It’s hard to imagine Graham Fink, one of the U.K.’s most acclaimed creative directors, suffering from nerves. Throughout his career he’s sought to cultivate the image of insouciant rebel—not an easy one to pull off when you have a well-paid job in advertising.
In his heyday, he stood on a window ledge at Saatchi & Saatchi threatening to jump, opted to wear a fur coat in the summer, and attended the opera in full period costume as Mozart to get attention. He got his first job in advertising by dressing up as an old man (the ad agency Collet Dickenson Pearce had turned him down saying they wanted senior staff rather than juniors, so he showed up the next day with dyed grey hair, wrinkles and a walking stick, and was hired). Thirty years on, the well-coiffed creative would still need a few props to show any obvious signs of aging.
Fink moved from London to Shanghai three years ago to be the chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather, China. Since taking the role, he’s led Ogilvy’s multi-award-winning Coke "Hands" campaign.
But uprooting to China to oversee 20 offices in the region may not have been half as daunting for him as his latest project—his first solo art exhibition. The exhibition, "Nomads," opened this month at the Riflemaker Gallery in London. Fink admits to having found his debut as an artist a scary experience.
"When the doors of the gallery opened on the first night, I thought, this is it. This is me. I don't have any excuses. I can't blame research, or the brief, or the fact the client wanted to make a lot of last-minute changes," he says.
The work is a collection of his photos printed on marble. The photos are of everyday objects in which he has managed to decipher forms and, predominantly, faces. The human face is clearly a subject of fascination for Fink, who was behind the famous British Airways "Face" commercial in 1989.
"I have always been photographing things I find in the street and eventually I discovered a new language there. I started to see faces appearing everywhere, in flaking paint, cracks in walls, discarded pieces of rubbish," he says.
Having to combine preparing for the exhibition with a full-time role at Ogilvy meant the show took a number of years to put together, with Fink devoting the early hours of the mornings and weekends to his art. But it was no sacrifice. Art provides him with "amazing energy and ideas," he says. It’s also a way to escape his "routine thoughts." "I read somewhere that we have 60,000 thoughts a day, yet 80% of those are the same ones we had yesterday."
Getting a reaction is another source of pleasure. Several people have told him they started to see faces in objects in the street after viewing his show. "Surely this is what art is all about? Waking up people’s eyes," he says.
Fink, who studied at art school and cites Bridget Riley and the Canadian animator Norman McLaren as influences, doesn’t see much of a delineation between his role as a creative and being an artist, or between art and advertising. "I have always had ideas and tried to make them real in some form, whether that work is shown in a magazine, on a TV, or in a gallery."
"When I was at art school I couldn't decide which area to specialize in. I loved photography, fine art, sculpture, pottery, filmmaking, typography, and design. I also had an eye on the fashion department too, as I fancied a couple of girls in there. When I left, I got into advertising—it seemed to me a place I could play in all those creative areas," he says, adding: "At its very best, advertising is a form of art."
Nomads runs at The Riflemaker Gallery, London until Monday, January 27th.