At Bike Chain Ricci we are proud to stock the work of world-famous cycling artist Mark Fairhurst. Taking inspiration from such classic print-makers as Pierre-Felix Firre-Masseau and Cassandre, Fairhurst has cultivated a fanatical online audience and clientel which, as of very recently, includes Chris Froome himself. Rolya magazine caught up with Fairhurst out of his Gloucestershire home to talk about his journey from facing rock-bottom to climbing the heights of cycling pop-culture...
Rolya: What hass been your process up until now - education, training, jobs?
Mark Fairhurst: I immediately left school and got in to work. I was very lucky and ended up working for the now bought-out BN Group advertising agency in London. They had a huge art and design studio with about 30 paste-up artists, which sounds old-fashioned now but was a big deal back then. They also had an in-house photographic studio and darkroom, which is where I started.
R: And that was where your interest in photography started I suppose?
MF: Yeah. I originally wanted to join the RAF but I think I was a bit too thick for that. I had a friend who was a press photographer in Fleet Street and he gave me a camera to play with one weekend when we went to see him. We went through the process of developing the film and printing it. As it turned out I appeared to have an aptitude for it.
R: So you then began freelance work as a photographer? You have quite an impressive portfolio of clients.
MF: Well it was all in-house for the agency. As I said I started in the darkroom, but one day the studio’s photographer had a huge project come in but at the time he had had an accident and the studio asked me if I would like to take his place for a while. About five years later I ended up running the studio. It was all very high-brow stuff; portraits of various American and European clients. So that gave me some very good grounding in the trade. BN had been going since the Second World War and they had a huge archive of images from the 1940s onwards – it was great stuff.
R: Explain the concept of Zeitgeist images?
MF: Well for a time I was actually living down in St. Agnes, Cornwall, and so commuting every week up to London. It was a long commute; up early Monday morning and back again on Fridays. I had a friend whose father was in show-business and he sent me an email asking me to photograph some people, so I said yes, and that’s how I ended up building my portraiture portfolio, as you can see on my website today.
That earned me some money for a few years, but when the recession hit in 2008, like many my industry shrunk dramatically. So I limped along for a few years, and then last year when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France business was extremely flat photography-wise. I really thought that period in time was going to be the end of me. But when Wiggins won the Tour de France I just started doodling cartoons; and at the same time somebody had just introduced me to Twitter. They said ‘put one of these cartoons you’ve done on to Twitter’. So I did and then it just snowballed. People started saying: ‘where can I buy this… can I put it on a T-shirt… can I have it on a poster’. So I started knocking these things out – all locally sourced to me in Gloucestershire. Then not long after that the Olympics happened. I started doing a few Olympic pictures off my own back, and I think it was on the second day of the Games that I started Tweeting those, and Corrie Corefield, who is one of the newsreaders on Radio 4, Tweeted it and it just went mad. As it turned out I ended up getting more and more requests for my cycling-related artwork as my Olympic-themed pictures were very velodrome-based.
I think the reason I started doing all of this was because the photographic business had shrunk so much that it was a matter of creation out of desperation. And I’m very glad it happened; it’s just over a year now since I started doing it, and it’s certainly helping to pay the bills and I’m certainly beginning to catch the eye of quite a few bigger businesses now. I was very lucky at the beginning of this year because when Madison-Genesis’ U23s team launched they commissioned me to produce the poster for their team. So in 2013 I really hit the ground running with the posters – it was fantastic. Since then I’ve done work for the likes of Castelli UK and a few other bits and pieces. I must stress that my whole promotion has been done via Twitter; it’s been quite a baptism of fire in to the world of social media for me. So much so that now I have customers in California now; I have customers in Australia; and recently some in South Africa. So all my work is going in to peoples’ homes around the world now, which is fantastic.
R: So why do you think people are really latching on to it? It’s quite impressive given your late start in the world of art.
MF: Oh gosh tell me about it. Yeah. I don’t know. I suppose it’s very old-school. For example I created a Vuelta a Espagna poster this year – a matador with the peloton coming towards him – and when Carlton Kirby was commentating on the race he picked up on me tweeting it. When they were doing the final circuit around Madrid, I couldn’t believe it when he said live on television: ‘oh, before we wrap this up I’ve got to mention a fantastic artist who has sent me an image blah blah blah…’ So yeah, it’s really captured the imagination of cycling fans.
They are very old-school. I love the artwork circa 1920s and onwards, and when put in to a cycling theme it makes for great imagery.
R: They hold romantic similarities to the likes of classic art-deco artists such as Pierre-Felix Firre-Masseau and of course Cassandre - were these inspirations for you?
MF: Oh absolutely. I’ve always been a sucker for the ‘deco period and similar design, so I like to put that through in my work. Some of it more than others but it’s there. It doesn’t always translate too well in some pieces, but my humour is slightly quirky and I think that people have latched on to that as well. Some of them are really quite tongue-in-cheek.
R: There has definitely been, over the past couple of years and particularly following the mentioned recession, a real throwback to the ‘make do and mend’ era, with the likes of the Keep Calm and Carry On revival lighting up the internet and department store floors. Would you say you are part of the ‘glory days’ revolution?
MF: Yes, definitely. A good example of that are, as you say, the Keep Calm and Carry On posters. I suppose some of the work I do is quite typographical, but the bulk is definitely artistically-inspired. And it’s developing all the time. You know, I’ve got no idea how it’s going to be in a year’s time but, provided the custom is there and it’s working, long may it continue.
R: So why cycling?
MF: I’ve always been a very keen cyclist. I mean, I’ve done a few sportives but nothing race-honed or anything. But I do love it. I’m not a climber though unfortunately, which is a bit of a laugh living in the Cotswolds where you’re hitting 13-15 per cent hills everywhere.
R: So going back to the art side of things: what’s your typical process when creating a print?
MF: They are all giclccee – a French word which literally means ‘splatter’ – printed. For all intents and purposes it’s very high-standard art print ink-jet from a very good printers near me in Stroud. They have been absolutely fantastic over the past year; they’ve really stepped up to the plate. In November last year I donated some of my Olympic prints that I exhibited in London to the Bobby Moore fund, which is part of Cancer Research UK. They actually got some of the Olympians to sign these prints and then had those all framed. There were six of these images and they ended up raising £7000 at a celebrity sports quiz in London. The printers in Stroud actually produced all those prints for free for me as a donation, which is of course fantastic.
And they’ve done the same this year too; it’s yet to be confirmed but we’ve got one of the major cycling teams lined up to sign some one-off images for the same event this year. So I’m hoping we can equal and if not better the £7000 raised last year.
But the process for my work: I’ll wake up at maybe three in the morning and there’ll be an image buzzing around in my head. So I’ll get up and do some sketches; I’ll then transfer that sketch on to my computer and finish it. Sometimes I may have a real brainstorm and do three images a day, and then sometimes I won’t produce anything for about three weeks. It’s a very random process in that sense I suppose.
R: Do you find watching races on the TV a source of inspiration?
MF: Absolutely. It could be a piece of music; I could be walking down the street and somebody rides past me. And I can never put my finger on it but there is just something about that moment that will spark an idea.
R: The various social and cultural aspects to cycling - be it during racing or on the club run - which every cyclist has experienced at some point often make an appearance.
MF: Yes, very much so. It’s quite interesting because as the work goes around the world I find myself commenting on very different aspects of cycling. For example I was recently commissioned to do work for the Tweed Run Tokyo Ride poster, and I ended up producing about half a dozen different images purely because of cultural aspects like not being allowed to use the colour red as they think it is a right wing colour. I couldn’t have any religious symbols in it either. It was a really steep learning curve. So as my work progresses in to more of a global commission basis there are various important cultural taboos you have to look in to – it’s quite strange.
R: Do you have a favourite print?
MF: [laughs] That’s an unfair question. It’s like a big family to me, and you can’t have a favourite son or daughter. They’re all very dear to my heart. And I suppose the thing is my newest or next print is always my favourite, and then something else comes along. There are some that simply get put in to a file as works in progress. I have some which I have done over a year ago which I haven’t released yet.
R: Would you say that art has given you a new lease in life?
MF: Yes definitely. You know if you’ve got a talent it can be spread in to different fields. So if anybody’s in the same situation as I was then it’s just a matter of muscling down, believing in yourself, working bloody hard and getting it out there. You know, I started small but I’ve got quite a healthy following now.
But as I said, if anybody is in the same situation And they think they can apply their talent in to a different sphere then I really recommend they push it because it can be done. I think I’m testament to that, and without having done it I think I would have been down the swanny...