“If somebody had said at the time, that’s exactly what you want Gary, you want that response, you want to be able to do anything you like. But nobody says that and nobody says, if you know what you want to do, do it. They only say, go to college.” A conversation with Gary Sollars

Gary Sollars is an artist based in Liverpool, whose achievements include exhibiting in the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery and in the John Moores Painting Prize. As well as making paintings, Gary is creator of Dollman Disco performance events, he writes poems, makes videos, performs stand up comedy and has recently been working on a children’s book called The Imagination License Bureau. Gary loves dancing, ice cream and men. Ideally, just one.

Class Queer (Working) , 210 x 105 cm, oil on Canvas 2018

Brendan and I met with Gary at his home, which is currently his main base for working on paintings and other visual creations, in summer 2020. Before I visited Gary he had mentioned to me on the phone that he had previously lived and worked in Brighton. I had instantly thought back to a time when I was 19 years old, doing my Art and Design Foundation course in Hull and had embarked on an epic trip to Brighton with two friends, to visit the art school, as a prospective place to study for a Fine Art degree. I have a very vivid memory of entering Brighton as it was getting dark and driving past the full length window of a shop unit, that was being used as an artist’s studio. The lights were on inside, illuminating a huge painting of a baby’s face. I clung on to that memory as a perfect romantic vision of what it could be like to work as an artist, to have a studio and make incredible work like that.  

I didn’t mention the baby face story to Gary on the phone. I thought about it, but then decided it wasn’t likely that the studio and painting I had gushed over all those years ago had anything to do with him. But as soon as we walked into Gary’s house, there was the baby face staring at me and Gary confirmed he had a studio just as I remembered.

Gary offers us tea or vodka. I choose tea and get both.

Gary: Have a taste of that. Somebody gave it to me, it’s special yeah, and they said you don’t need to put anything else with it…

Josie: Right thank you.

Gary: So you tell me what it’s like. Is it weird?

Josie: It tastes like something organic…

Gary brings out the bottle, to reveal Bison Grass vodka.

Josie: I’m quite into flavoured vodkas. I drink them with soda water because if you mix with anything else it disguises the nice subtle taste.

Gary: Oh right, I only care about where it gets me and that’s usually into town and onto the dance floor as quickly as possible. And that’s all I’m bothered about.

On the phone, Gary had told me that he previously had a studio on Water Street.

Gary: It was with Roger Hill who performs as Mandy Romero. Do you know him? He’s been a DJ on Radio Merseyside for donkey’s years. He’s like the John Peel of Liverpool. There was him and then some other people and we had it for about a year. It’s a really fantastic building. I had another glass room, which was about 25 square feet of glass, looking onto Water Street. I could just sit there and watch people walking past. It was four floors of emptiness and it was just colossal, but now they’ve started turning the upper floors into flats. I actually hung a piece of work for somebody in one of the flats and I thought, I was just running round here last year and this place was fuck all then…now you think this is really posh! They think it’s all posh and exclusive but I thought, if you had seen what was in here last year… It’s very funny how things work out, isn’t it?

Josie: So you had a glass studio here and in Brighton? You don’t mind people watching you paint?

Gary: No because I think it makes you work. I mean, you certainly can’t put the lights on if you’ve got a pile of shit on the wall. In the daytime you’ve got to really get into what you’re doing and be on it before it gets dark and the lights go on. In Brighton there was traffic lights outside and everybody coming into Brighton had to go past and they were all looking in the window. They’d all start beeping. So it’s a nice kind of thing for them… to think yeah there really are nutters here.

Josie: Well you left an imprint on me.

Gary’s living room was filled with large paintings, as well as a table covered in tech and visual material with more on the walls.

Gary:  Most of the paintings are only down here because I can’t get them up the stairs.

Josie: So you have more upstairs?

Gary: Yeah. I’ve got a roomful up the stairs.

Josie: I was thinking about how you don’t mind painting with an audience. I suppose you’re used to that sort of thing because you do performance stuff.

Gary: I’ve done a bit of stand up. I went on a stand up course and then I was doing stand up and things like that. That’s dead exciting. Yeah I’ll be dead excited, frightened to death. You suddenly get the microphone and then you just have to think, go! And then you just go! And then I’m really happy. Waiting two hours to get the microphone in your hand, I’m really nervy. I’ll just pace and try and remember…try and remember. Once I’ve got the microphone I’m absolutely fine, I feel quite at home. Yeah, then I’m in charge and then it’s ok and then I think… just wait for the giggle…

They’re laughing at me. I’m laughing at myself. So that’s a good thing isn’t it? You have to laugh at your insecurities. If you’re just talking about having sex at your uncle’s house, I don’t think it’s so funny. I think people identify with feelings. I haven’t done any for a while. But I do performances, Dollman Disco is mostly performance.

Brendan: You’ve been doing Dollman for a long time.

Gary: Yeah since 90-something. When I first came to Liverpool it was really fun because I didn’t know absolutely anybody. I just moved. I got invited to show in Tracey, the first big Independents Biennial in ’99, run by Jonathan Swain while I was here I was pleasantly surprised at how many great friendly nutters there were, one about every five or six feet, I thought…I’m Moving! Bill Drummond was in that Biennial and Garlands with some photo thing, someone out the Baader Meinoff Gang and this other thing with spray paint and burnt car. I had six pieces in a space on Parr Street, which was really good. I liked that show. There were great Biennials – the first three or four of them were great. They were exciting because they had passionate people leading them. They could take over buildings and shops and you know, they had all the nous for doing it. It was exciting because you had less, but more space, you know – they had the gift of the gab for getting all the shops and all the spaces.

Josie: The Rapid shop on Renshaw Street got used didn’t it?

Gary: Ryan Trecartin was downstairs in that one, video performance things, like really mental! Everybody’s mental!… and dressed up…chaos! Just complete chaos. I sat down there for hours watching that and I thought, oh I’ll be friends with him. Yeah Ryan Trecartin, he’s dead good. Don’t know if he’s doing all that much now. He’s probably worn himself out.

Gary shows us photos of Dollman. One is Dollman with Tracy Emin when Gary was in the John Moores Painting Prize.

Gary:  I do Dollman Disco like an event, you know. The idea came from when I first moved to Liverpool and I used to sit on the bus, on the back seat, and all the scallies on Park Road and everything would be staring at the back of the bus, because that’s the only place of interest, it’s where their mates are. And I was there and I’m thinking, oh my god, what are they looking at me for? I was just a worry bag from Brighton, I didn’t know what they were staring at. I just thought, god they’re angry. But I liked the stare… so I thought, I’ll adopt this as a little character. So that’s where he came from, from scals at the bus stop staring at me on buses. Me not realising that they weren’t staring at me.

We looked at a painting that features Dollman.

Dollman Arrival, oil on canvas, 210 x 165 cm

Gary:  That’s like a painting about moving to Liverpool. That’s just called Dollman Arrival. All those little people just represent Scousers. All Scousers, just acting naughty and being daft. Yeah, that’s how I saw them, as little chipmunks running around, all up to mischief and I loved them.

In 2018 Gary exhibited at The Royal Standard in Liverpool.

Josie: It was just really nice to see all that work together. Prior to that, when was the last time you showed in Liverpool?

Gary: Biennials… the John Moores that I was in ages ago. I used to show more in London and I’ve shown in the National Portrait Gallery three times. I kind of dip my finger in, it’s just that I don’t chase it, I don’t go chasing.

Josie: So since Water Street you’ve been working in here? Which suits you OK?

Gary: Yeah, it’s fine for now. I’m quite happy working in here. I’m fine working at home. I’ve learned how to make these little films in Openshot and started mixing videos together and making films and I’m just setting up an online shop.

Josie: What are you selling?

Gary: Oh, T-shirts, prints, all kinds of things with different images on. I’ve got slogans. I’ve got cutie things and then I’ve got art stuff. I’ve got a whole load of slogans, which I’m going to put on T-shirts and things, you know, like ‘Every Killer Cried’.… ‘Filfy Cant’…  just mad things.

I’m writing a book as well; The Imagination License Bureau.

Gary shows us pictures of his new character.

Gary: He just was a character and then the story came around the character. He’s Timothy Tendril. He’s the leader of the Imagination License Bureau and he’s got a sister called Blanche, Blanche Tops. They adopt kids and when the kids move into the house they see some old people walking past in beige and grey and decide they have to colour the whole town. And then they become the Imagination License Bureau.

Josie: Who’s the Mayor?

Gary: He’s the Mayor of St. Helens! It was happiness day in St Helens. They certainly had a shock when I turned up in my six-foot-six heels. It’s only a prototype.…It’s good fun, I think it’ll be really good. So that’s what I’m working on at the minute.

Josie:  You work on loads of things at the same time?

Gary: Yeah, I was doing that and I was doing little films…

Josie: And painting? This is one you’re still working on?

There is a large painting in Gary’s living room, of a wood with some figures painted in. Gary shows us a plan for the painting on paper.

Gary: This is the composition. it’s about love. The people who are upright, they’re not arsed about love. They’re just hanging about not really bothered about love, and then all these people here are all waiting for love, and then all these people, who are coming down, they’re about to fall in love when they get to the bottom. So when they hit the floor then they all fall in love. These have already fallen in love and they’re together. So it’s all just different stages of love. So everybody must be somewhere in there. Everybody likes love, don’t they really, It’s a great thing.

I compose everything with lines. I work through loads and loads of compositions.

Gary demonstrates by drawing

Gary: I’ve got a little system of composition. You follow the same system, but the patterns will be different each time.

Gary demonstrates how he plans compositions, using a system of crossing diagonal lines.

Gary: I do about four different ones to start off and then I pick the nicest one. I keep that one and then I chuck the others away. Then I do about ten copies and then I sit there and play inside to get precision. Once I’m happy with it every way round, I start on tones, light grey, dark grey, black and white and I’ll work it out with those. Then if that looks lovely I’ll think, okay, I’m fine now, because now all I have to do is work out my people.   

Josie: So you never make a painting that takes this long and go, ah god that was rubbish?

Gary: No because I took a fucking month working it out! I’m not taking no chances by just putting something down. The things in the painting are like a family. They all belong together because they are all related. Then all I’m interested in is getting to the end. I know it’s gonna be lovely when it’s finished. I can make a nice job of it.

Yeah, I’ll just treat this one as a long job. I quite like that it is just there, just to remind me, just giving me a little kick. Can you finish me please?

Josie: While you’re working, do you have other things going on in the background like TV music or do you just work in silence?

Gary: Yeah, telly. Crap telly and I don’t mind the sound on or not, it’s just wallpaper to me, noisy wallpaper. In the studio I used to play music loud and sing my head off.

Josie: Do you work quickly?

Gary: I can go at it when I’ve got all my stuff. I need my references and things which, at the minute, I haven’t got because I’ve not got enough people. It’s a  weird one because, you know, I have to ask people that I want to paint. Those are my friend’s twins. They probably are very arsed about love at the minute, because they just turned into nightmares. This one just hides in a room in a great big long coat and never comes out and every time I see her I just say, I was a teenager, I remember it! It’s just love, love, love, but you can’t get your hands on them! You know nothing. I know it all. I know it!

Josie: So will you ask people to pose and you’ll take photos?

Gary: Yeah, take loads of photos, mix a few together.

Josie: Well, I think it’s quite exciting for people, getting to be in your painting. It’s funny though, because the people are just figures to paint or acting as characters for the story of the painting, but then because they are real people who you know, that’s a nice thing for you and them.

Gary: It’s like, I use real people’s names in my stories; some people who I know, they get into the book.

Josie: It’s a way of bringing other people into your work. It’s sort of like a collaboration. You’re the painter. So ultimately you’re doing that piece of work, but you had to get people to consent to being involved. Your taking a picture of them sort of brings about the community element like when you do performance. You obviously enjoy involving other people in the things you do.

Gary: Yeah, we have lots of involvement in Dollman Disco, with big games with about 30 people, and people do singing – everybody gets sheets and everybody sings. That kind of thing, with as many people in it as possible. When there’s loads of people, they don’t mind looking really stupid straight away. It’s great. You know, nobody taking the mickey out of anybody. Nobody is picked on, everybody just volunteers like mad, you know, suddenly they will rush to the stage.

I just have a massive bottle of vodka and Coke… I know the mix for me, that gets me through the night, enough to make me, you know, lively. Then I’ve got a microphone, live all night. And so I just shout and the more it goes on everything goes wrong, the more I shout and swear, as they get more drunk. Everything goes completely apeshit. We have custard pie fights and everything. But I’ve got a very structured list for the night, of minutes where everything should finish with the games, and everything’s timed precisely through the night.

Josie:  For our Refractive Pool project, we started thinking about what the scene is like for painters in Liverpool and now we think that’s kind of funny because there is no real ‘scene’, and what does that even mean? Actually, when you talk to painters, some people have only just got here and don’t know anyone, some have been here for ages but don’t want to know anyone. Some people are part of little groups that they meet up with all the time, or they might even see each other’s work because they’re in the same studio, some people work from home. You’re obviously part of all sorts of different groups that are going on.

Gary: Yeah, I’m like, with a going out group – a very hard core going out group.

Brendan: Go out and don’t come back?

Gary: Never come back. Yeah, if I’m in the house for two or three o’clock that’s a shit night out for me. We usually just go on till the next day. If I get in at 10 o’clock in the morning, that’s kind of about right.

Do you know Shaun Duggan, the writer? We go around with a little mob of them and there’s a few other kind of actory people and writing people. So I don’t really do art things much. I don’t really mix with artists. I do know quite a lot of them, but I just stay away from them. I’m more interested in dancing and staying out all night. If I knew an artist that danced and wanted to go out all night, then I’d think, ok yes, come and join us. I mean they’ve got to have a layer of mental about them and then they’re in the gang, You know, that’s all that matters. Doesn’t matter about age either, doesn’t matter if he is 80 as long as he’s a bit crazy. Then let’s go to town. Dollman Disco doesn’t have an age thing, we have people like Francine, she’s 84 and she comes and sits there and just loves it, because it’s just swearing and things, and she just sits there and thinks… oooh that’s cheeky! and I just think, oooh but you’re loving every single minute of it aren’t you? It’s all good fun.

In Brighton, people just didn’t dance in a pub. You know, when I came here I thought, they must belong to a home or something… but really it’s just the gene. They’ve got an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ gene haven’t they? That’s what they’ve got. It’s just ‘don’t care’. It’s like an Irish, Liverpool, who gives a fuck, I want to dance. I think that’s really funny and now, after I’ve been here for 19 years, I’ve kind of got that thing off them.

Josie: It’s contagious.

Gary: It’s great. Because now I can just walk into a pub somewhere and just think, yeah if I want to dance I’m fucking dancing. Whereas before in Brighton you wouldn’t do that unless you were in a ‘space’. Here, they’ve got the kind of openness, to just do what they like. I mean you’ve never seen Mother’s Day like you do here. You’ve never seen them leathered walking across town… in Chester, where I come from, they’d be horrified if they saw someone linking arms with their mother, with all flowers and presents. They’d think, oh my god they’re trashed! But here it’s like… out! They all want to go out! It’s a head thing, not an age thing. It’s a head thing that goes right the way through. It’s great. It’s a great thing.

When All You Want To Do Is Dance, oil on canvas, 210 x 165 cm
My Parents, oil on canvas, 2014

Josie: We’re interested in your educational background, because people have such different opinions of their time at Art School, whether they enjoyed it and all that sort of stuff.

Gary: I hated school and I didn’t attend for the last year. I had one O Level at the finish, that was my art. So I nipped back in to take that.

Josie: Was this in Chester?

Gary: Yeah. I came out with one O Level and then I went to college – further education – and then started a three-year vocational…. Graphics, maybe, or something… I had done the first year and it was great because it was in with all the common people. So I was having a right laugh and messing about and just causing fuss and great fun. And then at the end of the year the head of Art noticed that I could fucking paint and draw, because I was doing illustrations and he clocked me. He said, “I want you to go on to the Foundation and do A Levels”, and I thought, they’re all posh in there…. yeah, okay, if you think so. So I went there, but I always kept going back in with the common people, you know, the ones from the council houses. It’s a bit like when I was in school, because I was in a Grammar Stream School, but I come from a council house. I don’t think there were many people at all in my class who lived in a council house. So you feel a little bit out of it don’t you? Because they all just had private houses and then you feel like, I’m poor and I’m not sure about these council houses.

So I had to do Foundation and then got the two A Levels that you get, you know in Printmaking and Art or whatever. And then you could apply for University. Well I applied for Liverpool and they didn’t let me in. In the interview they were chucking my fucking sketchbooks around.

Josie: How dare they.

Gary: Yeah! I thought it was supposed to be like a nice thing. So I didn’t get in and then I thought, fuck off, I won’t bother. They tried to get me to go to Hull and I wouldn’t go there because I was going out with Philip from Liverpool, so I just carried on working. And then me and Philip went to London for a week and the place where I was working was opening a shop on Oxford Street. It was right opposite Selfridge’s and I said to them, “What are you doing?” And they said “We’re opening,” and I said, “I’ll go back and get me fucking bag and I’ll be back here on Monday.” So we just moved down to London.

Then, later on, I started doing three days a week printmaking, plus I had stalls at Camden Market, Carnaby Street and Kensington Market for a few years. Selling second-hand clothes, well, vintage as they said. It was the 80s, so it was all good fun.

Brendan: Where was the Printmaking?

Gary: On Rosebury Avenue in Holborn. You were only supposed to go, like, for so many hours, but I was just in there all the time. I just thought, oh my God!…for the first silk screen, before I had ever done it, I took in this painting and I said, I want to do this. The tutor goes, “What? You can’t just do that! It’s a screen for each colour!” I said, I’m gonna do this, and he didn’t think I could do it.

Josie: Did you?

Gary: Yeah. 36 colours. 36 colour screens, I had to do! I just persevered and said, I am gonna fucking do this. And he didn’t believe me…

So, 36 colours was the first one, and I toned it down to like, 15 colours for the next one and then I managed to get one down to 7 colours, and I thought, I think I’m getting it now…

That print got into Liberty’s – the first one. I was just taking it round to different places saying, fancy putting this in? I didn’t know what Liberty’s was. I don’t give a fuck what you are – do you like it? Yes, we like it. Well have one, put one in! Great! It was well worth the 36 colours… got it in that posh shop down Regent Street.

Then I went to college and Uni at Middlesex. I had to do Graphics cos the stuff I was doing was too tight.

Josie: So really, in terms of being able to paint big paintings on canvas, you’re self-taught.

Gary: Yeah, they didn’t teach me. I’ve always done drawing and painting – I was always painting my brothers, or doing something to do with painting, all the time when I was a kid. Making fucking theatres and making my brothers’ clothes, shit like that. Like things that eleven year old kids just don’t fucking do… “I need to make you these flares! Lie on the floor! I’m going to draw around you!” You know what I mean? He’s going, “oh no, I’m only eight…” Nightmares for them, but great for me.

Josie: Yeah how did they feel about that?

Gary: Well, they kind of really liked it. It’s just a shame we didn’t have phones with cameras on or something, because I would have absolutely loved these pictures. I did come runner-up in this fashion competition on television, I think when I was 11. It was a programme called Tom Tom, which was a cross between Blue Peter and Tomorrow’s World, like a futuristic kids’ program and you had to design clothes for the year 2000. The Echo came out to take pictures and do an interview, and at the time I was making clothes for my brothers. My Mum was, unfortunately, sitting in the room listening and they were asking questions and she chipped in and said, oh, yeah, he makes his brothers’ trousers. And I always remember the look that they gave each other, just this kind of look as if to say, you know something I’m not sure you know, you know. I thought, what was that look for? Something odd about making trousers? You know it was this weird thing. They must have thought ‘bender’, and I thought… that was a funny look that made me feel strange. I always remember that weird little thing. But yeah, well, I suppose if you tell them that you make great big flares for your fucking 8 year old kid brothers…

I did make some fantastic trousers! No zips or anything, just sewed him into them on the floor. Yeah, with massive flares and all tassels, that hung down, tied on at the knee… “Go and play out in the field! Go and play with your friends!” So he goes legging it up the hill looking like something off Top of the Pops. Then half an hour later – “you’ve fucking ruined them! You destroyed my work!”

So, yeah I ended up doing a degree in Graphics. I had to take the final year off because my partner who was HIV positive developed full blown AIDS. I cared for him till he died that year. He was ill for four years, we were together for thirteen years. I went back to Uni, but it was all fucking aliens from the year below and it was a new tutor and she hated me, she hated me so I thought, right I’m gonna fuck you up completely. And so for the degree show I just did a really big painting. It was for a brief she set, for an illustration for The Magic Flute CD. So I hire costumes from Berman and Nathan’s in Islington, you know, proper theatrical, TV, film stuff. I got the models, worked out this picture, did a massive thing with gilt frame on it and everything and that was my degree show. I just stuck that up. I don’t know if I had any text on there whatsoever except for the compact disc cover. I just left it and thought, thanks for me 2:2, I love you too.

My Partner. Philip Munroe. Died 13.1.89. Aged 34, oil on canvas, 210 x 105 cm, 1994

But that was really good cos I got a few jobs just from that thing, and got some magazine stuff. But it was like, you get the jobs, but it’s just money, to me it’s just prostitution. It wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. The problem I have with colleges or places like that, you don’t realise, it’s all a business. You know that art school keeps you in this thing for money. If somebody had told me…

It’s a bit like when I first went to college, when I was 17 or 18 or something and they said, we’re having this exhibition in the library in Chester and can you do about three things for it. I said yeah, okay. I was already making this picture of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in my house and it was chaos and my dad wouldn’t even let me do it downstairs. He said, I do not want to see this this thing in my living room. And so I painted it upstairs out of the way. Then I gave it to them and when they realised what it was they said, there’s no way on Earth that you can bring that picture in here! Just get that out of here now!

But if somebody had said at the time, that’s exactly what you want Gary, you want that response, you want to be able to do anything that you like… If you get any publicity or some knock-backs or anything, it’s all good for you. But nobody says that and nobody says, if you know what you want to do, do it. They only say, go to college. It’s so annoying. People go through that and waste time because, really, they know what they want to do. Somebody should have said, anything you want to do is fine and it’s art, because you’re passionate enough to want to do that. But they never say that, they say, yeah, you have to go to college…What the fuck for? Why don’t they just encourage you?

You can find out more about Gary’s work on his website: www.garysollars.com