Listen to a Londoner: Fr Stephen Wang

Listen to a Londoner is a weekly interview with a Londoner – someone who lives in this city, born here or elsewhere. If you’re up for being interviewed, email littlelondonobservationist@hotmail.co.uk.

Fr Stephen Wang

Fr Stephen Wang is a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Westminster, London. He is Dean of Studies at Allen Hall seminary in Chelsea, where he also teaches philosophy and theology. His latest book is Aquinas and Sartre: On Freedom, Personal Identity, and the Possibility of Happiness, published by Catholic University of America Press. He blogs about culture and faith at Bridges and Tangents.

LLO: As a born and raised Londoner, what are the most noticeable ways the city has evolved in your lifetime?
SW:
It’s bigger and busier. I remember a study recently about how our walking speed has increased (they secretly time you crossing bridges etc). It’s more culturally and ethnically diverse. Immigration has enriched London immensely. Random landmarks that didn’t exist when I was born in 1966: the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Oyster Cards, sculptures on the fourth plinth, Boris Bikes, Tate Modern, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. Tragic losses: the Routemaster bus.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background and your blog, Bridges and Tangents.
SW:
I was born in University College Hospital just off Tottenham Court Road, when my parents were living in Chiswick. I grew up in Harpenden, near St Albans. I’m a Catholic priest and I work in the seminary in Chelsea, where we prepare men for the priesthood. I never imagined I’d start a blog. It happened quite quickly. I was thinking of writing a book, and a friend pointed out that if I really wanted to communicate and share ideas, then a blog would be more immediate and reach far more people. The penny dropped.

LLO: Freedom is your most used tag on your blog. In a recent post, you wrote “Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.” Are there other London moments that give you a perfect sense of freedom?
SW:
The fact that London is a city for walking around gives me the greatest sense of freedom. Other random moments of exhilaration, freedom and space include: sitting at the front on the top deck of a double-decker bus; looking at the cityscape from the middle of any of London’s beautiful bridges; jaywalking with abandon — in the knowledge that this would be illegal in some countries; walking through the parks; and along the river at South Bank.

LLO: Can you recommend a few places in London to go for a sense of spirituality without stepping foot in a church/temple/mosque, etc?
SW:
Whenever the next Kieslowski retrospective runs at the British Film Institute; standing over the Greenwich Prime Meridian line, knowing that you are at the still point of the cartographic world; walking round the Serpentine; the Jubilee Line station at Canary Wharf.

LLO: As a catholic priest and philosopher, how important would you say religion is in people’s lives in London today compared to when you started out in your career?
SW:
There are various crosscurrents: some people are much more secular, hardened in their secularism, and dismissive of religion. Yet many more people seem interested in religion who are not believers — as if they are more open to spiritual and transcendent questions, more open to the idea of spirituality and prayer. And religion is a bigger cultural and political reality than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Plus the new immigrants tend to be people of faith (indeed anyone coming to London from outside Western Europe tends to be a person of faith!)

LLO: You recently contributed to a BBC Online article about celibacy, sharing your own experiences. The post on your blog includes tags “happiness” and “loneliness”. Is this commitment one you ever regret or are you content in your decision?
SW:
I don’t regret the decision I have made at all. The whole life of being a priest, including celibacy, has brought me enormous happiness. And the celibacy itself has given me a real freedom, a freedom of heart – to be present with other people in all sorts of wonderful ways; and to pray in a way that would be difficult if I had the responsibilities of family life. I couldn’t live this way without the love of friends and extended family and the communities I have lived in over this time.

LLO: Tell us about something, someone or somewhere you’ve discovered in London that you think the rest of us should know about.
SW:
One secular and unknown: The Clockmakers’ Museum at Guildhall, a single room containing the whole history of clocks and watches, including John Harrison’s 5th marine timekeeper made famous by the book Longitude. One religious and very well known, but I’m still amazed by how many Londoners have never been in it: Westminster Cathedral (not the Abbey), an oasis of calm and devotion near Victoria Station, full of amazing art and architecture.

LLO: With Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists and others living side by side in London, what sort of atmosphere is created when people of every religion mingle in this melting pot city?
SW:
The whole world is here in London, and probably every language and religion. It’s good that we can live side by side, and in peace. Perhaps people don’t talk enough: We occupy the same social space, but often stay within our own mental worlds – unless there is something like a school or sports club or whatever to bring people together. London Citizens is a wonderful grassroots example of people of all faiths and none coming together for justice issues and forming real bonds through that common work. When I get back from Lourdes I want to start talking to strangers in London, but very soon I realize I am becoming one of those crazy people that Londoners fear…

LLO: What do you say to people who are suspicious of religion as being manipulative or deceptive?
SW:
It’s true that religion can sometimes be manipulative and deceptive – we have to admit that and watch out for it very carefully. And as a Catholic priest I wouldn’t push the abstract idea of ‘religion’ for its own sake. But religions can also be sources of spirituality, community, liberation and healing for many people. That’s something to be open to and not afraid of.

LLO: What’s your favourite part about living in your postcode?
SW:
Being near the river; living close to three cinemas; the number 19 bus.

Thanks Stephen!

For more Listen to a Londoner posts, click here.

London Art Spot: Hartwig Braun

With the observant eye of a professional architect, Hartwig Braun knows when he can break the rules – and he does so often with a mesmerising outcome. Somehow managing to maintain a pretty high level of accuracy, he twists up aerial views of a city and plays with perspective to create something akin to a caricature. With itty-bitty details in place, Hartwig chooses some of the most important features of an area to highlight and, after many drafts, presents to the world a playful rendition of a cityscape. His images – drawn freehand – come out with a “fish-eye” effect. Collaborating with Isaac Lilos who introduced me to Hartwig’s work in their Greenwich Market shop, Arty Globe, last weekend, Hartwig has been able to build a successful business out of his passion for illustration.

On the side, he loves cooking exotic meals, engaging in heated debate and learning languages – he speaks four fluently, probably a result of having lived in so many different cities.

For this week’s London Art Spot, Hartwig shares loads of fun images, tells us about the intricate process of creating his artwork and how Isaac pushed him over the last six years to where he is now.   

London Eye

LLO: How long have you lived in London and how does this city influence your creativity?
HB:
 I am still relatively new to London, I only moved here in November 2008 after spending about four years up north in Nottingham and Lincolnshire. I’ve always been a big city person. Before coming to the UK, I lived in Berlin for 10 ten years, two years in Amsterdam and for a while in Paris. So London is the place to be in the UK for me. I really love living here and I definitely unpacked my suitcase.

My fascination for the vibrant metropolis is also reflected in my work. I love the hustle and the bustle, the dynamics and the great energy of this city, the cosmopolitan mix, which can really give you the feel of a global community. I want to capture the wealth of architectural diversity, the juxtaposition of old and new and the abundance of different impressions, which change at every corner. I am a passionate “flâneur” love strolling around town, discover and absorb all the little amazing detail London has to offer.

London

LLO: Describe your artistic style.
HB:
 I call my images illustrations with an emphasis on cityscapes and architecture. I wouldn’t call them maps as some people do, as they are not a depiction of reality but always my own interpretation of the existing city (you wouldn’t use them for finding your way in town).  In my illustrations I want to give a feel for the pace of the city so the drawing sets it in motion – the horizon curves, streets bend and the buildings swell. I love playing with the rules of perspective, deliberately breaking them and creating my own rules.

Besides all the quirk, I want to be quite accurate and include buildings or detail that define a specific location and make it recognizable. I also want to catch the very essence of a building. As for a caricature of a person you need to analyze a building and define the key features, which make it recognizable and make “the spirit” of it.  Then you know where you have the freedom to exaggerate and to play with the perspective 

Berlin, Winter

LLO: Your cityscapes are very detailed, intricate and intriguingly accurate in an obscure sort of way – a result of your background in Architecture?
HB:
Well, I guess so. Probably it is the architect inside me who, whenever I take the soft, thick felt pen I use for the first impulsive doodles of curves, lines and blobs, says: “Ok, those streets cross each other in such an angle and over there needs to be this particular building which is very characteristic. I’ve always had an attention to detail and when I start something I like I really dive into it and so the artwork becomes more and more intricate

British Museum

LLO: Tell us about the process that goes into creating an image from idea to finished product.
HB:
First I try to get as many good aerial photographs as possible. They are always the best source of information. Then I do a little layout sketch to define the best angle for the most dynamic view, I decide about the area I want to show and try to arrange the given elements of the city (rivers, bridges, streets, landmarks and other key buildings, green spaces) together with the curved horizon as a dynamic and balanced composition. As a next step I project a simplified street map onto my “globe” to define the horizontal distortion of the street layout (e.g. straight lines as the Mall become smooth curves).

Having done this I walk around the area and take lots of pictures on street level and watch out for the special little detail.

The next step is a rough 3-d version of the first sketch. Buildings become cubes or blobs to define the right size, proportions, angles and degree of distortion. Then I need to transform those cubes into individual buildings by tracing over my own sketches again, again and again. Each time I do more fine tuning, add more detail or correct things if necessary until I am completely happy with the result. At the end of this lengthy process I need to bring all the different parts and pieces together on one big contiguous line drawing, which I scan. Most of the times I need to put the scans in parts together again before I can eventually start the digital colouring process 

Greenwich

LLO: How many drafts do you typically sketch before you are happy with a result?
HB:
It really varies. Some buildings are easier to do and may be finished after 3 or 4 steps. On the other hand, very technical constructions as the London Eye or baroque churches as St Paul’s Cathedral can be really hard to do with all their fiddly little detail. I need to find the right balance between giving a realistic image of the construction and not overloading the drawing with too many lines, which could would be rather a mess. So I easily end up drawing and fine tuning certain buildings 20 or 30 times until I am completely happy with the result.

LLO: What are you working on right now?
HB:
I just finished an illustration of Canary Wharf, which hopefully will be on the cover of a magazine soon. The next project is finalizing the designs for a range of greeting cards comprising London and some other cities for a well known UK card publisher.


London Retro

LLO: When did you meet Isaac Lilos and how did the two of you come up with the idea to collaborate in a business venture?
HB:
I met Isaac over six years ago in Paris and we hit it off straight away. It was thanks to Isaac that I moved to the UK from Berlin several months later. About two years later Isaac spotted a little postcard design of Amsterdam I drew some years before when I was living there, which I sent to my family and friends for Christmas. He started pestering me to do something bigger and bolder with my style and to draw a bigger panoramic view of London as he felt that together with his entrepreneurial skills it could be developed into an exciting venture. I did not really believe him in the beginning!

I was working as an architect and my spare time was fairly limited – I could just not see the opportunities he saw at the time I guess. After six months of pestering I had to get him off my back so I promised I would make a start and see what happened and that’s how, nine months later, the first panoramic image of London was born.

To be honest I was quite amazed myself when I finished the image as I had no idea I could create something as complex and intricate. It took me a few more years to develop the portfolio of images I currently have and it took us some time to find the best way to build a successful commercial venture around the artwork but it has definitely been a very rewarding process and journey since. 

New York

LLO: Your work has been sole at Arty Globe in Greenwich Market for about one year now. How has the business grown in this time and where do you see it going in the next few years?
HB:
The business has grown substantially in the past year especially as more and more local people who discover us keep coming back and bring their friends and family with them. Isaac and I are constantly busy developing new merchandise to keep our collection fresh and diversified. Having our own shop and talking directly to customers also enabled us to refine the range and designs over the time.

It is really great to see that over 50% of our customers are locals and Londoners who seem to really appreciate my style and take on the city. They also tell us that our merchandise makes great gift ideas to send or take on visits to family and  friends.

We feel that the time is right now for our products to be sold in other shops around London. To achieve that we will be taking a stand at “Top Drawer” (the trade show) in September where we would hopefully be able to show our full range and launch the wholesale side of our business. We also have some very exciting opportunities to do more bespoke work for some of London’s most famous establishments – something we will be pursuing in the coming year or two…

Regent Street

LLO: You’ve had commissions from, among others, the London Eye, the British Museum and for Hamley’s 250th anniversary this year. Do you have a dream client or a list of others you’d love to involve in your work?
HB:
Being seen on Transport for London Posters on Tube stations or drawing the Olympic sites for London 2012 would be really great. I can see a great affinity to my work since it is very much about London scenes and architecture and being an eye catcher and getting people’s attention. Of course it would also be nice to have such great exposure.

Transport for London Competition

LLO: Who are your other favourite London-based artists?
HB:
I admire Wolfgang Tillmans’ photographic work. He manages to turn those little every day scenes and objects into true art, and makes you look at things differently. Lately he started experimenting with abstraction and photography, two things you wouldn’t think can go together.

I also love the work of Hannah Dipper and Robin Farquhar the guys behind “people will always need plates”. They feature some of my favourite international style buildings from the 20s and 30s here in London on their beautiful line of ceramics. And I adore Emma Nissim’s wonderfully sophisticated and elegant textile designs with a very personal style.

Thanks Hartwig!

For more of Hartwig’s work, check his website: http://www.artyglobe.com/

Little Londoners: By Hadiyah!

This shot was added to the Little London Observationist Flickr pool by trailerfullofpix. Hadiyah doesn’t have a very high opinion of the Gherkin. Shame.

By Hadiyah!

Caption from trailerfullofpix: “Kids from the Charles Dickens Primary School visited local buildings and made a mural about their favorites. Hadiyah’s favorite is the London Eye. He thinks the Gherkin is boring.”

Southbank on a Rainy Night

I spent a drizzly night walking down Southbank with a friend who had never been. While he was shooting photos of the London Eye on his iPhone, I was lingering behind and fascinating myself with the lights shimmering in the wet pavement.


This one was recently published as part of Londonist’s Happy 10th Birthday London Eye post.

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