Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Artist - writ large at Minigallery

John Morris
Interview with the artist

What is the first artwork you ever sold?

It was a life drawing. I was 17ish, and I had some life drawings in my portfolio from school. School? Yes, school. My school was of the "Rowing and Latin" variety, and I was part of a small, dedicated and well-resourced group doing art A-level. Our teacher (a fantastic character called Pete Dryland) was devoted to us and our progress, so he engaged a fellow teacher to pose in a skimpy bikini (I suppose I should mention that this teacher was a she) for the life drawing option of our mocks. I got some lovely pencil and charcoal drawings out of that week. (Incidentally, in order to keep 1st years out of the art room during these sessions, Pete locked the door. The headmaster couldn't get in either, of course, so out came the fags...)My parents split up and my dad bought his own house. His first "girlfriend" was a dreadful American woman who said the word "Art" in a way that made my teeth itch. She bought a bikini drawing to impress my dad. I got £20 which was less than I'd want now...

What is your favourite media and why?

My favourite medium(sic) is Doris Stokes... Seriously, though, it's the traditional stuff I was trained in: pencil, charcoal, watercolour and oil. Absolute favourite for finished work is oil, no question.I love it; the feel, the smell, the taste, the sheen, the smell, the feel, the stains on my jeans. I'm an old fogey. I don't mind that it takes ages to dry, or that it costs a fortune, or that it makes brush cleaning a nightmare.

Did a particular person or event spark your interest in art?

No, not that I can remember. I think I'm a classic case of "always done it" from aged 3 or something. I recall a horse's head, in biro, on a shiny piece of cardboard, that I did when I was 4 or 5. It must have looked like a horse's head, because my parents passed it round the suburban dinner-party circuit with some degree of pride. I don't suppose it impressed those whose tiny offspring were destined to be lawyers or dentists, but I remember I was chuffed, and I did acquire a sort of sense that this was the thing I was made for/good at/going to be etc.Later, of course, I can point to some remembered influences: my art teacher at primary school, Mrs Sparks, my art teacher at secondary school, Pete Dryland (thank you, Droopy), my college graphics tutor Tony Hemingsley (who told me at an important time, very politely, that I needed to get my s**t together), and many others, but these were signposts along a path I had been treading since I was tiny (see above).

How long does it usually take you to complete an artwork?

This is an odd question, because of course it varies. I'm usually quick, now that I'm not so intensely graphic in my style. Some things I do have to force myself to be patient with, but generally, and especially with big paintings, I love the energy that only comes from spontaneous working and the discipline that says "STOP FIDDLING !!" when the thing is finished. I've scrapped and over-painted a lot of work because I've made one brush-mark too many and ruined someting good.As I get older, maybe I'll get slower and more cautious. I don't know. Provided I'm happy with my progress I have no strong feelings about it, so my pace could easily change...

When and where did you first exhibit your work?

On the fridge at home, like everyone else...and on the covers of my exercise books at school, of course. My art teacher at school exhibited a screen print for me, in Richmond town hall, but that was for brownie-points, not money. I've sold some botanical Illustrations at country "fayres" and so forth, but best of all is a painting on the marina wall in Porto Santo (got an eye infection doing that one!).Seriously, I'm exhibiting this summer (2005) at The Art Garden in Plymouth, and on minigallery.

Do you have a favourite amongst your own artwork?

The work I'm working on now has to be favourite, I suppose, or it won't have the positive energy I want it to have. I like my fruit pastels, and I like anything I do with a woman's bottom in it (I'm good at bottoms). Apart from that, I like things in phases, going through peaks and troughs of affection and disdain for various of my own paintings. The one I can look at anytime and never feel negative about, though, is "Catch me if you can" (the giant mackerel). I've sold this, so I've only got photos and memories, but I still think it is a truly great painting. Have any of your artworks ended up in unusual or famous places?Not that I can remember, although my oil pastel drawing "Satsuma" sold this year to a lovely chap in Australia, which is a long way to send a drawing.

Who or what has been the most influential factor in your development?

Well, my mum and dad, wife, children and friends and so forth, obviously. I've had a lot of praise and support throughout my life for which I'm grateful. It's not cool to acknowledge the influence of a schoolteacher, but Peter Dryland was a fantastic bloke with a laid back, low-key attitude. He seemed to just sort of be there, while we learned by osmosis. Without him, etc. etc.More recently, I have obviously to thank my wife Fiona for her (usually) sanguine reaction to my giving up my job to do this full time. I owe her a life of some sort, I suppose.

Which famous subject would you like to use in your art?

Catherine Deneuve.

When did you first start?

I was very little. I've always known. I've run away from it and done other things, but I came back because, insofar as I believe in these things, I was born to do it.What media would you like to try out?I'm open to anything that will make the image work the way I want it to, but because I invisage things done in oil, I need to persevere with it. When I know everything about oil paint I'll move on. That'll be quite a while, of course...

Which is your favourite art gallery and why?

The ArtGarden Cafe on Plymouth's Barbican, because they are hanging my work. More generally though, the Tate in London. It's where I went when I skipped school.The real answer to this question is this: any gallery with art on the wall is always a joy to be in. I love looking at art. Anywhere.

Have you ever had an art-related disaster?

I'm having one now, but I don't want to talk about it.

Do you have a funny story related to your art?

Sorry, no. Should I have? I'm starting to feel inadequate now. Cheers.

What do you like best about being an artist?

Everything. Even not having any money, because that will change. I love it when someone asks me what I do and I tell them I'm an artist. I have the life they want.

What do you like least about being an artist?

The money thing, because it affects my family. Another thing: I really don't like sniffy galleries (you know who you are, with your sign saying "No Riff-Raff" on the door).

What is the most expensive art related purchase you have made?

My freedom, otherwise known as "giving up the day job". On a day to day basis, I struggle with the cost of paint and canvas, etc. If I framed my work then I suppose the cost of that would feature in my nightmares too.

Where do you work, do you have a studio?

I have what I call a studio. It's a converted dining room in my mother's house, but it works for me. I love to work at home (my easel in that case being a short walk from bed) but we have dogs, cats and a young'un, so it can be tricky. My studio is quiet, reasonably well lit and plenty big enough for the time being.

Have you ever inspired somebody to become an artist?

Yeah, me. Seriously, I don't know that I have ever inspired - or caused - someone to become an artist, but I like to think I am a help to my daughter, who at sixteen is off to art college and may well become a brilliant painter. (She may of course choose to be a sculptor, fashion designer or photographer instead, which would be okay. If she becomes a social worker or a traffic warden then I will wonder where I went wrong...)

Are there other artists in your family?

Not that I know of. My wife is a poet, which is an art. My daughter is a painter, but she may become something else in time. Eldest boy is a historian and other boy is two, so who knows? My dad could draw a bit, but he was a policeman mostly. My mum was a restaurateur and my brother is an HGV driver/karate instructor. So it's just me, folks. Sorry.

Describe your routine on a day when you are working on your art?

I'm starting to think this is all a bit nosey. Okay, er...get up, have coffee, get dressed (not necessarily in that order), go to work.Seriously though, I have children and dogs, so I don't get out to the studio as early as some. I don't mind that. I'm not one of nature's nine-to-fivers.At the studio I'll have more coffee and a bit of a think before putting any paint on my brush. As I've said earlier, I work quickly compared to many artists, but there's a lot of contemplation, planning and evaluation between bursts of activity. I stop work when my inner voice tells me to stop. Then I go home and spend the evening with my family. This is a "typical" day but nothing is carved in stone. Days may be similar, but no two are exactly the same.

If you could pick just three colours to work with what would they be?

Black, white and brown, I suppose, but that wouldn't have to be paint. I like Conte Crayon, pastel and charcoal for drawing, so three colours wouldn't feel too restricted. If I could only PAINT in three colours, I suppose I would choose the primaries and mix everything else I needed from those, with the white of the canvas being another colour. So there.

What is in your artistic toolbox?

Various kinds of paint, brushes, palette knives, drawing media, same as everybody else I suppose. I buy linseed oil, turpentine and brush cleaner from DIY shops rather than art shops because they're about a hundred times cheaper and just as good.There's nothing surprising here, because I'm a fairly traditional sort of painter. I'd like to be able to tell you I mix my own pigments or something interesting like that, but I don't.

What item could you not do without?

My talent. Heck, I don't know. If all I had was a pencil, then I'd just use a pencil, I suppose. There are lots of things I would miss if I didn't have them, or if they hadn't been invented: oil paint, canvas, an easel, red wine...

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