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Proverbs of Micah Purnell, poster painter

by
20 August 2021

The artist and designer Micah Purnell tells Jonathan Evens about words for public spaces

Adrian Lambert

You. Me. Everybody: an installation at Wembley Park

You. Me. Everybody: an installation at Wembley Park

MICAH PURNELL is an award-winning Manchester-based artist and designer, known for distinctive, humorous, and inspiring public messaging: one piece read “This sign is not in use”, referring to a motorway sign he once saw. His practice includes art direction, book design, situationist art, billboard curation, and the writing of maxims.

He runs Selling Virtues, a campaign for people-centred advertising, and curates a celebrated outdoor gallery of international artists and designers, Add Art, while his pocketbook of more than 80 maxims, These Thoughts of Ours (micahpurnell.com), plays with the order of words and the order of life.

Text-based work is what gets his creative juices flowing, and that has a somewhat surprising source, which pre-dates his training in graphic design, advertising, visual art, and culture. He says that it “probably comes from the Wisdom literature in the Bible that I was exposed to as a teen and enjoyed reading growing up”.

His work involves “playing with words and editing it down and trying to be as succinct as possible”. Looking at Proverbs, he was impressed by “how pithy and enlightening they are”.

“A lot of the phrases that I find in Proverbs talk about the power of the spoken word,” he says, “how you can build people up or bring them down, such as Proverbs 15.1, ‘A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare.’”

Al WallerI need (want): a public-art project on an advertising billboard

Most recently, he has teamed up with Wembley Park for a range of vibrant interventions, including an installation for the Spanish Steps, and text-based illuminating animations across the site. Eight messages have been created in response to the brief “Against the Odds”, including Strength in Numbers, Community Like Never Before, and You. Me. Everybody., all of which speak of unity, inclusivity, and togetherness, despite difficult times.

His creative journey to his current practice began 20 years ago, “when I met someone in the creative quarter of Manchester giving out poetry to people and sharing ideas. . . I was like, ‘Oh, cool, I think I’ll join in.’”

He made business-card-sized pieces using proverbs, and then shared them with friends and dropped them in record stores. The first was Proverbs 15.30: “A cheerful look brings joy to the heart, and good news health to the bones.”

Micah PurnellLet your yes be yes by Micah Purnell

Then, the church that he was part of allowed him to have exhibitions there. “I was able, once a month, to put up a bunch of work, of around 17 to 25 pieces, from small to large, and they didn’t really vet it.” Next, he “put some fly posters out and that attracted attention. I got offered funding, and met people that had space that allowed me to create a permanent spot.

“People suggested I curate spaces rather than just show my work, and we started to bring other people in. My work has grown, not through chasing success or happiness, but by being super-happy and -grateful, with tiny successes along the way, content to just be faithful to creative productivity and by attempting to maintain good relationships along the way.”

 

POSITIVE partnerships characterise his campaign Selling Virtues, which is “a way to use the talents and skills of people in the advertising industry. . . The advertising industry are usually using their skills to persuade people to buy things maybe they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like, as the saying goes. Selling Virtues will use those skills to sell virtues, to promote a way of living that might be helpful.

“Not all ads are bad, but advertisements are like friends with ulterior motives. When I look at advertising, I consider three things: saturation, methodology, and the product itself. Saturation — how much commercial messaging with underlying motives is healthy to see? How much is too much?

Micah PurnellA public well-being message created during the 2020 lockdown

“A lot of it is to do with status, which then comes to the methodology. They use status to try to tempt us into buying something, or [they do it] by using one-upmanship, greed, lust, envy. People have status anxiety. Are there ways that they can advertise without using that, almost like a wholesome method of advertising that simply does what it says on the tin?

“And then the product itself. Is the product useful, or is it good for the world, for people, the environment? This is some of what I look for when I look at advertising. So, with Selling Virtues, the idea is to use the skills of the advertising industry in responsible ways to promote positivity.”

The writings of Peter Block have been an influence, in particular the argument that certainty, privatisation, perfection, and scarcity are the four pillars of capitalism, whereas the Old Testament alternatives are: mystery, the commons, fallibility, abundance. “Without realising,” he says, “over the years, my work has tackled and continues to tackle all of these areas.”

Micah PurnellYou Are Enough by Micah Purnell, made from reclaimed solid oak from pews in West Didsbury, Manchester

That can be seen in his “drive to offer something without commercial interest in public places (though much of what we think of as public space is in fact private), the critique of the idea of perfection in advertising, the embrace of mystery, the acknowledgement of things unknown, the promotion of enough (you are enough), all without the incessant bombardment of messages telling you what, when and how you need.”

His text-based graphic interventions inject thought-provoking questions and witty statements, such as “I need (want)” and “What lie will I wear today?”, into the extensive framework of commercial publicity, instead of advertising products or services. These provocative interventions among the ubiquity of commercial messages seek to reclaim billboards for discussion of the ways in which value is created.

 

HE USES design thinking to create breathing spaces — “Ahh moments” — within the structures of public advertising. “What we need”, he says, “is a spacious place.” Unexpected twists in the tail are among the tools that he uses to create such places. He says: “I’m always looking for a moment of surprise or mystery revealed on the part of the spectator.”

These are the “Ahh” moments “that can surprise and delight you, taking you away from what you’re expecting”. One example is Andy Hunter’s book Presence, produced with the Bible Society. In it, the last chapter was about new life and the pages were intentionally designed to be stuck together with a perforation at the seam; “so, the only way to read the final chapter was to tear it open, either by hand, a pair of scissors or a knife. . .You could see into it and could have a nosy,” but “when you got to that page, you’re like, ‘What do I do?’”

He says: “New life often comes with a rupture. So, it has a metaphorical meaning as well as being a surprising thing for the person to grapple with.”

Some of his work has been about social critique, and has helped to highlight issues that people may not have noticed. This aspect of his work has “generally been me struggling with something, going, ‘Hey, look, we’re all struggling with our phones and don’t know how to cope with new technology.’

“Rather than coming from a preacher tone of, ‘You all need to do this,’ it’s always self-analytical, as I’m always including myself in in the struggle and talking to myself most of the time with all the work that I do.” One such statement that seemed to cut through particularly well, distributed through social media, read “Please like, share and tweet for my self esteem.”

Micah PurnellBless those who curse you by Micah Purnell

While critique has a place, with his most recent work he has wanted to “bring a little bit of lightness to it”, thinking “that the work might have some longevity if it had a brighter tone to it”.

For the past few years, he has been following a parenting technique that encourages you to praise the behaviour that you want to see — in yourself, in others, and in your children — rather than continually highlight the negative. “This way,” he says, “we feel good about ourselves and want to do more of that, rather than identifying with the negative which has been reflected to us.”

That approach made it on to billboards for Jack Arts’ initiative “Your Space Or Mine” during lockdown, using rainbow colours and phrases such as “Community Like Never Before” and “Kindness At Its Proper Level”. This was the start of a new style of work, with vibrant colours bouncing out of the black, which has now led to his current work at Wembley Park.

“It seems to me,”he says of this work, “the only way to rally against adversity is together, whether in sport, in health, or against injustice. It’s in the practice of togetherness that we have the greatest potential for victory, healing, and change. This is what the artwork is about — that, and some funky colourful vibes to brighten your day.”

He quotes Walter Brueggemann, who says that poetic imagination is the last way left to challenge the dominant culture: “The task is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a new consciousness.” That is because “it seems that the poetic imagination, or the creative industries or the creative people have a language that can’t always be contained, controlled, or kept down.”

Of his hopes for his own work, he says that it might have “a gentle way about it that is not oppressive or shouty” and “has the power to cut through to the heart, to important themes that hope to offer life and draw people towards heaven on earth, and away from hell on earth.”


Micah Purnell’s exhibition “Against the Odds” is at Wembley Park Art Trail until 1 September. wembleypark.com

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