Inspired to make a fresh start of it

Lee Hoyland
Lee Hoyland
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Lee Hoyland knows how to shock people with his paintings.

Gas masks, scary faces, skeletons and sharp teeth plaster his canvases.

But that’s because he himself has had a shocking life.

He’s served three prison sentences, spent two years living on the streets in London and battled a cocaine and heroin addiction.

But thanks to an art teacher in prison, Lee found his new drug: painting.

“I honestly think painting has saved me,” says Lee. “It’s all I do. I left my old circle of friends and started a new life.”

Lee has a studio at KIAC – Kelham Island Arts Collective. “I spend all my time there. I sometimes even stay there. I just want to tell my story in paintings, I’m not even bothered about selling.”

His work is brutal, shocking, primitive and dark.

“I want to show life – warts and all. Life is scary, after all. You only have to look at now - there are people behaving like cavemen, fighting against each other. There is no point holding back in art.”

In spite of the shocking nature of Lee’s art, it was his saviour.

“I was a heroin addict for ten years until I went into rehab at the age of 25. Then I was into cocaine and that’s how I came to be arrested in 2004. I was driving under the influence and was arrested for criminal damage.”

It was this later stint in prison that reformed the 40-year-old, from Firth Park.

“Art saved me from a destructive lifestyle. The art teachers were just brilliant. I studied A-level art and Art Foundation and just loved it. I’ve always drawn but I did my first proper painting when I came out of prison.”

Now he looks back at his old life and can’t believe the difference.

“I feel great all the time now. I have stayed off the drugs and I’ve got a completely new set of friends. Where I come from everybody I knew was on some kind of drug. Peer pressure gets you when you’re a kid. I was also in care and I hated that.”

It was during his time in care, at the age of 14, that Lee ran off to London to live on the streets.

“I was homeless for two years and that’s when I got into heroin. I had to leave care.”

He moved back to Sheffield and then, in 1989, was sent to a borstal.

“Detention centres and prison was so much worse then. They can still be violent places today but they are much better than what they used to be.

“But a lot of people don’t want to get out. They have their TV and their three meals a day and they believe they’re better off in prison than facing life outside.”

But those days behind bars seem like the distant past to Lee now.

The abstract artist has his first one-man show, called On Common Ground, at the Gage exhibition space at KIAC.

Lee has an impressive 30 paintings on display – an extraordinary amount by most artist’s standards.

“I am really excited but also really nervous – it’s a very personal thing, painting. My life is on show.”

But in spite of the nerves, there’s no stopping him.

“I enter into a trance when I’m painting. It’s quite shamanistic really, though I realise that sounds weird.”

He works in any materials he can get hold of.

“I use whatever people give me – whether it’s emulsion or anything.

“And I paint on anything too.”

His work is evocative of graffiti/abstract artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Someone gave me a book about him and it’s strange, our lives are really similar. He was a heroin addict too.”

like Basquiat, Lee is driven by depicting society’s ills.

“There is too much corruption in society. You have to show these things in art. We are also destroying our planet, which is something I care about in art.”

His preoccupation with the environment can be seen in one of his works, entitled ‘2040’. It shows three alien-like men wearing gas masks.

But while his work addresses dark, unpleasant realities, his demeanour is sunny and positive.

“I feel so lucky to have a place at KIAC. Everybody there has been just brilliant and supportive.”

The exhibition, On Common Ground, runs for two weeks.

“I wanted to call it that because it’s here at Kelham Island where there was a lot of industry and the men who made things were common men, like me.”

On Common Ground runs until Friday August 30 at the KIAC centre, Kelham Island. For details call Simon Baker on 07595 546751.

KIAC has its own exhibition space, known as the Gage Gallery.

Lee Hoyland has been involved with KIAC since 2012.

The collective also offer cheap studio space for budding artists and also run a variety of art classes.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 and died of a heroin overdose in 1988. His work is worth millions.

Like Basquiat, Lee Hoyland paints in a primitive, abstract style, one he attributes to getting into a ‘trance’ when he is painting.