When students ask for advice on how to make it in the art world, Rob Ryan, tells them: “Have children young and be poor for 17 years.” He laughs, which he often does, and adds, “that’s exactly what I did.”
After studying at Trent Polytechnic and then the Royal College of Art (RCA), he combined painting and print-making with a variety of low-paid jobs, including cycle courier and decorating.
He fell in love and became a dad at 25. It wasn’t until 1999, when he perfected his papercuts and added whimsical, thought-provoking words to them that he started to attract attention.
The art world’s talent spotters recognised true originality and began snapping it up, which then brought it to the attention of plagiarists.
“I was copied a lot and I still am, and it makes me angry. I did take legal action but it’s such a negative, soul-destroying process and it’s so time-consuming it drains the life out of you. So I decided that the best way to tackle it was to let everyone know who I was.
“I’d been approached to licence my work, so I thought, ‘right, I’m going to brand myself. I’m going to have my name on everything. I’m going to be in John Lewis and in high street stores. That’s the only way I can win’.”
His designs are indeed on everything from prints and postcards to notebooks, radios, wallpaper, mugs, plates, a clock, jewellery and even beach shoes. He’s buried the opposition with an avalanche of products that all sport his name, which wasn’t so easy for someone who describes himself as “shy and self-conscious”.
You can see his goods in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) shop, while its galleries have a more exciting proposition for fans. A new Rob Ryan solo exhibition, Listen to the World, has just opened.
It spans the last six years of his career and includes old favourites and previously unseen lasercuts and screenprints created for his Rizzoli calendar 2016.
There’s also a limited-edition lasercut Our Sub Atomic Love Affair created exclusively for the YSP and on sale from £120, along with matching tote bag and tea towel.
Claire Lilley, Director of Programmes at the YSP, is expecting sales of his products to soar. It will be a welcome boost for the park, which is free to visitors and relies on a complex web of external funding and sponsorship, along with profits from its café and shop.
Flooding the market with merchandise has increased Rob’s income, although not by much and not that you’d notice. He is the opposite of flash. He still lives in the same rented London flat that he’s had for years and his clothes are “unsmart” casual, reflecting his laid-back, friendly personality. His long curly hair and bushy beard is low maintenance.
He accidentally lets slip how much he earns and then begs me not to print it. It is surprisingly little and he’d probably get more as a middle manager at Tesco. It’s because he spends a chunk of his earnings on five members of staff who help with admin while he concentrates on the creating.
“It’s just given me freedom to make and that’s what I’m best at,” he says.
Another benefit of having his designs on so many products is that it democratises them. They are available to view by everyone from billionaires to those on benefits and they are affordable. Cards are about £3, while mugs start at £9.95.
“That’s been good and I like the idea that my art is part of people’s everyday lives. If your work is just in private galleries then it’s only seen by people who feel comfortable going in them. It’s why I have my own little shop. No-one is scared of going in a shop and looking round, so it makes your work accessible,” says Rob, who opened the shop seven years ago in Bethnal Green.
He ended up in London after the RCA, met his wife and settled down to what is obviously domestic bliss. She features in his work and his feelings for her are expressed in his carefully carved words.
It is a contrast to his unsettled childhood. Born in Cyprus to Irish parents, he went to eight different primary schools as his father was in the RAF, although the family eventually settled in Birmingham.
“They weren’t even the schools the other kids on the base went to because my parents were Catholic, so I had to go on a bus on my own to the Catholic school. I was isolated. I think that’s what made me creative. I got into drawing and my own imagination. Your imagination becomes your friend.”
The feeling of being an outsider has informed his art, most notably in a piece that says: “You don’t ever have to try and fit in anymore.”
His words stir emotions and his papercuts have a fairy-tale quality, although don’t call them “sentimental” as he doesn’t like that description.
“A lot of my work is about love but it’s labelled as sentimental. Ninety per cent of song lyrics are also about love but no-one categorises them in that way. Not that I care really. I do what I want to do and I don’t mind being emotional and ‘singing’ about feelings.”
The feelings he expresses in words and pictures resonate with many of us. His best-selling lasercut/screenprint is “Can we? Shall we?” It shows a couple on top of a tree whose trunk is inscribed with “Can We? Shall We? One day very soon, let us go away together just you and me. Can We? Shall We? Call in sick one day and travel to the sea and hold hands all day. Can We? Shall We? Eat our sandwiches on the train, get drunk on fresh air and come home tired and never tell anyone... Ever’.”
“It strikes a chord. It’s that idea of getting away from it all and having a secret,” says Rob, who carries a notebook at all times so he can jot down ideas.
“I worry I might forget them otherwise. It could be my age. I’m 52,” he says.
Some come from the heart while others are stories from his imagination.
The sculpture park exhibition shows that the word count in his pictures has increased over time.
This trend culminated in a trilogy of illustrated books, The Invisible Kingdom, The Kingdom Revealed and, finally, The Invincible Kingdom, which will be published in October. “It was a challenge I set myself. I wanted to see if I could do an epic story so each book is 12,000 words long. It’s taken me three years and I found it quite hard. I’m hoping to get my life back now and I’m getting into painting again.”
The books, about a young boy who doesn’t want to be king, have great reviews, which he chuckles at because it took him four attempts to pass his English language O-level because “I didn’t like the grammar. I didn’t like the constraints of it.”
It was a form of rebellion by the former punk who later developed a love of Northern Soul, which is how he became familiar with northern industrial towns and the further reaches of the M1 and M62. His drive up north these days usually ends at the sculpture park, which had its first Rob Ryan exhibition in 2009.
“It’s a wonderful place and the people who visit are nice, and the people who work here are nice too,” he says.
Amanda Peach, the park’s craft office, buyer and organiser of the latest exhibition, says the feeling is mutual.
“He is a lovely person and a brilliant artist. The quality of what he does is astounding. People try and copy him but they never get it right. There is only one Rob Ryan.”
Rob Ryan’s Listen to the World exhibition is at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until November 1, 2015. Entry to the YSP is free www.ysp.co.uk;www.ysp.co.uk/shop.
• To celebrate the opening of the exhibition, YSP is offering one Yorkshire Post reader a hamper of Rob Ryan artwork and products plus two tickets to Rob Ryan’s The Invincible Kingdom talk at Yorkshire Sculpture Park on October 30.
The prize includes a Listen to the World tea towel, a You Don’t Ever Have to Try and Fit in Anymore creamware mug, a signed copy of Rob’s new book The Invincible Kingdom; an I Love what you Hate tote bag; a lasercut desk calendar, a New Part of this World Zine and a We Never Needed a Garden vase.
Just answer the following question: What is the name of Rob Ryan’s 2015 Yorkshire Sculpture Park exhibition?
Email the answer and your name and address to: email@example.com or write to: Rob Ryan Competition, Communications, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield, WF4 4LG The closing date is Monday, 20 July 2015. Terms and Conditions online at ysp.co.uk/robryan