Two-time Olympian Neil Eckersley Went From Judo Master to Artist
The bronze medalist in judo and member of the Art of the Olympians organization talks about how sports and art combine.
I’m in judo. I’ve been practising for over 40 years, and I’m still practising. Originally, judo was practised on a canvas mat. So now I’ve gone from one canvas to another.
I was an athlete, but I experienced a tragedy: My elder brother was murdered. I was going crazy with thoughts of revenge and anger. A friend of mine said I should do something [about it]—”Is there anything you can do? Anything apart from sports that you’re good at to get this energy and this craziness out?”
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I was always interested in art, and I was a good artist at school. So I started to use art [to vent the anger]. My first few paintings were very red and aggressive, but eventually it started to help with my therapy. To me, [art and sports] are similar, because they are both disciplines. I think most sportsmen need to be disciplined in their lives. I’ve replaced one discipline with another in a creative way.
I use digital, computerized art, which really fits in with my dyslexia. People with dyslexia are often really good at learning how new technologies work. My digital work is more about the energy of cities, while my acrylic work describes how things feel to me in a more abstract and contemporary way.
You know Marmite? You either love it or you hate it. That’s the same thing I want for my work. I want people to either love it or hate it, that’s fine by me. I don’t want them to say “it’s OK, it’s nice.” My work captures a moment or a feeling. If people love it, it generates a feeling, a passion and something they can’t describe.
The first time you sell your art is a really strange feeling. It’s like selling a part of yourself. Sometimes it’s very difficult to sell work because you’ve put so much into it. I’ve learned that as soon as you’ve signed a piece, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes an individual—it’s not yours anymore.
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When I sell my work, I always ask the buyer to take a picture of where they keep it: it’s just amazing. When people tell me what they see in my work, sometimes it’s something I haven’t seen—so that’s the Marmite thing again.
It’s my first time here in Hong Kong. I tried to compare it with New York, because I’ve spent time there, but I’ve got to say: New York is a city that doesn’t sleep, Hong Kong is a city that doesn’t want to sleep. It’s a totally different vibe. Everybody here lives a fast and crazy life, burning the candle at both ends. I’m going to paint something slightly different for Hong Kong. Some think it’s too claustrophobic to live like this, but to me it’s amazing and gives me energy.
One of the things about being an artist: You see the world slightly differently from everyone else. We have a different perspective, and it gives you the opportunity to get the best out of the environment you’re in. Personally, I only see the good things, things that people are not tuned in to.
I’m new to the Art of the Olympians, I only got involved last year. We go to schools for exhibitions and educational programs. Most people use sports as the medium [to promote Olympic values], but we use art as the medium and they have similar qualities.
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We’re teaching the same principles from the Olympics, but using art to explain them. It works with the kids and the young people. Within 10 minutes, they lose all their fear: they aren’t afraid of pain, they aren’t afraid of making mistakes or being laughed at. These are the same characteristics you need when you’re a sportsman.
When you put yourself in the ring or on the mat, it’s the same as being an artist, because our art is on display: for criticism and for people to look at. It takes courage to put it out in public.