Last month, a giant mural began to take shape by Leeds train station. The artwork of owls in flight is called “Athena Rising” and is epic. When I say epic: let’s be clear, it is 46.8 metres from the ground, several metres taller than the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro. It is the work of two Manchester based internationally acclaimed street artists. Oh, and they’re both women.
The duo is known as Nomad Clan – Cbloxx and AYLO (aka Joy Gilleard and Hayley Garner).
As the UK’s tallest mural, Athena Rising was a feat that many wouldn’t even dare attempt. But after predicting it would take 600 cans of paint and a month of graft, they were finished in just 16 (almost tea total) days with 200 cans to spare.
The reaction to Nomad Clan from other artists and the public has been really positive. I had a brew with them last week, overlooking their giant handiwork, and chatted about street art, sexism, and homophobia.
Hayley: Hopefully it will open up a lot more doors for artists in Leeds. It’s almost showing someone what it can look like. As it’s gone down so well, hopefully, it’ll open up other businesses’ minds. And it’s not like we’d get every job so that would filter out to other artists in Leeds.
Joy: The only way that street art can work as a movement in a city is if more people are receptive to it in a positive way, maybe even negative, it doesn’t always matter – as long as people are talking. Look at Bristol – people go just to see the street art.
Hayley: Bristol’s now the home of Europe’s largest street art festival; they get between 300-700 artists every year. So a hell of a lot of people (and revenue). It’s colossal! So what street art can do for a city is overlooked sometimes. It has that connection to something that’s illegal and taboo but it doesn’t have to be.
Joy had seen firsthand the changing perception of street art in Leeds over the last couple of years. I wondered whether this was something that Nomad Clan had witnessed nationally.
Hayley: There are more corporations getting involved. Bruntwood (who own the Athena Rising building) got us in as artists because they wanted our work. Where as companies like Starbucks are almost gentrifying street art because corporations take over and they want to attach their brand to something that’s niche and cool. An advert, which would’ve been on a billboard a few years ago, is now painted on a building by an artist who is paid next to nothing through agents that are getting paid a lot of money.
Joy: There’s always going to be somebody saying something shit about what we’re doing. There an interesting point which was one guy saying that he didn’t agree with the use of street art as public art in conjunction with a property developer. Which I can understand on one level but I think it would have been very easy for this project to exploit street art tenfold and it just be an advert. But quite specifically it doesn’t say Bruntwood anywhere on it. It just says our name. Essentially it’s a canvas and it wouldn’t be possible without financial backing.
Hayley: Usually it happens behind the scenes. You’ll see artists who are doing really well and they’re represented in galleries and you’ll forget that there’s money behind that; these galleries are behind that.
Joy: We were on our arses for a long time as artists. And it’s only just started to pick up and take off in the last few years. Some people will definitely say, “Oh they’ve sold out!” but that’s actually ridiculous because the only way you can actually make something work and do projects like this is with investors. To me, I don’t see this as a sell out; it’s a piece of public art and it’s for the public.
Hayley: Everyone gets to see it and everyone gets to enjoy it.
Joy and Hayley are not only creative partners but also in a relationship. I asked them which came first and what the reaction is like to them being women and being gay.
Hayley: We started working together and then we became a couple…on a scissor lift in the gay village.
Joy: We were working on Europe’s first LGBTQ mural and we had a really good time; there was a weird undercurrent going on. I thought, this can’t just be about the painting; being on the scissor lift isn’t that exciting! It gradually became a thing. And then somewhere into the relationship, early on, we were like, are we going to do this properly?
Hayley: Then Nomad Clan was born. In Dry Bar, half drunk, in Manchester.
Joy: As soon as we’d done that, it started to ruffle a few feathers. I’d previously worked with quite a few guys. And I guess without realising, on one level, some of them were being quite restrictive, i.e. a lot of them were feeding me their own bullshit basically – a negative cloud of, ‘Oh yeah, but you can’t…you won’t do this. What do you think you can do that none of us can do?” Basically, why have you got any ambition?
Hayley: There’s a lot of mansplaining. It’s not often but we do get it. We get a lot of guys particularly checking that we know what we’re doing. So if we’re proposing an idea to a company, they’ll ask daft questions like: you’ve done it before haven’t you, you know what you’re doing?
Joy: It’s not just the lack of confidence in us but also the screamingly blatant straight out sexism and homophobia. We’ve been accused of being a partnership like this in order to gain publicity. As if being a lesbian is somehow going to really catapult our careers: basically we’re embracing our lesbian side and using it as a gimmick. Which to me is fucking hilarious because genuinely in my mind, in many respects, it’s actually a hindrance to some degree – career wise.
Hayley: It’s obvious because we’re out and we don’t hide the fact that we’re gay. But we tendered for two jobs in Dubai. They basically said, you’ve got the jobs and then got back in touch and said actually you haven’t, without giving us a reason. And I wondered: is the reason we didn’t get it is because we’re gay. Now whether that’s in our heads or in other people’s…
Joy: There could have been any manner of reasons but having to even second guess that is really shit. It’s just like in life, sometimes you can just sense it or it’s blatantly obvious that people aren’t comfortable with who you are. It’s the same with clients, do they want to be associated with a lesbian couple? Sometimes no, definitely not.
Hayley: Even the first wall we did together originally, there was another artist involved, and the guy was like, “I can’t really ask my lad mates, I don’t think they’d be cool with it in the gay village; it’s a wall for gay people.”
Joy: There is some hostility from some people; some of it is jealousy. The better the opportunities that we’re getting and the further that we’re getting in our career, people are almost lashing out; they’re looking for reasons why it’s not them. They don’t think about the fact that we’ve worked in this industry for ten years; we’ve worked our asses off to get to this point now. And they’re using the woman card because it became something that a lot of papers started thinking about: all these women that are doing street art, and a lot of people wanted to do an angle on it. I’m not going to pretend that everything’s equal when it isn’t. So then because we’ve said that, they’re like: oh they’re using the woman card for attention. It’s all that invisible bullshit that no-one likes to talk about. And then if you do talk about it you get accused of rallying it.
Hayley: To be honest, for a long time, I didn’t notice it because I was just so used to it. It’s just what happens. And it was when I had my paint shop and I employed a guy and he didn’t really know a lot about spray paint but people would come in the shop and naturally ask him. Or they’d speak to me and then he’d come in the shop and they’d speak to him about what they’d just talked to me about. It was unbelievable.
Joy: We were painting outside Harvey Nicks the other day and every ten minutes, “Have you painted that?” We were in the act of painting and they’re still questioning whether it’s us that have painted it. “That’s amazing! You’ve done that?” It’s like: say it again! It’s fuelled our fire.
Haley: Things you get a lot are: best female street artist. You’re good for a girl. It’s just starting now: ‘internationally renowned artist’ is what everyone is saying, there isn’t a female mention in there.
However, Nomad Clan says they are flying the flag for more ambitious artists in the UK, regardless of gender. You can catch them at the end of this month as they headline Upfest, Europe’s biggest street art and graffiti festival in Bristol.