How do I introduce Micah Purnell? Perhaps it’s enough to say I would like to eat all his vital organs to absorb his power. He recently expressed an interest in a painting of mine and offered a great deal of his work in exchange suggesting I sell it on to make the trade worth my while. I joked that I would have carried the painting to Manchester on foot just for the privilege of having one of my pieces hanging in his house.
Instead I got a lift with Sam Piker and we decided to make the most of our meeting and interview Micah. We’re not professional journalists or experienced at conducting interviews, so it’s rambling, badly structured and rewritten at the sad expense of individual idiom. The one thing we do know is that to get the gold out of the subject he/she has to be on the back foot which is a cruel thing to have to do to someone you love or admire. As soon as Micah started sheepishly apologising for giving sprawling and unpolished answers we knew we were on the right track. So please be generous with your time and make all our gratuitous prodding and poking worthwhile. Go and boil the kettle, make a brew and give this article the time it deserves.
The clever thing to do these days is to embed links to other relevant internet pages at relevant points in the text. Whilst we do want to further inform you about the subjects being discussed we don’t want you jumping onto someone else’s blog or summat before we’re good and finished so instead there’s a list of relevant links at the end of the article.
Representing Creature and conducting the interrogation were:
Sam Piker (aged 31)
Jez Green (aged 37)
Rory Clark (aged 39)
& Joseph Green (aged 8)
Edited by Rory and Hayley Clark
Micah: I didn’t know you were using a voice recorder for this, is that so you can rewrite it?
Rory: More or less it’s for the fun of reading the instructions because it came from Hong Kong, they’re very amusing. Didn’t really help us figure out how it works though, we’re hoping it’s now actually recording our voices.
Jez: Yes, we’re hoping it’s in the right “mood”.
Rory: We just wanted to share our enjoyment of who you are and how that’s represented in your work by asking you some questions and putting it on the Creature Forum. We didn’t think we’d need too many questions but the first one of course is brown or red sauce?
Micah: Red. Every time.
Rory: Every time? So you never have to think about that, it’s not a dilemma you face?
Sam: Even on a bacon butty?
Jez: Even on Sausages?
Rory: The context of the question is of course in a bacon sandwich, how did you not get that? Anyway, we need to ask some simple questions first so who are you?
Rory: And what do you do?
Micah: That’s not a simple question. Did you say simple? You did say simple.
Rory: Help! Sam, can you turn that into a simple question?
Sam: OK, you’re at one of those awful parties and someone says ‘so what do you do then?’, what would be your favourite answer?
Micah: My original and long standing answer would be I’m a waiter but conversations can change so it’ll move on to street artist. That’s a little bit grand really though, perhaps graphic designer. They always come together, I am both.
Rory: Why is it you usually say waiter first?
Micah: I suppose because I’ve had the impression that people think your job is where your worth is so I’ll be grateful for my job and proud of where I work and say that first. If people want to define me by it that’s their choice, I don’t feel I need to say I do something cool to change their illusion of me. I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘Micah, why are you working as a waiter?’ it’s my job, simple. But I’m moving more towards both, I spend as much time at each now.
Rory: How old are you?
Rory: And where do you live?
Micah: Manchester. Can I say that? We’re in Oldham but you can see Manchester from here. Where you turned left by the park to get to my road, that’s Manchester. I spend all my time in Manchester although I live in Oldham which is a borough of Manchester. I live closer to Manchester, I work in Manchester, can I say Manchester enough?
Rory: We’ll find out. Some of our questions are about Manchester as well as bacon.
Micah: That’s handy.
Sam: So the block of flats on the left in the painting?
Micah: That’s in Manchester.
Sam: Is that where you grew up?
Micah: I grew up on Newton Heath and I’ve lived this side of town my whole life. I spent a little bit of time on Shrewsbury street in Old Trafford but most of my life in Newton Heath, Collyhurst, Miles Platting. An hour walking distance from Manchester or five minutes depending on when I lived where.
Rory: And you’re married with children?
Micah: Married with two, Rosie 4 Solomon 2.
Rory: So if it turns out that Solomon doesn’t actually like Star Wars will you involve the police and social services or would you keep that sort of issue in the family?
Micah: I wouldn’t be that fussed really. It’s good but come on.
Sam: When did you decide you wanted to do street art?
Micah: I’ll take you through my progression. Straight out of school I studied graphic design, national diploma followed by higher national diploma at Salford Uni, then a two year BA course in Visual Art and Culture. During that time, about 19ish, I started knocking about Manchester city centre bars and clubs getting to know the people that lived in the city. City dwellers that just drink, go to gigs, go home, come back, do the same again, living their lives in a kind of community. There were certain places I ended up going to by chance where people could hang around, a range of bars where you would always see the same faces. I was just enjoying life and watching it happening.
About that time I met this lady called Carol Batton. I don’t know how to describe her but she’s a poet. She’s still producing work and I know she had a book published. I think some of it’s bonkers but much of it is inspired. A lot of it’s spiritual but I don’t know what she believes. She’d just hand out poems left right and centre. She had a shabby old bag and she’d just give out poems and I think she’d even give ones that she felt were appropriate. In fact she did a poem for me. It’s an interesting piece and I keep it on the wall in my studio. I don’t know why, there’s just something about it I like.
Somewhere along the line I decided to become her biggest rival. I started producing business card sized cards and I’d give them to people and drop them in bars. Very small quantities, fifty maybe, you’d not even call that a run would you? One of the earliest was the ‘God is difficult to see in our city…’ piece. I suppose that’s what I still do now but that’s how it began.
I didn’t think my work was particularly profound or graphically amazing. I just thought it was important to be productive and I still stand by that. Quotes are quotes, you can find them anywhere. Some of them are mine, a lot of them are not. For the design I was using common type faces that were easily accessible. Putting the two together was maybe something that people appreciated because the quotes would encourage them or give them a little hope. Maybe people appreciated them because they were different to the normal stuff you’d find around the place, I’m not sure.
Jez: In terms of what you’re pursuing with your work would you say there are certain things or influences that you’ve deliberately pursued and others that you’ve deliberately avoided?
Micah: urrm…I dunno, can you try and rephrase it, ask a different question that’ll get the same result?
Sam: Have you felt yourself pulled in any particular direction in your artistic life and have you ever decided ‘no, I don’t want to go down that route’?
Micah: Do you mean in its artistic style?
Sam: Style or method.
Micah: I’ve followed whatever’s on the street in people’s faces so my work looks relevant in those terms. I’ve used advertising methods keeping myself within popular style, subculture popular at least. Do you know the band Underworld? They’re also a design studio called Tomato. When I was doing some design work for Elbow I went down to the V2 offices to see the graphic designers who would work with what we provided. They showed me work that Tomato had done for Underworld and their name was really tiny on the whole piece which is what they wanted it to look like but the V2 marketing team just went ‘No. We’re putting you out, you can’t have your name that small, it’s got to be big because we need more people to see it.’ So I learnt to do my work with a marketing head on as well as a designer head and asking ‘Is this going to be seen?’ I suppose I’ve tried to share to as many people as possible.
Rory: So you’re using a marketing approach but you’re not trying to generate wealth by selling a product?
Micah: I’m not trying to get anything back. There’s no links or tags or owt when it comes to my poster work so it’s less likely to get ignored or missed or forgotten. I’ve tried to make it so it can be seen from across the street but it doesn’t look like a sales pitch.
Rory: That’s definitely relevant to me. I was photographing street art for a number of years largely because a lot of it was incomplete messages which fascinated me. No real conventions meant great diversity so it was very stimulating to follow but after a while advertisers started using the same techniques to promote products. It got to the point where I would see a piece of work and if it had a web or email address on it I wouldn’t photograph it, no matter how good it was. Commercial motives made even great work seem uninteresting, only non-commercial artists using the street to talk but not necessarily with a complete message engaged me.
Micah: My stuff has been criticised as being complete messages which is hard to argue with when they’re rounded and in eight words or something, it’s pushed me in to considering ‘Can I create dialogue?’
Jez: Advertising constantly makes statements rather than talking points. I suppose in that sense I didn’t really understand the criticism that was being leveled at you in that particular conversation.
Micah: Do you remember the one? It was the first time I’d been on a public stage and had criticism. At the time I found it quite difficult but I’ve actually found it useful to hone what I’m doing so I’m glad he criticised me. I’ve always thought it’s better to put stuff out and accept whatever criticism comes but people assume you’re saying the work’s good by putting it out on the street so they don’t really say anything. Like I’ve said I’ve always thought it’s better to be productive and learn to get each piece to a point and stop because you can try and finish a piece and it can take forever. I want to learn to give good criticism to other artists and say to them maybe you can do what you’re doing better.
Rory: It’s easy to feel personally attacked when you’re work is criticised because it’s an expression of your identity. Criticism is important but hard to hear because what’s being attacked is essentially part of you. What was that particular piece that was criticised?
Micah: Hot Air Balloons essentially [a 20 page booklet containing an argument for the redemption of advertising space], by a guy who came to my exhibition last year. There were a couple of things in there like I’d referred to people as ‘sheeple’ and he didn’t like that. Understandably because if you’re going to be in the public space you can’t really say stuff like that. He argued that I was treating people as ‘sheeple’ myself by copying advertising and making people a sap to my message as much as advertisers were. He’d rather I teach people the reasons why they’re ‘sheeple’ and how you can overcome that, that gave me a new way to look at how I’m doing what I’m doing.
Rory: I chose this voice recorder because of the colour y’know. I like a bit of pink, I’m taking it back for straight guys. It doesn’t mean what people think it means, it’s just pink, I mean come on.
Micah: That’s magenta, what was the question? I’d love it if you pared down the whole interview to questions about red sauce and colour choices.
Rory: Interesting you should say that because I would like to ask you, and this is a tricky one, don’t expect these questions to be easy, how many rashers is too many for one sandwich and at the same time enough to justify two sandwiches?
Sam: Where’s the tipping point?
Micah: Four will make two sandwiches but I’d rather have three.
Rory: Four will make two sandwiches! Are we in the third world?
Jez: You’re in the North.
Rory: Surely it’s five! Five is three in one and two in the other, it means the second sandwich isn’t going to be as good but five is too much for one sandwich.
Micah: I’m putting three in one, potentially four. Two slices of bread and three rashers is ample. Four would be too many, you asked how many would be too many.
Rory: So if you had four rashers you would make two sandwiches?
Micah: If I had four slices of bread four rashers is a little bit shy.
Rory: I think four rashers is one sandwich, four might be a bit too much but you can always add a third slice of bread.
Sam: With an option of folding a piece of bread in half.
Micah: I don’t tend to have it on it’s own it has to be with egg. I can have a bacon sandwich and I’ll like it but it’s got to come with egg. If it doesn’t I’d probably…..yeah I can turn away from it, I can turn away from just a bacon butty.
Jez: That’s the ultimate answer, it has to have egg.
Rory: He’s muddied the waters.
Sam: We were talking about some criticism encountered when you did your show connected with Hot Air Balloons and that’s obviously made you think a bit. Where do you see your work going from there? Are there any new directions?
Micah: Not yet. It may be nice to put some incomplete messages out. That’s an incomplete message [refers to the image just below this paragraph]. I showed it to a friend, she was like ‘What? What is it? A powerful vision of what?’. I can’t remember what the missing word is now, just that it’s a great word, you can put your own in. So I might offer more work that leaves stuff open. I might even do stuff that’s anti what I believe to see if it’s an appropriate tool to encourage dialogue and raise debate. If I can create work that encourages dialogue rather than finished pieces it might be more fruitful. It’s nice that people get something from my work, a bit of heart or a bit of hope or something but it does kind of stop there. If you have to grapple with something it gives it life, it lasts a bit longer in the mind. I’ll definitely encourage criticism though, come and slag me off. But tell me why and don’t be nasty about it.
Rory: Can you talk about your influences?
Micah: David Carson, he was a graphic designer, a surfer from America. His stuff got used corporately with N**e but he was quite graphically edgy. You can definitely see his work in mine I think.
Rory: We don’t use that word in our family.
Micah: What word? N**e?
Rory: Yeah, we use the ‘F’ word or the ‘C’ word instead because we think it’s more acceptable. So don’t be surprised if on the blog it doesn’t say ‘that word’, if you read the interview and you think ‘I didn’t say that?’ just remember ‘ah, right….N**e.’
Micah: Fair enough. Also Vaughn Oliver who did all of 4AD’s stuff, Pixies and all that so there’s lots of lifey macro stuff. Don’t know if that’s in my work so much these days, maybe there’s a hint of it. Those two were influences when I was studying.
Rory: You’ve mentioned Walter Bruggeman in your written work and it seems to me that a lot of your material is in-keeping with the things that he’s trying to highlight. Namely about the power of creative arts to challenge the dominant culture. Where did you first hear about him?
Micah: I don’t know, I think it was by chance and when I read his work I was like ‘wow, how relevant is that!.’ It confirmed stuff but it wasn’t new to me. It gave me a bit of a lift and I thought there’s stuff here I can use to explain where I’m coming from. His work was a real encouragement, I should probably read it again.
Rory: So if it wasn’t new to you where do you think your desire to challenge the dominant culture came from?
Micah: Disbelief in it from studying advertising basically. A hope for a better world as described by my understanding of Biblical literature. It’s too simple to say that all advertising is wrong, maybe it’s the saturation, I’m still working my thoughts through.
For example I don’t really like saying ‘consumerism’ too much because you’re just attacking everybody that lives in the West because we’re all part of it. So the problem is probably much more subtle.
When I was studying I spotted that people would use all sorts of methods to sell products because the product wouldn’t really sell itself. I think that’s the defining line, advertisers will sell a product in one country that will make you pale where dark skinned people live because to be pale shows wealth, that you work indoors. Then on the other side of the world they’ll sell you stuff that’ll make your skin dark. It seems that they don’t really believe anything, they just tell you whatever works to make you believe and shell out. I thinks that’s what I spotted, not necessarily that that product is bad in itself but the manipulative methods they use to channel your understanding of what you’re buying.
Joseph: How many years have you been doing art for?
Micah: Better ask my dad when I first started drawing. GCSE to now so what does that work out as? Twenty two years? Anywhere between 35 and 22 years.
Rory: One of your pieces has the Manchester city crest on it and I got the idea that you were also using fonts that Peter Saville..
Rory: Is that right?
Micah: Yes, but in two different pieces.
Rory: I’m giving you an opportunity to say Manchester some more.
Jez: Talk about what it is about Manchester that you love.
Micah: It stems from when I was knocking about in those bars around ’97/’98, dj-ing drinking and smoking, watching bands and enjoying the live music. That’s the bit I like, the community spirit and the acceptance of all kinds of creative people including me.
Jez: You’ve clearly not felt a desire to move away or anything.
Micah: No. It’s the creative live music side of Manchester, there are loads of places to find different kinds of non corporate stuff. On the corporate side I’m a little bit worried, like about Man City doing well. Even though I’m a Man City fan it’s worrying if you’ve got two teams doing well and I’m not such a Man City fan that I’m anti United. I’m a Manchester fan so I’m not really bothered if United keep doing well but I’d quite like them to take turns every other season. You know, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester, Manchester. I’m worried because if that happens we’re going to become really really arrogant. I was going to do a book on Manchester and all it’s creativity featuring people from Manchester from those just starting to those that have gone on to big things. Like Mark Farrow from around the Hacienda days, he’s in London doing music industry stuff for major labels. I was going to give the book the title ‘We Are Arrogant But We Are Your Friends’. I guess I like a bit of a swagger in people but friendly too.
Sam: You’ve done album art for a few different bands?
Micah: Yeah, I first did it for Elbow and then some other smaller stuff. A music label called Massive UK. One or two, not loads, but I‘ve always fancied designing for music, it seems a little bit easier to advertise than it does a car. If I could do that for a living I’d probably snap someone’s hand off. Creating work for records and listening to music to find out what it is and how to represent it.
Sam: Do you think you’d still want to wait tables?
Micah: I don’t know, it’s hard sitting down all day. You get cold really easily, your eyes start to bleed after about four hours looking at a screen. I don’t really envisage that as being a great job but if you get a studio and you’re given the freedom, time and money to be creative away from a computer….but that’s highly unlikely, you’d probably have to snap stuff up in no time on the computer so maybe I’d still do a couple of shifts in the restaurant. I like to think I would but who knows.
Jez: What’s your favourite part of being a waiter?
Micah: Being active, it’s quite sociable. When you’re in there you’re chatting with your friends, your manager your colleagues. There’s space to do that and to get on with your job, you help each other out and obviously you’re chatting with customers. Where I work in Manchester city centre you get to meet people from all over the shop, I’m usually a bit nosey about where they’re from. You get so many United fans from Northern Europe, Irish fans as well, that just come to watch the football. It’s incredible how many people just come for a football game. I get loads of people from the Middle East, Americans, Spanish, loads of students then I’m working with people with multi-cultural origins. Is that the way you say that?
Rory: It’s more likely that the red sauce/brown sauce question divided the audience right at the beginning of the interview so anything offensive we say doesn’t matter. People will already have dug in and decided weather to like you or not like you way before now. Enough of exposing our purposes which is to offend the mind to reveal what’s in the heart. Can you name and talk about one or two landmark pieces you’ve done that are particularly meaningful?
Micah: None come to mind, I’d have to trawl through stuff and go ‘oh yeah, I remember that, that was really good’. The Carol Batton poem must be, I don’t know what it is about it that I need to have it visible. I just thought it was really good what she’d put even though it is a bit bonkers in parts, “beer pleases beer”, I clearly liked a drink, I still like a beer. The Cornerhouse has given me a commission, it’s almost like she’d prophesied something.
Jez: Would you describe yourself as a prophet?
Micah: I don’t know, one who speaks out against the dominant culture.. or offers blessings? You feel like you’re saying something arrogant if you do. I’ve been told some of my work has got that about it. I don’t really concentrate on stuff like that although some would argue that if you’re aware of it you can encourage and hone it. I don’t necessarily agree, if you’re trying to be in the right place it doesn’t matter. I try to keep it simple.
Rory: That’s a very difficult thing to do.
Micah: Keep it simple?
Rory: Yes. In any kind of creative practice. By that I mean your life lived out on pieces of paper. My point being that simplicity is easy to spot but hard to do consistently, if at all. It’s apparent that there’s something in your approach or your influences or where you’ve come from that’s made you able to maintain a high level of simplicity in what you’re doing.
And that’s where our interview with Micah ended just before we ate him. He leaves behind a wife, two children a city called Manchester that is considerably worse off without him. It’s very sad really.
With reference to the block of flats in Miles Platting Micah had this to say about the painting in which it features:
From left: my old block in Miles Platting (yes, that is a place name but I’d prefer to live in a place with a name like ‘Wheel Jane’ or ‘Come to Good’ as you can find in Cornwall). I lived there just before I got married, so just over 8 years ago. I lived on the 11th floor – second from the top – facing the then ‘Commonwealth stadium’, now The Etihad (Man City) where the ‘B of the Bang’ stood – until it dangerously fell apart It was the highest sculpture in England.
I’ll start again,
From left: my block. Naylor Court – rough as it comes, people shooting up on the stairwells cars getting robbed in front of you, but my floor was an oasis of calm due to the huge doorman like dj smoker, took no shit and so every one kept clear of floor 11 – blessed :0)
I’ll start again,
My old bachelor pad,
The Manchester Wheel (ripping off London with no shame – gutted – no originality!),
The Manchester Cathedral – smallest in England – maybe UK. It was built as a church not a Cathedral but was given the title to make Manchester a City.
B of the Bang
The Betham tower – tallest apartment block in England or UK – bit like marmite here – people love it and hate it.
The Central Library – RIP, the building is still there and is lovely you can walk around the whole thing – perfectly round. Think it’s getting turned into offices so o chance to see it’s inside beauty any more.
The Urbis RIP was contemporary art gallery now National Football Museum – good for tourism – I am a waiter! The spire on top of the urbis was a comment on what is the god of the times as it did not point up but towards the shopping complexes across the city.
Below – The River Irwell dividing Manchester and Salford.
This piece is a hand painted original replica (if that makes sense) by Alison Purnell. The original also by Alison Purnell was created as a community piece and had people at the bottom with words representing a range of emotions experienced by other people who worked on the piece and those of the city. It sold and the money went to the Mustard Tree.
Carol Batton – An interview
Carol Batton – Official Poet of the Socialist Health Association
(Carol Batton also published a book in June 2009 called ‘Page Fright’. At the time of writing you can pick up a second hand copy for about £80)
All images used by permission.