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Art Success: Adelaide Damoah in Conversation with Toby Mulligan

Born in 1969,Toby Mulligan is a a rising star on the British art scene. A self taught artist, Mulligan was  a 2012  finalist for the BP Portrait award and subsequently had his work exhibited at the prestigious National Portrait Gallery in London. Mulligan is unusual in that he not only taught himself how to draw and paint with both hands simultaneously, he also taught himself how to build houses and landscape gardens, which he did on a professional basis for a number of years to supplement his practice and to look after his family. A full time artist now, Mulligans career has taken on a new direction following the recognition he received from earning a place as a BP Portrait award finalist. He took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his views on success, life and art.

BP Portrait Award Entry 2012 (c) Toby Mulligan

AD: How are you? You sound like you have a cold!

Toby Mulligan (TB): No, it is my voice. When I had my third child, I was so overwhelmed with the whole experience that I lost my voice completely. The doctors said that I have a nerve which stops functioning and then one vocal cord starts moving. It is paralysed and they have never been able to find out why. I have spoken to lots of different people and tried lots of different things, but it is a psychological thing. I don’t know where this condition comes from, but for me, it seems to be due to being overwhelmed by needs and demands that are not mine. I am very sensitive and if you are that way inclined, you tend to take on a lot of what is going on all around you and it is a constant dilemma. I remember not being listened to and being told that I would never make money from painting. I had my first commissions when I was thirteen or fourteen years old. So I was actually making money from painting from a fairly young age. It carried on when I moved to France to be with the mother of one of my children. I taught myself to build houses and built my own, as well as building houses for other people. I devoted myself completely to that. I really enjoyed it. But this thing really affects me. There have been so many opportunities I have had to pass up because of it. I wanted to teach, but when it came down to it, my voice would just go by the middle of the day.

AD: What you were saying about being told that you were never going to make money or be successful…. Those things can become so deeply embedded in your unconscious mind that your conscious mind may be saying one thing, but your unconscious mind, being in the drivers seat, is forcing you to do the opposite. 

TB: Yes, that is very interesting. I don’t know about you but I absorb things… I also have a desire to please and I carry other peoples expectations with me. I allow people to have their expectations and I know that I may let them down. Then I spend lots of time working, because their expectations are too high…

AD:You said you were selling paintings from the age of thirteen or fourteen…

TB: I was not brought up in an artistic family. My dad was a farmer and a businessman. He used to travel a lot and work in different countries, so he was not around that much. We lived on a farm in the country. I was on my own a lot. I have got a sister who is a few years older and we did not see each other that much. Most of the time, I was on my own. I did not go to school at all until I was seven. In some ways, I was kind of fully developed creatively, or imaginatively, by the time I was seven. I knew who I was and what I wanted to do. I used to carve and make things. I used to draw all the time and make up stories. I then went to a public school which was very regimented. It was all boys and completely mad! The school was very big on discipline. At that point, I really got split. I did not know what to think because I believed that I was very sure of myself and of what I wanted to do. I was completely confused by this world that I was in. It was full of mad people who made you do things that made no sense! There was no art at all in my family. There was no painting, we did not listen to music.. I am very connected to nature. You could say my confusion came from there. Because all that I was and all that I deemed to be important, had no significance in this world that I had to be in. I just wanted it to finish! When I was 15 or 16, I got thrown out of school. Not because I was bad, but because I just was not doing anything. I literally stopped responding to orders. The trouble was that I was also still trying to please my parents. I still felt as if it was my fault and that I was not functioning. So I tried. I was very good in sport and that got me through for a while. But after some time, I just could not cope with it any more. I did do A levels because they really wanted me to. I studied in my own time. I also started doing gardening jobs. I did get one A level, but I kind of failed them completely. In any case, I was self taught.

AD: There were no paintings around you. People were not listening to music and you attended this regimented school with no art. How on Earth did you teach yourself to paint?

TM: I am very lucky in that I am very instinctive. I remember seeing an article on painting and thinking that it was amazing. My parents are open minded and they were good parents. They got me some paints and I copied this painting without knowing anything at all about it. They got me a book on how to paint and I read it. When I focus on something, when I decide I want to do something, I do it. So when I decided I wanted to build a house, I had no training, there was no one to teach me, but I got a book and I looked around me and I just learned how to do it.

AD: Wow! You learned how to build houses from a book?

TB: Yes!

AD: That is amazing!

TB: I am very practical. When I need to make a window, I work out how to do it and I just do it. But at the same time, I am very easily distracted and usually confused! It is like when I wanted to learn how to draw. I remember when I was 15, I wanted to carve a human figure. I saw this photo of a ballet dancer in a newspaper, I got a book on wooden carvings and I just started carving it. It took me months and months to do it. The leg even broke off because I did not know anything about wood and how to treat it. Despite that, it was good actually! It wasn’t bad at all. I really believe that when it comes to teaching yourself, if you are listening and you are alive to what is going on, you can learn anything, very quickly. This is why I feel very strongly about school. I am very anti school as it stands because I believe that whatever you do, the things that you learn, they have to matter. If you want to cook, it is because you want to eat, because you want to enjoy food. You don’t learn to cook because it is the thing to do. You do things because they matter, because you need to. If you need to paint, then you are going to paint. Not just to pass the time.

AD: I agree with you about teaching yourself stuff. I am the same way. At school and  university, there were plenty of times when I did not go to lectures and I had to teach myself so that I would pass the exams. I learned better when I taught myself. I knew that I absolutely had to because otherwise I would be in big trouble!

TB: Yes! I think urgency is the best teacher. We are alive, but we often don’t really feel we are alive until we might die. That is very dramatic, but in a way, that is how it is. If you feel like, “shit, this is it, this may be your last moment,” that is when you go for it. When I did the painting that is in the National Portrait Gallery now, it was a competition. You get a year to get your work ready for this competition. But I couldn’t work out what to do. On the morning that I was meant to hand it in, I did a painting of my daughter in two hours and that is the one that was accepted.

AD: That is impressive! 

TM: Yes. It is a competition called the BP Portrait award. My painting was never going to win because it is not photographic. The winner is always photographic. I knew that, but I also knew that I had to make a painting, so that is what I did.

AD: Congratulations on being short listed.

TM: I was surprised, but in a way, I think that if I had worked on it longer, I would have ruined it.

AD: Yes. I have seen the painting, it is beautiful.

TM: Oh, thank you! I work at it. Every day, when I draw, I do 50 drawings in one hour. I work with both hands. I paint with both hands at the same time. I do 50 in one hour, or maybe 30 in 40 minutes. I have learned to work very fast and I believe that less is more. Even when you are doing difficult stuff, less is more. You just need to get really clear, know what you are going to do and do it. I spend more time thinking about it, dreaming about the work and less time doing.

 AD: You are some sort of prodigy.

TM: I don’t think so! My belief is that every one can do that. The question is, do you have the motivation or the desire or the energy?

AD: That is true. I don’t think I have the energy to learn to draw with both hands though!

TM: I teach people to do that. I used to teach people in France to do that and they always protest, saying that they can’t do it! I always tell them, well you are not going to die if you give it a go! I draw with my feet… You see, it is all about seeing. Because, when you put the emphasis on seeing and responding, it is not about what your hand can do, but what your mind can perceive. I believe in pushing yourself beyond the limit so you can’t control the result. So many of the best things happen when you are not aware of them happening. They are beyond your control. We are very scared to be beyond our control obviously, but there are ways of equipping yourself with skills that allow you to respond quickly when you need to.

AD: I would assume that you are full time?

TM: Yes, I am full time now. I was doing landscape gardening and building work, but I am not doing that any more.

AD: How long have you been full time?

TM: Not very long actually. About six months. I came to London about a year ago. I was still doing building and gardening. It is only about six months ago that I decided to just do this full time. It was a big risk because I have four kids and I am trying to provide for them. It is not easy.

AD: Did you make the decision to go full time or were you approached by a gallery?

TM: It was a decision. It has to come from you.

AD: Have you had any solo shows?

TM: I have had a few recently and the last one was… This seems a bit ridiculous, but I know that this is how people work… I had one a few months ago in London and I only sold one painting. Luckily, I didn’t pay for the exhibition, so it was not a complete disaster. Then I got accepted for the NPG and the last exhibition I did was a sell out. People think, “Oh he is in the BP award, so he must be good!” I find it funny because I have been painting for years like this! I can do this. But people need to see recognition. It is something that they understand. I have not been to art college. I have not got any letters after my name. No one knows about me, so the only way is to get recognised by a big institution and obviously, it doesn’t get much bigger than the BP Portrait award. I sold 21 paintings and got eight portrait commissions. The problem is that they are all kids! It is getting to the point where I am getting tired of painting kids! I need to paint older people! But anyway, it is work.

AD: What would you say is your definition of success in the art world?

TM: For me personally, my definition has always been to be completely free. Freely expressing what I really want to do and just free flowing. Without worrying or being in a position where I feel constricted or not able to do what I want to do. That is why I want the proper recognition and I want the money. I find that I am currently held back because of other considerations. I am earning money but there is all the paper work, the emails… All this stuff to do, which I am very bad at doing, but which I do. It takes up so much time and I forget things and I loose commissions and forget phone numbers! I am useless! I want to be in a position where I have got somebody who can run that for me. I have got a woman who is sponsoring me and helping me to get stuff done thankfully… Anyway, ideally, I need somebody that I can pay to be a PA. My definition of success in that sense would be, to have a proper studio somewhere, to not be worried about money or thinking about it and to just be working flat out all the time because that is what I love to do. I would like to give workshops and open studios every few weeks. I am somebody who very much wants to be involved. I like to be involved with people, sharing and inspiring… But I don’t want to be organising it and to feel like I have got commitments that I can not keep up with. I just want to be doing the work really.

AD: By your personal definition of success, are you there yet?

TM: No I am definitely not there yet. If my voice was clear, I would be there now in myself. If I had a PA and a studio space that was big enough to work in… I am renting a studio space now, but it is quite small. I want to do sculpture. That is where I am really at. I want to do sculpture, film, animation… All sorts of stuff so I need a space that is bigger. I am a long way from success now.

AD: But you will get there!

TM: I will get there yes! My main goals at this time… One is to be released and to not be worried about what people think and to be able to speak freely throughout the day, which I can not do now…

AD: What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?

TM: As a man for me it is having kids and building a house. Not just having kids, but also raising kids. I really love my kids. My eldest is nearly 20 and he speaks several languages. He is his own person. He has travelled all over the world. He is very free… We get on really well and we really love each other. I am very proud of all of my kids. Having and raising kids has taught me that there are no limitations and it has taught me about trust.

AD: What would you say is your ultimate dream for your work?

TM: I want to have somewhere I can work. A big space to be working in multi media, so sculpture film… Collaborating with film makers and  making music. I am really into music too. I want to be involved in everything. I want to be continually and freely creating and thinking. I also love writing. I want to find a fusion of film and writing. I want a place that is designed by me from the building itself to landscaping the garden. I want it to be a studio/workshop/gallery where people can come and participate in films being made, workshops… A centre. That is what I want. That is my dream. I have built houses by myself. I built a football pitch for the kids. It got to a point where I realised that without money and other people, I could not do it. I now realise that there is no reason to do it alone. There is no point. I don’t want to do it on my own anyway. I therefore need to get recognition, get the money flowing… I don’t want the money for myself. I want it so that I can do this and get it working for people. I want it so that I can be generous… It could be anywhere, in the city or in the countryside somewhere. As long as enough people know about it and there is a momentum going, then people will come to it. That is my dream.

AD: What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?

TM: Trust in the really simple values of working. First of all having a spark or a dream… Something that really moves you. That is the gift. The gift is to be moved. The gift is not to be good at something, that is what you work at. Be moved. Have something that matters to you. Either that comes to you, or you have to open yourself up to it. But be moved by something, then simply just do it and go on doing it without worrying about what will happen. Do it with trust that if you do it, then it will happen. Every long journey starts with one step. You just do it. It is not complicated. The difficult bit is not being diverted by other people or other stuff going on. This is part of the reason why I want to do the workshops. I want to show people that it is not difficult. Even drawing with two hands is very difficult in a sense, but everyone can do it, given the structure and given the energy of somebody motivating them, you can do it and it is amazing what you can achieve. It is really amazing and so is the release you feel when you are not in control…

AD: I am really intrigued by this… When you are drawing with both hands, I would assume that you are working on one picture? 

TM: Yes, one picture. There are a number of reasons why I do that and it is to do with the left and the right hand sides of the brain. It is to do with combining the rational and the creative sides of the brain, the rational and the intuitive. There is a science behind it. The main thing for me is that when you are doing something sort of impossible, which requires you to focus in different directions at once, which in a way, kind of explodes your brain and breaks up the synapses, it is really difficult to do. But at the same time, it releases you. You can’t control it, therefore you do something that you wouldn’t plan to do. Then the other part of your brain can utilise it and go with it. Life is duality. You have chaos and order. We are all trying to make sense of what we perceive to be a chaotic world, a chaotic universe. Very often, we are terrified of this. We are terrified of anything we can not control, death, ageing, disaster… All for good reason. The trouble is that it is there. Our fear is not going to stop it from happening. It is not an answer to be fearful and it is not an answer to control because you can’t control. Therefore, in my mind, the only thing you can do is to go into it. To dive into it and be a part of that process. To give yourself to it, but to give yourself to it with tools.

AD: When did you start doing that?

TM: Years ago. I have done lots of things where I have no idea why I started doing them. The thing that got me into drawing with my other hand was a book called Drawing on the Right Hand Side of the Brain. The book advises drawing with the left hand. Drawing with both hands is just me. I just decided that it worked for me. My whole life I have had this desire to not be in conflict, but to be free. I feel that for some reason, we accept disease- the opposite of ease. We accept things that shouldn’t be acceptable. We assume for some reason that life is difficult and that life is dull. I have so little patience for that. I think that it is because you make it that way and that is because you accept things that are unacceptable. But it doesn’t have to be, it shouldn’t be. The best things happen when you fall in love with somebody… Or when you love something. It is not an effort. You have got to make an effort then to go on loving somebody. But that is different to this notion of boredom and this notion of dragging yourself through things. I don’t believe in dragging yourself through something. If you are going to build a house you just do it. When I was building my house, it was incredibly difficult. I was working sometimes in -17 degrees! I did it. I was not dragging myself through it. When you want to do something, you can climb a mountain, you can sail around the world. You can do amazing things! It is not difficult. It is difficult in the sense that your body may be very tired and you may have to really push yourself. But you still do it. You are struggling, but actually, within yourself, you are at peace. It is amazing what you can achieve when you are in that space, when you are living your purpose.

AD: I love your bio! It says a lot without saying very much about you. It says that you were inspired when you were a kid by the Roald Dahl story about Henry Sugar. Do you think that that has shaped your views on success?

TM: Yes. Very much so. I love Roald Dahl. I think a lot of the time, I have got confused because I really believe in where you are in yourself. It has taken me a while to get to the point where I have had to accept that I need worldly recognition. I have kids and I have to look after them. That is why I built a house, but at the same time, I was not wanting to accept money and the fact that I had to make it. This meant that life has been a real struggle for me because I would always be doing jobs that I didn’t want to do. I think that story affected me in such a way that I believed that with the power of your mind, you could achieve anything. That is true, but of course, there is a day to day thing… You combine that with a day to day thing, so you have got to carry that power or motivation into simple tasks that you do day by day. I think that is where I fell down before. I did that, but I did not translate my passion into what I was doing day by day. But now I am doing that. Before I was passionate and working very hard, but the two were not working together. The key is carrying that passion into the simple things that you do every day and to keep on doing it, even when it doesn’t seem to be producing results, keep on going.

Toby Mulligan