James Straffon, Artist

James Straffon, Artist

Throughout the  Profile Series we explore the lives of some inspirational Londoners and dig a little deeper into the stories behind their success. From DJs, to Special Forces Operatives, to Olympians, each of the interviewees have one thing in common; a love of London Town and being on two wheels. 

London born James Straffon is a visual artist who creates artworks across a broad range of media, including the humble bicycle. We talk to James about his love of cycling and how its histories and traditions have inspired some of his finest work.

Tell us a bit more about where your passion for cycling started and how you use this to inspire your art.

I suppose it all began with a classic mid-life crisis. After much deliberating, I went out and bought my first bike. This, quite literally, kick-started a journey that I am still on. I began writing a daily cycling blog. And to feed it launched a very intensive, and initially indiscriminate plunge into the cycling oeuvre. On one of my many random forays into anything 'bike' I stumbled upon a really gifted Brooklyn-based artist called Taliah Lempert. Her inspiring, painterly 'portraits' of clients bikes set the wheels in motion for me to explore the potential of creating my own form of [what I hate to term] bike art. As a Pop artist, I set about fusing my interests in bygone forms of mass culture and applying this to the cycling world - wrapping up all these amazing stories of archaic heros and villains, and their almost mythological exploits.

In 2012, coinciding with Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France victory, you exhibited ‘LE TOUR’, a collection of work depicting cycling legends of the past. Which of their stories did you find the most inspiring?

It is hard to focus on just one of these extraordinary characters. For instance, there is the frenchman Jacques Anquetil- for his panache, and rakish élan; a man who once famously declared "To prepare for a race there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne and a woman." Then a favourite of mine - Fausto Coppi. Nicknamed 'Il Campionissimo', this wiry, enigmatic Italian's story reads like a fantasy novel - from being trained by a blind soigneur, to being a prisoner of war, his bitter rivalry with fellow countryman Gino Bartali, winning all the Grand tour races many times over, and even causing the Pope himself to intervene in a scandalous affair Coppi conducted with 'La Dama Bianca' (The Woman in White). I would also have to include Tom Simpson (one of Wiggins' own heros) - for his misguided, devil-may-care obsession with victory in 1967. Which ultimately led to his cruel collapse and death on the top slopes of Mont Ventoux. As David Millar summarises in the LE TOUR book, which accompanied my exhibition 'James has taken up the challenge and found a visual vocabulary for the chaos, he has brought it all together: the Tour de France has become art.' More of these cycling legends featured in my exhibition 'Carbon, Sulphur and Paint', which was shown in 2014 in a Harrogate gallery for the historic passing of the Tour de France through Yorkshire. I even had these hung on the side of a factory near the finishing line.

The 'Carbon, Sulphur and Paint' exhibition near the finish line of The Tour De france stage in yorkshire

"To prepare for a race there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne and a woman." - james anquetil

As well as stories, you seem to take visual inspiration from bicycles themselves to create work in a three-dimensional form. What is it about the humble bicycle that intrigues you enough to use it as a basis for art?

Much in the same way you can't separate the landscape of France from the theatre of the Tour de France, the bike forms an integral component of the whole. It has soul. So my fondness, and part-obsession with the materials of yesteryear - paper, card, cotton - extend to hand-crafted steel and leather. Although cold, and curved, the bicycle is just another surface to tell the same story. I could see through the work of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, and even Picasso, that it was possible to repurpose the bicycle and its structure into new forms and meaning. Perhaps my largest artwork to date (now residing in a home in San Francisco) - LE TOUR - best exemplifies this. I laboured over a very large-scale collage, incorporating every aspect of the Tour de France, then attached a bike frame, which I discovered would overlay its frame precisely onto the the famous mountain ranges featured within the race. As it says in the LE TOUR book - 'LE TOUR is geography and geometry; a fusion of the landscape and the bicycle.' So I could wrap the past around a three-dimensional form and invoke the journey it had taken. Similarly, my saddle artworks could present an alternative form of portrait (featuring Eddy Merckx, for example). And similarly the shoe pieces would take this paradigm further - 'Kids from Kilburn' actually incorporating Bradley Wiggins' own race shoe into the artwork dedicated to his exploits.

You collect cycling memorabilia, often with the view of turning it into artwork that tells a story. You must have quite a collection. What’s your favourite piece?

Luckily, my frenetic collecting has decreased of late. So most of the four-year 'magpie-like' stockpiling of memorabilia features within my various collections. It is very hard to select just one example. But a favourite could be 'Contrôle Anti-Dopage'. This piece is a highly-detailed collage, which uses an original directional sign from the 2009 Tour de France as its backdrop. Significantly this sign marked Lance Armstrong's notorious comeback Tour. Using that premiss, I created my own homage to Hieronymus Bosch's renaissance masterpiece 'The Garden of Earthly Delights', which was painted in 1505. My version reads like a bad acid trip - exploring the multi-faceted drama of drug-taking intertwined within the Tour's own chronology. Like the Bosch piece, it reads from left to right, light to dark.

Paul Smith has featured your work in a number of his stores. How did this endorsement come about and has it helped you in getting recognition for your work?

Paul Smith is a huge cycling fan. And a wonderful supporter of British art and design. He also has a very open attitude to saying what he likes. Back in 2010, having just created my first full body of cycling works, I was delighted when he suggest it went on show at his Globe Store within Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport. The show went really well. And we have kept in touch since, for example my work featuring prominently within his hallowed Floral Street shop in Covent Garden, alongside a special event launching David Millar's 2012 biography 'Racing Through the Dark'. As a Pop artist, you can't get a much better endorsement - to have your work featured on the same walls which have also hung Sir Peter Blake. When you open any new exhibition of work to the public, it is always a time of trepidation and fear. But when Sir Paul Smith uses his own blog to urge people to go and check it out, with the comment "really great stuff", your unease dissipates somewhat. 


Starffon's work in the Paul Smith store in Covent Garden

Tell us more about the work you do with The Turnpike Art group.

Much like my own work exploring the values of art and heritage, The Turnpike Art Group uses street art in a similar vein. I set it up around 2011, and have spent the last four years introducing a portfolio of international street artists onto the walls around Turnpike Lane, London N15. With thework I create, there is an emphasis on celebrating the bygone glories of our long-since demolished past - in 'Palace Gates' an old railway line is brought back to life over a brick building made to look like an old station, with 'The Ritz' a 1930's Ritz cinema has its ghosts revisited with giant renditions of Popeye, Felix the Cat, Chaplin etc spray-painted onto an adjacent power station. I love the research. Plus we get great feedback from our community - who feel a sense of value in the artworks belonging to them. I suppose, in essence, we are retelling the past in a modern medium.

The Ritz

'The Ritz'

Quick fire
Which bike do you ride?
My faithful Condor Agio.

Where do you cycle most?
Inner city.

Describe your style?
Urban Retro. If there is such a category. I don't like to look too much like a 'cyclist'. So I have my leather Dromarti shoes and gloves - various tweed jackets and caps, time-worn cotton jeans, and fine merino wool. A bit like my artwork - it's all about the material pleasures of the 'good old days'.