It is not only your bookshelf that demands a presence from Richard Milward but your walls as well. The Teesside novelist rose to fame and acclaim with his first book Apples is now making his mark with a paint brush. You can buy limited prints of paintings that can be every bit as edgy and engaging as his novels. The prices should be affordable for most.
Richard’s first book Apples was published by Faber and Faber in 2007, he followed this with Ten Storey Love Song and, most recently, Kimberly’s Capital Punishment. Set on a Middlesbrough housing estate Apples plots, school, night life and dislocated families from the dark and stuffed underbelly up. The characters that populate his paintings are just as shocking and in your face as those from the novels.
Apples has since been performed on stage and Richard has written essays, articles and all things in between from magazines ranging from Dazed and Confused to Fly Me To The Moon. Richard’s impact was recognised with an honorary degree from University of Teesside in 2013.
Here is a short interview with the Middlesbrough born writer and painter.
Q: You are well known for your writing Richard but tell us a little about your art background?
RM: I was writing constantly through my teens, but by the time I left sixth-form college I wanted to study Art rather than English Language/Literature, and managed to get into Cleveland College of Art & Design then Byam Shaw at Central St Martins in London. It makes a lot more sense to me how Art is taught compared to English or other subjects, since you’re encouraged to be fully experimental, take risks, and not feel straitjacketed by rules (grammar, spelling, certain formulas etc). Art colleges give you free reign to explore all kinds of different ideas in different ways, and it’s a blessing you don’t even really have to be able to draw to get into one. You just need an open brain.
Q: Having seen you perform live reading from your work I have seen you wear elaborate props – that was my first introduction to your art work I think? Does it all tie together for you like that, the art and literature? Are you drawn towards characters in both?
RM: Yeah, there’s definitely similarities. My paintings are quite cartoonlike, like aspects of some of my books, and populated by characters that seem half grotesque, half wide-eyed and innocent. Painting almost works as an antidote to novel-writing for me though. Painting is more physical, especially when it’s properly expressive, and you’ve always got the full picture in front of you: you can adjust it all in just a few strokes. Writing a novel is a lot more slippery: you can get tangled in all the loose ends, all the different strands of the story, but then it’s a lot more satisfying once it all comes together.
Q: You had an exhibition not that long ago at House of Blah Blah, was that a big step exhibiting live? It is a great venue by the way, so atmospheric.
RM: Yeah The House of Blah Blah is really special. Good on them for getting their hands on that building and holding genuinely unique and obscure events there, from fashion shows to raves to exhibitions. It was nice of them to trust me enough to produce whatever I wanted. I don’t think they’d even seen what I was up to until the day of setting up for the opening night. I feel like other institutions can be a lot more cagey nowadays about giving artists free reign, and as a result the work can end up a lot more sterile or benign. Like Malcolm McLaren says: ‘Better to be a spectacular failure than a benign success.’ Too right.
Q: Can you tell us something about the paintings that you are selling prints of, a bit of background to the subjects and what kinds of things you were expressing? Are they limited editions too?
RM: Over the years a fair few folk have come up to me asking if I ‘d ever thought about selling prints, so I finally decided to take the plunge, especially now my pockets are more threadbare than usual. There’s a mix of prints I’m selling: four of them come from The Rebirth Pool series I did for The Tunnel Gallery under Middlesbrough train station (and also exhibited at The House of Blah Blah, and The Social, London). These are swirling retina-burning illustrations based on the hypnotic ‘mandalas’ of India and beyond, with all sorts of cryptic symbols. Also, there’s a print of a painting I did in 2007 called ‘Frisky Disco’, a splashback snapshot of Eve from Apples surrounded by a pack of thirsty creatures in a dreamlike or nightmarish nightspot. The prints are limited to 250 copies – and they’re all signed and hand-numbered.
Q: You have recently had an essay published alongside Natalie Hardwick in Stripped Tees can you tell us something about the idea behind that project?
RM: Natalie got in touch out of the blue a couple of years back, asking if I fancied writing 10,000 words on any aspect of Teesside I wanted, for a publisher she knows called Influx Press. Natalie hails from Stockton – she’s a great writer, a journalist for the BBC and Guardian among many others, and she wrote the other essay in the Stripped Tees book. Influx’s output tends to hone in on often overlooked areas of the UK. I feel like I’ve written a lot about the Boro in my fiction, but again it was great to be given free reign to write something non-fiction about the area.
Q: You have written about Grove Hill, somewhere that all too often gets a bad press. You live in that part of the town, do you find hope or hopelessness lurking there?
RM: With a heavy heart I’ve got to admit I live in London now – but when I was writing the essay I was in a flat just behind Palladium Shops, so for seven or eight years I’d seen first-hand what was going on with the redevelopment of the area. Mainly in the piece I’m talking about how, despite the onslaught of bad press Grove Hill’s received, it’s only a small minority of people who caused problems there, and it’s a shame the whole area had to suffer, and subsequently be half-demolished because of it. By the time I’d finished the writing it was still difficult to draw any conclusions – the economy collapsed just after Ray Mallon vowed to ‘get it right’ with the estate, so most probably that’s the major reason the upheaval and airbrushing’s been stalled. I go into it a lot more deeply in the essay, but in a nutshell I’m not convinced you can just dislocate half an estate’s residents, disinfect their shadows, then rebuild shiny new abodes and expect the place’s reputation to be ‘cured’. The estate’s (and the region’s) problems are more deeper-rooted than that, and now undeniably exacerbated by the current government’s policies…
Q: Can I expand that a bit. You are a passionate Teessider and have also experienced living away. Do you still find home pride here?
RM: Absolutely. I miss the place a lot. My last couple of years in the Boro were slightly marred by a dire money situation, which a lot of others in the town suffer too, but I reckon it’s difficult to feel completely lonely in the Boro. We plough on…
Q: What are you working on at the moment, writing wise?
RM: I’m juggling a few ideas at the minute. I’m hoping there’ll be some news of my next novel, as well as a collection of short stories soon.
Q: Are there any plans for another exhibition?
RM: Yeah. This year I’ve been working on a new series of paintings called ‘Luddites’ Nightmares’. It’s been 200 years since the original Luddites smashed up machinery in protest at their quality of life being strangled by the powers that be – so I’ve created ten modern-day paintings that aim to expose and/or poke fun at the way technology distorts and disrupts life nowadays. Looks like I’ll be showing them in London earlyish next year, then hoping to bring them back North after that.
Q: And finally how are you enjoying the Boro’s return to the Premier League?
RM: I’m buzzing we’re back up there. It’s a tough league of course and there’ll be plenty of nerve-shredding twists to come, but I feel confident we’ll stay up, and that’s all I want. I had a feeling before the start of the season we’d avoid many 3+ goal drubbings, and Aitor’s proven good to that so far…
Q: How can people buy your prints, Richard?
RM: I’ve just set up an online shop here: www.richardmilward.bigcartel.com
There’s 5 prints up for sale there at the minute, £45 apiece. Depending on how well these go down, there’ll be more prints to come, as well as some signed books and other bits and pieces. I’d appreciate it massively if people have a look and buy something…