During his first year studying fine art at Coventry University, former graffiti artist Dale Marshall staged his debut solo exhibition at a Bristol squat.
Room 101, The Fine Art of Graffiti at the Emporium in Bristol, a run-down former shop, drew parallels from George Orwell’s novel, 1984, and the artist’s own personal experiences of being sectioned in St Lawrence’s Hospital, Cornwall – one of Britain’s oldest mental institutions – in 1999.
All 101 oil paintings – created over 101 days – sold out in under an hour.
After Room 101, Dale was invited to exhibit at Anno Domini Gallery in San José, California, and spent a gap year studying abstract art at California State University in Longbeach.
This week a three-month solo exhibition featuring 17 of his newest works opens at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.
Walls With Wounds is a series of beautiful, raw abstract paintings documenting his transformation from a young graffiti artist to emerging contemporary British painter; mental breakdown to rehabilitation.
“Curator Jessica Pinson of The Herbert approached me through a mutual friend,” the 40-year-old explains.
“They had seen what happened with my Room 101 show and we agreed to collaborate with DASH Disability Arts Shropshire and the In Project.
“I’m really proud. I am following only one other British graffiti artist to have a three-month solo exhibition in a UK city art gallery – and that was Banksy. This is such a monumental moment for me. It’s a body of 17 works and an edition print.
“Each piece is inspired by a dramatic memory. I have picked certain times of growing up, moments that stood out to me, moments like when I was travelling to St Lawrence’s Hospital and another time when I was forced anti-psychotic drugs at the hospital.”
Dale now lives in mid-Wales and works in a studio inside Y Dolydd, a former Victorian workhouse, in Llanfyllin, at the foothills of Snowdonia National Park.
The father-of-three adds: “Some of the work represents time-travel between St Lawrence’s and Y Dolydd. When my family moved to Wales I was struck by how similar the two buildings were, the panopticon design, I knew I had to be here to continue my artistic journey as I felt an emotional connection.
“At Lawrence’s I was confined; now I am free.
“I wanted to document the journey from poor health to good health; and destruction and repair. I really try hard to focus on balancing the opposites of dark and beauty to create beautiful pieces of work.
“I physically destruct and then repair pictures with different techniques using appropriate materials, including surgical wound dressings and anti-bacterial varnishes used to coat hospital walls, so they become very organic pieces. I see these paintings as alive, as part of myself, reflections, abstract self portraits.
“This is where I feel pride. I use cotton stitching in the form of mark-making, stitching past wounds, but the roots of graffiti are still within the work.”
Born just outside Bath, Dale was 13 years old when he started out as an illegal graffiti artist.
By the mid-1990s he was already painting from a personal perspective with poetic statements such as There is Beauty In The Lonely and From A Young Age Cracks Started To Appear – under the moniker of Vermin. Tell Me Nurse Am I Dead? is Dale’s “absolute favourite” new work in his forthcoming exhibition.
He said: “It’s about a very poetic time in my life when I didn’t know if I existed. It was a beautiful morning as I was taken from the police station from Newquay by ambulance across the Cornish moors to the hospital.
“I felt I was in this Monet landscape. I was thinking I was in heaven. I asked the nurse: ‘Tell Me Am I Dead?’ and she replied: ‘No Dale, we are taking you to a place to get better’. The painting is an aerial view of the road from Cornwall to St Lawrence’s. It’s a piece that needs to be repaired and needs to be handled delicately – anyone who’s suffering from mental health can be very delicate in mind. It’s very raw and contemporary using methods and concepts that I learned in California, with a monochrome palette of black, whites and greys.”
Dale rarely uses spray paint. Inspired by the American abstract painter Richard Diebenkorn and the Impressionists, in particular Berthe Morisot, his mixed multi-media paintings not only combine stitching but recycled materials, including sand and paint chips from the crumbling walls at Y Dolydd.
The Llanfyllin Workhouse, where his studio is based, is now run as a charitable community project. Its decaying walls are inscribed by children from more than 100 years ago.
Dale said: “I found it very emotional painting these pictures – especially alone there.
“The walls feel alive and that is what I wanted to recreate in the works.”
As a nine-year-old Dale first fell in love with graffiti, inspired by watching 1980s Betamax videos of the emerging hip-hop scene in the US.
“I grew up in a Somerset village in the 1980s. I come from a very working-class background.
“Living life as a young graffiti artist was really exciting and I enjoyed the social side of it. It was really important to me as a young lad who wanted a lot more from life than school and fitting in. I was just a very intrigued, inquisitive kid. I found painting my name on the walls was giving me a buzz and made me feel different from the other kids. It gave me the social identity I was in search of,” he says.
Dale and a few friends ventured into Bath and Bristol scrawling their names regularly. Police once arrested him in his school art class for graffiti; and he frequently put himself in dangerous situations.
“As a kid you have no fear. The illegal side of graffiti was very exciting. When I first left school we started to travel abroad, to places like Amsterdam, especially to buy spray paint and paint walls – we’d import 200 to 300 cans at a time,” he explains.
“In 1996 there was a core group of four friends working as a graffiti collective. It was a really big year for us in Bristol and we started to really establish ourselves.”
Dale was also enjoying the illegal rave scene. “I had an amazing time, it opened my eyes to the world and I don’t regret doing it.”
But he started to suffer paranoia and extreme anxiety. “To keep the anxiety away,” he combined heavy amphetamine use with cough medicine. “I produced some of my best work but only slept two days out of seven,” Dale recalls. It all came to a head one Bank Holiday weekend in 1999.
“I went to Newquay and had a complete psychotic nervous breakdown,” he says. He was sectioned for a short time at St Lawrence’s and later transferred to a unit closer to his home in Bath. “One time a friend came to visit me and my tongue had swelled up from all the anti-psychotic drugs the psychiatrists were giving me, I was having seizures.
“I don’t think getting sectioned was a bad thing to happen though. I had to take a long hard look at my life and come to terms with who I was, but it was hard, knowing that I could be mentally ill for the rest of my life.
“I’ve had friends who died through drugs and it felt like I had been given another chance. But it took a lot of pain and effort as for a long period I thought about killing myself on a daily basis.”
Dale was heavily depressed for seven years and had two more nervous breakdowns. He found it hard to paint during this dark period.
He adds: “I was broken in mind and was really unhappy. I went from 11 to 16.5 stone from the effects of the anti-psychotic medication. I decided to stop the anti-psychotic medicine and started to feel better, which allowed me to be more creative again.”
At 33, Dale’s state of mind improved when he embarked on a new relationship, free of addiction, and two years later became a dad for the first time. In 2009 he enrolled as a fine art student at Coventry University and graduated last year. Dale found it hard leaving his family when he moved to the US, but it was a productive year.
“I did two solo shows and achieved a distinction studying at California State University. The university’s art department was very supportive of me as an artist.
“The tutors were so amazing, embracing the graffiti aspect and wanted to help me develop this with traditional fine art methods, advising me to study paintings of contemporary artists like Gerhard Richter for his mark-making qualities, introducing me to works of young painters like Julie Mehretu, for composition qualities. It was really inspiring.
“The Californian arts scene was absolutely great, although I would have liked to have gone to the beach more. I was working in my studio most of the time. Towards the end of my stay, Soze Gallery in LA offered me a residency. I worked solidly and produced my Best Kept Secret exhibition with them. I also took part in a high-profile group show of street artists at LA’s LALA gallery.”
Today Dale sees himself as more of a “humanitarian artist” talking openly about his personal mental health issues.
He adds: “I am keen to put myself forward about my experiences and be honest in the process. Graffiti helped me to have a social voice and fill in a void.
“Having a psychotic breakdown and finding the strength through art has helped me rehabilitate and I know from my experiences that it can help other people too.
“I’m hoping my new show will really inspire people and challenge some people’s negative perception of mental illness.”
* Walls With Wounds runs at the Herbert Gallery in Coventry from February 15 to May 18. To Stitch some Wounds: An Artist-led paper collage workshop with Dale will take place on April 5, 10.30am-4pm. For more details visit: www.theherbert.org