Photo by Laura Kelly
Gee Vaucher isn’t perhaps as well known as some of her punk peers, but she should be: she’s
one of the artists who defined punk’s visuals of protest in the 1970s, especially with
her arresting photo-montage covers for Crass, the cult band and art collective she was part of,
who put anarchy into practice.
She had a stint in Manhattan as a political illustrator for The New York Times and she’s also designed album sleeves for bands like The Charlatans and experimental hip-hop group Tackhead. Her piece for the latter, Oh America, in which the Statue of Liberty covers her face with her hands, went viral and was published on the front cover of newspapers when Trump was elected as President of the United States.
Gee's art continues to be confrontational, whether she’s painting or, as she shows us, making an absolutely enormous book filled with millions of hand-drawn stick figures – one for every single person that died in World War I.
She is radical in every sense of the word. In this episode, Gee invites us to Dial House, on the edge of Epping Forest in Essex – a tumbling old cottage with a difference: it’s run by Gee and her collaborator Penny Rimbaud as an anarchic “centre for radical creativity” where anyone can turn up at any time for a cup of tea and a chat. So that’s just what we did, to hear Gee talk about her working relationship with Penny, why punk was a disappointment and the 'perverseness' of her art.
This episode was produced by Mae-Li Evans.
Music in this episode with thanks to freemusicarchive.org:
TRANSCRIPT: Gee Vaucher
[Advert] Welcome to the new series of The Last Bohemians. I'm your host Kate Hutchinson - I've always wanted to say that - and before we start, I just want to give a big shout out to my friends over at Mr and Mrs Smith, who have rather brilliantly come on board as a partner for this series. Since 2003, the travel club for hotel lovers has been seeking out pioneering and independently minded escapes, and at mrandmrssmith.com, you can browse and book 1400 of the world's best boutique and luxury hotels. All the way from gregarious grand dames to seductive side street hideaways, and from the New Forest to Namibia - they're all handpicked and anonymously reviewed, so you know you're getting the good stuff. So thank you to Mr and Mrs Smith, and without further ado, it's episode two.
Taxi driver: It's not Dial House is it?
Kate Hutchinson: It is Dial House.
Taxi driver: Oh, you're going there.
Kate: Do you know where it is?
Taxi driver: Yes, I'm afraid I do.
Kate: Why do you say it like that?
Taxi driver: It is out the way and the roads are crap out there.
Kate: So your opinion on it is more informed with how bad the roads are rather than what goes on there?
Taxi driver: Yes I know he's the lead singer of Crass and all that, yeah, is that why you're going to interview?
Kate: Actually we're more interested in Gee, the artist who did all the artwork.
Taxi driver: Oh.
Kate: Do you know much about her?
Taxi driver: Nope. No... was that his wife?
Kate: Creative collaborator.
Taxi driver: Oh. Just up there on the right hand side, you'll see it.
Kate: Oh yeah. Thank you. [Kate is heard getting out of the taxi] Wow. Do I just go through the gate? [Bells chime, walking noise continues] I think that must be Penny's house there and this main house must be Gee's. It's open! [Calling out] Hello?
Gee Vaucher: Yoo hoo.
Kate: How you doing?
Gee: Alright. You're recording already then? [Laughing]
Kate: Always recording.
Gee: Do you want something to drink?
Kate: A tea yeah, please.
Gee: Cup of tea.
Kate: Who's this? [points to a cat]
Gee: That is Big Boy.
Kate Hutchinson intro: Dial House, on the edge of Epping Forest in Essex, is a picturesque cottage with a difference: it's an open house, run by Gee Vaucher and Penny Rimbaud as an anarchic “centre for radical creativity” where anyone can turn up at any time for a cup of tea and a chat. So that's what we did to meet Gee. She isn't as well known as, say, Vivienne Westwood or Siousixe Soux, but she should be - she’s one of the artists who defined punk’s visuals of protest in the 1970s, especially with her arresting photo-montage covers for Crass, the cult band and art collective that put anarchy into practice. Gee had a stint in Manhattan as a political illustrator for The New York Times and she’s also designed album sleeves for bands like The Charlatans and experimental hip-hop group Tackhead. Her piece for the latter, Oh America, in which the Statue of Liberty covers her face with her hands, went viral when Trump was elected as President of the United States. Her art continues to be confrontational, whether she’s painting or, as she shows us, making an absolutely enormous book filled with millions of stick people – one for every single person that died in World War I. She is radical in every sense of the word, as you will hear in this episode, as she guides us through her alternative approach to life and art.
Kate: How did you acquire this building?
Gee: In the 60s it was a really bad time for people, people were moving to the cities for work. Tons of take-your-choice cottages in the country, so they were advertised in the papers, you could rent them for, well we rented this for seven pound a week, and that's what it was for the next 30-odd years. [Laughing] So, very cheap! Pen had this idea of an open house, always has had - his dream was kind of inspired by a film called The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. He always sort of wanted to have an open house, which is what we've still got.
Kate: What was that film about?
Gee: I think it was about people knowing, as they travelled round the country, there was a safe house and you could call by and you could stay the night, and you could share bread and food, and travel on. So that was the main basis of it, and that's how this worked really – give where you can and respect each other's space, you know, and that works both ways. People have to respect that I need space too, I need time to work. People are very gracious when they come, you know, if they come in they're unannounced, which most people do which is fine, absolutely fine, but if we've got deadlines we have to say, "Look, we can give you an hour, cup of tea, share a story or two, but we've got to get on", and that's fine. But people have got to understand we have to do that because, you know, we're both very creative people and it doesn't get done unless you do it.
Kate: How far have people travelled to come and visit you here?
Gee: Oh, every corner of the earth. You get a tap on the door, more in the past, you still get people though who come through the door and you say, "Where have you come from?", and set off from New Zealand, or Japan or...
Gee: Oh yeah, they won't give up! They don't even have an address, but they'll find their way here! It's quite extraordinary. Far and wide, far and wide, yeah. You know, we only had trouble with one person once. Yeah, in the 52 years we've been here it's been fantastic people. The only regret I have is not having a visitors' book from the very start.
Kate: What does go on here?
Gee: Well, visitors, storytelling, workshops, artists in residence, we've had four this year who take responsibility for everything - there's a cup needs washing up, you wash it up, you don't wait for your turn on the rota. You see it needs to be done you try and do it – if you can do it, do it, don't wait. One of the biggest things to learn is the problem has to be middle of the table, you discuss the problem, the earlier you do it the easier it is to solve. And then you laugh together afterwards, no finger pointing. It's very hard, people like to blame. A lot of blame. You can't do that, it's very important. It's a hard lesson though.
Kate: What was your first encounter with Penny?
Gee: He turned up a term later I think... He looked awfully public school – hair parted, tweed jacket. [Laughing] We became friends, opposite ends of the social scale. I think we were both very passionate about creativity, really. He was a bit of a joker of course. Yeah, he was very verbal, he was, you know, being public school he had proper vocabulary and I couldn't understand half of it half the time. But it interested me, again, you just keep listening, don't you? You just keep listening, you pick up stuff. We were both really serious people, we weren't at art school just because it was something to do and we couldn't get anything else, we were there because that's what we did.
Kate: Do people ever get confused about your relationship and what it is?
Gee: Not now, no. It's a working relationship. It might've been something else at another time but it's not that now, that's all it is now, it's a working relationship.
Kate: What is the secret to such a long lasting collaboration partnership like that?
Gee: Never assume you know that person – you don't. If you assume you know somebody you hold them in place. 50 years go by, that person isn't who they were 50 years ago. Hopefully each day you're becoming a better person, a more clear person, a more happy person or whatever it is you're aiming for, I don't know. But you know certain basic characteristics that you obviously trust, but I don't know Pen, he doesn't know me! It's fleeting, isn't it? It's moving. He might know me yesterday but he doesn't know what I've been realising today, that's why we share that. "How did you get on?", "Well I had this really great thought?" – it's kind of like that, isn't it? It's a basis, yeah, so it's a basis. Somebody that you really trust, you don't know where that's gonna go. I don't want to know, I want the surprises!
Kate: Did art and activism come hand in hand in your art school days?
Gee: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was very radical then I think, in that sense. I had a very idyllic idea about art school, that you could be there all day all night creating, blah blah blah - course, come six o'clock you had to go home! Oh I don't like that, no, no. So I started to fight to keep the art department open till late. I won that one, and then it was closed at weekends, I thought, "What? What am I gonna without weekends?", so I fought for that and got that opened at weekends too. We were like, "Yes''. 61 we started at art school and ’65 we left, so you can imagine, but this time the whole rising of youth is woah up there. It's come and ’68 explodes, so yeah, it was all so so lively. You had Mary Quant on the scene, you had the Beatles, you had - you name it. In every creative field there was all these people coming up, really exciting. Not what I paid much attention to it, but, and I didn't really go to the parties, I was just so happy to be working away. Well, I was doing illustration work for a living. I just got fed up with being a tool for the art director's crappy ideas, because they would give you an idea how to illustrate something, and I'd think, "Fucking hell, that's not gonna work. I'll think of something better than that". I just got a bit tired of it, tired they would use you as something like that, and very little respect. So then I changed tactics and I just did sort of encyclopaedia work, you know, which was a life cycle of a crab or something, because it had no politics in it, it was just interest of that sort of work. But then I decided that I needed a break from here, I thought belly of the beast, and I had a friend living in New York, so. I just took a few bits of work with me in a plastic bag really, and I literally had about 30 quid so I had to get it together quick. I thought, "Well, I'll start at the top" - and the top meaning to me at the time was, "Oh, I'll ring up and see if I can take my work down to New York Times", which was still in Times Square at the time. A fantastic place. My friend made me get a folder because I had a plastic bag, they said, "You can't go to New York Times with a plastic bag", and I said, "I can, and I'm going. I've got to go now". So I just tipped it out of my plastic bag [laughing]. The following week he went and bought me a folder, he said, "Yeah you've got to take this", and I said, "Alright". I felt so professional [laughing]! I've still got it, actually, I've still got the folder. And I just picked up a job, just like that!
Kate: You make it sound so easy.
Gee: It was! It was easy! Not now. Because you got to see the art directors then, you were taken into the back office and you laid out your work and they all gathered around. It's a drop-off system now, I mean I just feel for young people now trying to get through to an art director, all they do is go back, pick up their folder, "Don't ring us, we'll ring you". That's not encouraging for people! They should make time like they used to - you've always got to see the art director, they could see you and chat to you and see that that was a person who might be a bit nervous, but they're capable.
Kate: And what did they like about your work?
Gee: Oh I don't know! I have no idea! The one thing I found when I got to New York and started getting work was I was immediately seen as a political illustrator, with a small p, you know. So I was given wonderful projects, highly volatile political subjects to illustrate. As far as I'm concerned everything's political because it has a resonating effect throughout your life, somebody else's life, society, the world. You know, the ripples go out, don't they? But the small ‘p’ is because it wasn't a large ‘p’ which is usually 'political party p', and I don't have any allegiance to any of them. One of the stories which started the downfall of my stay in New York was an article about Jimmy Carter's brother who was making capital out of the fact that his brother was president, a very good story it was. So I did a portrait of his brother talking to a woman, I took, and he had balloons in his hand. I thought it was really funny and the guy said, "Can't publish that one. Could you take that bit out?" [laughing]. I can't even remember what it was now, it was on the balloon. I took it off, I'd managed to hide the whole thing, and then it was accepted. But I felt so unclean afterwards! I thought, "Never again, I'm not fucking about with this". So the next one I did was a total explosion, right, they still have to pay you 50% even if they don't use it. So I thought, "Oh, I'll take the 50%", I thought, "I'm out of here. This is not gonna work much longer now". And the band had just been, so I set up some gigs for them, they came over and they'd just gone back and I thought, "Na, I need to work with a group again".
Kate: I'm so excited about this cake!
Gee: I never know how it's going to turn out. Sometimes I do it with marmalade, that's nice.
Kate: [Eating cake] Oh, it's tangy. What's in your cake?
Gee: Ah... my inventions, jam. I make jam cakes. I just don't put in sugar, I put half a jar of jam in for the sweetness, and then just mix egg and marg and flour, that's it.
Kate: So instead of...
Gee: Different flavour. Yeah I just mix it all in.
Kate: You need to give this recipe a name I think. 'The Gee Surprise'
Gee: 'Gee's Jam Cake', 'Gee's Old Shit Cake', really, anything that's lying around, I'm good at using up food.
Kate: So the band all started because that seemed like the most upfront way to get your messages across.
Gee: Yeah, but because we were all creative, you know, we were all artists in some way, it was very important that everything had to be considered – graphic design, illustrations, words. Obviously, as with most groups, it gets driven by certain characters who have a way with words or a way with images, and that's how it worked out in the end. So Pen would, well he wrote the majority of the songs, the rest of us chipped in with songs here and there. It wasn't jazz and poetry, it was loud jump up and shout music, you know, we didn't take it that seriously at first. "Let's have a go at this'', you know, having a bit of a laugh. But gradually it became more serious, you know, with what was happening with the whole punk movement. We thought, "Nah, this isn't Vivienne Westwood, this has got to be more than this". We were a group of people that were frustrated with what was going on. We all had something to see in some way or other, and we all came to an agreement that we could try and share what we felt we'd been through or understood. It certainly wasn't out there to change the world, it was there because we felt we had something to share that might help people. Over the years, that gets more defined or more understood within yourself - I personally felt, you know, we do have a certain amount of power, how can we turn it in on itself and try and confront those on high? If you like. We started doing pranks that confronted those that were in control of what we felt was dishonest, corrupt. At the time there was a lot of magazines for young girls which were all about true love and marriage, I just find it quite revolting, all the shit about true love and don't look at anyone else, I'm the only one - really not palatable and probably unacceptable now. We did the loving record and we offered it to a magazine. It was 'Creative Recording and Sound Services', that's who created the record – if you look at the C.R. – it spells out Crass, but they didn't understand that, they just thought we were Creative Recording and Sound Services offering a single record to the people that were getting married and wanted a really nice record. We got Joy in the band to sing it very sweetly and I took a series of photographs with this really naff blonde flipped up hair, and the complete series of the photos is very funny because she's looking very sweet, what you would produce for a record like this, but then she starts to pull her hair and it starts to go [laughing], she's got very short hair underneath and she's not like what you think at all! [Laughing].
Kate: What does punk mean to you? Not to Crass, but to you, Gee Vaucher?
Gee: Punk, you know, obviously it's a sound which I don't particularly like.
Gee: No. I don't listen to it.
Kate: Weren't Crass making that kind of music?
Gee: [Laughing] Yeah! I suppose it's like cricket it's great fun, if you're watching it it can be really boring! You know, I don't know!
Kate: Why was punk such a disappointment in the end?
Gee: Because it had become such a puppet show. Those people within, you know, Sex Pistols had fucked it up really. That was the first wave that came along and they got commercialised and they got used, abused, as far as I'm concerned. Then they came up with that great line 'no future' - I think both Pen and I thought like, fuck you. There is a future. There has to be a future. There's young people out there who've gotta fight for their future, and I suppose we took up the baton from that and we decided there is a future if you take it.
Kate: So Crass was a response to how punk had been co-opted by certain groups and the message changed? Were you coming from more of a sort of hippy stand point?
Gee: No, not really, I mean because of our age and we did live through the hippy era, but that's not all of us. Steve was the youngest and he'd had nothing to do with it, you know. He'd been to a Clash concert, I think it was Joe Strummer who said, "Just get up and do it yourself", and he thought, "Right, I'm gonna then". That's when he came and started something with Pen.
Kate: What were you fighting against? What was your message that you were trying to deliver to people?
Gee: Confronting everything – family, church, state, you name it, ecology. The whole thing, this world is ours, this world needs to be respected and first of all you need to respect yourself and realise that you have a lot to give. Quite honestly it was only one person that could play an instrument when we started. Andy never did learn, Andy had his own way of doing the rhythm which was all the strings were tuned to one note, that's the only way he could play it, and his hand was on this side, you know! But the point is that you're trying to make a rhythm and he could make a mean rhythm alright in the way that he could do it. Obviously as the band went on, as it's known now, it's very different to what it was then, but I suppose it's proven itself in the sense that it never sold out, you know; it never did, it never has and it never will. It was too important for us not to do it ourselves. We would never have been allowed to do Reality Asylum on a label – you're joking! We might've drawn our inspiration from the beat poets, or Greek philosophers, or whatever it is, you know, but there was nothing new that we were saying. We may have said it differently, you know in what we chose to say it with, but there's nothing new there. It's about how do we exist as humans respecting each other, no matter what colour, what shape, what sex, what anything. You know, how do we get past the fear of something new, something strange, someone strange? How do we let go of these fears that we have instilled in us? Because that's the way the governments like it – they like to keep people apart, they want to keep people apart - that's the whole idea. They need their fodder for the offices and all the rest of it. What are they gonna do if everybody decides, "Fuck you, we're off"? You have to decide, what is it you want? If you want to make £600,000 profit on a pound, then forget it. We weren't working on that level, we were working on a level where you could live – live comfortably, with enough to then put back into your creativity. Nobody was about being a millionaire here. Certainly wouldn't have been doing punk to be a millionaire, and certainly not Crass because everything we did went into some sort of benefit. Whatever was raised at a gig would go to whatever those people who had arranged the gig wanted to put it to. You know, and we trusted them that it would get to the right place, and it did. Crass gigs were always important in the sense we always got off the front of stage, always allowed an hour to be able to sit down and talk with people. It wasn't easy getting through one of our gigs, cos they were so in your face. There was like two big screens showing films that I'd made in the centre, there was another big screen that Nick made films on. We had a TV on stage with whatever was playing, Coronation Street, that night. We had looped films going on, banners, you had these people in black... I mean, it was like a barrage.
Gee: You know, I used to play tapes as people came in and have a train running around the hall, you know, like sound around, you know. It was a full on experience, and some of those young kids, we used to let a lot of the young kids in the side door, nine year olds, 10-year-olds, couldn't get in the front, they'd know, especially in Birmingham they'd see us coming, they'd all come up to us, "Come on, keep to the wall, keep to the wall, don't muck about". They'd come in and it must've been a deluge [laughing] you know, kind of like you needed to be there afterwards because some of those people were shaken, really shaken up, from the image they'd seen, the passion they'd seen on the stage - everything, the whole atmosphere.
Kate: I wanna talk about your early work and album covers for Crass. At the time, your work was called perverse – why was it called perverse?
Gee: Perverse is good, yeah, I quite like that. Dunno what they mean by it, but yeah, if it means it rubs you up the wrong way, good. Makes you question, good.
Kate: What inspired the cover of Penis Envy?
Gee: The cover was just a blow up doll on the front. At the time these new dolls had come in where you'd blow it up, stick your dick in and have it off with the plastic doll. So it was all a bit sad, so we just took a photo of that really.
Kate: That's quite an arresting piece of work. Did you enjoy shocking people?
Gee: I don't know, was it shocking? Ah, honestly! Why would it shock? I mean you'd see that cover on the shop windows in the high street you would see that, you would see those blow up dolls! Go round Soho in London, everywhere, and worse than that. You know, it's kind of like, "Oh, whatever it takes, mate". That is a sad reflection on society and loneliness, and that's what that's about, is the isolation. How's a society to get to that level where that is necessary? Where are we all at here? What is happening? Cos it was quite shocking when they first came out, not now, but that's the shocking image, the one on the high street, not my images inside. I wouldn't have thought so anyway.
Kate: Do you feel people understood your art, at the time when you started out in the 70s and 80s, did people get what you were saying?
Gee: Probably not, because I think it was quite a new language for people, so were the words, how the songs were written – new way of approaching it. The design of the covers, nobody had ever done a six fold, you know, it was important for us to have as much paper to put images and words on as we could, and that's the best we could do, we had to hunt for a printer that could do that size because we wanted to try and say as much as we could and share as much as we could. So every element of a cover was different – a new language, a new way of presenting. So no, I doubt if people fully understood it at first, but what I do know is that people were very excited, couldn't wait to get the next cover. When they do any punk documentaries, we're never there, ever.
Kate: And how do you feel about that?
Gee: I don't care, but Pen gets a bit miffed by it because he thinks it's important because of the punters, you know, the punters don't understand it either. The sort of people that came through all that don't understand why we're not there: "Why aren't you ever included in the punk movement?"
Kate: Why do you think they left you out?
Gee: Oh there was a big ban on us from the BBC. You know, we did a couple of John Peel sessions, but after that, gone.
Kate: Why did that happen?
Gee: Because we didn't play the game. Yep. 1984, that was the deadline. If we can't say it in these years then... But we had no more to say, we'd said it. People were looking for Crass, asking us, "How do we go forward?" – that's not what we tried to do, no, no, no. You're on your own mate. We're not your leaders, don't make us into something we're not. So we stopped. It was really important to stop because that was a major thing that was happening.
Kate: [Walking into a different room of the house] Wow, this is stylish.
Gee: Stylish, yeah, Christmas room, we all move in here at Christmas.
Kate: This rug's great isn't it?
Gee: Yeah Pen bought that when his mum died. So yeah, certain carpets have got certain resonances.
Kate: There's a lot of old books up there.
Gee: Oh yeah, books everywhere. A house of books.
Gee: Time and change, how do we shift with that? What do we remember, what do we choose to remember? I do love old things but I love them because the quality of having been touched, you know, it's been imbued, worn by people's feeling, you know, touching it. Old buildings you walk in and you know there's a feeling inside - nobody's comfortable in a new building, nobody. It might be a lovely design, it might be lovely light, but somehow you're not part of it yet, you know, because it hasn't been imbued with people's voices and energies and cells flying off their body and then sticking to the walls, you know, it gets very rich history, doesn't it?
Kate: This building that we're in, Dial House, this wonderfully cosy living room with the crackling fire and all these books everywhere, I mean this is definitely imbued with lots of stories and lots of feelings.
Gee: It's a very old house.
Kate: How old is it?
Gee: Inside in one corner it's 17th century. [Footsteps are heard] All the floors are a little bit sloping, might start rolling to the right [laughing] But that's alright.
Kate: How many rooms have you got?
Gee: We've got four bedrooms in the house. This is the old part, so here is the outside of the 17th century. This is the original, it's all wood pegs. Ooh, lost a piece of wood there. Oh god, I can't keep up. All gonna fall down now. So yeah, that's the outside, and this here you can see had a big strap across it going up to here, you know what you get in barns. And that matches this bedroom.
Kate: This bed is very impressive, it's a sort of stained glass
Gee: Like being in a ship
Kate: Yeah it's like a galleon
Kate: Are you busier now than you've ever been or than you were in the 90s?
Gee: Yeah we are much more busy. I said to Pen, "You know, we're going to have to say no to some of this stuff, it's getting too much". But you know, something comes along and you think, "Ah, I could do that one. Yeah, I could do that". I'd rather go out fighting than sit here. I mean, I've got plenty to do, we've got practical things at the house, keeping the house standing. We're busy trying to get it into a trust so, you know, we have to try and get the house solidified structurally, we don't want to pass on a ruin. I think we're getting there, we're almost there as much as we can do before we hand it to the solicitors. Pen and I are getting on a bit now, so we're just trying to galvanise the place so it's in existence for people to use in the future. There is an ethos for the open house, of course, people must be creative within that really, but I wouldn't want to tie people down. But the people know the place, you know, the people have used the place, they know what goes on here.
Kate: What kind of satisfaction are you getting now from being busier than you've ever been, doing more exhibitions, having more articles written about you that are reevaluating your work in terms of the contribution that it made to the punk movement. Do you get a kick out of that?
Gee: No, not really, I find some of them quite disturbing. I'm not really interested, especially when it's narrow, when it's just to do with the punk, as if I'm an artist only for those few years – that's a blip in my life, it was a very powerful blip, but I've been working for over 50 years, and that's only like eight years out of my life. For me personally, when I go to see other people's work, I like to see what was before, what was after, you know what is shifting, you know, how this has come about, how you run with it, or are you just happy to have done Crass and you're sitting on your laurels? No, I'm not interested. I know it's got some value, I know that, I wouldn't denigrate it because I think it's very powerful work, but I think what I've done since is as powerful.
Gee: Want to see my new book? This is the latest...
Gee: It's rather heavy!
Kate: It's a tome!
Gee: It's a tome. [Unwrapping]
Kate: Woah! Gee it's enormous!
Gee: That's the only writing in it.
Kate: What does it say?
Gee: Oh, gotta get my glasses! [Laughing] It says: 'This work is dedicated to the 37,569,768 who died in World War I. The estimated number was given by London's Imperial War Museum and includes all those involved in the conflict, both military and civilian. This book endeavours to somehow illustrate the incomprehensible scale of that carnage'.
Kate: How many pages is this, Gee?
Gee: 500 and something. This represents the 37 and a half million - can you imagine, that died? It goes on and on.
Kate: So you've got pictures of tiny stick people all in different amalgamations and
Gee: Yes, it starts off quite lightweight, starts off with a few at the beginning of the war. Gets a bit more intense as we go into the war, then it gets a bit ridiculous, yeah.
Kate: When did you go from cover design, largely doing cover art for Crass and other bands, to moving into the sort of fine art, these massive beautiful paintings that you do now?
Gee: Well I had a life before Crass. I did paintings then, not as large as that, but I also had 100% eyesight. I don't have that now. You have to shift as your eyes dictate. I didn't really want to paint much longer, like I painted for Crass, and before Crass I was painting like that. I don't really look to express work in a studio with any medium in particular, if there's a thing that's bubbling away in me and I think, "Yeah, that's a film", I'll do that. It comes out as a film, it comes out as sculptures, it comes out as drawings, you know, whatever. At the moment it's collage. But I suppose the children, if you're referring to the big portraits of children which are about seven foot square – I think it was just to be physical. When I'm doing the fine work, you can imagine, it's hardly any movement, it's so small and it's so fine and I just, these children, they're children that have seen too much too soon. They just came into my head and I just started painting that size – it was physical because it's seven foot!
Kate: Dictator, 2008, is an interesting piece.
Gee: Max Ernst, famous painting by Ernst. So I thought I'd do a pastiche on it, so I turned it into rather than the body being made up of a woman, I turned it into the body of a man with the very, very well painted dick. I was quite proud of that.
Kate: Where his mouth should be.
Gee: And called it Dictator. [Laughing] One of those pieces you knock off when you've got nothing else to do, really.
Kate: Is your work your way of deciphering the world? Is there anything that ties together all these different pieces that you've made?
Gee: If there's a thread at all through my work it's about the psychology of people. I'm very interested in how people react to each other and relationships. The big pieces that I'm doing at the moment are about the family, whether it's working or not working, or love and not loved, and you know, the reactions. But I can't ever approach a piece of work straight head on, a dick wouldn't say it on its own, you see.
Kate: But you're so casual about the incredible intricacies of your work, Gee. Where does this self assurance come from?
Gee: I don't think it's set assurance, I've only got me. I can only work from me and what I'm feeling. I can't consider anybody else, I'm afraid. When I have had to do that, which is work for other people, Oh, America!, they said we want something with Liberty on it. That was it.
Kate: That’s the band, Tackhead.
Gee: Yeah, tackhead. I said, "Ok, right, give me some words, give me the words - what are you using? What are you trying to say?", blah, blah, blah, blah. Because I can't really do it unless I've got the whole gist of it. It's a very public piece, that, people just run with it. It's been used so many times. First time I ever saw it taken up in a big way was 9/11, it was all over the place. And then the second time was Trump, saying something totally different. But the first time was grief, was crying, "What's happened to America?". The second time is like disgrace, having voted in this - whatever he is.
Kate: What went through your mind when the Daily Mirror called you up and said
Gee: I said no. I don't like the tabloids.
Kate: So they wanted to use Oh, America! on their front page.
Gee: Yeah, and I said no. I don't trust them, I don't want anything to do with them, tell them to stuff it. Came back again she said, "But-" - "No, I don't want to do it".
Kate: So how did they convince you?
Gee: She said, "I just think it would be really really good on many levels", and she talked about levels. And I said, ok, ring ‘em back and say there's conditions. They rang back again, so I said, "These are the conditions: I don't want my name on it. I don't want anything else on the front - especially Trump - I don't want anything. Just the image". "Yeah, yeah, fine", blah, blah. And then there was the money and I said I don't want any money for it. Of course what did they do? They put my name up the fucking side, they put a little bit of Trump on the top. I said, "I told you", she came and said, "I'm so sorry". I said, "I knew that would happen. It's alright. I agreed" - I had to go with what it had to do.
Kate: I wondered whether it was a sort of ultimate act of subversion?
Gee: Well what's strange is that a lot of the punks reacted and said, "Yes! One of us! Yes, we did it!". And I thought, "I never thought of that!". Pen said, "That was great. They feel like they're part of that movement now, to make their voice heard". And I said, "It never even occurred to me, that". You know, so I was quite moved by that. I was their voice, making it onto the front of the newspaper. They felt empowered by that, so that's fine.
Kate: What gives you this get up and go, Gee?
Gee: Oh, I don't always have it. Recently I've not had much of it, but I don't know, I'm just glad to get up really. I mean you wouldn't wanna miss a day like this would you, look at it. The sun and the rainbows, it's beautiful. It is hard to get up recently because it's been so grey and wet, you'd rather roll over and go back to sleep, but no, I get up. There's the charm of lighting the fire and seeing the fire come up nice and warm, and you know. So, yeah, you take profit from whatever the weather is doing, don't you? Out here you do anyway. If it's sunny tomorrow I'll be putting all the bulbs up again for Christmas, in the garden.
Gee: I've always lived a bohemian existence, outside the norm. Even as a child. Typical - "Do that" - no, I'm going to do the opposite. Just testing, testing, isn't it? That's what a child should be doing, you should never lose it. You don't want to lose the child's inquisitive, questioning, feeling – why would you want to lose that? Life's a gas!
Kate: So you've never lost your inquisitiveness?
Gee: No. I get too interested in everything, you see, that's the trouble, I have to rein myself in. Want to get a bit thin? I'd love to but I haven't got much time left [laughing] I haven't got much time! Twenty years and I'll be 90!
Kate: Gee, I think you're going to live until you're 120.
Gee: I hope not, I'll have no friends left! [Laughing]
Mae-Li Evans: This episode was produced by me, Mae-Li Evans. For more in The Last Bohemians series, follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or take a look at the portrait series at thelastbohemians.co.uk