President Trump and the surreal world of Michael Forbes

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland Highlands and Islands reporter

Image source, Michael Forbes
Image caption,
Michael Forbes' painting Not My President

In January, a painting showing Donald Trump and singer Madonna went viral. But who is artist Michael Forbes and why did he paint it?

The painting, called Not My President, was made in the days leading up to Mr Trump's inauguration as the 45th president of the USA.

It depicts the billionaire businessman as King Kong sitting on the head of Madonna. The superstar singer is portrayed as the Statue of Liberty, holding up a placard protesting against his election.

Madonna, a critic of Trump, posted an image of the painting to her Facebook and Instagram accounts. The posts soon gathered thousands of "likes".

The US singer is a fan of Forbes, who exhibits artwork at a gallery in Manhattan, New York City, and whose other celebrity supporters include Monty Python's Terry Gilliam and comedian Ricky Gervais.

Forbes describes himself as a Pop Surrealist.

His work has referenced women's rights campaigns, featured "mash ups" of glamorous Hollywood icons, also past US presidents such as Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln as well as bears wearing sunglasses.

But Forbes was born and brought up far from the glamour - and occasional controversy - of the subjects of his paintings.

Image source, Michael Forbes
Image caption,
Michael Forbes sits among some of his Pop Surrealist artwork

The son of a mechanic, Forbes was born in Dingwall in Easter Ross and he grew up in the area surrounded by peers who joined the Armed Forces after leaving school.

But he was drawn in a different direction.

"I grew up in a world without 'art'," says Forbes. "There were no trips to museums or art galleries. I didn't know any artists and I remember at 15 having not even taken art in secondary school."

Later he was given a harsh lesson that carving a successful career in the Arts would not be easy.

Forbes says: "I was once stopped by someone taking a survey on Inverness High Street. I agreed to take her survey as she said no-one had stopped.

"I had some time to kill before catching my train. Her first question was 'what is your occupation? I said 'artist'. She went through her whole list of occupations but couldn't find 'artist'.

'It's not there," she said. "Can I put you down as unemployed?'"

Image source, Michael Forbes
Image caption,
The Pop Surrealist turns out the occasional Highland cow painting, including The Coo's Lick

Forbes, who still lives in Easter Ross, says his love of drawing and for films were what led him to a career in art.

"I was passionate about fantasy films, my favourite being Jason and the Argonauts, which I saw at a young age," he says.

Forbes was captivated by visual effects artist Ray Harryhausen's stop-frame monsters in the movie from 1963, including its army of sinister skeletons that burst up from the ground armed with swords and shields.

'Ooh family'

Monty Python, as well as Python member and film-maker Terry Gilliam's 1985 surrealist nightmare, Brazil, have also been hugely influential.

"Perhaps I might have gone into film production if those options were open to me," says Forbes.

But his artistic style and the themes he was interested in proved to be a good fit for the genre of Pop Surrealism.

He says: "I discovered it while I was already making my art.

"A friend gave me a copy of Juxtapoz magazine and I was like 'wow there are like-minded people out there doing what I'm doing'.

"It was a real epiphany. It was exciting. "I was like 'Ooh family'."

Image source, Michael Forbes
Image caption,
The artists says his ideas come from 'sucking up pop culture'

Forbes adds: "Unfortunately these artists were mostly all based in America. But over the years I've reached out to a lot of them and what I love about the internet is it allows you to engage with people around the planet in a way never before possible.

"I've chatted with most of the big name pop surreal artists and exhibited with a lot of them in mixed shows in galleries around the world.

"The internet has allowed me to play a small role even if I'm tucked away in the Scottish Highlands."

'Very naughty boy'

Forbes' chosen genre has also allowed him to meet his idols, including Gilliam.

"Terry has been kind enough to buy a few paintings over the years and the Gilliam family has been very supportive of my work," says the artist.

"His daughter Holly and I have put on a couple of pop-up exhibitions, one of which was at the Ivy in London. Terry came along and a fellow Python collaborator Neil Innes was there and sang a song from The Holy Grail to me. I was in heaven.

"I tried to keep a lid on my fanboy geek, and the temptation to quote Python every two minutes was torture.

"I was on my best behaviour and tried not to be a 'very naughty boy'."

Image source, Michael Forbes
Image caption,
Animals, such as this bear with sunglasses in Hugs, often pop up in Forbes art

Early on in his career, Forbes was also an apprentice of the late Pop artist and acclaimed sculptor Gerald Laing, who was a close friend of artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein,

Newcastle-upon-Tyne-born Laing set up a family home in Kinkell Castle on the Black Isle, not far from where Forbes grew up.

Working with Laing, who died in 2011, left a lasting impression on Forbes.

JFK assassination

"Gerald used to say 'they will grow to love it'. He had made art throughout his life that at the time was either ignored or not thought well of," says Forbes.

"But years later he saw it was popular. He saw that time would be kind to what he was doing. Probably because he was running so far ahead of it."

Laing's artwork includes Lincoln Convertible, the only known contemporary painting of the assassination of John F Kennedy.

Forbes says: "Gerald painted the JFK assassination painting only months after it happened, a subject his peers dared not go near at the time.

"So he worked with a self belief in what he was doing was of value. If not appreciated now then he knew they would catch up.

"I try to do the same. I try not to be too concerned about the viewer looking over my shoulder when I'm working."

Image source, Michael Forbes
Image caption,
Freedom For All features past US presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln

Forbes describes himself as "Highland as a black-face sheep standing in the middle of a west coast single-track road".

But he says his art is not about Scotland - though he has turned out the odd painting or two of Highland cows.

Fans of the Belladrum Tartan Heart Music Festival will be familiar with its posters featuring Forbes' Heilan' coos flying through the air wearing psychedelic sunglasses.

"My work is pop surrealism which is populated by mainly urban living artists. I suck up pop culture. I drink it up through a TV tube. It's my interpretation regurgitated, mashed up and twisted into a version of reality." says Forbes.

'We're already millionaires'

His paintings have featured music artists David Bowie, Frank Zappa, John Lennon and Madonna, film stars Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, comic book superhero Superman and Adam West's 1960s portrayal of Batman.

However, he has found a recurring theme lately.

Forbes says: "I keep an ideas book and note down my thoughts as sketches for possible paintings. It's a flow of thought that has a recurring character lately - Trump.

"Now we are actually living in 'Trumpworld' it seems inevitable that themes appear that are connected to him, either directly or indirectly."

Forbes says artists can offer an alternative view to those of President Trump and his administration.

Image source, Michael Forbes
Image caption,
Huntress, another of Forbes Pop Surrealist creations

Before creating Not My President, Forbes was an opponent of the US billionaire businessman.

The artist protest against the building of Trump's golf resort at the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire. He painted a mural on a barn of a farmer, also called Michael Forbes, who refused to sell land to Trump for the golf course.

"I think artists can play a role in the health of society by making cathartic images that allow a release of frustration though imagery," says Forbes.

"The Madonna painting was just that for myself and, as it turned out, for Madonna, and the thousands of people who 'liked it'."

So Trump is likely to pop up in Forbes' other work over coming year when he will also be exhibiting work in Manhattan and at a gallery in Canterbury in England.

He says: "I struggle like all artists to make a living, it's a tough game, but its not about money.

"I remember sitting in Gerald's garden in the Highlands and he swept his arm across the landscape in front of us. He said: 'Look at this, we are all already millionaires."

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