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How Creators Create: A Q&A With Cornish Artist Jason Lilley

To talk with Jason Lilley about his art and passion for observing and recording the world around him is to understand that there is much more to painting than meets the eye. Beginning with his mother’s artistic ability and encouragement, Jason’s creative path, like his paintings, has been anything but linear or one-dimensional. His story is multilayered and his work steeped in symbols and narratives, personal and historical.

What follows is the inspiring and emotive conversation I had with Jason about his affinity for the ancient Cornish landscape, lifelong pursuit of learning and advice on being more creative. Join us and you’ll begin to see what the surface of anything – a painting, landscape or letter – can truly represent.

Celeste: Let’s start at the beginning of your creative journey. Can you remember the moment or time in your life when you decided that the path of being an artist was the path for you? Could you describe that feeling?

Jason: Yes, easily. It all stems from my mother, she’s a fantastic artist herself. She was taught at Corsham, and her tutors were artists like Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Bryan Wynter, William Scott – the list goes on and on. It was a phenomenal college at the time where these artists would come and visit. She had that British modernist 20th-century heritage there.

Mother and Child
Mother and Child, 2ft x 4ft

Every time I said to my mother, “I’m bored,” she’d shove a pencil in my hand and go, “Only boring people are bored – draw something.” And even though I didn’t want to draw, I drew. When you start drawing, time stands still. You carry on and you find out five hours have gone and you’ve drawn 15 dinosaurs and a bunch of soldiers. So all the way through growing up, from Primary School to O-Level, drawing was always the only interest in a subject I ever had, technical drawing as well.

Only boring people are bored – draw something.

A-level and O-Level were terrible because they blinkered and restricted you to do purely representation because it could only be either visually correct or incorrect so it was easy to mark. Whereas if you start going more into abstract, it becomes more subjective and therefore harder to mark. Luckily, I had very good art teachers. I met one of them a few years later and he said, “Lilley, all you need is a good kick in the ass”. He was absolutely right. He made me paint and sketch, and he took me away from pure representation to do work that was my own.

Then I went to Falmouth for foundation. It was only six months, yet it stayed with me forever. It was a magical period where everything I thought I knew was actually right. The blinkers were off, the tutor holds your hand, unlocks the door, pushes it open, runs with you, and then lets you go – you’re free and can do whatever you like. And whatever you do is right because it’s a journey. If you stop along the way to reassess, that’s fine, but don’t stop – keep going.

You don’t need a degree in art. If you want to paint – paint; if you want to draw – draw.

And then going up to Newcastle was a dream. During that time Margaret Thatcher was in power so art wasn’t regarded as a subject to make the tills run and the huge studio there, by the time I’d left, was literally reduced to a small table. But I used that time to learn from the technicians how to stretch a canvas, how to apply paint – these are the practical things that I had to learn or know to survive after college. Because you don’t need a degree in art. If you want to paint – paint; if you want to draw – draw. If it’s rubbish, it doesn’t matter. It’s what you bring to it, that’s what’s important.

I’m very lucky, and it is predominantly luck that I’ve just carried on with my life doing what I love, I am absolutely blessed and over the moon.

Celeste: So you were born in Cornwall, went up to Newcastle, and then made your way back here?

Jason: Yes. Newcastle is an absolutely amazing place, the only problem is that it has a grey climate. So my paintings got blacker and blacker, and I said to my future wife, “Come down to Cornwall and we’ll live in a cottage with roses around it.”

Celeste: Where the climate is better!

Jason: Yeah, exactly. So she slapped me and said, “Get real.” Then, six months later, we were living in a cottage with roses around it, and my paintings became whiter and whiter.

Celeste: Speaking of paths and these journeys, your paintings tend to include symbols and scenes from nature and the surrounding landscape. What is it about landscapes that you find so appealing?

Jason: Its history, its stories. In my imagination, there are mythical beasts in every stone and plant. You go to Carn Galva, you walk to the cliffs, and the first one looks like a dragon’s claw – you just imagine this huge dragon buried underneath this whole headland. It’s very Sven Berlin-esque, The Dark Monarch, and spirits.

The landscape is more than what you see. It’s what you feel and what you investigate.

When you’re from north Cornwall, there’d be witches and monsters there. It’s part of your psyche. When the sun goes down and you’re in the middle of the Penwith moors, you finish sketching, the cows aren’t interested in you anymore, you enter a different contemplative period. The bright sky is going, the sun is setting, and your spirit changes, your psyche changes, and you think of other things. And you try to incorporate all of that experience into a pictorial image of the landscape in all its beauty and fabulousness.

To include these stories is important because the landscape is more than what you see. It’s what you feel and what you investigate. I always research the geology, nature. Because I want to know why that plant grows where it is, I want to know why that stone circle is where it is, I want to know how successful that mine was and how many people died there, were there any disasters? All these things are puzzle parts of this landscape. You’re not doing the landscape any justice by doing a purely pictorial representation of it.

Road Spoor
Road Spoor, 4ft x 5ft

Because yes, it’s beautiful, but scratch the surface or look into the sky and there’s a buzzard flying around. You can’t put that buzzard 500 feet in the air in your painting because you need to frame it. But you’ve got to incorporate that because it’s part of the story. What’s that buzzard looking at? Is there a scared mouse below hoping there is no buzzard 500 feet above me looking down?

This is an ancient place. The field systems are older than the pyramids, they’ve been in use longer than the pyramids ever existed. People found this land, ploughed it, the cows and sheep have grazed here – it’s mind-blowing how much has happened in this place. And all I’m doing is just picking up little bits that I can think of, and creating my response to it.

Celeste: You’ve been alluding to this the whole time but is that how you arrived at your abstract style of painting?

Jason: I try to do dual meaning and dual visual representation. So if people look at it and go, “That’s a landscape”, that’s fine. But it’s not necessarily a landscape, it just looks like a landscape. It’s all the things that are in that landscape. I try to preserve the feeling of a landscape but when people actually look at it they’ll see it’s not a landscape, it’s actually a horse’s head or something. 

If you include more information, you’re not abstracting the pictorial, you’re actually adding to the story.

I hate the word abstract because to abstract is to take away. When you have a blank canvas or a bit of wood and you’re doing a pictorially visual representation, it’s fine. But if you include more information, you’re not abstracting the pictorial, you’re actually adding to the story. 

Equustential Crisis
Equustential Crisis, 4ft x 1.5ft

I’m a bit wary of abstraction. Being non-pictorial or non-traditional is always dangerous. Peter Lanyon and Barbara Hepworth called it “left” andright” because they couldn’t come up with a definition of traditional and they didn’t want to insult anybody saying, “Oh, that’s traditional, that’s old hat.” Abstraction is much more traditional now than traditional was 70-80 years ago. Language is a fluctuating thing.

Even when I do the pictorial, it’s always over a surface that has a narrative. You can see through that pictorial into another realm. And that other realm has information on it that sometimes is an antithesis of what is on the surface. I mean, the buzzard 500 feet up, what’s it looking at? I went to Google maps, I looked down, and I saw all these fields. If that buzzard hadn’t flown up, I wouldn’t have gone on that journey.

When you go sketching, it’s sometimes best to be bored because then you start to doodle and your mind is free from your preconceptions of what you’re meant to be doing. It’s best to just let your mind flow and wonder.

Celeste: So landscape painting has always been with you and developed over time?

Jason: I used to do townscapes. What fascinated me then was the fact that at 12 o’clock the sun was dark and down, and there were no shadows so all the buildings became flattened. All you had were the shapes and there were a lot of optical illusions going on.

Remember you’re a student to the day you die. Don’t counterfeit your own work, don’t stop evolving, don’t stop thinking. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I was getting bored, really bored. So someone suggested printmaking to me and I went to the fantastic legend that is John Howard up in Penryn and he basically did what my art teacher did: he kicked me up the backside and made me see again. Even if it wasn’t in any relation to his style, it was just being able to perceive the world around me in a different way. Then, I went to Drury Hill that overlooks Zennor, and I looked down, cow flies all over me, cows mooing next to me, and I started sketching and thought, “Remember you’re a student to the day you die. Don’t counterfeit your own work, don’t stop evolving, don’t stop thinking. Otherwise, what’s the point?” – that was my epiphany and why I do landscape now.

I like to be pushed, I like to think I don’t know anything, that there’s more. The world is so interesting. Even if you know a landscape, even if you’ve been born in a landscape – there’s always more to it.

My other epiphany was about music. There’s a music show on YouTube with Rick Beato. He’s an American producer and he asks, “Why is this music great?”, then he goes through all the layering of the music. You can’t hear 90% of the layers but without it, the music is so much less. And that’s very much like painting, if you don’t put in the foundation work, it won’t be as interesting. That show just clarified this thing about creativity – music, fashion, architecture, printmaking, photography – all these creative subjects are equally valid.

Celeste: I love your music analogy. The next question I have has to do with the titles of your works. Language can get tricky and sticky and annoying…

Jason: With language I like to play games. There is dual meaning to all my titles, sometimes it’s a play on words, or something that amuses me. If it was down to me, it would be called squiggly line mcdoodle or something. It infuriates me that you have to have a label next to a painting and people spend more time looking at the label than they do at the work itself.

Celeste: How important do you think it is to explain your art to other people, your viewers?

Jason: Yesterday I was talking about Equustential Crisis and this couple basically said, “Could you write on the label what you’ve just said?” But that would be a short novella. Once it’s out of my hands, once it’s off the wall, it’s what people bring to it. They will always bring their own story to it. I find it more fascinating listening to other people’s response to the work. ‘Cause I’ve already done the painting and thought about it a thousand times, I want to see their interpretation of it. A bird has got to fly; you nurture these things, you grow up with them but one day they’ve got to leave the nest and have a life of their own.

A bird has got to fly; you nurture these things, you grow up with them but one day they’ve got to leave the nest and have a life of their own.

Celeste: Now let’s talk about the show right next door, your new exhibition opening on June 18th at The Penwith Gallery, Landscript – really cool name, I dig it.

Jason: That’s got a history too…

Celeste: Too loaded of a question?

Jason: It pains me, it pains me haha. The thing is, it’s a solitary lesson. I was in the bath, trying to think of a title. The painting is about the landscape but it’s also about ancient scripture, and not only scripture, but right up to the contemporary, because the landscape is a far broader church than just a written word – it’s continually being written over the top, like vellum, you sort of rub it off.

So I thought landscript, and “Oh my god, genius! I’m a genius!” It was a eureka moment, and I was convinced that no one’s ever thought of that. But then, just in case, I Googled it. And I found out that this lovely South-Korean guy had already come up with it a decade earlier.

Landscript, 4ft x 8ft

But not only that, I just spent over a year painting the damn thing, and discovered that these style paintings have been done 2,000 years ago. In the opening salvo of Dr. James Fox’s BBC Four program on the Aboriginals, there is a hanging rock, where thousands of years ago the Aboriginals started painting animals on the underside – because it wouldn’t have eroded or watered down, it was protected. So these paintings were there throughout the ages and when the space got full, they just kept painting over the top. So you had all these palimpsests going on, and I’ve looked at it, and looked at my paintings and thought, “Not only am I not a genius, someone 2,000 years ago has done a much better job.”

Celeste: But they probably took thousands of years…

Jason: Yes, I was quicker and made things transportable. But we’re all in catch-up. You see thousands of years old depictions of animals and you think, “That cannot be bettered.” Those depictions of horses and deer that Picasso painted – everyone thought he was a genius but he was just copying 2000-year-old paintings.

Celeste: Ok, we’ll switch gears a bit. I’m wondering if your studio has been a source of inspiration? How does it fit into your story?

Jason: There’s an old adage, “The studio maketh the artist.” The studio is so important. I found that out very quickly. When I was in a small studio, all my paintings were tiny and easily transportable. Then, I moved to my present studio on Porthmeor Road, which is vast. I put my little paintings there, and I had to put my glasses on!

The physical process of applying paint, when you have a small studio and you’re working on a small scale, is a dance that happens between the fingers and the wrist. As soon as you get to about 3-4 foot artworks, your elbow comes into the dance and the application of paint changes. You’ve got to use a bigger brush for instance. 

Jason Lilley’s studio on Porthmeor Road, St Ives.

Now when you get to 8-foot and beyond, you start to use your shoulder. These things have memory, they work on their own. Just like musicians, they play the chords with one hand and fingerpick with the other you’ve got to let these things do whatever they do. If you’re painting with your shoulder, it is completely different to the mark-makings that you do with your fingers.

The studio maketh the artist.

I couldn’t go back to a smaller studio without bursting into tears because I like painting with my shoulder and elbow and wrist and fingers. It’s that physical interaction. And you can put more information on a big painting. Small ones are lovely, and they sell (you know the practicalities of actually making a living out of what I’m doing). But it’s different and it doesn’t interest me as much, and it’s limiting. 

Space is very, very important.

Celeste: Touching on another one of your passion projects, the Penwith Gallery Archive, where we’re sitting at the moment, could you tell us a bit more about that?

Jason: In 2013, I was given the onerous task of going into a dark room with two inches of water to clear it out. I went in there – no electricity, pitch black, bin bags everywhere, furniture floor to ceiling. I gingerly put my hand in one of the plastic bags and pulled out a letter from Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. It was about how cold it was in Scotland and her having to see a doctor; she wasn’t happy and wished she was back in Cornwall. And on the bottom, there was this drawing of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham trudging through the snow with a walking stick, wrapped up in layers. And I thought, “That’s a treasure, that’s a keeper.”

When you look at the handwritten correspondence, you can almost see the tear stains on these pieces of paper.

The next piece of paper was a telegram from Peter Lanyon saying, “Sorry, I can’t make the meeting on Saturday, could David Horton please fill in for me? And if David can’t do it, anybody but Barbara or Ben.” And I thought, “hang on a minute, it’s 1950, this is when they had that big fight.”

Every piece of paper I picked up was gold – this does not happen. Someone doesn’t walk into a room and find unearthed 70-year-old documentation and correspondence. And I just stood at the doorway, barricaded, and I said, “No one’s coming in here, this stuff is in two inches of water, I’ve got to get it out, I’ve got to save it and conserve it.” 

That evening I got in touch with the National Archives and 20 minutes later they responded that they were sending their best archivists down to discuss how to deal with it. Every drawer we opened there’d be etchings or correspondence. It was crazy. Nine years later we’re still going through it. We’re 25 boxes in, and we have about 50 boxes to go. It’s an organic archive. Who’d have thought? I would have never thought that I would have devoted my days to cataloging everything. It’s crazy, mad, fantastic, incredible, and it’s affected my art as well. 

When you look at the handwritten correspondence, you can almost see the tear stains on these pieces of paper when they were discussing the troubles they had with people not appreciating their art. And those were Terry Frost, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon – these are people that you’d think have always been famous but they’ve gone through the same problems. 

It’s a bit like genealogy: you look at how you’re here, and the Archive is no different. You wonder, “How did that person become famous? How many jigsaw pieces did it take them to produce their art and how relevant was it at the time?” It’s reassuring that humans are fallible. And that’s what the Archive is, it’s about fallibility. But not only that, it’s about the strength of characters that actually could produce 20th-century art that we know today.

Celeste: It was serendipity, stars aligned.

Jason: Yes. And the echo of my mom being taught by these people. I was brought up with these people; they were talked about constantly. And to find correspondence with them and how they dealt with problems. I was the right person at the right time – crazy luck.

We do see the ghosts around us. We perceive things, we observe the world, and then we put it down into a story.

And the more I find, the more I look at it, the more important it is. Not just for art historians and academics, but for artists to realize, we’re in the same boat, we’re all struggling mentally, we’re sensitive creatures. We do see the ghosts around us. We perceive things, we observe the world, and then we put it down into a story. We’re no different than Peter Lanyon, Barbara Hepworth, and Ben Nicholson. It’s a reassurance for art students as well as art historians who will find this information fascinating.

Celeste: What would you be if you were not an artist?

Jason: Sad. Very sad. Because – I’m gonna get emotional now – I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Jason Lilley
Jason Lilley in his studio.

Celeste: You are living your purpose, that’s as good as it gets I imagine…

Jason: What I do is my strength, and luckily I’ve got the opportunity to do it. A lot of people live their lives without having the opportunity to play to their strengths. And that is society’s problem. Because if people played to their strengths, then society would improve. I know that people have to clean toilets but the world would be so much nicer if they had alternatives to do something they actually wanted to do and are talented at. Because the thing about the education system and teaching is to find people’s strengths. It’s not to teach them about the kings of England; it’s to help them focus on their strengths.

Celeste: Finally, what advice would you give to someone who would like to pick up a paintbrush for the first time or start being more creative?

Jason: Go for it and don’t listen to anybody. If you’re starting out, don’t be unsullied by everybody else’s blinkered vision. Be free, be yourself. Whatever you put down is right for you. Don’t be succumbed by pictorial representation and judging your talents by someone else. Because there will always be someone who can apply paint better than you, who can do pictorial paintings better than you, but no one is you. So be free to do whatever you bloody well like.

Be free to do whatever you bloody well like.

Are you an artist or creative based in Cornwall and interested in sharing your story on CBA Content’s blog? If so, we’d love to hear from you. To get in touch drop us a line here.

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