It was just cheering, the whole thing, the whole weekend in the Bristol sunshine, the whole Bristol vibe, the people, the art, the music, the feeling around Bedminster for Upfest 2022. Now this isn’t going to be an attempt to critically review the whole festival or the art, for a start, as a participating artist, you’re in your own zone for a large part of the two days, and you really don’t have the time to walk the big field again and again to see who’s doing what and how people’s pieces are evolving. There’s something like three hundred or more artists and crews invited to paint this year, people have travelled from all over Europe to take part and besides that there’s been some intense painting of big pieces on the walls of Bedminster over the three or four weeks leading up to this year’s festival. No, this isn’t so much a review as a piece written from my point of view, this is my weekend, my experience as one of the artists selected to take part, I can’t claim to have seen everything or everyone, I doubt if anyone who went could make that claim.
It all started for us with a first go on the freshly opened that week Lizzy line, a ride out of East London on the purple train to Paddington and straight down to Bristol and the blue skies of Temple Meads station and the first of 43 art drops left hanging. Another #43Leaves piece – for those who don’t know, and it does feel like I’m constantly repeating this, forgive me if you’ve read all this before – another #43Leaves piece, one piece of work in 43 parts. 43 paintings on found unwanted material picked up off the street, material picked up, recycled (that bit is a very important part of it), cleaned up, painted on and then left hanging back out there on the street for people to just take should they wish to. 43 leaves were painted for Bristol and Upfest, if you want to know more they’re all documented over on my own website. The first leaf was left in the middle of the Friday afternoon just outside the rather glorious railway station and off we went to explore Bristol and leave leaves, that and find our feet.
All but one of the 43 pieces were left over the weekend around the streets of Bristol, around Bedminster and later on around the festival site. People found them, people posted about them, the hashtag on the back encouraged that – the Arnolfini joined in, now that wouldn’t happen with a big establishment London gallery, we like the Bristol vibe! Actually we got to Bristol in time to catch the last day of the always challenging excellence of Paula Rego and her exhibition at the Arnolfini – the last time we were at the gallery, Ron Athey was performing, that was something like a dozen or so years ago, really has been too long, the Paula Rego pieces on the Arnolfini walls are as powerful as ever.
Off to Bedminster via the Arnolfini, Paula Rego, the harbour, a brief trip on the river, off for a Friday afternoon exploration of the tight streets and the freshly painted walls of the Bedminster area where the festival is happening. There’s a lot of new art to see as well as some of the surviving pieces from previous Upfest years. Dozens of ambitious new pieces have gone up over the month leading up to this year’s festival, there’s lots to see. They say Upfest is “Europe’s Largest Live Street Art Festival”, it certainly feels big this year and that’s well before we get anywhere near the park and the football ground that will host the weekend’s main events. The streets of Bedminster feel like Shoreditch without the bulshit, it might be the blue skies and the blasting sunshine but the whole vibe is far more friendly – and crucially, no paste up crap imposed and repeated again and again (and again), no annoying paste up mediocrity obliterating every piece of art, actually the whole of Bristol, unlike our home grounds of East London, is refreshingly paste-up -free.
So we’re ducking up side streets, walking down hills, dipping into a pub or two, bumping in to familiar faces, “have you seen that one up there?”, we’re not going to start cherry picking favourite pieces, it is about the one whole, the collective feel of it all. The standards are high on the walls of Bedminster, refreshing, not too many street art clichés when there so easily could have been, Things are bright and exciting, the taggers have been respectful, nothing gone over (yet), the locals seem keen to show it all off, it feels like the community have embraced the beauty of the thing, there’s a heart here, a welcoming soul and Bedminster on the Friday afternoon before the festival itself, is a glorious place to be. Bristol and Upfest feels good and there’s the park itself, Greville Smyth Park and all the white boards, the endless blank canvases waiting on the green grass in the late afternoon sunshine, waiting there for tomorrow morning…
We’re told there’s over 300 invited artists taking art either as individuals, duos or as part of crews, we’re told 20,000 people are expected over the two days, people are travelling from all over Europe – I end up painting next to artists from Limerick, from Belfast, from Bristol, Berlin, from France – friendships are to be made on the Saturday, details to be exchanged, paint shared. Right now on the evening before, all those white boards in the park are looking very very exciting, there’s something in the air, in the city, there’s a buzz on the Friday night before it all starts and yes, it is a bit like arriving on the eve of a big rock festival
We artists are told we need to register and pick up our paint (early) on the Saturday morning, we’re to pick up our pre-ordered our paint -,each artist gets six free cans of Kobra spray paint from the sponsors, we’ve been asked to put in our orders in advance, to pick our colours before hand (we can order more if needed, if we think six isn’t enough). The festival is free in terms of entry for the public, we’re all painting for free, performing you might say, the hard-working Upfest Crew are all giving their time for free, there’s been a lot of crowdfunding to make all this happen, a lot artists and organisers coming together. So we’re in a line at Ashton Gate football stadium where, by the way, Bristol City have a whole wall dedicated to the fact they once beat a United reserve team in a League Cup match, a bit small time of you there Bristol, I thought you were bigger club than that. We’re in a line of paint-splattered street artists dragging their equipment, their stepladders and whatever else they need, there’s a hum, a buzz, there’s talk of what to expect, “where are you from?”, “What are you going to do?” “Did you find anywhere to stay?” Artists have hoovered up all cheap accommodation and any free space going, there’s all kinds of tales being shared. And now we’re all clutching our boxes of free paint, we’ve been allocated our spaces and we’re all standing out in the road outside the park waiting for the security to pen the gate and let us artists charge in and get going – you can feel “it” in the air, this feels good! Excitement, anticipation, the hint of tension, just a touch, itchy spraying fingers ready to go – there;s a togetherness, a purpose, artists united, going into, well not really a battle, it would be crass to say that with everything that’s going on in the world right now, but it does feel like we’re all ready to go into something or other together. We get an hour to get going before the first of the crowd come in.
And we’re off, day one, the music kicks in, there’s a big stage, there’s DJs, there’s drum n’bass flavoured goodness, slices of hip-hop, good sounds complimenting rather than imposing on the art, and you’re suddenly aware of an audience behind you, of people photographing and filming you, almost (politely) elbowing you out of the way to get to the art your making. And it does almost feel like a performance, you’re not so much looking to complete a painting, you’re performing for the crowd, the very big crowd. People are asking questions, filming you, asking you to sign their black books and such. People are asking for selfies with you as you work, all good natured, all good fun. Painting is a serious matter, it can sometimes be fun as well. There’s art and artists as far as the eye can see, writers, colour, crews working together, people going for the graphic angle, others playing it a little more abstract, there’s humour, political statement, warmth. there’s the Girls On Top Crew, there’s Wee Nuls, HazardOne is behind me with an excellent piece coming together, good to see how my immediate neighbours pieces develop over the two days. It is wrong to pick out artists though, I am working here, I don’t get to see too much of what’s happen outside of my immediate area, there’s artists listed as taking part who I just don’t see over the entire weekend, did those Idiom boys ever make it? Wasn’t so and so meant to be somewhere here? There’s no way this piece can be a serious critical analysis, this is more a flavour or two from zone three and my part as a participating artist.
And I’m having a blast here, once a mark or two has been made, a first layer of leaf growth laid down and the big white board’s resistance broken – I know some people see other things in my work, no one is right or wrong, people can see whatever you want, I paint leaves though. leaf upon leaf, layers of leaf growth. People are coming by with their found #43Leaves pieces that have been left around the park, people are talking about art they’ve seen elsewhere – have you see that one over there? People are excited. The sun is out, the tree cover is more than welcome, I’m suddenly aware of a marriage proposal happening in front of my piece! There’s a lot of smiles so I guess that went well for whoever fired the question. people’s pieces are really coming together now, afternoon on the first day and some are saying they’re finished, I guess I could have made that claim myself late on on day one, but it really isn’t about a finished piece as much as an ever evolving piece and fresh layers of growth over previous layers. It does feel like a performance (and we all know once the festival is over the boards will all be taken down and stored ready to be painted over and used again next year, nothing to be precious about here, this is street art, it isn’t meant to be forever, everything gets buffed in the end, this is about the right here right now.
“Whilst the festival has evolved massively our ethos of inclusion has remained at the heart of what we do, the festival has always been about bringing artists, volunteers and visitors together.” so said organiser Steve Hayles, and he’s right, Upfest is bringing people together. The crew are great, the crowds are brilliant, not one problem all weekend, super friendly and polite even when they’re trying to get in for a close up while your painting – the people are really appreciating what’s going on, there’s a brilliant vibe all weekend, super friendly, no artist egos, shoulders chip-free and smiles as wide as a Malarky crocodile – good to be out of London and all the bulpoop of the London scene.
Day one was epic, we had a brilliant time, the 24 bus back into town was madness, something to treasure, yes they really were all singing Wurzels songs! They do like to drink in Bristol. Back to the city for Saturday night and well, we’ll keep that bit to ourselves, there’s a party feel wherever we turn and there’s another day’s painting ahead tomorrow. Some early Sunday morning art dropping around the back streets of Bristol, a couple of cans of paint bought and we’re back to Bedminster for more.
Day two and the crowds are streaming in again, artists are refining pieces, crews going over what they did yesterday with new layers, a stop to watch Splatz writing for a bit. So much to see in every direction – the colour, the purity of lines, the shapes, the angles – there’s tradition, experimentation, okay so there’s one or two pieces that maybe aren’t that original or challenging, but most of what we see over the two days in the park is pretty fresh and as one big whole this is feeling really good. We paint on into Sunday afternoon as the music and the beer (mostly cider) flows. Kids stop to look, to ask questions, so do dogs, I wish I could have done this when I was a young girl says one shall we politely say older lady? I hand her a can of pink paint and she whoops with delight as she has a go, “hope I haven’t spoilt it” she says – she hasn’t, she’s added to it all.
Late afternoon now and we’re sitting back a little, just one more leaf maybe? The whole place is feeling really mellow now and as we think it might be time to withdraw and bid the festival a fond farewell. People are still flooding in though, it feels like it will go on and on, the crowds are dancing together, the DJs playing, the drink flowing (the food queues are still long). This is a proper proper festival, painters rather than bands but this is a proper proper festival and I must admit it was hard to walk away and leave it all, to leave the piece, leave our neighbours, leave it all and quietly head back up the road and back down down to the city again. And still people are flooding is as we leave it all, floods of people heading in and heading out, crowds exploring the pieces on the street, thousands of people (and of course hardly any of this will be covered or even acknowledged by the establishment art media, there won’t be a piece on the Radio 4 Arts programme or anything like that)
It really was just cheering, the whole thing, the whole weekend in the Bristol sunshine, the whole Bristol vibe, the people, the art, the music, the whole feeling around Bedminster for Upfest 2022, the feeling around the whole city, the whole coming together, the one great big whole brilliantly refreshing thing. Thanks everyone, I had a blast, I suspect we all did… (sw)
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