey from his native Barbados to these shores, but has been devoted to his artistic endeavours since even before then. “As a boy in the West Indies I’d be making things from anything that I found lying around and it’s a fascination I brought with me to England,” he recalls. “I studied art at Walthamstow College, but back then there were quite a few barriers to someone from my background progressing further and it’s not something I wasn’t able to pursue as a career.”
Michael’s art has graced walls as diverse as the Goldman Sachs corporate art collection, London’s City Hall, St Paul’s, and Lewisham Police Station, and he has sold smaller pieces on a commission basis, but it is neither money nor public recognition that motivates him. “My work inherently carries the message that we should be more careful about what we throw away,” he explains. “Some of the materials they are made from would take thousands of years to break down in landfill, but I’ve been able to put them to another use, and that’s something we all need to think about. When I’m on any new job I’m like a kid in a sweet shop, because of all the rubbish I can lay my hands on and skips are some of my favourite places. It’s also about having fun and enjoying it, and that’s hopefully something that’s reflected in the finished pieces.”
For further information visit michaelsart.co.uk