Meet the Maker

George Butler

Interview by Sophie Goodwin
Images from George Butler and Mauricio Gris
Image from oltrepò pavese

George Butler, photographed by Mauricio Gris

British artist and illustrator, George Butler, specialises in travel and current affairs reportage. Working in pen, ink and watercolor, he aims to give an alternative dimension to global news and conflict, while mobilising public opinion. His current exhibition The First Casualty, showing at London's Chris Beetles Gallery, features his most recent work, including drawings from the war in Ukraine. George created the Hands Up Foundation with three friends in 2014, funding health and education programmes in Syria and neighbouring countries. 
 
What led you to observational reportage drawing? 
In 2006, still at University, I went to Afghanistan and on to Helmand Province, where I sat in the British Army bases drawing the young men and women that were fighting ‘the war on terror’. It wasn’t the fighting I witnessed, being only an artist and still wet behind the ears, but I was conscious that even drawings of soldiers waiting to fight must be of some value alongside our relentless news cycle. Proving this value over the next 15 years led me to some unusual places with wonderful people. I went to oil fields in Azerbaijan, down gold mines in West Africa, drew in courts rooms in Germany, a caesarean in Afghanistan, leprosy patients in Nepal, Isis in Mosul, spent time with a militia in Yemen – the list goes on – occasionally these stories get picked up in newspapers and when they don’t it makes me even more determined to try again. 
 
Your work illustrates the ravages and entanglement of war, offset against the human spirit. How do you portray this balance? Do you ever struggle to find compassion amongst the atrocity? 
Many of these drawings are about the intimacy and vulnerability of life, despite the situations (good and bad) that we find and put ourselves in. I hope they are human and straightforward, unthreatening and available, that they do justice to the subjects but also connect the viewer to that person through a handmade line; an imagined connection that can relate one to another who would otherwise never cross paths. In some cases it's about making the shocking comprehensible or the abhorrent beautiful. And, as I often found in Ukraine, the story became more important than the drawing. For example: the case of Madame Olga, who at 99 lived on the top floor of her apartment block in Kyiv, too frail to move when the air raid sirens sounded; she told me her story of surviving the great famine, becoming a Nazi slave and walking back to Ukraine after Dresden had fallen to the Allies. Alongside her words my drawing became just a prompt.

 

 

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Image courtesy George Butler.

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Images courtesy George Butler.

Can you explain the motivation behind your current exhibition, ‘The First Casualty’. 
The exhibition includes my work from the war in Ukraine in early 2022. The subjects of these drawings are often the moments that get squeezed out of the relentless news cycle. These are stories from the margins, found through a deliberately slower reporting...The drawings are made from life, and with permission of those in front of me; [they] record moments in time without motive or agenda... [and] show others, individuals, society, nature and the environment, dignity and relationships. This exhibition offers a different truth to the ones we read online or see on our screens. I hope it is a more comprehendible one. 
 
How can a drawing reveal more than a photograph in your mind? 
We live in an increasingly interconnected world but run the risk of having a far shallower understanding of it. The First Casualty is a nod to the stories that we might have missed if we only read the headline. The drawings are deliberately slow - analog in a digital and fast-moving world. They allow space for the viewer, and time to comprehend where we have become immune to the shocking images. If you agree that the way in which we receive our news is now flawed, or ‘fake’, or that that truth is now influenced by too many vested interests - or that perhaps headlines are written for effect, perhaps paid content is disguised as news, or photographs manipulated or cropped, then it’s not a stretch to suggest that a drawing, done from life, on location with the permission of those in the image, can be an equally accurate description of that time and a place. It may be a different truth, but one of equal value.
 
Who or what inspires you? What drives you forward, and what holds you back? 
I’m inspired by the people I meet when I'm working, the ones that lean over my shoulder and share their stories. It’s the hope that I’ll find more people like them that is the driving force for going back. For some reason, it’s often easier to connect with someone half way round the world, in a different language, as a stranger than it is in a busy pub in London. I guess the fear and the inspiration run side by side, the fear of not making a good drawing versus the immediate feeling of knowing that what you are witnessing may never be seen again; trying to manage those emotions and force them onto a page. This happened at the mass graves at St. Andrew’s Church in Bucha, Kyiv. It was a scene I arrived at by accident, and one that will remain with me forever; [a scene] of bodies being removed from a swimming pool-sized hole by four Ukrainian men, using a door frame as a stretcher and laying them out on the grass in front of Bucha residents. It’s unimaginable and yet it was captured in the words, and photographs, and video of the entire world's press. On the one hand, it felt imperative to do justice to the stories of those war crimes investigations, and on the other the story is so large that whatever I create is insignificant.
 
How do you plan and execute your work?
I use pen, ink and watercolour. The drawing appears on the page quickly which is a useful tool when you don’t speak the language of the place you are in. The work is planned to be a slow alternative, I spent 3 days in the Metro in Kharkiv in March, mostly drawing peoples dogs – or playing eating borscht but the time was invaluable when trying to get under the skin of the 400 people who had rebuilt their lives, albeit temporarily, on mattresses on the platform.

 

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Image courtesy George Butler.

An experience that changed or dictated the course of your life?
All these interactions have the ability to alter the course of a life time, but ultimately the connection I had with people like Mama Nazak and Ahmed, who I first met in Syria, led to the strongest reaction, and that was starting Hands Up – something [we'd] never have done had we known the work load, or that we'd still be having to do it 10 years later. We often talk about the imbalance of wealth within society in the UK, and rightly so - but drawing opened my mind to the total and absolute inequality across borders. It's now impossible to ignore for me. 
 
What was your last expedition? And the one you remember the most?
My last trip was to Afghanistan in September with a charity called EMERGENCY; I drew in their A&E departments in Helmand, Kabul and Panjshir. At the moment I remember those characters the most – individuals that were caught up in the difficulties of life in that place. But two in particular bookended my trip. The first, a 25-year-old man, caught in the explosion at the Russian Embassy in September; he was dead on arrival at the hospital, wrapped from head to toe in bandages. I shall never forget the sadness on the face of the Kabuli Ambulance driver as he wheeled him in, and the normality with which the other Afghan staff approached this body. Two weeks later, I drew a 25-year-old woman called Lida, as she gave birth via C-Section to a little boy, delivered by two young Afghan women and a female Italian doctor. It was a moment of great hope and gentleness. But what will become of this little person, perhaps the eight billionth person born on this planet, with a life ahead of him in such uncertain and terrifying times.
 
Do you always seek out new territory, or is there somewhere to which you always return?
It's more about seeking out places that I think the news cycle may have overlooked, often and luckily that means returning to places more than once. Those relationships are always more fruitful and my role is to spend time, as much as possible, and be slow.

 

 

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Image courtesy George Butler.

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Images courtesy George Butler.

Where is home - or where do you feel the most at home? 
Coming home means a lot when you are away for the most of the year, it holds a place in your head that if you can just get to without anything going wrong you can put your bags down and relax. For me that’s in London at the moment.
 
When do you feel the most fulfilled?
Having talked only about the importance of drawing – ironically - the best reportage I have ever done have been when the testimony has been more powerful than the drawing. This happens about once a year.  This year three times, in Ukraine with Volodymyr, in Angola with a hunter skinning a blue dyker deer and in Afghanistan with Lida, who I mention earlier.
 
Your favorite work of art or artist?
There are many – anyone who can draw – Ben Shahn, Searle, Scarfe, Anthony Gross, Shiko Munakata and Feliks Topolski. 

 

Finally, can you describe the Hands Up Foundation, plus your aims and contribution?
We have raised £6.5million, only possible by people in the UK being bewilderingly generous with their time and money. However, sadly, the future for the next generation of Syrians is by all predictions pretty grim. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed and children under the age of 10 have only ever known war. We know that it doesn’t take much to get people back on their feet. Hands Up provides wages for doctors and teachers in the area, and we do that by raising funds through events in the UK. That’s the role we try and play at Hands Up - simple, unconditional, basic, unpitying support for ordinary people that need a helping hand.

 

 

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