Richie Culver never paid much attention to his mother’s quiet obsession with Princess Diana and Elvis. Nor did he give the regulars who frequented the local bookies or the man who kept pigeons just up the road more than a cursory glance. It was only when he brought his Portuguese girlfriend to Withernsea to see the place where he grew up that he began to realise that within this seemingly ordinary corner of Yorkshire there was a story waiting to be told.
“I thought it was normal for your mum to have a shrine to Princess Di in the living room. Apparently not. My girlfriend had never seen anything like it. As we wandered around the streets and met the kind of characters who had been part of my early years she turned to me and said: ‘This is not normal. You have to paint it’.”
Culver admits that initially he wasn’t convinced. However, when he was approached by Hull’s Humber Street Gallery to stage a solo exhibition his thoughts returned to Withernsea.
The result was No One Knows Me Like Dawn From the Job Centre, which features 14 paintings, one for each day between benefit payments. In the middle there is a greenhouse, filled with the kind of knock-off paraphernalia he was offered down the pub.
Together they represent a chapter in Culver’s own life, but they also give a voice to a section of society not usually represented in the mainstream art world.
“Whenever I go back to Withernsea, I see a place which is changing,” he says. “Shops and pubs close and as more betting shops open, other bits are forgotten. I guess this is a bit of a love letter to a place and the people that I knew. Dawn was real. She was the woman I had to go and see every fortnight and it quickly became a bit of a therapy session. In the outside world I would pretend that it was OK being out of work, but in there I could let the mask drop.”
Culver’s journey from benefit claimant to full-time artist hasn’t been an easy one.
“Even as a teeenager I always wrote poetry, but in Withernsea being a poet wasn’t a career choice. At around the same time I got into clubbing and rave culture in a major way and it was music which took me away from home.
“It was a really hedonistic time. I went to live in Ibiza for a while and eventually ended up in London with no particular plans. I guess there was that freedom that you only really get in your 20s. It was then that I started messing around with collage, creating these big works using lines from poems. I was doing it for myself, but then I met someone who reckoned that they could get some of the big galleries interested.”
In 2010 one of Culver’s large-scale collages was featured in a group exhibition at Tate Modern. It was the kind of break most artists spend their careers waiting for, but Culver admits he didn’t deal well with the attention that it brought.
“I started drinking a lot and the more I drank the less creative I became. I decided to move to Berlin to sort myself out. It has a reputation as being a city of artists, but it was probably the worse place I could have gone.
“I wasn’t in a good place when I arrived and as the months went by things really spiralled out of control. I was like a kid in a sweet shop when it came to the drink and the drugs on offer.”
Culver returned to England and after a spell living in a halfway house he began piecing his life back together. While he no longer had a studio and the drink and drugs had for a time dented his creativity, now he was clean and sober the old Culver began to re-emerge.
“I couldn’t afford paints or canvases, but I did have a computer and I used it to chronicle the most recent chapter of my life. I had sunk so low and it was important to me to record it in my own way.”
Printed on a plain white background, lines of texts which said things like “I stole her purse...we spent the next forty five minutes frantically searching for it... eventually we gave up...afterwards I decided to lend her some money...until she gets paid” formed Culver’s comeback exhibition, Things That Never Really Worked Out – Most Things.
It was searingly honest and it did what he hoped it would do – draw a line under the lost years. And now the Humber Street show represents Culver, who recently became a dad, moving forward.
“I was involved a little in the UK City of Culture events, but becoming the first Hull-born artist to exhibit at the gallery definitely feels like a bit of honour.”
No One Knows Me Like Dawn From the Job Centre, Humber Street Gallery, Hull, to May 27. humberstreetgallery.co.uk