Profile on the artist John Jennings

Here, Outside In Volunteer Linda Davies interviews artist John Jennings who has recently completed the Outside In: Step Up Workshop Leader Training and the Ambassador Training.

How did you find out about Outside In?

That’s easy … through listening to a radio programme. It was Saturday Live on Radio 4 with Annie Morgan and I thought, that sounds interesting. I looked Outside In up and it took a month or two to get up the nerve to ask for information and another month or so to put anything on the website. I then sent off a load of work and looked at other people’s work as well. I thought ‘this is absolutely amazing’ and I started painting again.

So you hadn’t been painting for a while?

I just went dead about ten years ago and this re-awoke me. I had missed it in that time.

Have you always wanted to be an artist?

When I was 15 one of my sisters took me to an exhibition in Oxford at the Museum of Modern Art. I don’t know why I went. She said I’d be bored. I’d never been in an art gallery before. The stuff in there blew me away. I thought, Gosh I can understand this, I can do it and that started me off. However life imploded, as it does.

Did you then go on and do an art course?

Yes, but after a long time. I became quite ill. I had a great deal of trouble painting at the beginning and I think I destroyed all of my earlier work. I became more and more ill and eventually I ended up in hospital with bipolar. When I came out of hospital I could paint again … the anger had gone.

Did you do any painting in hospital?

No I didn’t; I wrote poetry. When I came out of hospital I started painting and then applied to a local college. They said, ‘come and do it.’ It was a sort of Foundation Course, but it concentrated on painting. I spent a year doing life drawing. I hate life drawing and I’ve never done it since. After that I went and did a Fine Art degree which completely destroyed me. I realise now I didn’t need to go to art school. It destroyed my confidence took my painting to pieces which crashed and I then ended up in hospital again. But, I managed to finish the degree. That was over 20 years ago. I’ve kept away from art schools since and stayed out of hospital. The last year has been marvellous.

Looking at your work on the web site your style changes from time to time.  For example in 2013 ‘Magic Mushroom’ (left) and others were abstract and geometric and some other work is figurative. What are the influences which lead to you changing your style?

It’s difficult to say.  It’s not so much changing my style, but strands go in and out of my work that are not necessarily mutually compatible. There’s the drawing strand and the colour strand which go hand in hand. There’s also my need to draw and paint boats from time to time. Although I really don’t know why, it’s always been there. Every now and then when I get stuck I go to look at boats and do some drawing. It’s a good way for me of letting intuition come back.  Colour is really the big one and has always been so. 

The colours in your work in recent times are particularly vibrant and the abstract designs in 2013 are very interesting and more geometric. Was there any particular reason for this?

I’d always painted from ‘things,’ sometimes still life and I thought of myself as more of a landscape painter. There’s a lot of landscape in my work. They’re not so much geometric. They have all these symbols in them. I don’t know what they mean. They just arrive. Lots of little arrows, big arrows, faded arrows, letters, other bits and pieces, leaves and flames … all kinds of things. But the colour is really what I’m about. Intense colour - well modulated intense colour. Not just horrible grinding screaming colours!

More recently, some of your work has become more representational. For example, ‘Look there’s America’ (left) and ‘Red Sea.’ Was this as a result of travelling or an interest in other countries?

It was again me trying to relax my psyche so that I could carry on with my colour painting. Those small paintings are really extensions of my drawings. I could sit and say, ‘let’s paint a brown square on the paper and see where it goes from there.’ It allows me to take it for a walk as old Mr Paul Klee used to say.  I really go for colour rather than design. The names come afterwards. I don’t want to disappoint anyone.  The name ‘Magic Mushroom’ just popped out. I change the names quite often. I named a few of them after ships and then I thought … how ridiculous. As long as the painting works I don’t care.

A number of your pieces from 2013 were black and white, e.g. ‘Bipolar with Flack’ (left) and ‘Taking Flack.’ What was the inspiration behind these pieces? 

The inspiration for them came from Julian Trevelyan. He developed a style quite young which was almost like the guy down in Cornwall who was painting boats – Alfred Wallis. I’ve actually drawn how I feel at times, completely locked up, pulling in opposite directions and that kind of thing.

You use gouache for much of your work. What quality does that paint have that attracts you?

It’s really rich and full of colour. It’s fabulous paint. Gouache is a paint I’ve used in the past and I love it. I tend to use acrylic now I’ve gone up in size, but I’ll try all kinds of things, including wax crayon. That’s after seeing Julian Trevelyan. Boats again you see.  I drew a cat on my first day with Step Up - I was inspired by Pat Douthwaite. I really love her work. 

Do you feel you have benefitted from being a part of Outside In? What have you gained from becoming an Ambassador?

Confidence! I was totally isolated before - completely isolated. When I found out about Outside In I was nervous – excited, but also nervous because I’d looked before about artists who were on the edge because of illness or acceptability and I couldn’t find anything. I’d given up, but after hearing about Outside In on the radio and joining the website, the work started again. I’d looked at the website and saw you were advertising something for Step Up and thought “shall I, shan’t I”?

Has Step Up added to your enjoyment?

Yes, I’m doing another community workshop – a collage workshop based around the Matisse exhibition currently on at the Tate and Pallants Ivon Hitchens collection. I’m looking forward to it. 

What are you working on at the moment? Tell me about a typical day?

I get up every morning and I want to paint.

I’m working with acrylics on canvas as well as gouaches and preparing for the community workshop. I’m seeing colour even more as a thing in itself. They’re (the paintings) moving on. Some of the shapes and forms are harking back to my teens –meccano and cars….New things are surfacing in my head every day – the flow is there. I always have to resolve a painting before moving on to the next.

It’s an enormous joy and privilege to lead a workshop. People produce the most amazing work and their creativity is infectious. I’m really intrigued about what’s going to happen during the workshop and I am completely taken aback by how much it inspires them and how quickly they settle in to it. 

Has art always been important to you?

Yes, not doing art is the negative side of doing it. I don’t have the conflicts with my work that I used to have. I used to have terrible debilitating doubts. Its hard work but I don’t feel at odds any more. It’s easy to talk about my paintings but I think it’s more important that people bring their own thoughts, feelings and ideas to them because then the paintings go on growing.

I don’t actually paint, my hands do the painting. They are the painters; they seem to know what to do. I don’t seem to think about it anymore and I just leave it to them. 

What of the future? Where would you like to see your art going?

I’d like people to see my work. I’ve only had one painting in a national exhibition and that was in 1983! I need to become more proactive. Last year I was too intimidated to go into the Cork Street galleries, but I can now go into galleries and talk about paintings. I think the Ambassadors course has helped a lot. People at Pallant House Gallery are very friendly.

To see more of John's work, visit his Outside In Gallery: www.outsidein.org.uk/john-jennings