Fired up: Frank To (pic: Terry Murden)
Along a dimly-lit corridor in an old cigarette factory is the studio of Frank To who is contemplating automatic weapons and gunpowder. Artists have a reputation for pushing conceptual boundaries and it seems almost appropriate that in the former WD&HO Wills building in Glasgow, a place that once encouraged people to “light up”, To has developed a technique that involves setting fire to his work.
“I have always had a fascination with fire and fireworks,” he says, suggesting that it may have something to do with his Hong Kong heritage and the fact that gunpowder was invented in China.
In a desire to move away from oil painting, To is using the explosive substance as a drawing material. He uses it to “sculpt” an image then ignites it, creating burn marks that are part of the illustration. It sounds highly dangerous and To had to get legal permission to use it. So far there have been no accidents, but it is not something to be tried at home. “It requires great care,” he says, with studied understatement.
Inevitably, there has been a flurry of interest from collectors seeking out the next big thing and some works sell for up to £10,000. One client, appropriately, was the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
“They gave me the residue from the one o’clock cannon at Edinburgh Castle to turn into an artwork,” he says. “When I started using gunpowder I had no idea how successful it would be.”
To is keen to encourage young artists to take more risks, but he’s also on something of a personal crusade to get artists and businesses to work more closely together in order to help the creative sector survive and thrive.
He acknowledges the patrons and sponsors who contribute to galleries and exhibitions but he believes there is a need for a more fundamental coming together to accept the contribution that art makes to the economy.
Dog painted using gunpowder (pic: Terry Murden)
He is also a firm believer that young artists must shed any notions of “waiting to be discovered” and instead take a pro-active and commercial approach to making a career out of art.
“I accumulated a lot of help over the years thanks to contacts with banks, PRs and business charities such as the Prince’s Trust,” he says.
“We also have to break down the ‘gatekeeper’ mentality – the top galleries who can make or break your career. This is no longer valid as creatives now have a wide breadth of tools thanks to the internet to make their own opportunities.”
Notwithstanding modern technology, To’s base in what is now the WASPs studios, is filled with the familiar clutter and organised chaos of the artist’s garret. His first reference is the light from an expansive window which lifts the gloom of a room which is festooned with files, tubes of paint, brushes and spray cans. A toy Sylvester cat sits on a high shelf overlooking proceedings, a Korean-build Dan Electric guitar hangs on the wall. “I play sometimes. It has a great pick-up,” says To.
His focus, of course, is on his paintings which are attached to the walls, unfinished works mingling with the miscellany of objects lying about on table tops and a couch.
Now entering his forties he has been determined since his teenage years to develop a hard-edged commercial approach to his career. He has worked with a variety of business institutions, including Walter Scott & Partners, Deloitte and the Royal Bank of Scotland which backed a solo exhibition at Leith Gallery.
One of his fans is the Star Trek actor Sir Patrick Stewart, former Chancellor of Huddersfield University whom he met while studying for his degree. Sir Patrick made further contact when To moved on to Duncan of Jordanstone College, Dundee.
‘Waiting to be discovered is not an option’ says To (pic: Terry Murden)
To’s decision to pursue a career in art prompted typical parental questions. In his case, his mother had artistic talent but opened a takeaway shop where her son worked and learned many of the disciplines that would help him run his own business.
“When I went into art I was told that there are only two options: become a teacher or do your art as an aside to another job.
“But there are 60,000 graduates in art-related courses coming out of colleges every year.. in fine art, fashion, film. Many of them still believe they will be discovered, but today’s world is smaller because of social media and the internet.”
He used his time at college, not only to study art but to begin thinking about how he could make it work for him. At just 19 he had his first exhibition via scotlandart.com.
“Anyone working in the creative industries has to be business savvy and businesses need to look to the arts to help them develop creative thinking,” he argues.
He has developed a deeper view of the role that art can play in changing attitudes and influencing climate change and international relations and is currently working with a Swedish partner on a new alloy called Humanium Metal, a fairtrade alloy made from melted illegal firearms from countries affected by gun violence. AK47s and other weapons are melted down and turned into harmless objects such as jewellery, cooking pans, pens and trophies. To is the first person to make a pigment colour out of guns.
“My ambition is to have a peace treaty signed by a humanium pastel. It will prove that the pen is mightier than the sword,” he says with a victorious grin.
He is delighted that contemporary work is getting a wider audience and that politicians and business are taking notice of what can be gained from art beyond visual appreciation.
“Look at the Banksy show in Glasgow, and Grayson Perry,” he says. “They are generating interest and revenue that proves how art is not just for its own sake, it is contributing to the economy.
“I’d like businesses to revisit their traditional relationship with art and artists. To integrate art does not need mean simply purchasing artwork and declaring it as a capital expenditure.
“The workforce is changing as Generation Z and Millennials are now the majority. In regards to that, there is now a shift on wellbeing and mentality. The way that art itself can be used to stimulate and inspire environment for the employees which reduces stress, increases creativity and productivity, enhances commitment, broadens employee appreciation of diversity, and encourages discussions.”
Birthplace: Falkirk, raised in Grangemouth then moved to Newton Mearns
Education: Huddersfield University, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee
Career: Self-employed artist, also a further education lecturer; artist-in-residence at Perth Museum & Art Gallery in 2018 as part of Perth & Kinross Platform Festival.
Who inspires you?
The disrupters. People like Apple founder Steve Jobs and Dieter Rams of electricals business Braun who changed our way of thinking and values as much as their devices changed our way of doing things. They looked at ease of use, not the complexity of the idea.
What annoys you?
Entitlement. People who feel they deserve something even though they have not put in the hard graft.
Cooking, horology, particularly military horology.
Who would be your fantasy guests at a dinner party?
As above, Steve Jobs and Dieter Rams, as well as Marco Pierre White (chef) and film maker Christopher Nolan who believes in traditional production.