Going to art school with Damien Hirst rubbed off on Marcus Levine. Grant Woodward meets the man who can turn humble hardware into something special.
Marcus Levine has suffered for his art.
“How many times have I whacked my thumb with the hammer? Oooh, I’ve lost count. Put it this way – when I do hit it, it doesn’t hurt any more. That has to tell you something, doesn’t it?”
No, the 47-year-old isn’t the world’s most hapless DIYer. Instead he’s the trailblazer for a unique form of sculpture which sees him create stunning artwork using the same humble nail that man has been hammering into walls since time immemorial.
There were 52,000 of them in his biggest work, while his latest – Vermillion Rose – involved the use of over 3,000 tiny Swarowski crystals, with each having to be individually glued on to the head of a nail.
“Small ones can take three to four days but for the bigger ones you’re talking three to four weeks,” said Marcus, from Roundhay. “I recently did a sculpture of Hygeia, the Roman goddess of health and beauty, which was commissioned by a healthcare company in Skipton. It took me three months and 37,000 nails.”
Given that he went to Jacob Kramer Art College in Leeds with a certain Damien Hirst, it’s perhaps no surprise that Marcus has his own quirky approach to art.
Not that he thinks his unusual take on sculpture is as eccentric as some of his former classmate’s work, mind you.
“I remember being in a darkroom at college with Damien,” he recalled. “I noticed he was developing these pictures of dead bodies.
“I asked him where he got them from and he said, ‘At the morgue – I told them I was a medical student’. He was so obsessed with the macabre, and still is, that he didn’t see it as a problem.”
Marcus initially got his wife Krisztina to pose as his model for his early sculptures, but binned the first one because he didn’t think it was good enough.
His second attempt set the ball rolling and was snapped up by a collector in Beirut. Soon after that he had his first exhibition and decided to quit his job working for the family firm selling printers, devoting himself full-time to his nail art.
“I had a huge stroke of luck when I was featured in Hello magazine,” he said. “All I knew was that someone came to take pictures of me when I was exhibiting at a London show.
“I was at a party and someone told me I was in Hello. After that I had enquiries from America and all over the place. I sold a piece to a Greek shipping magnate – he withdrew the £3,500 for it from an ATM round the corner.
“When I started I bought all my nails from Screwfix. I suggested to them that we could perhaps do a deal and they could get some publicity out of me but they didn’t seem particularly interested. I said to them: ‘Well, I did buy 150,000 nails off you last year!’
“Now I get them from a company called Stone Fasteners who are the last remaining English manufacturer of nails. They made 400,000 of them for the restoration of the Cutty Sark. My minimum order is 35 kilos.”
Marcus hammers away at his creations in his workshop – a converted double garage in Bingley, where he now lives after moving from his native Leeds.
When he gets going he can work for up to 10 hours at a time: “I don’t wear a watch and it’s only when I feel my eyes closing that I realise how long I’ve been going.”
He admits that some people still have trouble understanding what he does when he explains it to them.
“Because there isn’t really anything to compare it to, it’s hard for them to envisage.
“A lot of my sculptures are classical nudes in the vein of Michaelangelo or Rodin. They’re in a historical style but with an industrial twist.
“What I like is the fact that when people see them they don’t immediately realise they’re made of nails.”
Right now he’s hoping to find an art lover willing to stump up the £4,000 asking price for his crystal-studded Vermillion Rose – he says there are a couple of expressions of interest.
“The other week I had a real wild hit with the hammer and managed to whack my third finger,” he said. “I was in agony for over an hour. But when you see the end result, all that pain is worth it.”
See more of Marcus’s work at: www.levineart.co.uk