• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

Edinburgh’s Very Own Van Gogh

ByCalum Skuodas

Oct 16, 2023
Walter DeForest painting graffiti on a wall in Edinburgh. The artwork is a skull with many colours and abstract shapes surrounding it.

A flash of fluorescent green spray paint across the shutters of a nondescript shop is an unexpected advertisement for a man most associated with a legendary painter. This eye-catching promotion in the relentless flyering of a festival season is what led many to local artist and seasoned Fringe performer, Walter DeForest.  

In recent years he has become an underground Fringe favourite for his one-man shows portraying the life of the seminal Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh. Eerily, there is a startling visual likeness between artist and performer — It is no surprise that throughout the interview he readily responds to ‘Vincent’.  

Walter, or Vincent, has been performing Van Gogh Find Yourself at the Fringe since 2016. Formally trained at William Esper Studios in New York, his performance is vivid, and the show thoroughly researched. It acts as a welcome oasis of calm in the Fringe madness; art materials are provided on the door and audience members are invited to draw each other, or him, during the show. It has received positive reviews from those who attended. And when nobody came?

WD: That’s fine. I just thought ‘This isn’t going to break me after what I went through.’ 

Overcoming adversity is central to the new show DeForest brought to the Fringe this year, describing a turbulent twelve months of his life. The Best Worst Place You Can Be is a story about domestic abuse and homelessness on the streets of London. He speaks readily about past challenges and finding a new home further North. What does he think of Edinburgh?

WD: When I first got here, I just thought: ‘I belong here’. I love being surrounded by creatives and positivity. That’s what saved me when I was homeless – being surrounded by positivity. 

Since DeForest started performing shows about the life of Van Gogh he has been a prolific street artist.

WD: I started doing street art because I was f*cking homeless… I wasn’t doing any graffiti to begin; I was just hanging around. I didn’t have the mental or artistic strength to do anything but stand next to these people… all I could do was stand and watch. 

He talks lucidly with refreshing openness about past battles with mental health, especially his experience of anxiety.

WD: It was like this big blanket weighing me down. It traps you in bed, makes you not want to move, almost paralyses you. But as soon as I take my case and materials out on the street and start to paint, I feel much better.  

In fact, making art has proved vivifying — he describes how it kept him going through dark times.

WD: I didn’t know what it was when I started. For to me it was a personal reaction against lying in bed… am I going to kill myself or am I going to paint against a wall?

 DeForest has covered a lot of ground in his artistic journey and keeps creating to support the causes he is passionate about. In 2018, he worked with mental health charity Mind Scotland to break a world record for most portraits painted over 12 hours, capturing 166 festivalgoers. Unintimidated by past challenges, he is never afraid to make mistakes.

WD: I just try to be the best in whatever I’m doing. Not being afraid to go the wrong way and making that first little step is so important.

And then, paraphrasing Van Gogh’s own words from a letter to his brother Theo, ‘Painters are afraid of a blank canvas’. His own next steps are full of opportunity. Whilst literally making his mark on the city with cans of spray paint, DeForest continues to make an impressive impact on the artistic landscape of the festival. He plans to return next year with his Van Gogh show, promising as in previous years to stay true to his intimate spaces, inviting the audience to create with him and to keep making art.

As the interview draws to a close, DeForest is reflective on the impermanence of his art — ‘Graffiti is temporary, respect is forever.’ As he establishes himself as a festival regular it is respect, forged through his art and in connection with his audiences, that will far outlive scrawling on shop shutters.

Image provided to The Student by Walter DeForest