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Artist Lester Magoogan Hastings

The ever-growing world of Lester Magoogan

Artist Lester Magoogan’s fame has long since spread beyond his native Hastings to other parts of the UK, but now the ‘Lester effect’ is making itself felt abroad.

Lester’s work – monster-like figures drawn in black on a white background, often but not always humorous – will be familiar to many in Hastings thanks to his regular shows in local cafes and bars. It all started at Pissarro’s pub in 1999 and has led on to such high temples of art as Tate Modern and the Strand Gallery in London and The Lowry in Manchester.

Next stop the world, and Lester’s invasion has already begun. In more recent times his art has been shown in Hong Kong, Turkey, New York, Finland and Siberia. TV has picked him up – an Irish channel made a programme about him a couple of years ago, and more recently so has BBC Southeast Today.

Lester Magoogan drawing

Photo: Brian Rybolt 2011

So what makes 29-year-old Lester so special? Born with Down’s syndrome, he has become a leading light for all those with this condition. As his father Wesley explains, in the eyes of the Down’s Syndrome Association (DSA) he shows a unique degree of creativity. “Many people with Down’s syndrome are skilled and talented artists, but Lester’s skill in creating images in relation to abstract thought put him in another league,” he says.

“We’re collaborating with the DSA so we can get Lester’s art to a wider audience. We did a show a while back in the Strand Gallery in London, it was a Down’s syndrome event in which Lester was one of the star artists – in fact he was the only drawing artist.”

Lester’s special talent is important for the DSA, which actively promotes his art, not only as an example to encourage others with Down’s to cultivate their own creativity, but to show the rest of society what Down’s people are capable of. His work is included in this year’s Shifting Perspectives travelling exhibition.

“The DSA is delighted to have the outstanding artistic talent of Lester as part of our Shifting Perspectives exhibition,” a spokeswoman said. “Lester’s talent is so great that we have created a selection of his images on gift cards.”

Gus Garside, Mencap’s national arts development manager, has his own take on Lester’s ability. “What I feel about Lester is that he’s a really interesting artist anyway, regardless of his learning disability,” he says. “But his perception of the world is informed by his learning disability – the way he experiences the world will be different from the way non disabled people do, so his art enables other people to experience things differently.

“He stands out especially among artists with a learning disability because many of them are encouraged to emulate others while Lester is not, he has a completely unique approach to creating his cartoon characters.

“Lester’s got a lovely surreal approach to what he does. It’s really gritty, it’s not nice. He’s not totally unique, in that there are some very skilled artists with learning disabilities. But he’s unique in that his work is instantly recognisable,” says Gus.

Lester draws with a Japanese brush pen, black ink on white paper. “This is black and white art,” he says. “I don’t like colours. Some person saying, Lester, do colour. No! This is not a way of draw colour, this art is black and white, as I’m doing. Go away, leave me alone, I’ll draw my life.”

His creative flow appears irrepressible. “When I’m watching snooker, or listening to music, or Oprah, then comes an idea, and I draw,” he says.

In fact every afternoon he sits down and draws for a couple of hours. In the course of a week he can produce up to 200 drawings. Wesley and his mother Marion help him select the best ones to exhibit. The others are stored at home, but recently the stock has become so large that they have had to start getting rid of some.

“Even though his drawings are quite different, there is a likeness that runs through them,” Marion says. “So we have to be quite ruthless, we’ve got so many boxes that we can’t keep everything. At first Lester found that extremely difficult, but now he’s learnt that we can’t keep everything.”

So where does Lester draw his inspiration from? He is an acute observer of the world around him, whether he is out in town or at home watching television. Some of his drawings are self-explanatory, like Spiky Spike, which is based on a doorman he knew with spiky hair.

Events on the TV news may also get the Lester treatment. Terrorist was prompted by television images. Tears depicted the rubble of the Twin Towers after 9/11. Two-Face shows two sides of the same face, one smiling, one growling – it was Lester’s take on Gordon Brown’s gaffe during last year’s election campaign when he was caught on microphone making uncomplimentary comments about a Labour voter he’d been chatting up.

“It’s my hobby, I draw, and my life as well,” Lester says. “I’m drawing about me and my life. The whole country hits at me, that’s what I want to give, open me, a package from me.”

When his parents explained to him that Down’s syndrome results from a chromosomal disorder, Lester pronounced himself Chromosome Man.

Getting animated

From static drawings Lester and Wesley have moved into animations. Instead of a character frozen on the page a story emerges, complete with script. Lester does a lot of the voices himself, with family and friends joining in as required.

Lester + Wesley Magoogan work on an animation

Photo: Brian Rybolt 2011

It was Lester who set the ball rolling by asking if his drawings could be made to move. Wesley entered the brave new world of animation, starting from square one. The first production, The Office That Overslept, took a year to put together.

It may have been time-consuming, but The Office marked a new stage in the development of Lester’s surrealist world. “The idea was, people can oversleep, so why can’t a whole office oversleep?” Marion explains. When work is over for the day, the office building gets up and walks home. But when the workers arrive the next morning, there’s no sign of the office – it’s still snoring in bed.

“I don’t think we would have come up with anything like that!” says Marion. “It’s come out of real life!” says Lester.

For Mencap’s Gus Garside the animations bring a new dimension to Lester’s art. “Because he creates so much work, he generates particular characters which are developed further in the animations. You don’t get the same surreal quality in the single drawings.”

The Office That Overslept by Lester Magoogan

The Office That Overslept – the first animation of Lester’s drawings. Photo: Brian Rybolt 2011

Like his drawings Lester’s animations have found their way abroad. With his parents he has several times attended the annual Normal Festival in Prague in the Czech Republic, an artfest for creatives with a learning disability. On the last occasion, in 2009, one of his animations formed the basis for a workshop, providing the inspiration for students with learning disabilities to produce their own dramatic ideas and characters.

Plans to attend last year were wrecked when Wesley injured his knees, but with the aid of a new high-end animation programme, he and Lester are working on a new set of 10-second animations for the festival.

After leaving school at 19, Lester studied at Hastings College until he was 23. Nowadays he attends the Parchment Trust’s Friary Gardens horticultural centre for adults with learning disabilities. Here he has expanded his range of skills with, for example, pottery and wood carving. His creations in clay include a lion and a recognisable figure of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Among his wood carvings is a head named Dum-Dum, which was inspired by the film A Night at The Museum in which a monumental stone head from Easter Island comes to life, repeating the phrase, “Dum-dum.”

Lester is not standing still. In April a series of his drawings, blown up to a metre square, were posted around the main square in Helsinki, Finland. At the time the DSA’s Shifting Perspectives exhibition had just opened at The Reading Room in Frith Street, Soho, while an invitation, since accepted, had been received to participate in a festival for injured servicemen and partially sighted people at Hurstpierpoint in Sussex in September. An exhibition is scheduled for the Dragon Bar in Hastings Old Town, which regularly shows Lester’s work, in November.

Given Lester’s irrepressible exuberance and desire to share what he does with the rest of the world, he looks set to continue on his creative journey for a long time yet.

Everyone is invited. In the words of the man himself, “Come to Lester’s world!”

Posted 13:57 Wednesday, Jul 20, 2011 In: Visual Arts

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