The Early Years
Christopher Bibby grew up in the industrial town of Runcorn, England, 16 miles east of Liverpool on the wide Mersey River. He lived with his mother and two sisters, Emma, who is now an artist, and Jenny, a middle school teacher. Christopher doesn't remember himself as especially artistic as a kid, but he relished his geometric coloring books, always staying precisely within the lines. "I used to draw squares, shapes and patterns," he said. He was so intent and quiet while drawing that his mother wouldn't even realize he was in the house.
Unsure what to do with himself post-high school, Christopher attended the English equivalent of community college. He chose a foundation in art course, in which he got to try out sculpture, textiles, life drawing, painting, ceramics and photography. While he claims he was "really, really lazy in art college," he still managed to learn lifetime lessons. "It didn't necessarily teach me the technical skills," Christopher said. "They came later on. But it taught me how to think like an artist, to be able to look at something from all angles and turn it inside out and change the color and flip it around." He was accepted into university to study sculpture and crafts, but his father had other ideas.
The Artist as Used Car Salesman
Christopher's sister Emma studied textiles at university, followed by a long period of unemployment. This worried their father. "He needed his son to stop having crazy ideas about being an artist," Christopher said. "Where I came from, everyone was poor, and artists were the poorest of all." Christopher's father had a successful jewelry business by then, and wanted his son to join him. "I tried it," Christopher said. "But the world is too big and too wonderful to not go and explore it. I was desperate to see world."
Still, he had to do something to earn money. His father lined him up with a job selling used cars. Christopher describes his 18 year-old self as very shy and awkward. In six months, he sold only two cars. "My boss really liked me because I was the only person who would show up to work on time," he remembered. "He would sell cars, and credit me with the sales so I would get commissions. He saw me as his protégée. Everyone thought he was insane." But even with such an outrageously supportive boss, the artist couldn't stay a used car salesman.
The Glasgow Sign Biz
Christopher knocked around London for a few years, working at pot washing jobs and such. The turning point came when he joined his sister in Glasgow, Scotland. He got a job at a coffee shop in the chic west end. "I was still socially awkward, and I didn't have any friends," he said. "So on my breaks I'd just go out and draw." He discovered that he loved to draw Glasgow's architecture. The manager of a bar commissioned him to draw blackboards advertising the bar's specials. In a week of churning out blackboards, Christopher made $1500. He was astounded. "I thought, you can make good money doing this? People complimented me. It had never occurred to me that it was an attribute, a skill."
Christopher quit his job at the coffee shop and bought a piece of plywood and some paint. He painted an imaginary blackboard on the plywood, then adorned it over and over with different "specials," photographing each. After a week he had a portfolio. "It looked as though I'd been a sign writer for ten years," he said. If people asked the whereabouts of the bars in his portfolio, he said they were in England.
Business was booming, but within a year Christopher yearned for something more artistic than sign painting. He taught himself to paint with watercolors and started selling his Glasgow and Edinburgh scenes to tourists. This business also succeeded, and soon he was publishing prints of his work and supplying 50 stores from Edinburgh to Glasgow. He was only 25. "I was really successful, and earning loads of money," Christopher said. But in his personal life, he was still shy and found Glasgow very lonely. Then he met an American woman, and gave up his business to follow her.
Coming to the US
After traveling around Europe together, seeing America by Greyhound, and spending a few months on a sailboat in Florida, Christopher settled in his fiancée's hometown of Portland. A lot of the artwork he saw captured Portland in the pastel springtime. Christopher was drawn to the city's wintry side. "Half the year it's dark and wet," he said. "I saw a lot of beauty and atmosphere in that." He started painting and selling Portland skylines at Saturday Market. His dark, windy, high contrast Portland portraits were an instant success. He began showing at the Urban Art Network's Street Gallery in 2002, and has shown there off and on since.
New Work vs. Old Work
Success is never enough for Christopher; he demands growth. "The difference between an artist and an illustrator is an illustrator recreates a style they're known for and proficient at," he said. "An artist is more like scrambling around in the dark to invent new ways of expressing himself." After half a dozen years of Portland-centric painting, Christopher felt limited, like he was becoming an illustrator of his own work.
"I broke my work down to a very, very basic level," he said. "It's still architecture and shapes, but it's more about the painting than the place." He set aside his watercolors and developed a method of painting with oil and cold wax. Instead of using paintbrushes as a primary tool, he experimented with pallet knives and other mark-making devices. Now he slathers on his paint and wax mixture, then chips out details. One of his tools is a Sharpie with a nail taped to it. "The surface of the painting is to be treated with absolute disrespect," he said. "When you're searching for new ways to texturize, anything goes."
See Christopher's Work
Christopher's paintings have worked their way into many collections, including Ashford Pacific, Scottish Power and the personal collection of Ron Wyden. The Portland Art Museum Rental Sales Gallery handles his work, as does Dragonfire Gallery in Cannon Beach. But for an informal meeting with the artist, stop by the First Thursday Street Gallery or his studio gallery at 3557 SE Division. (Call 503-206-2438 for an appointment.) You can also see a sampling of his work on his website, www.iambibby.com. And you can still buy his more recognizable Portland work at the Saturday Market.
If you're an artist just starting out, and wondering how to become successful yourself, Christopher's advice is to never give up. As a believer in positive thinking and affirmations, he's offers readers one of his personal mantras: I can do it, I will do it.
—by Teresa Bergen
See more of Christopher’s work at www.iambibby.com/
Visit Christopher's Profile Page where you can read his Artist's Statement and more.