Andrew Burns Colwill is a man on a mission.
During his heroin-addicted 20s, the street artist from Bristol in southwest England churned out thousands of paintings to sell around the city’s pubs to fund his spiraling drug habit.
Now aged 60 and clean for almost three decades, Colwill’s work is taking on a decidedly more political, environmentally conscious and anti-fascist tone.
Newly energized following the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit vote to leave the European Union and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump later that year, Colwill said he’s determined to make up for the “lost time” he spent “off his face” and “prostituting my talents just for money.”
“It’s taken me a lifetime to see the world this way,” Colwill told HuffPost. “Being a selfish little bastard, as a junkie, the whole world revolved around me. Now it’s repentance time.”
“My work now is a complete reaction to when I was living in a different world, on a different planet,” he added. “I feel I have to do something now to make a difference.”
Raised in Bristol, Colwill said he always “felt a need” to express himself artistically, producing his first work at 5. He won a newspaper competition when he was around 7, and sold his first piece at 14.
But after experimenting with drugs and several brushes with the police for “doing stupid stuff that kids do,” he left school at 15 with “no qualifications whatsoever.”
Colwill spent the next decade and a half working various art jobs, from painting scenery for the BBC to interior and exterior walls for bars and businesses. On at least one occasion, fellow Bristolian Banksy (the elusive artist who Colwill said is around 10 years his junior) came to watch him paint.
But Colwill said he “lacked direction” and didn’t know what kind of art career to pursue. “I thought, ‘Should I make lots of money in advertising or stay true to myself?’”
At the same time, Colwill was developing a serious drug addiction. “I’d get up in the morning, do some crack, produce a painting of a beach scenery or a pretty sunset, sell it at lunchtime in a pub for 20 pounds (around $28), get my gear, go home and take it, pass out and then do it all over again the next day,” he said.
Those pieces were “pure prostitution,” he explained. “I was just going around in circles in a stew pot. I lost all perspective.”
Art galleries shunned Colwill. So, in 1987 — at age 30 — he hired the stately Ashton Court Mansion for a grand exhibition, which was attended by more than 1,000 people and covered by the local media.
But as Colwill himself admited, “I was off my head for most of it.”
By 1990, he realized his drug habit had escalated to “very dangerous” levels, so he traveled to Greece for what was initially supposed to be a two-week escape. He ended up staying for nearly 20 years. “I thought, ‘This is a new life, a second chance.’”
Colwill survived by selling paintings on the streets, and eventually progressed to painting wall murals for businesses. “Street after street in some villages were covered with my work,” he said.
There was a steep learning curve when it came to the locals’ religious sensibilities, as evidenced by the scolding he received from a police chief for a mural depicting needles sticking into the arms of Jesus Christ on the cross.
By the mid-noughties, Colwill had set up an art design company with his interior-designer girlfriend. But during a 2006 meeting where they hoped to secure a hotel design contract, his partner suffered a brain hemorrhage.
She required constant medical attention, which Colwill couldn’t afford in Greece on his artist’s income, so they returned the U.K. and made Bristol their permanent home in 2010.
Colwill described his homecoming as like “stripping the carcass clean.” It gave him a new perspective of messages his work should send, he said, acknowledging that he’d become “too comfortable” in Greece with producing apolitical pieces for the corporate world.
“All of my work has to talk now, otherwise I can’t produce it,” he said. He said he has a fierce need to demonstrate how the world is “at a fork in the road,” which could either end with “the survival of a smaller, wealthier population” or sharing of the planet’s wealth and resources.
And Trump has proved somewhat of an inspiration, from across the pond.
“Trump really opens my mind for me. When I hear somebody being as stupid and ignorant as that man is when it comes to the environment, he makes me want to work even more,” Colwill said. “I am the living reaction to what is happening at the moment with these ignorant, right-wing, fascist individuals.”
Shunning the stencils usually associated with street artists, including Banksy, Colwill instead opts for a more classical painting approach ― even though he’s never received formal training.
He sees his work as “a next step” in the evolution of the “powerful and poignant” street art movement, which he believes is reminiscent of the Impressionist era ― “when ordinary people could at last express themselves and art wasn’t solely for the landowners and the church.”
″Some people don’t like my work, but I don’t worry about causing offense,” he said. “I don’t want to be brash, ignorant or obtrusive towards people’s beliefs, but I have to say what I think. If we were all just a little more active and involved politically, we could change so many things.”
Catch Colwill painting live at the Upfest street art festival in Bristol from July 28 to July 30. He will also exhibit at Bristol’s Bocabar from July to September. Check out more of his work on his website or Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and below: