ATM resurrects the endangered birds that are vanishing from our world - decaying housing estates, railway arches and industrial walls become his canvas. Growing up in Manchester, he often wandered over to the thickly-wooded valleys and open moors of the Pennines nearby. Enchanted by his experiences in primeval forests, his curiosity grew for the outdoors. His mission is to bring the spirit of the bird to places that were once marshland or forest. As the species that he paints disappear one by one, ATM talks to me about the force of nature, his life philosophy and his phobia of the indoors.
White-tailed Eagle Stavanger. 2015. Photo by @toris64
Do you remember when you realised that painting was all that you wanted to do?
It’s always been there - that desire. As soon as I could hold a pencil, I drew. At certain points in my life, it's been difficult to keep painting. But that’s all I want to do. If I can paint, then I'm happy.
You've talked before about your amazement at the force of nature. For you, where does the magic lie?
Well, I've had some incredible experiences in primeval forests - where the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, because you can feel the spirit of it. You don’t feel that in forests that have been taken over. There's a real spiritual power in untrammelled wilderness. I wouldn't even be able to put the feeling into words - you just feel it in your whole body. One that was particularly magical was one of the last remaining bits of primeval forest in Europe, in the east of Poland. The forest is ten thousand years old. I remember seeing lots of trees that had fallen down across each other and created little gardens. The trunks were covered with moss and flowers. These magical little spaces looked like they had been made by some brilliant artist. It was beautiful.
Lapwing. Langham Road, London. With Turnpike Art Group. 2014.
If you could have dinner with any artist, who would you choose?
I'd love to have dinner with a paleolithic cave painter - one who painted bison and deer on the sides of caves. It intrigues me that they lived in a world where there were no fences, no roads, no cars, no televisions - just human beings. It's incredible to me that, not long ago, it took six months to travel across Europe on a mule or a donkey. The modern world is so manageable now - you can fly around it in a day. I'd love to see what it must have been like in the minds of those people to live in a world with no boundaries, no countries.
Mistle Thrush. Greenwich. With Ben Oakley. 2013. Photo by Mark Hat.
Do you think that creativity and madness are intrinsically linked?
Absolutely. I can fundamentally say that painting has saved my life. I mean, years ago, I was a heroin addict - I was at rock bottom. It was just this little chink of hope that I would paint again that got me through that. It might sound like an extreme example, but since then, I've gone through lots of different emotional and spiritual states. I really believe that without being able to express that better side of me, the creative side, I wouldn’t know what the hell to do. The only way for me to cope with things is to create something. If I couldn't do that, I’d crack up.
Is there something that you have painted that you're particulary proud of?
I recently painted on an old World War II defensive pillbox on the Isle of Sheppey. It was a huge concrete block on the shore line, surrounded by fields. When I was painting it, I was surrounded by all the sounds of the birds. It was perfect. Another that brings back good memories was a painting I did in on a tiny little island in Norway. There were these beautiful big boulders that were strewn across the landscape, underneath an old rusting German radar station from the Second World War, when Norway was occupied by the Germans. On a wall that had been used for war, I painted a huge bird flying across the rock. That was a nice statement to make.
Hen Harrier. Isle of Sheppey. With Ben Oakley. 2013. Photo by @plumms
Red-breasted Merganser. Utsira Island, Norway. UtsirArt Festival. 2014. Photo by @lastaa
Is there a piece of advice that you repeat to people when you can?
Yes. Never give up. Try, if possible, to not take the easy option. I really believe that the only way to deal with things is to face them - not to run away or try to block them out. I took drugs to block things out and it didn’t work at all; it just made everything worse. I had to stop, or it would have killed me. Ultimately, drugs were a short term solution. Now, I try to advise people to have faith in the future. Even if, in the short term, it might be more painful or more difficult to deal with - facing things and dealing with them will help you so much more in the long term.
Golden Plover. Utsira Island, Norway. UtsirArt Festival. 2014.
Who would you say has inspired you the most?
I'm very inspired by the environmental philosopher John Muir, who walked across America and came up with the whole concept of national parks. He was just a fantastic spirit. It was at a time when nearly everyone was just thinking of exploiting these places for financial or political gain. I admire people who break through the boundaries that are set up by western capitalist culture, which is all about individualism and personal gain. To me, it's a delusion. The reality is that we’re all completely interconnected and interdependent. We exploit everything at our own peril really. It's already started to impact the world in a very noticeable way and it's only getting worse. A perfect example is car ownership. It seems as though sometimes, people having a parking space is the most important thing. I find it so strange, because car ownership has only been normalised in the last 50 years or so. For thousands of years, people lived perfectly happy lives without cars - and yet all of a sudden, it becomes an apparent necessity. Who knows at what point that will shift.
Partridge. 2013. South Acton Estate. London.
Do you have a life philosophy?
Yes - I try to not be judgemental. I also try to stay in touch with all of the spiritual connections which are absolutely fundamental to our existence, even though we seem to have forgotten about them in modern society. It's easy to think that we’re all individual beings - that we're independent of the rest of the world, but we're really not. I try to live my life as much with that in mind as possible.
Do you remember the first painting you ever saw?
Yes. I remember seeing a painting called Work by Ford Maddox Brown in Manchester Art Gallery when I was in my early teens. It was one of the first paintings that really kind of struck a chord with me. It’s all about the disparity between social groups and the class system in Victorian England. It’s a very powerful painting showing the extremes of poverty and affluence.
Goshawk. Walthamstow, London. With Global Street Art and Forest Recycling Project for Colour the Capital.
What's your outlook for the future?
I’d love my work to inspire a change in cultural practices, so that we don’t continue to damage the environment as much as we're doing now. The desire to maximise yields from land is destroying every wild flower out there. It's all based on such tiny economic margins, which ultimately have no meaning whatsoever. Destroying the very thing that we need to sustain our lives is the ultimate example of short-term thinking. It's exactly like taking a drug - the advantages are short-lived. I aim to be part of a shift in the way that we treat the environment and everything that’s living in it. I hope that we can focus more on our fellow human beings and what's really meaningful in life.
When do you feel most free?
I feel most free when I’m carrying what I need on my back. That's how I dream of living - without any fixed destination. Just kind of following my nose. I've got a bit of a phobia of houses – I don’t feel at peace inside. I prefer sleeping outside and feeling the cycle of the day and the night.
Red-breasted Merganser. Utsira Island, Norway. UtsirArt Festival. 2014.