Big Think – Ideas – Guggi interview

Question: What was your biggest career mistake?

Guggi: Working for my dad.

Question: Why was that a mistake?

Guggi: It was a mistake because he worked us very, very hard for very little money but then when he’d get annoyed with us he wouldn’t discipline us the way you would normally discipline an employee. He would actually kick us around the warehouse. Maybe it wasn’t all bad and maybe it made me — I guess, the old saying: if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. Look, I can’t say that I have any regrets. I’ve had some dreadful jobs; I was a vegetable man out at a big suburb of Dublin, Tallaght. Tallaght was being built. I did a lot of things, you know. I don’t know. I’ve had some — probably the worst jobs. That would be one of them. I’ve had a lot of really bad jobs selling encyclopedias down in the country in Ireland where you’re dropped out of a little country road and the guy meets you at 6:00 that evening ten miles up the road and there is six houses between now and then. That was dreadful. I’ve had a lot of really bad jobs.

Question: Who are you wearing?

Guggi: You’d have to ask my wife who I am wearing. I don’t know. I absolutely don’t know. I’m probably not wearing anybody anybody’s ever heard of. I don’t know.

Guggi: How often do you give up on a painting?

Guggi: I’ve never given up on a painting half way through. Sometimes in order not to give up on it, you’ve got to put it away for a couple of weeks and work on something else and then go back to it. And I’ve had paintings where I did that and I’ve gone back to it and then another couple of weeks, another couple of months still can’t get it, still can’t get it. But you know, it’s a strange thing and I’m in — it’s probably cliche, but it’s very true. It’s the only thing that I can compare it to and it is like children. If you’ve got a difficult child, that’s a pain in the ass, you don’t give up on them. You just got to keep working. You just got to keep trying to get that right and it’s the only comparison that I make — can make. I won’t lose a painting because I know I’m not going to start a painting unless I had an idea for it. I’m not going to start a painting unless I wanted to achieve something with this piece of work. And if it doesn’t come easy, I can’t leave it. So I don’t — sometimes a painting will wipe the floor with me. I’ll be a bundle of nerves half way through, but I won’t lose a painting. So none is the answer, in one word.

Question: Is talent innate or the result of hard work?

Guggi: Well I think my mother-in-law is a very wise woman and she said to make a mark or to make your mark or to try and do something great. Of course, the all important thing is that you must be talented. But that’s only the first ten percent and what I have seen, that is so true. People that work harder than anybody else, achieve more than anybody else. Not necessarily because they’re a better song writer, not necessarily because they’re a better painter, but because they’re giving it so much more and they refuse to fail or they refuse to settle for less. So, of course, the talent has got to be there but hard work is a massive part of developing that gift, that talent.

Question: How do you stay disciplined?

Guggi: Yeah, I mean, discipline for me was a difficult thing. I parted company with the Virgin Prunes in 1984 to paint full time but I had painted right through my years with the band and before the band started, right through my childhood. Discipline was going to be always a problem for me because by nature I’m lazy. But I worked hard on discipline and became disciplined and to the point now that I just want to be in the studio, you know. I get up at about half 10:00 or 11:00, I do my sit-ups, a few press-ups, I go for a fast walk, have a bit of breakfast, go out to the studio at about 12:00 noon, and I generally knock off between 12:00 and 1:00, 12:00 midnight and 1:00. I stop for meals in between. And when I am out of that routine I really miss it; for instance, if I’m away for more than a few days, I start missing that and I start wanting that. I love being in the studio. So I think it has worked out good for me, but it was a real problem at first, yeah. [00:19:13.27]

Question: Is there such thing as creativity block?

Guggi: You know, I think people go through this maybe I think people exaggerate it a lot more than it should be exaggerated. I believe if you go into the studio, there is no doubt about the fact that painting is not always about the great stroke, the great stroke that brings it all together, that now makes sense of all of the work and all of the efforts. It’s also about priming canvas. It’s about sweeping the floor. It’s about mixing paint. It’s about so many things. And you know what? People can call it luck, they can call it whatever they want, but the more time I spend in the studio the luckier I get and I don’t entertain people that sit around for a year waiting to be inspired. That’s bullshit.

Question: Has your lack of training helped you as an artist?

Guggi: Yeah. I think there is no doubt about the fact that it has. I think formal training is absolutely correct for some people and for other people I don’t think it’s correct, and I felt when I was very young — I mean, my mom would have gone out on a limb to send me to Art College, but I didn’t want to go. I think it might have been partly fear of something; I don’t know what. Or I think it might have been some touch of wisdom that was planted in me, that steered me away from that and maybe manifested itself in some kind of a fearful manner. I don’t know which of those it was or what it was, but I did strongly feel that I didn’t want that.

My mom sent me to a drawing class off Grafton Street in Dublin when I was about 11 or 12 years old and it was a still life, it had been set up on the table, there was a group of people sitting around the table drawing it from their angle. My style was still developing as a child and I think technical ability I think is important for an abstract artist because it’s a toolbox you can then do with what you want. And I very much had my own style. I delicately drew this in. I was very pleased with it. It was exactly right. I was shading it and the teacher came along, took a big heavy pencil and re-drew it a very different style and said, “That’s how it should be done.” I think that was the time when I said I am never going to let this happen to me again. I think that’s when I decided I don’t want anybody telling me how to make my mark and I don’t want that to be influenced and I think by not being formally taught protected that and, for me, I wholly believe it was right.

Question: What role has childhood played in your art?

Guggi: I think it’s very powerful for any artist. I think people’s childhood is a huge mark on their lives. They may realize it, they may not. But I just have this thing about shapes; I’ve always had this thing about people’s faces and I say when I draw a jog in a very awkward child-like way, I almost see it as a person with a really awkward nose or something. You know it comes from childhood but it’s painted by a man. So I mean it’s a mixture of all of these things. But some of the early marks that have now, I think, basically turned into my vocabulary as a painter I think come from childhood. But it’s difficult to — I don’t even try to analyze these things. I just try to walk in faith, trust my instincts.

Question: Who inspires you?

Guggi: Yeah. I mean, if I’m standing at MOMA, or if I’m standing anywhere, and I’m standing in front of a truly great painting–just the power of a painting–or if I turn around and see a painting that’s — I just go, “Wow.” Don’t need to know who the artist is, don’t really need to know but if the painting just speaks to me and if it moves me, it certainly inspires me. I don’t know if it directly influences me. There are — I mentioned Sean Scully. He’s a painter that I would very much admire; another Irish painter. I love his paintings very much. They can really move me and affect me. But yet I don’t know if they influence my paintings. But Sean Scully, the man, would certainly be an influence on me in terms of how he goes about his business, how he conducts himself, how he — I think I have learned from Sean. But yes, of course, I have a lot of influences. I love the painter, Jean-Michel Basquiat. And I love — you see a Matisse and you just go, “Wow.”

Question: What is your creative process?

Guggi: I think that’s — that very process does fascinate me because I can always see a painting in my minds eye but you can’t see it in a photo realistic sense and the thing that you see and it comes and it goes and you just fight for that. Generally, probably my best work has been following that thing and it turns into something completely different. So I would start with an idea and I would follow that idea as I saw it in my mind’s eye, but then at some point in time, very early on in the painting, the paint itself would start dictating what came next and instinctive marks would start happening. I think it’s one step of faith after the next and instinct. I think after awhile the paint starts dictating. And sometimes it can be very close to what I saw in my mind’s eye and other times it can be something completely different, but that’s generally how I would start

Question: How has Dublin’s rapid economic growth altered the city?

Guggi: I think it probably made people greedy. There is no doubt about the fact that a lot of positive things came out of it. You know, you see beautiful buildings. You find yourself living in a city that’s very pleasant. You don’t see people suffering from poverty or you do, perhaps, but a lot less. But you know now that the bubble has burst and the economy has collapsed, I do think it’s a real blessing in disguise. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. So much of, you know — the great music even in recent times has not come from wealthy, spoiled children that eat too much, that are given too much, that take stuff for granted. It did come from hard times and it did come from a certain level of poverty. So I think it’s a blessing in disguise, but I going to say, having said that, I did enjoy the good times.

Question: What major changes do you notice in the city now?

Guggi: Yeah. You notice a big difference now; a lot of restaurants closing, a lot of shops closing, and you know people are maybe a little bit panicked, and the media, I think, in Ireland, hammered consumer confidence and I think that played a very big part in the bubble bursting, coming down so fast. I think that could have been avoided. I think people are now starting to get a little bit bored with the recession and talk of the recession. So I think that’s a good thing, but yeah, you notice differences. We’ve kind of stopped celebrating. But we were over-celebrating, so you know. Now it’s evening out a little bit. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Question: Do you feel attached to Ireland’s rich artistic tradition?

Guggi: Well, yeah. I think some of Ireland’s rich, artistic, creative tradition comes from my childhood friends, and there’s no doubt about that. Without my friends, I think I’d be probably lost.

Question: How were you influenced by your friends growing up?

Guggi: Well I think when you’re — we always shared — we took our sense of humor very seriously. It was very important to us. That developed together; our personalities developed together. We talked a lot, we thought a lot, we discussed things and we grew up and our minds developed together. So how does it influence me? I think it completely influences me. I think, to some extent, we are all a product of our experiences. And in the bad ways, of course, I think we’ve to break that. When we become models, we’re responsible for everything we do, but there is no doubt about the fact that my friends have influence me. Of course they have.

Question: What was Lypton Village?

Guggi: It was a name we put to the understanding that we had with each other. It was the place where I think our way of thinking came from, our language came from, our names came from. I guess I see Lypton Village is the word that we put on that; it could have been any word and it happened to be that. I think that’s how I say it.

Question: How did you get your name?

Guggi: I was given, when I was a child, my best friend — I wanted to be a painter and he gave me a painters name, Guggi. And he wanted to be a singer and I gave him a singer’s name, Bono. That’s where those two names came from. We were very interested in this thing about finding a word that sounded — in the way it sounded, it also described the way somebody looked as well as their vibe and I think the word Guggi, maybe, was pretty accurate.

Question: A Legend of Goth Rock’s Guide to Christianity

Guggi: I always call myself a Christian, I don’t call myself a Protestant. I bring my kids — I have five sons — I bring them to a Baptist church but we tried a lot of different churches. I’m not interested in the brand outside the church at all, no interest. No interest in religion really. But this was a good speaker. There was no bullshit; he got straight to the point. The message is clear and it’s very bearable. They are not in any way judgmental and so it was the right church. But the brand doesn’t matter.

Question: What was it like growing up in a Christian fundamentalist household in Ireland?

Guggi: It definitely — there is no doubt about the fact that we felt different. Our dads, we would get up on a Sunday morning, we would go to church. It was a one and a half hour long service. The speaker could never stop on time; it was very often closer to two hours. We’d go to the park for a half an hour, go home have our lunch, come back into Sunday School. Sunday School another one hour and twenty minutes. We would get something to eat. We would be back in for church from 7:00 to 8:00, then over to the YMCA for the 8:30 which would finish at about quarter to 10:00. Then we hit various children’s meetings in the church during the week. It was a bit much actually. And we felt that at the time, that it was way over the top. Our feelings were never respected, they were never asked about. But, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I drew my strength from there, perhaps. I do have a strong faith and I’ve had — I would consider myself to be a Christian, not a very good one, but you’re in or you’re out and, for that, I wouldn’t swap it for anything