One afternoon exactly one year ago in London, I met a man who changed my life. He was on the Millennium Bridge clad in construction clothes tinkering at something on the floor. Like everyone else, I walked past without a second thought in a rush to visit the Tate Modern after a media briefing in the city several blocks away. I was on a mission to sit in awe with Rothko’s Seagram Murals hoping to feel their power and be moved by “pure emotion” like the documentaries proclaim.
The Millennium Bridge is, without a doubt, my favorite spot in all of London. It connects the City to Southwark and Saint Paul’s Cathedral to the Tate Modern – a literal and proverbial bridge between old and new. Perched high above the river as if on wings, it’s one of the few places in the city where you can stand in stillness and feel the expanse of the sky and river around you.
Halfway across the bridge, I noticed a small boy taking a photograph of something on the floor. Curious, I took a closer look and chuckled with surprise. Tiny painted drawings littered the pathway barely noticeable to the hurried pedestrians just passing through. I made a beeline back to the construction worker to confirm my hunch that he’d had something to do with my glee.
His name is Ben Wilson, also known as The Chewing Gum Man. His was a face glowing with joy – the kind of joy I notice on people with strong faith, with inspired passion or on people having just returned from a marvelous holiday. The look of contentment and peace in his eyes shook me with envy and enamored me to his cause. I wanted to know everything about him.
We sat together awhile as I peppered him with questions. Ben creates chewing gum art and he’d been painting miniature scenes on the Millennium Bridge almost daily for the past five months. More specifically, he painted scenes based on passersby’s stories of love, reunion, family and friendship. Art, he said, is the great connector. It enables us to feel connected to something other than ourselves and instantly destroys barriers. And with chewing gum as a canvas, he feels his art is accessible to everyone.
He said that when people feel disconnected with the world, they hurt others. They don’t realize that they’re hurting people. When you’re truly connected to something, you love it. You love it for all its imperfections and faults. He talked about his studio, his humble home, and how he split his time between his art and family. A man of little means, he seemed completely content with the process of making art just for art’s sake. His passion, zest for life and openness to connect with me, a complete stranger, for what felt like the whole afternoon planted a seed inside me that has never gone away.
I’ve been thinking about Ben a lot lately. Our encounter forced me to think hard about purpose, connectedness and the impact we can make on each other and our world. Anything done with love, authenticity and empathy has the power to break barriers and change lives. I’m being very purposeful about what I spend my time on these days and how I do it. Intention and the desire to touch others has been a driving force in my motivations as of late. It’s the kind of clarity and motivation that makes me hopeful about the year ahead.
Happy new year! May 2015 be filled with love, art and bolts of wisdom like Ben Wilson and the Millennium Bridge.