The artist internationally known as My Dog Sighs throws open the front door. He’s in uniform and looks like the proverbial explosion in a paint factory.
‘It drives my wife crazy, but this is me. This is who I am,’ he laughs as he surveys his jeans and T-shirt smeared with a kaleidoscopic array of paints.
‘Where else can I wipe my hands and brushes when I’m working?’
Upstairs in his seemingly chaotic studio – a spare bedroom in his terraced Southsea house – the shelves are loaded with old cans, tins which once contained baked beans, golden syrup, chopped tomatoes or sardines.
All have been squashed beneath his paint-spattered shoe.
These simple, used, everyday items have become his trademark and have propelled him to a stellar career around the globe as one of the world’s leading street artists.
‘I stamp on them. Each one crushes differently so each one takes on a different persona.’
What My Dog does then is paint the base with a face, giving it a new life.
‘The vast majority of my faces and eyes are melancholic. That’s because, unless someone stumbles across them and rescues them, they’re heading for a landfill site or a recycling centre.’
Stumble across them?
About 11 years ago the then primary school teacher at Whiteley near Fareham with a penchant for street art, started leaving his little squashed cans on the streets of Portsmouth, mainly in the Albert Road area of Southsea. He wanted people to find them. He did this on a Friday and he dubbed the days Free Art Fridays.
‘Why do I largely paint eyes and faces that are sad? When I left a piece on the street it had to fend for itself until somebody came along and, hopefully, picked it up, took it home and gave it a new life.
‘I feel I’m bringing back to life something that is at the tail end of its existence. It’s served a purpose, fed a family and it’s just about to hit landfill.
‘The idea is that I can inject a bit of love into it and suddenly make it desirable again.’
Is there a deeper, subliminal philosophy behind it, perhaps?
‘Ah, yes, the mirror effect,’ he nods.
‘It’s a bit like when you’re walking down Albert Road and you see those homeless guys sleeping in doorways .
‘If you give a little bit of love and effort with them – not necessarily by giving them money – you might be able to get them to fit in with society again – make them desirable, someone people can love again.
‘What I do with the cans is give them a persona. I want that baked bean can to fend for itself again so it can look people in the eye and say ‘‘I’m lost. You can either walk past me or pick me up’’.
And over the years hundreds of people have done just that.
Those who have kept them are learning they’ve made an accidental but happy sound investment. Each can sells for hundreds of pounds.
My Dog (aka Paul Stone) recalls: ‘When I started I would post a picture of the can online and give clues about where I’d placed it.
‘Three weeks in a row I found that within two hours they had been found and sold on eBay for £400 or £500.
‘I was gutted because I’d turned Free Art Friday into Free Money Friday and I could have done that and made the money myself.’
My Dog, who hails from Exeter but has lived at Southsea for the past 15 years, is married, has two sons but no dog. However, there is a cat called Bob. In that sense he is conventional.
And as a street artist he is conventional in the sense that he does not go around daubing walls uninvited.
‘I was a dad. I was a teacher and a husband. I had a house and a mortgage and certainly didn’t want people coming to write on my walls.
‘It would have been hypocritical of me to have been running around Southsea, the place I love, writing on walls.’
The 41-year-old quit teaching two years ago to realise his dream of being a professional artist.
‘It springboarded when the BBC’s Culture Show presumably saw something about me online and got me up to London to do a piece on the South Bank – putting out cans, hiding and watching people’s reaction when they picked them up.
‘A London gallery, which I didn’t realise was quite so prestigious at the time, saw it and took some of my work. I haven’t looked back since.’
He now regularly meets people who picked up his early work from the streets. ‘They’re chuffed to bits. They tell me they kept it on their fridge at first, but now they’ve got it framed and it’s on their wall.’
He has just left Britain to work in Miami for a week and earlier this year he exhibited in Chicago, was invited to work on the streets of Philadelphia and also had an exhibition in London. His larger works now sell on the international market for thousands.
‘If it all goes wrong at least I can say that I achieved my dream of being a professional artist,’ he adds. ‘And I’ll go back to my early days... ‘
Self-deprecatingly he remembers one of those early days.
‘Before the baked bean cans I painted canvasses. I’d spent a week on a big piece, 2ft by 2ft. I popped out into Albert Road and left it, then sat in a cafe across the road to watch.
‘Nothing happened for 20 minutes, but then one of those guys with a yellow cart came along sweeping the gutters. He stopped, picked it up without a second glance, threw it in his cart and carried on.’
My Dog sighs. But can now afford to grin.
Earlier this month My Dog Sighs put on a collaborative exhibition with Portsmouth artist Midge at the Coastguard Studios in Clarendon Road, Southsea.
Four hundred people attended on the first night with queues snaking down the street.
‘When I came back from the States in the summer I realised it had been way too long since I last exhibited in my home town, let alone the UK,’ he says.
His distinctive faces and eyes were blended with characters created by Midge on locally-sourced antique sheet music.
‘It went better than we could ever have expected,’ he says. What pleased me more than anything was that 12 of the 15 pieces we sold stayed in Southsea.’
He adds: ‘So I’m fairly well-known on the international buying market, but Midge is an up-and-coming artist and we weren’t sure if the combination would work. It did. It really did.’
Of the three pieces which did not stay in Portsmouth one went to a London buyer, another to Switzerland and the third to Australia.
My Dog Sighs says: ‘I was super-pleased the majority went locally because we tried to keep the prices down.
‘Let’s face it, I’m not going to exhibit in Portsmouth and sell pieces for £10,000 or £20,000. That kind of money simply isn’t here.’
But what is here and what he is so enthusiastic about is the ‘burgeoning’ Portsmouth arts scene which has sprung up in the past decade.
‘That exhibition was properly Portsmouthcentric. I used printers in Portsmouth I’d never used before and I shan’t be going back to London for that because the quality was fantastic. And I’m now using Portsmouth framers too and a screen printer in the city.
‘On opening night Irving Brewery at Farlington provided us with a couple of hundred pints of beer. Victorious gave us the wine and we also had support from the Southsea Coffee Company and Tea Tray, both in Osborne Road.
‘We managed to put the entire show on without leaving Portsea Island. We’ve now got all these independent people, Strong Island is another example, producing quality, high-end stuff in the city which didn’t exist in this city 10 years ago.’