By Michael Smith

Olly’s studio smells of paint, and not the Farrow & Ball kind. It smells of actual oil paint, the type that artists paint with. I loved the place as soon as I walked into it, all the little details: a stovetop coffee maker on a Campingaz stove, some old wooden Wharfdale speakers from the 70s with a warm sound, In A Silent Way by Miles Davis and the 3 EPs by the Beta Band lying on a bookshelf full of Cy Twombly and Gerhard Richter books. All around the place, a frugal beauty, little markers of the dignity of poverty when it’s put to the service of art.

But mainly it was that smell of oil paint. The minute I walked into it I realised I hadn’t been in a room that smelt like that for many, many years. It smelt like the art department of my university years, like those small studio spaces separated by plywood boards that my friends painted in, my friends I always felt jealous of, in their paint splattered overalls and Breton tops. It smelt like the insides of those old factories in the maze of Hackney back streets I explored in my early 20s a few years later, bleak foreboding buildings on the outside, but treasure troves inside, full of similarly ad hoc plywood spaces filled with drawings and colour and clutter.

St Leonards still offers glimpses of that precarious life of the artist, that fragile orchid all too easily wilted, all but extinct now in its old heartlands of the City Fringe and the East End, the victim of an overheating climate.

The production companies and style magazines that muscled in and replaced these artist’s studios, the places where I’d end up in meetings throughout my 30s, with their exposed industrial beams, and everyone hot-desking on their Apple Macs, selling advertising space, working with corporate sponsors, trying to pitch ideas to channel execs in an endless game of second guessing, didn’t smell like Olly’s Studio at all. The distressed brick style bars where they would take you for lunch and drinks afterwards to soften you up before fleecing you didn’t smell like that either. They smelt of fig & vetiver hand wash and bullshit. As I smelled that old forgotten smell of oil paint I realised that throughout my working life I’d spent far too much time in studios of the latter kind.

I realised how far I’d strayed from my original dreams. Olly’s studio smelt like those young dreams before I got sidetracked and diverted. Now, all I wanted was to be in rickety clapped-out old rooms down forgotten streets that smelt like this again. That smelt of artists working.

When I visited the studio this time he’d tidied up the arty clutter. The old tea strainers and rusty bull clips and massive canvases covered in oils and bright orange stitching had been relegated to the messy area behind the bare white partition wall in preparation for his exhibition. An empty white space waiting to be painted in. “I feel like I’ve broken into an art gallery. It’s like I’m painting in the White Cube. It’s kind of daunting in a way, like a big blank canvass, but it’s good.” He’s going to start using the studio as a gallery sometimes, exhibiting the artists who’ve found fertile ground here in the unloved backstreets of St Leonards where the strange flowers flourish.

I dunno how many studios still smell like that in London, but there are  loads of them in this town, below the radar, behind the garages and repair shops out the back. I suspected this before we moved here, but didn’t realise the extent to which it was true. I know this to be the case now because I know all the artists from my bar. And this is reason enough to love this town and the place I’ve made within it.

• ‘Some Place Else,’ a joint exhibition of new paintings by  Oliver Crowther and Joe Packer, opens on September 15th, drinks from 6-8 pm, Unit 4 Gallery, Harold Mews, St Leonards, TN38 0EA. For more details: [email protected]

• This is the first published material from Michael Smith’s next book, as yet untitled.

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