I first met Lee Hadwin working at one of my regular gay bar haunts that I had decided to take a visiting friend fromNew Yorkto. It was his first night there, and being a Thursday the place was quiet. He was very chatty, polite, and charming. His ease of character made it easy to strike up a conversation with, especially after I had a cocktail or two, and the fact that there was only a handful of other clientele made it unlikely for interruptions.
Whilst ordering another cocktail it just happened to crop up in conversation that he was a sleep artist. A sleep artist? I enquired further. It turns out that Hadwin draws art in his sleep. Concerned that I was leaving my American friend aloof, I quickly mentioned that I was a journalist, that his talent intrigued me, and that I would like to interview him for So So Gay.
Several weeks later, we met in the café at the Curzon Soho. In the meantime I had done some research on Hadwin and it turns out that he’s been quite the phenomenon for some time. Driven by outright curiosity, I was eager to have a proper chat with him and find out exactly what he does.
‘Art wasn’t a path I wanted to go down,’ says Hadwin. ‘My route was music, you know. My highest grade for art was D. It’s just not a subject I was ever interested in.’
He sat there casually dressed in jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap sipping his drink. He was as genial and content as I had remembered him from the bar. He certainly didn’t look like someone that, I was soon to find out, had recently sold a painting to none other than Donald Trump for quite a princely sum! But his laid back attitude was probably down to how he sees himself. ‘I’ve never claimed to be a natural artist,’ he says candidly. It seems his success is literally something that unexpectedly happened over night. So how exactly does it work?
‘It’s hard to explain. I’ll wake up and my thought process changes. I get a horrific migraine that will last for about four or five hours, and then I’ll start vomiting, and it’ll go like that,’ he adds with a sharp finger snap. ‘I have no other recollection of what I’ve drawn. I know I’ve done something, but I don’t know what I’ve done until I’ve seen it.’
And when did it all start?
‘It started at the age of four or five. At that time it was just scribbling with crayons, felt tip pens, and stuff. It was only until the age of fifteen that I started drawing more intricately, and I did about three Marilyn Monroe drawings.’
Indeed, some of his works are incredibly intricate. Not only vivid pictures of faeries and people, but also monochrome pandemoniums of words and numbers and more abstract works. His catalogue to date is over 200 pieces.
But it does seem odd that such a virulent artist never seems to know what he has done until he physically sees it. So what does his work evoke in him when he first sets eyes on it?
‘I’ve got no connection to the piece of work. It’s there. Part of me still thinks it’s impossible to have done it, but I know I’ve done it. It’s a weird kind of paradox. But what I find interesting is the numbers and stuff like that. Whether it means something, I don’t know’
I was curious to know what his artistic influences were, or even if he knew he had any.
‘At the age 23 I remember buying some Kandinsky posters for my old flat. The thing that struck me was the rich colours that he used in some of his stuff. I’d say Kandinsky is my favourite artist. But as for influences on my actual work? I don’t know! Some people say some of my work is like…Jasper Johns?’ Hadwin enquires, knowing the name but looking like he wasn’t entirely sure who he is. ‘Someone said that once,’ he says, gleefully dismissive.
Some of the issues that Hadwin must face in his unusual and unexpected career are proving that his talent is genuine, and also trying to gain acceptance by the art world.
‘My biggest problem was trying to prove that I’m not able to draw when I’m awake, and that’s been the hardest thing,’ he says with a hint of tired frustration. ‘And the art world has always criticised me because you have to be in a conscious state to draw, according to the art critics.’
But despite the tensions he doesn’t let the naysayers, especially those in art circles, get the better of him, and his view on art is pretty straight up.
‘I just think art is art. If a person likes a piece of art, it’s up to them, you know. If someone wants to spend £10 on a piece, or if someone wants to buy a piece for £40 million, that’s their choice. That’s how I look at art. There’s no room for critics at the end of the day.’
So what next for the nocturnal prodigy?
‘I’m starting a fashion line called Hadwin with Lefteris Prodromis, which will be launched next year. He’s quite a top notch fashion designer. What we’ve decided to do is next year is start with t-shirts, which are quite high end. I just want to use my art. Also, I’m going to hold an exhibition because of my efforts I do for the charity Missing People, who I support.’
Hadwin’s support for Missing People is something he’s incredibly fond of. Indeed, he tells me that since last year, a portion of all sales of his work goes directly to the charity. But why them?
‘I came out when I was 15, but I ran away from home. I just think that Missing People might connect well with a lot of gay people. Everyone’s focus is understandably on things like AIDS charities, and I’ve raised quite a bit for the Terrance Higgins Trust myself. But I think there are other charities that can support kids that have a hard time coming out, and a lot of people do run away because of that. So for me that links Missing People with the gay scene.’
So for someone who has led a charmed life due to bizarre serendipity, does Hadwin think his drawing and painting will ever stop, or does he even want it to?
‘The only thing I want to stop are the migraines. But you have people that have migraines that last for two or three days, so it’s a small blessing, that. That’s the downside. Also, I’ll either use paper or draw on the floor. So I have to be careful when I’m staying in hotel rooms and stuff,’ he laughs. ‘In my last flat I drew in the bathroom everywhere! But I’m happy in my waking life, and I get a good night’s sleep anyway. As long as I’m not harming myself or anyone, it’s alright. But I went from the age of 19 to 21 where I didn’t draw for a year and a half. It just comes on. Now, I might draw one piece in a week, I might draw two pieces. And then I might draw half a piece in a couple of week’s time and then might not draw anything for a few months. So, it’s quite sporadic.’
As for the bar I initially met him at, he no longer works there. But it’s not like he hasn’t got enough to keep him busy. There’s the constant media attention around the world, including a recent interview for Arabian TV, the scientific interest for which he has been to the Edinburgh Sleep Clinic on more than several occasions, not to mention potential buyers and his continued support for Missing People. Hadwin is not someone that is going to disappear from causing a stir in both the art world and public interest for some time.
Lee Hadwin will be displaying, selling, and signing prints this weekend (28-31 October 2011) outside the Trocadero Piccadilly, London, between 7pm-11pm on Friday 28 and Monday 31, and 12pm – 11pm Saturday 29 and Sunday 30. To find out more about his works, visit Lee Hadwin’s website. To find out more about the Missing People charity, visit www.missingpeople.org.uk.