Artist Chris Dobrowolski in his Triumph Herald car.
Artist Chris Dobrowolski in his Triumph Herald.

Chris Dobrowolski has been Visiting Artist at the British Antarctic Survey, has created sculptures from planes, trains and automobiles, and has been described as ‘the greatest living artist in the UK’. He’s visiting us on Friday 20 March with his show All Roads Lead To Rome (find out more), and we were lucky enough to ask him some questions:

Chris, did the idea for the show come out of the road trip or vice versa?

The idea of taking my car to Italy had been an idea as far back as the mid-90s when my father was still alive. I didn’t have a clear idea about where and why I was going to do it but back then what I really wanted to do was take my dad with me. I rebuilt the engine only about 7 years ago so back in the 90’s the car was even more unreliable. Neither me or my dad spoke Italian; he also hated travelling and certainly had no desire to go back to Italy (note – Chris’s father served for the Polish army in WWII and was posted to Italy). He had a short temper and had already had one heart attack in 1989. To be honest, if by some miracle we had made the trip, I’m pretty sure it would have killed him!

It was while I was rebuilding the engine in 2007 that I thought again about driving to Italy. When my dad originally gave me the car when I was 18 he told me never to drive it too far from a bus route otherwise I might not get home again. With my rebuilt perfect engine I felt that I could go anywhere. Two days later the engine seized on a trip to Clacton-on-sea, just thirty miles down the road! My dream of driving to Italy was summarily extinguished for another 5 years.

Just before Christmas 2011, Cheryl, my then producer, asked me “If you could do whatever you wanted, what project would you do? “. So I spent that Christmas googling all the snippets of anecdotes I could remember my father telling us when we were growing up and over a period of about three days I worked out where he must have been, when and why. By joining this jigsaw together a route was more or less planned.

The car however had been off the road for about four years and needed a lot of work doing to it. I had repaired the engine again but the brakes needed a total overhaul along with a lot of rust-related work underneath.

You like to build vehicles, don’t you? Is there another road trip you’d like to attempt with one of them?

All of my other vehicles were actually made with a journey in mind. A boat, for example, was made to cross the river Humber in an attempt to escape from art college in Hull. The project with the car, in this sense, grew from theses earlier projects. The only difference between the earlier vehicles and this project is that I didn’t make the car from scratch – although having spent decades keeping it on the road, sometimes it feels like I have.

Image: Artist Chris Dobrowolski in the Antarctic.
Chris in the Antarctic (his sledge is made from picture frames).

The connections you make in the show and some of the coincidences that take place are genuinely surprising – were they as much of a surprise for you as they are for the audience?

Yes. Sometimes the best way to give the impression of being surprised is to actually be surprised. As with the other vehicle projects I did, the car becomes both a literal and metaphorical vehicle for discovery.

Do you base your performing style on anyone?

It was a long time before I realised I actually had a performing style. Essentially I’m pointing at pictures with a stick. This was something I learned at art college – we called it ‘a slide talk’. There are elements of black humour that come from dad’s descriptions of his horrific experiences during the war. I guess it’s just a straightforward survival technique to talk about that sort of stuff, get it off your chest by making a joke out of it.

Did the journey change your feelings about your father?

Not much, I think I already got to know him quite well before he died. However the trip probably did more to change my feelings about Italy.

My father was never a fan of Italian culture but obviously he saw the country in a very difficult time. He probably saw the worst side of a people struggling to survive. I grew up with an irrational mistrust of Italians that I had obviously inherited from him. Inevitably during our trip we met countless welcoming generous people. Once I even left the car door not only unlocked but open all night and in the morning it was just as I left it. Priscila, my girlfriend is also of Italian descent and I think I can trust her to.

Image: One of Chris's kinetic sculptures.
One of Chris’s kinetic sculptures. Click here to see it in action.

Priscila came along on your journey with you, didn’t she? Has she seen the show and, if so, how does she feel about being a part of it?

Yes, she has seen the show a few times now. I don’t think she was happy about it to start with but I think she has realised now that the people I make fun of are invariably the people I am fond of…… apart from Mussolini of course.

All Roads Lead To Rome is at the Old Fire Station on Friday 20 March at 7.30pm. Tickets are £12, £10: click here or phone 01865 305305 to book. Recommended for ages 16+ (some strong language).