The artist tells Freire Barnes about the influence of her childhood in Bangladesh and why producing art for the public realm is so exciting
Ben Edge: for the love of folk art
6 Jun 2022
Ben Edge celebrates folklore in all its forms
The artist in his studio
Ben Edge swore he would never exhibit any of his paintings until he was 30 years old. It was a bold statement for an artist who had already made strides straight out of art college, showing a brilliant portrait of his grandfather – a sometime exotic animal handler – at the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait Award, back in 2009. ‘I felt I needed time to develop my skills and aesthetic, and I don’t believe in wasting people’s time,’ he explains when we meet in his north London studio, sometime after the three-decade landmark.
It would be hard to imagine Edge ever wasted anyone’s time, given his prolific tendencies. After years of honing his craft by taking on portrait commissions of ‘eccentric characters’ (alongside making music), he continued his search for the subject matter that would truly ignite his creativity. Eventually he stumbled across his singular devotion: the world of folk traditions. And people have taken notice.
Ben Edge, Devil's Den
‘It has been a mad time,’ he laughs, as we discuss the attention and acclaim he received for his exhibition Ritual Britain, which took place in the summer of last year during a strange period when people were once again venturing to see art, but pandemic restraints kept things local. The show was arranged in collaboration with Simon Costin, founder of the itinerant Museum of British Folklore, director of the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall and a renowned designer to boot.
After many false starts and broken promises, the pair self-funded the exhibition of paintings, photography, costumes and objects that celebrate all things folk last summer. The show was held at The Crypt Gallery in St Pancras – a fitting location for a collection that explores the depths of British traditions.
Ritual Britain installation shot
‘We had a huge banner hanging on the railings outside, and so many people came in out of curiosity, especially those on their way to the Wellcome Collection,’ Edge explains. The response was huge and extremely positive, even garnering a Guardian headline from comedian Bridget Christie, which declared, ‘Ritual Britain made me proud to be British’. When considering this praise, Edge explains that ‘folk offers so many answers to modern problems. It allows us to reconnect with nature, address the climate crisis, celebrate regional creativity and understand that our heritage has always been a mishmash of immigrant culture.’
Ben Edge, Orkney
Since then, Edge’s work has been in high demand, not only in terms of his paintings (all of which include explanatory notes on their subject matter), but as a speaker and conduit to a wealth of knowledge that is in danger of disappearing. His studio is a testament to the multifaceted growth of his practice: walls are filled with reliefs of the Green Man, and canvases documenting everything from stone circles and lunar festivals to chalk hill figures. Elsewhere, Edge’s collection of ephemera from various pagan events and localised rituals (including a waistcoat wholly decorated with commemorative pins and badges) is on proud display.
‘It’s all about sharing the folk world and making it accessible’
There is also a pair of life-sized mannequins completely covered in artificial flowers, apart from their extremely contemporary Reebok Classics. ‘They’re my modern-day answer to the Burry Man,’ the artist says, ‘and putting them together has almost killed me. I thought it would take a few days, but it was a few weeks!’ They will soon be leaving the studio for the Royal Academy, to be exhibited in the Summer Exhibition, on the invitation of Bill Woodrow.
‘It is a great honour,’ he adds. ‘It’s a big enough deal if your work gets selected as part of the open submission, but then it might end up in a high-up corner on a wall. To be invited is incredible.’ The notion of being slightly on the fringe is something Edge is familiar with. He blazed his own trail to discover something authentic, what he calls the ‘magic of art’, when other artists he met followed a more abstract, academic route. ‘I went to London Met, not one of the main art schools, and my family has never been big on education, but they were always really creative.’
Ben Edge, The Garland King
In fact, his father worked in the art department on Star Wars and Indiana Jones (Edge is named after the Jedi master Obi-Wan ‘Ben’ Kenobi), and his grandfather also played a part in filling the Temple of Doom with snakes. This wonderful link to some of the greatest cinematic creations of recent times is nevertheless more likely to be viewed through the lens of craft. ‘I see that reflected in so many of the people I meet who are part of folk traditions,’ Edge adds. ‘They create these incredible things, but they’d never call themselves artists.’
Edge is a natural storyteller and spreading the word of folk is his raison d’être. Community is also hugely important. Not only does he ingratiate himself with everyone he meets as part of his quest, but he also has a wonderfully active Instagram account and a newsletter, where he shares his travels and discoveries with a keen audience.
Ben Edge, The Summer Solstice
‘It’s all about sharing the folk world,’ he says, ‘and making it accessible.’ For that reason, Edge is happy to blur the lines between ‘high art’ and fan merchandise. His 2022 calendar highlighting hundreds of folk holidays quickly sold out, and he sells T-shirts, totes bags, postcards and prints alongside his original paintings. He is also in the process of making a documentary film.
‘Right now, I’m in a period of reflection and reimagining,’ he says. ‘This all started because I wanted to uncover traditions that were lost in the mists of time, but I have discovered that contemporary folk is really thriving. Through my work I’ve met groups like Boss Morris, an all-female morris dancing group who feel totally punk to me, and Angeline Morrison, a musician who is researching less-documented folk songs of the Black British experience. There’s still so much to explore.’
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About the Author
Holly Black is The Arts Society's Digital Editor
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