By Helen Murphy and Nick Pelling 

What is it that attracts so many creative people to Hastings? Is it the long arc of white sandy beach, the soft impressionist light of Silverhill, or the hanging gardens of Bulverhythe? Maybe not. At the Kino in Norman Road, we caught up with an unusual artist, who is in the process of moving here, to ask him what on earth he was thinking. 

Mark Walter freely admits that his life has involved quite a lot of questionable decisions. In fact, his journey to becoming an artist involved a bewildering number of career starts in other directions. He tried his hand at furniture restoration, but according to Mark, “that went badly wrong.” He worked on Lingfield Racecourse as an “earth clomper.” Whatever that is. He worked his way up in the horticultural world, eventually spending several years prettifying Camden for the Council. He even toyed with the idea of being a professional cyclist or jockey. 

But, despite this zig-zag trajectory, he says he always felt a need to express himself. “I used to make plasticine jockeys to go on my plastic horses as a child,” he confesses. And something of that desire to make and shape things eventually impelled him to go to the Art Academy on Borough High Street, initially with the intention of becoming a sculptor. However, something of an epiphany occurred during his time at the Academy – he went to see the German painter Anselm Kiefer’s major retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2014. Kiefer paints in way that blurs any neat distinction between two and three-dimensional categories, often mixing physical substances into his work, such as straw, ash, clay and all manner of viscous gloop, to make stomach-churning surfaces. Adding to the power is the fact that his work often deals with blood-soaked historic subjects, such as the holocaust. This was supercharged painting and it catalysed Mark’s own practice. Perhaps inevitably, Keifer led him on to other artists who seem to paint with their guts, such as Baselitz and Auerbach. From this time on he began to work more and more with thick paint often mixed with other materials.’ (It should be added that his first studio, being “the size of a toilet,” lent itself more to painting than sculpture.)

Looking back on his time at the Art Academy, he says that the BA degree gave him the confidence to believe in, and show, his work. Before that, like so many artists, there was always that awkward inner voice of self-doubt. An MA at Brighton Art College gave him another boost and introduced him to a more multi-media approach, including using found objects to apply paint on large canvases. Something he describes as “freestyle printing.”

Working now as a fully-fledged artist he still does not like strict distinctions between painters and sculptors or printers. He says he sees himself as “someone who uses paint in my practice rather than a pure painter.” In fact, his work often combines paint with other materials, such as soil, fabric and the random detritus of human life. He actually wants people to touch his work – unusual for an artist.

His BA show, inspired to some extent by Kiefer, featured a messy mish-mash of expensive material and shoddy remnants of cheap stuff, as it sought to reflect on the tragic fire at the Banglasdeshclothing factory in 2012, in which 117 workers burnt to death in a grim, and evidently dangerous, factory. (The poorly paid workers had been busy making designer clothes for the West when they became trapped upstairs as fire consumed the building.) 

But his work does not always contain a clear message or a political slant. He often likes to play with the ambiguities that titles can create. His large canvases carry titles laced with a sinister sense of the bleakly comic, such as An Early Lunge Towards Despair or An Iceberg through a Slaughter House Window. In a way, the titles sort of ricochet off the works, flinging possible meanings around.

But, still, we wondered, why make the switch to Hastings? He says he is well aware that he has now committed the double sin of being a DFL and an OFB but he does feel that Hastings has an increasingly “interesting vibe.” He also says he has always had a “soft spot” for the town since his holidays here as a child. A more rock-n-roll influence on his choice was the local band ‘The Barbarian Horde’ (odd name for a duo). Mark has been friends with the key members, Rob King and Andy Cordle, for a very long time and through them, he has come to hear the siren call of the St Leonards seaside. (Or maybe the artistic energy of town creates a magnetic field, pulling unsuspecting artists into its clutches. Just a thought.)

For Mark, it has been quite a journey, all in all, but I know he will enjoy the town’s taste for all things a bit artsy, pagan or anarchic. We can only hope his exit from Brighton goes well and he soon brings a local gallery some of his unique brand of dark humour and tactile vision.

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