Can you tell me who you are and what you do?
Pawel Wasek (PW): We are Polish artists who own The Montage, an Art Gallery and Coffee Shop in Forest Hill. Our passion is old houses, old items, old furniture and junk stuff.
How did The Montage come about and what was the inspiration behind it?
Gaba (G): Our aim was to have a vintage shop; we have loads and loads of vintage items, furniture, small bits and pieces. We wanted to display them nicely around the premises and hopefully to sell them as well. We discovered that there was enough space to put a small coffee shop in the space too…
PW: … and when we discovered that there is also the first floor space we had the idea to also have a gallery space…
G: …so it was the combination of all of those ideas. It gave us enough space basically to do everything in one. When we started we didn’t know exactly what it would turn into.
It must have been a lot of work to create this space. What was it like before?
PW: It was a barber’s shop downstairs. Imagine yellowish, old laminated floorboards and panelling etc. Upstairs again there was an old office, late 80s, old worktops, old kitchen cupboards. We took everything out and started from scratch.
And did you do a lot of the work yourselves?
PW: We did a lot of it but we had builders too. I love gardening so it was great to have an outside space that we can use and we could build this conservatory, to find space also for a playroom, a kid’s room and to put plants and to have a different kind of place outside.
G: We played with the space. This is what we like to do. It took about a year for people to understand the concept that the coffee shop is an additional thing to the shop. However, now I think it’s more a coffee shop than a shop.
PW: Some people come here only for coffee, some for the shop…
G: …or only for the playroom, the family room…
PW: We also have live music sometimes and we transform the place downstairs… It is different every day, which is nice.
What is The Montage Group?
PW: We’ve got lots of fantastic friends who are artists. The idea was to exhibit our friends in the gallery place.
G: Every year The Montage Group for the Dulwich Festival is a different group.
So you also create and curate the exhibitions for the gallery space. Where do find the artists?
G: Artists recommend other artists and artists themselves come here to ask if we would like to show them. So it’s different sources.
PW: We had a very good exhibition we made recently, very, very last minute. We invited 16 artists for ‘Love It!’ made for Valentine’s Day – an erotic subject and a group exhibition. It was made in a week, maybe 10 days. It was very good. I just made a few phone calls and that’s it! It’s about positive selection, not negative selection. Once artists are happy it works ok.
It can be very risky to put artists together. But once we feel something is really good, there is no option to say no. And it works. There is not a big risk because we have very talented friends.
Where do the ideas for the gallery space come from?
PW: Sometimes the best ideas come to us very last minute. We transform the gallery space every year around Christmas time. We turn the gallery space into a living space. We paint the walls dark and transform the rooms into a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen/diner. Everything is for sale. The perfect situation is once someone buys a big piece, we have to fill the gap and find something else to put there. Everything is moving. Again we are playing with the space.
G: Sociologically, it’s very good to do this. If the item is hidden somewhere and it could stay there for a long time, no one is actually interested in the item. When you show it in a different context or in a different place, people suddenly notice it.
PW: We also deliver big pieces around the area. It’s a nice process. We are in a closer contact with people. You see the chest of drawers that we used to have in our place, that we then moved to the shop, and now it’s in someone else’s home. It’s a really nice way of recycling the pieces.
You are also an artist yourself. Can you talk a little bit about the work you do?
PW: It is mostly painting, drawing and making objects. For the last three years I was making oil pastel on paper, quite large scale and rapidly done, abstract basically. I also make figurative work sometimes.
You do so many things. How do you fit everything in, managing the business and being an artist?
PW: It’s pretty difficult. We learn every day.
G: We have a family and we have another business as well… It’s good to be busy most of the time. It gives you challenges. But Pawel mainly works in the evenings as an artist. He doesn’t have a studio, so he works at home. There is never enough time!
I’m a sociologist and I trained as a curator but this is Pawel’s role. I support Pawel and run the business with him.
How long have you been living in London and what makes London a good place to be as an artist?
G: We have been in London for 14 years now. It gives you possibilities in many ways that we never had at home in Poland. Obviously you are a foreigner but it’s such a multi-cultural city that you can find yourself in it with no problems. This is my opinion.
PW: If you are brave enough to make some changes and you are prepared to work very hard… We appreciate everyone who comes to our place, this is important. This is the point too.
What artists will you be showing at this year’s Dulwich Arts Festival?
G: We have four or five at the moment. There will definitely be ceramics and also some small objects and some prints. Very good quality art.
PW: I will also be showing a few recent pieces.
How many times have you been involved in the Artists’ Open House at the Dulwich Arts Festival and what do you like about being involved in it?
PW: When we moved to Dulwich, we thought about taking part but we used to live in a small flat in an estate, an attic flat, which was difficult to find so we didn’t do it there.
G: Then we moved to Upper Sydenham and three years ago Pawel opened our place there, which was very successful.
PW: The first weekend it was quiet and we were disappointed. And then the second weekend was so busy and it was a really nice experience. We had lots of sales as well. It was really good. And then we started The Montage, and this will be the third time we have shown here. So in total this year will be the fourth time we have taken part.
Why do you like doing it?
G: It’s very popular. Loads and loads of people are coming here. It’s a different crowd. It’s good to know that so many people are interested in art as well. And even people from other parts of town are coming here.
PW: It’s done very well. The atmosphere between the team and the artists is very good.
What do you like about living and working in South London, in particular this part of South London, Forest Hill?
G: We have discovered so many musicians, so many artists and photographers. People are very active as artists here.
PW: Every day more and more artists are moving to the Forest Hill area and coming to our place. Some work here during the week, especially when it’s quiet. They come with their laptops. We have met some interesting people.
G: Loads of artists and musicians. One of our barmen is a musician. We also host a literature event every month. It gets bigger and bigger. We never knew it would be so popular.
What are your future plans for The Montage?
PW: This is a new business so we have to work hard to have some peace of mind for the future. We need to survive as a business. We really appreciate every customer who comes in.
G: We have so many ideas. We try not to push too much and just take small steps. We sell quite a lot from the shop, large furniture, old bits and pieces and we sell art as well. Some exhibitions are commercial. Or we sell the gallery space for other people to curate their own exhibitions.
PW: The Dulwich Festival is helpful with selling because people are coming to see and also to buy. In some exhibitions the pieces are difficult to sell but they are very interesting as art pieces. So they are also important to do.
Pawel Wasek & The Montage Group took part in Artists’ Open House 2015