As St Albans artist Ed Worley goes from strength to strength, Bethan Andrews chats to him about how honing in on his creativity has helped to save him from a life of drug addiction and despair
With Valentine’s Day upon us, there’s often talk of true love around this time of year. And one such true love comes in the form of rising international artist Ed Worley’s relationship with creativity and art production. In fact, it saved Opake – as he’s known in the art world – from a lifetime of turmoil and addiction. Rewind ten years and his life looked very different to what it is today. Trapped in the depths of drug addiction and homelessness, Opake spent many years simply surviving and in and out of episodes of psychosis.
The 34-year-old artist used his recent, highly-acclaimed exhibition with Quantus Gallery in London’s East End to demonstrate the power of creativity in turning a life around and hopes that its raw honesty will inspire others to change the course of their own. “My life has been reasonably wild!” he exclaims. “I had a great upbringing and have wonderful parents, but I got involved with writing graffiti at a very young age and hung around with older people who didn’t necessarily have my best interests at heart. I started using drugs, smoking and drinking at a very young age, and it all went very downhill and I ended up as a drug addict using crack and alcohol. I was psychotic everyday and had major mental health issues, as well as being homeless and living on the Victoria Line. Drug dependency and addiction just bring with them chaos, they go hand in hand.”
Opake discusses how dark and dangerous that part of his life was, and after a series of major rock bottoms, self harming, a lot of violence and two big seizures, he started looking into routes to recovery. “Through relapsing and trying again and again to get better, my mum, who has really stuck by me, found my therapist who I instantly connected with,” he says. “I then met my partner, who I’m still with now, Ruth, and she had a son who was one. The introduction of responsibility, and working with my therapist, started to get me better.”
From the day that Ruth and Opake decided to get a house together in St Albans, his life started to turn around, but much of Opake’s art takes its inspiration from this dark and compulsive shadow that dominated his early life. “I realised that my art could be my addiction. Being obsessive-compulsive, becoming addicted to things – if you can channel that into something creative instead of something harmful, you can be so powerful,” he says.
“As an addict, it’s a very purpose driven lifestyle with a major focus and goal, and when I got clean, I had no purpose. I’d been working as an artist a bit, but I had no drive with it, so when I made the decision to be a full-time artist, I had to go for it. I don’t ever want to be not known as an addict, but I want to use that mindset to push something positive. My whole work ethic is based around the same chase, and it enables me to live as a normal person and function in society. The whole process is done by hand and by me, and there’s no room for anything else. I go into a meditative state of painting everyday and people say I’m addicted to work, but I don’t have a problem with that!”
Opake talks about how surviving addiction and homelessness taught him a lot, and his survival of that means he believes he can survive anything. What he truly hopes is that his work can change the narrative when it comes to talking about addiction. “Me sitting in the studio and painting everyday, that’s joyous. Having children and a partner, and waking up in a bed, that’s joyous,” he smiles. “I went through years of thinking of why me and looking at my past as a real negative but, now, I try to look at it as a positive. I have zero off-switch, you can’t out-work me as I don’t know how to stop. Changing the narrative of addiction, what it is and how it can be used, that’s my superpower and it’s important to me. If you can change the narrative of what it means to be an addict within you, then the problems with drug addiction would dissipate.”
So, what can people expect from his art, something that is winning him high praise from critics across the globe? Described as storybook realism, Opake’s work combines graffiti with pop art and blurs the boundaries of traditional 19th century portrait photography with popular cartoon imagery. With its stylised and hyperreal depictions of Disney and other cartoon characters, it evokes the pop artists of the 1960s, whose work questioned assumptions about high and low art. “The reason why I paint what I paint, and the aesthetics of the cartoon characters, is that I want it to be accessible to everybody, regardless of age, and for everyone to take something from it,” he says. “It’s based on repeat imagery, and the idea of doing the same action again and again and expecting a different outcome. If you know the backstory of why I repeat the images, it takes on a whole new meaning.”
When it comes to how St Albans has impacted Opake on his road to recovery, I wonder how exactly that manifests and what he loves most about the city. “It’s incredibly safe, and that’s a major one for me with a one-year-old and a six-year-old, and it’s got amazing schools, too,” he says. “It sounds daft that they are the first things I said given everything, but my partner and my children are my world. There’s so much greenery in St Albans, too, so I can walk to amazing parks, great restaurants and walk back home. It’s a beautiful city and a really wonderful place to live, and it’s quiet, which is something I need.”
Opake tells me how much he loves the restaurants and businesses in the city, too. “Hatch is my favourite place to eat in the city, for brunch particularly, the food is incredible,” he says. “My favourite place to go in St Albans is Lariatt Skate Shop where I get my tattoos. We go to The Ivy a lot, as well. I like how intimate it is as a place and on Saturday you’ve got the market and all the food stalls. Clarence Park is such a lovely park and Verulamium Park is huge, you can walk around that place for hours. Everyday I run down the Alban Way, which is an old train track which is now a path that goes all the way to Welwyn Garden City. At some points, you can be completely alone, and it’s just lovely.”
After such an incredibly successful exhibition and past year, I wonder what the future holds. “I have another exhibition with Quantus and their sister gallery in Switzerland, and we are looking at doing something in Dubai,” he says. “I’m doing some big collaborations with big artists, too, and looking at collaborations with huge fashion houses. My strength is to live day by day and focus on my painting, but it’s a really exciting time!”
For more on Ed Worley visit quantusgallery.com