AWS #4: Dwayne Coleman

Dwayne Coleman is an artist living and working in London. His works transform textiles and found objects into visual allegories and mixed media compositions, which often blur the lines between painting, textiles, and sculpture. By using humble materials, Dwayne addresses the clichés of counter-culture and his working-class upbringing.

Dwayne and I first met in 2014, when we started working as invigilators at the same gallery. When I began thinking about this interview series, I realised that Dwayne was the first person I’d (knowingly) met that was an artist and a skateboader. In the following interview we speak about what makes for a good session, how skateboarders navigate the city differently, and the processes that underpin his practice.

Find out more about Dwayne and his work here. Follow him on Instagram here.

Dwayne Coleman, Nollie heel fs5050 (via @willmiles)

Chris Alton: When I was preparing these questions, it occurred to me that you're probably the first artist that I met who is also a skateboarder. When did you start skateboarding and how did you get into it?

Dwayne Coleman: I started when I was about 11 or 12. Me and my neighbour were talking about it and he had a skateboard. He brought it round one day and we went to the corner at the end of our street; a curb spot that we waxed up.  Eventually he stopped skateboarding and I started skating with two older guys, Beaver and Lee. They were about 16 and were just finishing secondary school. We'd go to the curb every night and learn tricks. Those guys ended up being like my older brothers.

I was turning into a grunge as well. I was living with my Mum and my Auntie lived next door and I was rebelling. I used to sneak out at night to go skate with the ‘bigger boys’.

CA: It sounds like skateboarding played a role in you figuring out your identity, as well as making new - perhaps cooler - friends?

DC: Yeah, for sure. When I started secondard school I met a lot of new people. Having these friends who were skating and choosing the grunge life made it easier. And it helped my sense of identity; I didn't want to be into football anymore. I was into taekwondo and I'd seen the X Games that year and thought skateboarding's so cool.

CA: Even though there was Tony Hawks' Pro Skater and the X Games, skateboarding was still relatively – not uncool – but it wasn't everywhere in the way that It is now.

DC: It was definitely countercultural. It wasn't a popular thing. Skating around Leicester you'd get names called at you. I imagine it was the same in every British city around that time. Although skateboarders weren't unpopular at my school. It was a ‘sports school’ so everyone was on the same level.

CA: What were some of the names? I definitely got mosher and emo quite a lot.

DC: Yeah, mosher, emo, fruit booter even though that's more of a rollerblader thing. Indie bopper. It never really made any sense to me, and it wasn't a big deal. I thought they were quite funny.

Dwayne Coleman, Switch heel (via @willmiles)

CA: I get the sense from your skate clips that you mainly skate street, rather than skateparks, is that right?

DC: Yeah. I've always kind of hated skateparks, it's only later in life that I've been more comfortable skating them.

CA: I’m surprised to hear you hate skateparks, because it’s so counter to how I feel. What is it about street skateboarding that's so appealing to you?

DC: Well, in terms of the skatepark thing I always hated them because – even though you're on show when you're skating in the street, people are just walking by – but skateparks; I just felt quite claustrophobic and confined in this box. With street skateboarding you can roll around and be a bit more random. The vibe element's important too; hanging out with your friends. I think that's why I'm a skateboarder. If there's a good crew skating that day then we could be skating anywhere. It's about the people who are there on the day. You can have that at a skatepark too, but skating through the city and changing spots is a different experience.

CA: From your social media, your Instagram stories; I get the sense that you and your friends go out on these street missions. Whilst you've touched on this already, what makes for a good session?

DC: The vibes; a nicely waxed curb doesn't hurt. I'm taking skating quite easy nowadays! A variety of spots that everyone can skate; we'll have some beers if it's nice weather. But it's hit and miss as well. It's a mindset thing.

I like to skate curbs, banks, somewhere quiet with nice flow, where you can do lines. If you've got a DIY spot then that's quite fun; you can flow around and skate something that's a bit crusty.

CA: I really understand the appeal of flowing around and improvising with what's there. We've got a small DIY spot here in Manchester and it's one of the funnest place to skate, because there's always something new or different with unique quirks.

DC: For sure, it's almost like a puzzle; letting your brain work out what you can do. I actually hate just going to some big long ledges. If there are ledges, blocks and stairs that's fun, because you can roll around. But if we're going to a single ledge and we're just doing grinds then that's the worst for me.

CA: My first impactful encounter with art – or any form of visual media –was through skateboarding. It was board graphics, photos, videos, even skate shoes. I was wondering if skate media had had a similar effect on you?

DC: Yeah, especially board graphics. I think they’re one of the reasons why I carried on skateboarding. I was a hyperactive kid who loved art. The board graphics helped me choose between skateboarding and rollerblading. Even my first Argos board, I chose it because it was a flaming skull or something like that. Classic airbrush art. I fell in love with having art on your board.

Later I realised that more pro skateboarders made art. Then there were a lot who were photographers – not just Ed Templeton. You'd see a lot of skateboarders with cameras. I guess I noticed that a few years down the line.

In year 7, before I knew anything about art and I just drew; I'd be drawing the World Industries logo and Toy Machine logo. Me and my friend Joe would draw them all over our books.

CA: What was your journey from being a kid who loved art and drawing, to studying at art school?

DC: I've always wanted to be an artist of some sort. I've been obsessed with art, obsessed with making stuff. It's something I've always been good at. Even when I picked up other hobbies like skating or taekwondo, I was always an artist in a way – if I can call myself that as a kid. So skateboarding's always been a hobby and I've never really tried be a professional skateboarder.

I've always wanted to be an artist in some sense, even when I didn't know what that really was. Learning about artists like Matisse or Picasso, I imagined having the lifestyle of an artist; making art, travelling, being a bit of a flâneur, seeing the world and creating from it. So throughout school my main focus was art classes. I always got good grades in art, but not in any other subjects. It was the only thing I'd focus on, other than skateboarding. At college I only did art related subjects, then I went to art school. But it was quite tricky, because I felt like I was out of my depth. It was quite a shock when I moved to London.

CA: I really get what you mean about coming to London and feeling out of your depth. I grew up in Devon and didn't see any contemporary art in person until going to art school.

I wanted to circle back to this idea of artists being flâneurs; incidentally, I looked up the dérive earlier, where the Situationists would go on walks through the city, introducing elements of chance. And when I looked up the dérive, flâneurs were mentioned. I think that there's a relationship between the dérive, flâneurs, and skateboarders; navigating the city differently to how it's intended.

DC: Yeah, exactly. That's completely true. As a skateboarder, you see parts of the city that other people might not see. You end up in backstreets or carparks. You'll probably see interesting architecture. A lot of skateboarders, without realising it, have a massive appreciation towards architecture. It's part of how we decipher the city and get around. I've always wanted to figure my own stuff out, to take a different route. Even cycling through the city, I like to switch that up so that it's not repetitive and find new things.

CA: That idea of things not being repetitive carries through a lot of what you've been saying. Like earlier, when you mentioned the skate session where it's just a long ledge, which you find really boring; but for you, the opportunity to flow around, improvise and do different tricks is way more exciting.

For a while, I held my skateboarding at a bit of a distance from my art making. For whatever reason I didn't see the connection. Has skateboarding always been part of your art making, or have you tried to keep them separate?

DC: I'm exactly like you, maybe even more so. I've tried to keep them completely separate. Since moving to London and trying to be a 'serious artist' I've wanted to keep them separate. When I was growing up, I thought skateboarding-art was quite cheesy. When I saw skateboarders making art it would be sculptures made of skateboards. I felt like the ideas were quite basic. I didn't want to be associated with that. I just wanted to be known as an artist.

CA: I get that idea of wanting the artworks that you're making to be viewed on their own merit, without using skateboarding to prop it up.

DC: Yeah, exactly. And I feel like, if I did make art about skateboarding, it would be quite one dimensional. I've spoken to a few people about this, who skate and make art, and there's nothing wrong with using those references. Because, it's part of who you are. So I do make those references in my artworks more nowadays. I'm just trying to find different ways to put them in there, rather than making something that's quite blatant. I wanted to be serious and I've always been quite paranoid about how people see me and my work; so I've always kept art and skateboarding quite far apart.

Dwayne Coleman, Hop dat, Wood, dye & spray paint on canvas, 2020

CA: We've been talking about keeping art and skateboarding separate, so I'm going to segue to asking about the presence of barriers in the work that you make. The more that I look at your paintings and drawings the more they read like brickwork, fences, and other barriers.

In the context of this interview, I'm looking to make connections between art and skateboarding, so my mind goes to hopping fences and climbing over walls, to skate somewhere you perhaps shouldn't. Is that the source of the barriers in your paintings, or do they arise from something broader?

DC: There is a connection there, but it comes more from my adolescence and the area that I grew up in; a council estate in Leicester called Saffron Lane. But it was very Midlands or North England. It's not a block of flats like in London, but a very wide ranging estate. A bit like in Shameless. It was quite a lawless area. You'd always have people with stolen cars, stolen motorbikes, or graffiti everywhere. So there were a lot of kids just running around, doing naughty stuff that looked quite fun. Kids curfews would be late and it was an easy place to just run amok. I like to make work about the memories, the stories, and the urban landscapes of that area.

With the fences and stuff, there's a specific place in the area called the Mud Dumps, there's a train bridge and wastelands and loads of palisade fencing. I had to walk through there every day from school. So the barrier element mainly comes from there, because a lot happened there; It’s where we’d smoke and have fights. People would dump stolen vehicles and burn them there. So I think it originally comes from that. But with skateboarding it's a really similar thing; getting into places you should be, and seeing parts of town most people wouldn’t.

CA: I'd like to talk more explicitly about your work and the process behind it. I get the sense that they’re improvised or reactive in some way.

DC: There's quite a bit of improvisation, but normally I've got drawings, patterns and scenes in my head. Whilst it can be quite random when I dye and bleach, I can get quite close to what I’m imagining, because I've been doing it for over ten years now. But generally, what I'll do is imagine a scene – like the Mud Dumps that I've been describing – and create elements of a story or a memory. Then with ink or spray paint, I'll draw these scenes. Next I’ll tear them up into swatches and make them incomplete. Meanwhile I'll have other fabric that I've bleached, dyed or worked into, and I'll combine these elements into a barrier-like or brick-like pattern.

The whole thing is a medley of memory and landscape; although I wouldn't call them landscapes at all, they're more like jottings of memories.

Even when I have an image in mind, I won't get to see it until it's pretty much finished, because everything's made off the stretcher bar. So until I stretch it – unless I add other elements – I won't get to see it. There's a lot of stretching and if I don't like it; I'll tear it up, start again completely, or rip up elements and rework them. Then I stitch it up again. I'm working towards a vision, so I don't stop unless I'm happy with an outcome. It's a bit like trying a trick; you carry on until you get it right.

CA: Totally, I think skateboarding is where I learned to fail and persist. It's interesting to hear how inbuilt failure is within your process.  I imagine that can be a bit frustrating, but perhaps it's also generative?

DC: For sure, it can be massively frustrating, but it needs to be done. There are other frustrations; my sewing machine's getting quite old now, so it's constantly breaking and the needles are snapping. It's a process that can be quite stressful, but you just have to stay in there until it comes. Like I've said, I've done it for a while, so I know that – even if I rip it up 10 times and start again – it'll get there.

CA: The feeling of battling for a trick and eventually rolling away from it is quite something; it's a feeling of such elation. Sometimes I'll blank out mid-trick only to realise I'm rolling away and relief washes over me. Is there a similar feeling when you step back from an artwork you've battled and know it's finally done?

DC: That's definitely happened before. When I’m sewing the swatches together, they’re mostly determined by that point. Sometimes I get so focused that I can make a painting without even really looking at it. Stretching it is the big reveal and it's an amazing feeling, and I’m stoked I don't have to rip it up anymore, haha.

CA: You recently made a piece of work that was explicitly related to skateboarding and for a skateboarding context; a cover for Vague Skate Mag. Could you say a bit about how that came about and whether you had skateboarding or skateboarders in mind with that piece of work?

DC: Guy and Reece who run the magazine are good friends of mine. I've been a fan of it since it began and I've always tried to support them and go to their events. In 2020 they asked me to do a cover and I thought: great! But, I was still struggling with skateboarding and art; I didn't know if I wanted to do stuff in the skateboard world as an artist.

I said yes, obviously. It’s helped with my thinking around making art that references skateboarding. I've realised that I should just do what makes me happy and it's part of my life, so why shouldn't I involve it.

With the artwork, I didn't want to direcly reference skating in it. I knew there would be a skater on the cover, so I didn't feel the need for there to be obvious references to skateboarding. I wanted to keep it – quite strictly – a painting that I would make; a legitimate artwork in itself. I kept it quite brick-wall like, because we skate in an urban landscape generally.

Vague Skate Mag, Issue 19, 2021, Cover by Dwayne Coleman

CA: Looking at the cover, it might be the pairing with the photography, but I see a lot of blue skies and clouds. Other areas read like concrete, oil spills, or grip tape. The pairing enhances different parts of what you made.

DC: It's nice you've noticed the colours. I wanted to go from dark-to-light; purples, greens, blues. They give a sense of transition between different times of day.

CA: We’re nearing the end of my questions, but I wanted to ask about your board set-up. What do you like to ride and how do you make it yours?

DC: I guess I keep it quite basic. I'm someone who gets very frustrated by anything on my griptape. I can't really draw on it or anything. If I can't do a trick, I'll use any excuse. So even if it's a dot on my griptape, I'll be like why have I done this? Now I can't do this trick. Generally I'll cut my griptape in two, then put them together so there's a really thin grey line. They're right together, not even a millimeter apart.

I was skating 8.5 boards, now I'm back on an 8/8.1. I've been enjoying being back on a smaller board. My flip tricks are back. I pop the casings off my bearings, because it sounds better. I always use 3 bolts in each truck, I've done that for 15 years. I've been skateboarding for more than half my life, which is crazy to think. But like I said, I keep it basic, because if there's anything wrong with my board I'll blame it.

CA: Are there particular board companies or graphics that you're into?

DC: I've always liked Toy Machine, obviously Girl and Blueprint (RIP) back in the day. But I've never really been impressed with American board companies. I've always skated a deep concave and they didn't do that back in the day. I was broke anyway and American boards were more expensive.

I like to support my friends. Some of them do it for a living. So generally I'll try to support them. But they also hook me up with skateboards as well, so sometimes I get what I'm given. Passport, Isle, Polar.

CA: Isle get artists to do their graphics, right?

DC: Yeah. Isle’s owned by Nick Jensen who’s an artist in his own right, a painter. It was really great when it first came out; it was the first time I saw a board graphic that made me think skate art isn't always cheesy! Their Vase film was very artistic too, made by the great Jake Harris with some fabulous skateboarding. This is a bit of a tangent, but skateboarders are amazing photographers and video makers; some skate videos are so considered. I was definitely giving skateboarders a discredit when I was like I don't want to link the two, because some of the filmmaking is amazing and that’s an art.

CA: I think that's a nice note to end on. Having kept my art practice and my skateboarding separate, I think it stopped me from appreciating how inventive skateboarding can be. Now I look back at the videos I watched as a teenager and I’m amazed by their creativity.

DC: Yeah, credit where credit's due!