The Sidewalks and the Streets: A studio visit with Jim Edwards
Interview by Damian Huntley, for Newcastle Artists Society
To see the full interview with accompanying photos by Ryen Huntley, follow this link:
Friday June 5th 2009 Ryen and I were relaxed, taking in the preview of "Sustainable Environments" at The Mushroom Works, sipping the complementary wine and feeling less and less apprehensive about interviewing Jim Edwards. He appeared to be running a little late but when he arrived I felt at ease as I watched him walk around the show with one of his children on his shoulders. Here was a man enjoying the pleasures of married life and plainly at ease with the fact that we were there to interview him. Not so, Jim had forgotten completely that he was meeting us to chat about his work, so embroiled was he in preparing for the show. It's nice to catch someone on their back foot, especially a consummate professional like Jim.
Jim is well known in the North East for his cityscapes and landscapes and he is also someone I enjoyed chatting with on a frequent basis in the period during which I occupied a studio downstairs from him at The Mushroom Works. This turned out to be as comfortable and accommodating chat as I'd ever shared with Jim
Jim Edwards: I would like to be more pro-active. I spend too much time just painting rather than actually spotting galleries and stuff.
Damian Huntley: This is part of what I talked with Eva (Bauer) about.
JE: Artists are crap, they just want to paint all the time. They just want to spend all their time painting rather than doing the kind of nitty gritty of approaching galleries and saying "Please take me on" and I've been meaning for the past couple of years to just go "Right come on, you have to at least approach a gallery," but what holds me back is thinking. Right I've got to really get tuned in to being a lot more professional and computerised so that I can approach galleries with a nice kind of portfolio online. That's been slowing me down. I have started making my website; I'm in the middle of doing it now. Pretty much all I want the website for is having images on there and people being able to contact me.
Let me interject here by saying Jim has had a website, in fact a couple of different incarnations of websites for some time now... Jim here is talking about his new site: http://www.jimedwardspaintings.com
DH: Do you see your current work as an ongoing concern/ do you feel that you have a lot of un-exhausted mileage in what you are currently doing?
JE: My time is divided between my cityscape painting and my more abstract work. They both work together, and I suppose help each other to evolve. The cityscapes have become more abstract, and the abstract paintings are greatly influenced by urban structures and forms. Fortunately, I still have plenty of ideas, tonnes of sketchbooks with endless amounts of thumbnail sketches, that I keep meaning to get back to. I think the important thing is to keep the ideas fresh and interesting. As soon as I get bored of painting cityscapes or run out of any interesting ideas, I will have to paint something else. I keep meaning to get back to those ideas/thumbnail sketches that have been put on hold whilst I try and play catch up or where I haven't yet figured out how to translate the biro marks into paint. Occasionally I will come across an old thumbnail sketch I've forgotten about, and it perfectly fits what I want to work on. Other times it's more immediate and I will want to make something I was thinking of the night before.
Ryen is walking around the studio, photographing the various ephemera and detritus as well as the paintings, she's laughing at a sculpture in concrete which has a couple of toy cars embedded in it.
JE: This started off as a kind of joke thing when I was about four, maybe younger, three or four, I used to destroy all of my brother's toys but never my own, I always used to keep my own in perfect condition but destroy my brothers toys. Although I thought I was doing him a favour, I thought I was being nice to him, he always used to collect matchbox cars and once I gathered all his cars and painted them with gloss paint all different nice colours, thinking he would love it, I thought he would go "Ah thanks Jim, that's a wonderful present," but he went ape shit. For his last birthday I decided to do something similar to those, I painted a car on a board doing a skid and I put it in a frame for him and I sent it to him as a present and he said "That's the best present, that's the best thing you've ever done!" I was like; "Bastard, I put more work into my other stuff, that was just a piss take," but it was from that that I did the concrete stuff you know. I would like to give more time to sculpting. There's something quite addictive and wonderfully playful about working with concrete. I could keep making piece after piece, but I would eventually run out of studio space. I would also love to explore printmaking, if only I had the time. I had the opportunity at art school, but laziness got in the way of learning the different processes.
DH: What age were you when you really started paying attention to art?
JE: As far back as I can remember there's always been an interest in art. There was always competitive rivalry between me and my eldest brothers, who were also artistic. When I was seven, my handwriting was so neat I didn't need to do writing practice, so whilst all the other school children were repetitively writing out letters, I got to sit at the back of the class and draw in my sketchbook.
DH: Do you think in the long run, in the course of your life, familial competition is as important if not more significant in some respects than professional competitiveness?
JE: I think it's a start, you know I think you learn it young. I'm quite competitive but having two older brothers I think that set in stone you know? "I've got to do better than them. They're already ahead of me because they're four years ahead of me so you know they're already more advanced than me." When I was growing up I was always playing catch up going; "I can do better than they did when they were my age, or even now." So there is a bit of this, "well I'm still doing art and you're not." They probably think they're not competing anymore because they're not in the same field.
Everyone present, each one of us younger siblings laughed a lot at this take on rivalry.
JE: but competitiveness is good because it kind of fires you on, it's good to have a bit of fire in your belly just too, even if it's not on a competitive edge, it's just nice to have that fire in your belly to give you passion about something and a will to do something.
DH: Leonardo, Michelangelo people like that took on people in their tutelage, they mentored people. Would you take someone under your wing in that way?
JE: It's weird because the idea of teaching is always kind of "oooh, not my cup of tea. I would make a lousy teacher.
DH: Why do you think?
JE: It's to do with, I'm not good at the whole public speaking thing; I'm fine with two, three or four people but when it gets to 20 people......... anxiety, "Oh no I don't want to do this," builds and I wouldn't be able to speak in front of those people, particularly if they're being cocky and taking the piss as children would be. I would hate to be a teacher. Hate it with a passion and occasionally friends who are teachers sometimes say, "Oh why don't you come in and talk about your work?" no... Nah, it's not going to happen. Do you know, back to your question I would contemplate, if I had the space, there's probably not the space here but I would take on someone if they were interested in my practice and stuff. I think the funny thing is, the weird thing is, art's a strange thing. I don't think you can necessarily be taught. I learned a lot on my foundation course, I think I learned more on my foundation course than I did on my degree but..... at the same time, a lot of the teaching on the foundation course was telling us that 'we have no techniques to teach you' which means you've got to learn it for yourself and I think that's important because you can't go about just going, "How do you paint that?" Because then you learn someone else's, you've got to find your own path in a way. The idea of it is strange because I'd find it strange myself taking that process.
DH: Do you think this concept that one can't be taught art is something borne of the 20th century art scene? Prior to the renaissance for example, there's no concept of perspective; perspective is something you have to be taught whereas it's something we take for granted now. I mean you have an incredible warped and interesting understanding of perspective but you do have an inert understanding.... that is something that as an artist, I would come to you for even though I consider myself a fairly professional artist.
JE: But perspective is one of those things that you learn early on either at school, I mean I learned it at school and I probably spent a lot of time doing crap paintings based on perspective when I was at school but I think you need that kind of teaching just to work in it, to get to a point where it comes as second nature where you don't have to think too hard about, "Where's that line going?" because it comes to a point you know where perspective can be exaggerated and I don't have to worry about it, just angles kind of go where they're meant to or it looks like they make sense and I think that's the idea you know. If you didn't learn about perspective to start off with and you tried to attempt it I think it would come across.
DH: Do you think at school level that it was something you understood better than your contemporaries?
JE: I don't know, I think at the time it was just a case of following the lines to a certain vanishing point but now I think I'm fortunate, you know, I've used that teaching and I'm using it to the best of my abilities. Maybe people learned at the time and didn't really see the importance of it or didn't follow it up, I don't know. It's something that comes as second nature to me, it's key to my work, particularly as I do cityscapes, to know but then I suppose it's still key to your work, doing photo work, it's key to many things. It comes down to just knowing what's right by doing a line and doing another line and understanding that that's a surface. I think it's more than that, I think it's more than just learning about perspective. I think it's more about understanding space and space is the important thing, knowing, understanding what's in front and what's behind, particularly with figurative work you've got to understand the weight of the line and stuff and structure and what's in front of something else just by a mark. That's key, and that I learned all about on my foundation course. Before that I would do figurative work and just say, "look at that, that's amazing that's done." And my tutor would say "That's crap, tear it up and start again." It wasn't till the end of the course that I realised how important his teaching was and that I was missing the point, do you know? I was getting the outline which is fair enough but getting structure is a different matter altogether.
DH: I think something else you nail very well is the depth of field from colour and I have to be honest I think even more in your recent abstracts, the depth of the abstracts, there's something that's a little bit unreal about the depths in some of the cityscapes but in the abstracts it seems to me like you almost care more about the actual physical depth.
JE: I love the spatial awareness of playing with that and playing tricks in a way, I think that's a wonderful thing with painting, you know using a two dimensional space as a three dimensional space, making it come out and go in. I think the benefit of doing abstract work is, I don't have to stick to the laws of what people hold true to a cityscape; they want to recognise it, they want things to look relatively life like. With an abstract picture you don't have to compare it to anything that's real so all I've got to play with, I can just have fun with the colour and the contrast and try and work on the structures without worrying about "Oh what colour should I paint that sky to relate to the buildings?" It's a whole different ball game.
DH: There's a different joy in the abstracts.
JE: There's a more personal joy. It's hard because I make more money from the cityscapes at the minute and it's giving time to the abstract work which is tricky, you know I'd love to give more time to it but it's got to make money at the end of the day. They both work hand in hand and the abstracts in some way influence the cityscapes. The cityscapes have become a lot more abstracted over time and a lot bulkier and exaggerated, partly because of the abstract work.
DH: If money wasn't a concern to you as an artist, what would you take more pleasure in painting?
JE: I would probably be pushing the abstract work to be honest..... It's just the freedom of it, you know I'm restricted with Newcastle paintings or cityscape paintings because I'm thinking of the market and at the same time I'm limited by the market because the only people who want to buy paintings of Newcastle are either people who live in Newcastle or ex-pats, whereas with the abstract work, hopefully eventually it'll appeal to more of a universal market. I'm probably recognised more for my cityscape work, and that is definitely regional. Most of my cityscape paintings are based around Newcastle, and occasionally London and Edinburgh. But I find it easier painting what's directly around me. If I lived in the country or by the coast, I would be drawn to paint those scapes instead. I don't really want to get to a point where I'm painting the cities of the world, I don't think that would work for me, I would become some sort of 'tourist' painter. To truly understand and paint a city, you need to experience and live in it. I would like to think my abstract work may travel further. I'm attempting to create a language for the cityscape, through my abstract work, that's not based round literal and familiar landmarks, but more the essence of an urban environment. Eventually I would hope my work will have a national, and (if I'm lucky) an international appeal; further afield than 'here', but this is a starting point.
DH: Is there a market elsewhere in the world you would like to target, like the American market or elsewhere in Europe?
JE: I've had some interest from some collectors and galleries in Italy which I've been meaning to chase up. Other locations in Europe would be gratefully accepted. I would love to tap into the American market, but I think I need to travel there first, to try to understand how their galleries work and what they're after. My next step will be to get some good representation with some London galleries.
I think it's still early days for the art market in the North east. It still feels like we're several years behind galleries down south. I think art fairs (like the Newcastle Gateshead Art Fair) are good ways to possibly tap into the global market, and to have internationally recognised Galleries take notice of regional galleries and artists.
DH: I've always thought with your sketchbooks, they're like graphic novels with no characters and no text. Would you be interested in doing something like that collaboratively, something like a graphic novel.
JE: Yeah probably. You know it's strange all of my work used to be figurative stuff and even when I left college I was still doing little bits, just trying to keep simple form and figures because I didn't know what else to do. If I started doodling I'd want to draw a face, whereas now if I started doodling it'll be boxes or squares and stuff relating to my abstract work and it's strange you know I made the transition and occasionally I'll want to go back to figurative stuff but I suppose it's a case of building your confidence and also understanding the figure again. I've concentrated so long on cityscapes and when you put all of your energies in one thing it's hard to make a transition into something else. I've got to occasionally make that switch or I'll lose the ability to do something. I've almost lost I think in some ways the ability to do figurative work but if I can gain that back then yeah I'd love to.
DH: Even without figures I think there is something that is so graphic novel about your sketchbooks.
JE: Even the paintings...
DH: Yes even the paintings .
JE: Particularly the night cityscapes they are very graphic novel-y. The weird thing is both my brothers used to love comics, graphic novels and they used to read them religiously and I liked them but I never had the patience to sit down and read them. With comics I just used to look at the pictures and presume what the story was about. The images always seemed more important than the written word to me even when it comes to comics and graphic novels, even if it's just a little bit of text of what the character is saying I just think "Ah I love that picture there, that image ahhh." I can tell what's happening just by the image, I don't need the words. I don't know if it's laziness or whether I just interpret things in a different way.
DH: If you found the right plot that didn't have to have people in it, I'd still enjoy reading it because of the accompanying images because I love looking at your work in that context.... there's a story there even if there's no story there.
JE: Well it strips it back to just mark making which......... marks have more of an impact than colour a lot of the time. I think that's the glory of the sketchbooks that I enjoy, even just biro, you know I can just sit there and what might start off as just basic, suddenly I'll be sitting there going, "I need to get this darker in there and lift up the contrast" I can get so much just from a simple thumbnail sketch. Just to work on a painting, it gives so much information to me, I don't know if it's just because I understand my sketches more. To the point where my commission sketchbook is a little bit more detailed than my normal sketchbooks because I worry that people won't understand my hatched sketches......" That's the Tyne Bridge there" but I love just sitting doodling away or drawing. One benefit of having children is re-visiting children's stories and books and stuff. I can go to a bookshop and say "I'm buying that for the children."
DH: What's the background noise to your practice; music, radio, TV?
JE: Music is necessary when painting. The music tempo definitely affects the speed at which I paint. My paintings really come together when I'm completely absorbed in what I'm doing, and I get lost in my own creative world. Having music on in the background helps to get me there. At the minute I'm either playing albums on Spotify.com or listening to BBC6 or XFM. Having a film on in the background also works, especially a film I know well. I can listen to it; follow the story, whilst focusing on my painting. The film 'Basquiat' really inspires, when I'm unmotivated.
DH: Which three artists have most influenced your practice?
JE: I am inspired by so many artists, that don't directly influence my practice, as they are so different from my own. I'm in awe of the child like expressionist paintings of the contemporary painter Basquiat. The next artist on my list is the late Kyffin Williams, famous for painting the rugged landscape of North Wales His powerful, brooding and textured mountainscapes blew me away when I first saw them in a gallery. Never before have I been inspired to paint and give up for not being good enough, all at the same time! And finally, it's a toss up between photographers; the industrial buildings of Bernd and Hilla Becher, or the 'manufactured landscapes' of Edward Burtynsky. I like both equally, so I choose four.
DH: Do you enjoy working in studios around other artists? / What do you feel are the benefits of working in studios?
JE: It's nice having people around, to bounce ideas off, or just to have a distraction from your work when you need five minutes away. And it's a fantastic atmosphere when there are open studio events. It can be quite a lonely profession if you work alone; occasionally you need some company from others in a creative field. Fortunately, my partner Natalie is a painter/sculptor, which does the world of good getting a creative second opinion from. I've worked from home before, and that can be difficult, separating work hours from home time. But then sometimes it would be nice to have some space and quiet.
DH: Would you be interested at all in doing group critiques? It's something we want to introduce to the Artist's Society a continuing thing where artists go into other artist's space and talk critically, tear them apart if they're open to it in a totally university style. The other artists in the society I've spoken to have been open to it.
JE: I think the critique is very important because I think people get stuck in their ways and become very precious over what they do and I think it's important to not be so precious with your work and to re-evaluate stuff and I think a lot of artists anyway get stuck in a rut and are not sure what the problem is. Yeah, I'd be more than welcome to take part in that. Fortunately you have the same thing- I've got Natalie, it's so beneficial having a partner who you can bounce ideas off. Even then it's nice to maybe have someone that's not in the same house as you giving a critique because there are times where you think "Ahh, that's not what I wanted from you...... I trusted you and you betrayed me." (much laughter). So cruel. It's important, Natalie will ask me about her work and before I answer I'm thinking like a diplomat, what are the best words to use without upsetting her or so that she doesn't just shout at me.
DH: Whereas in a group critique, people are anything but diplomatic
JE: "That's a FAIL!"
www.newcastleartistssociety.com created by Damian and Ryen Huntley enquiries firstname.lastname@example.org