Clive Hicks-Jenkins Painting Man and Beast
Clive Hicks-Jenkins was born in 1951 in Newport, South Wales. From his early twenties until his mid thirties, he was an actor, choreographer, director and stage designer, creating productions with leading companies. He moved back to Wales permanently in the late 1980’s to concentrate on his work as an artist. You can read more about Clive’s early days here. I have been dipping in and out of his truly amazing Art Blog on and off for the last couple of years, and finally got around to contacting Clive recently to more fully discover, the man behind the art.
What is your favourite medium to work with and why ?
I came to painting very late. I was past forty when I picked up brushes. I dabbled with oil, but while I enjoyed the feel of it, the drying times drove me crazy. I was and still am a man in a hurry. I began with acrylic inks, because I thought the available colours were interesting and the bottles were portable to carry for field-work. The inks were formulated for airbrush work… though I used them with brushes… and are difficult to handle in all sorts of ways. The colours vary from transparent to dense via various degrees of opacity. The pigments separate from the medium in a silt-like manner, and there is a lamentable tendency for them to pool and dry in sticky patches. But by gosh the damned things taught me how to paint, and once mastered, I turned out some terrific work. Most of it small to medium. (Those inks are not easy to handle on a large scale.)
My day to day paint of choice is a heavy-bodied acrylic brand called Golden. The pigments are excellent. There’s first-class technical support from the manufacturers, and moreover continuing research in the improvement of the product. These people don’t rest on their laurels. When I had problems with supply I wrote to the managing director in the US, and got a personal reply and the help I needed.
Who (if anyone) would you count amongst the artists who’s work has inspired you ?
I have a soft spot for the artists I was looking at when I was growing up. Keith Vaughan, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Barbara Jones, Ravilious and Nash. My work had a Neo-Romantic feel when I began, and though there are vestiges of it still occasionally present, ultimately that was a blind alley for me. Of course I am mad for modernism, with Klee, Braque and Calder ever-present inspirations. German Expressionism does it for me. That appeals to my dark and bleak side. Historically my passion is for the early Renaissance. Not a great deal interests me after that until we get to the twentieth century, the exceptions being Turner, Samuel Palmer and Stubbs. Stubbs is a god !!!!
Can you briefly explain where the inspiration for some of your subject matter has derived. Saints and their Beasts etc. Do these images begin life as researched areas of interest for you or maybe start through commissions ?
I’m interested in the interface of animals and humans, and particularly in the stories about so-called miraculous interventions. I came to Saint Kevin and the Blackbird through the poem of that title by Seamus Heaney. (Poetry is a crucial source of inspiration for me, and I work with poets a lot.) I have no religious faith at all, and so my focus is the relationship between animals and humans, though of course I love the stories which are my sources. Hervé and the Wolf for instance. The stories imply that God in some way changed the nature of the wolf so that it transformed from a ravening beast to the saint’s companion. But for me there is nothing miraculous in the relationship between a wild animal and a man or woman. No crackling bolt of lightning from God’s finger to the beast’s heart. An interspecies relationship may be unlikely, or confounding or startling, but we all know they happen. What are they built on? Love? Dependency? Emotional succour? I don’t know, but when I paint, I feel that I move toward understanding.
I love the detail in your work, especially the floral repeats behind your subjects (as in ‘Battle Ground’ and ‘Leap’). I sense that his has almost become a trademark in your work and wondered if it derives from earlier paintings that you’ve observed (William Morris or Burne Jones perhaps) or is a style that you’ve developed over a longer period and is now purely just the way that you create ?
Definitely not the Pre-Raphaelites, for whom I have no liking. It’s the early Renaissance for me, all those flower-diapered meadows and Tuscan landscapes with hillsides like twists of meringue, make my pulse race. That’s the source from me, the spring from which I drink.
How important is the sketchbook to your work and the way that you formulate ideas ?
Drawing is everything. EVERYTHING!
I draw obsessively. For me the work is not done until I have observed and drawn the subject until it is imprinted on my brain and I can draw it from the heart, with no other reference. Like an actor learning lines. Until I learn the lines, I can’t play the role.
Here’s some of Clive’s private sketchbook work.
Some more pencil and ink sketches.
Clive told me ” I have worked with ceramics. I spent time with the ceramist Pip Koppel, who’s a close friend. She threw and I decorated. It was just a bit of fun, and we made mostly stuff for the kitchen of the house my partner and I were about to move into. Lots of slip-trailed ware. I made a ‘foliate-head’ dinner-service, and lots of decorated bowls and jugs. Simple little figurines of animals too. All quite primitive and lively.
I love this selection of still life paintings, obviously taken from artefacts around Clive’s home.
I was bowled over by the painting (below) called “The Catch” with the fisherman supporting a nautilus shell tattoo. The starting point for which was a Penparc Cottage mug from Gwili Pottery, the same cup can also be seen in one of the still life paintings (above). Here’s a photo of the original, I don’t know why, but I really like it when objects and designs are reused in an artist’s work, perhaps it gives me a weird feeling of reassurance, if that makes sense !
Clive has a love of folk lore, the written word, novels, plays and poetry. All of which often inspire his work. Clive says ” My exploration of the roots of my father’s fear of the Welsh hobby-horse tradition known as the Mari Lwyd, and the persistence of that fear throughout his long life right up to his death, made a startling debut exhibition for me. The venue was an appropriate one, as I was born in Newport and my father lived there all his life.”
Below Clive also considers ‘The Mare’s Tale’ and ‘Equus’ as inspirational starting points.
Some of Clive’s work also translates into puppetry and you can find instances on his blog where he shows theatrical stage sets which possibly hark back to his early beginnings as an actor.
Have you ever considered making a film, documenting the way that you work, or films of your puppets coming to life ?
Pete Telfer of Culture Colony has made a couple of documentaries about my work with maquettes. You can find some of Clive’s here
I read that you are in the process of creating a book with Simon Lewin of St. Judes about Hansel and Gretel. Are there other fairy stories that you would like to explore ? ( I see that you’ve touched on Alice in Wonderland and possibly others already)
Well first let me say that I adore the European illustrative tradition, and I’m a sucker for the Polish and Czech traditions of book design. (I won’t make a cover for a book these days unless I can make the lettering too!) Although I get asked to make book covers and chapter headings by the writers who I work with regularly, and recently I’ve had enquiries from further afield, I don’t think of myself as being an illustrator, but as an artist who occasionally gets asked to make pictures for books! The Hansel & Gretel project came from left of field, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to get very dark indeed, because it’s not a children’s picture book, but a book for people interested in art. Perfect.
Below is Alice with a crab. I feel that the simple, flat colours, work so well contrasted with the dark pencil markings, to help create both depth and form.
If you could illustrate any book at the moment, what would it be ?
I have long harboured a desire to make an illustrated edition of the Ramuz libretto for Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat.
Clive has also recently been inspired by the theme of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, in which Joseph the soldier unwittingly makes a pact he’ll come to regret. Last year Clive Hicks-Jenkins was commissioned to make an animated-film to accompany a performance of The Soldier’s Tale at the Hay Festival, and his new paintings further exploring the story were at the heart of this, his first solo exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn.
Looking through (just a small part) of Clive’s rich and varied body of work, I still find myself being drawn to the work that ties together Man and Beast. For animals play such a huge part in so many artists (and non artists) lives, that seeing their portrayal with ourselves on canvass, somehow helps to make that bond draw closer still.
Inspired by a Seamus Heaney poem, Clive has created these beautifully observed and formulated paintings. I love both their colouration, texture and dare I say it, small nod to the likes of Nash and Ravilious too.
Any other new plans and projects that you can tell us about ?
I’m working on a tattoo project. Eight ‘collaborators’ are discussing their ‘dream’ tattoos with me, and I will make bespoke designs that they’ll then have inked. The exhibition, which will be at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff in 2016, will consist of the original designs, photographs of the collaborators being inked, and portraits I plan on painting of them with their tattoos done. It’s called Skin/Skôra, reflecting the fact that the first three collaborators to commit to the project were Polish.
The other project that’s in the pipeline, is Beastly Passions. I’m making paintings of ‘imagined’ Staffordshire pottery groups that initially look quite traditional, but when you look closely are contemporary tabloid stories reinterpreted in the picturesque Staffordshire style. Murders and mayhem aplenty. My collaborator is the American poet Jeffrey Beam, whose creating verses to go with the paintings. I’ve long wanted to work with him.
Clive’s work has been selected for several prestigious institutions, including the Royal Academy. Clive was winner of the Gulbenkian Welsh Art Prize in 1999, runner-up as Welsh Artist of the Year in April 2000, and in 2002 received a Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council of Wales. His solo exhibitions have been reviewed in Modern Painters, Art Review, Galleries, Planet and the BBC Wales series Double Yellow.
I want to say how much I have enjoyed assembling this post and admiring Clive’s work. Many thanks to him for his well considered replies to my questions and for giving so generously of his time. Please do take a moment to look back over his Art Blog, I can’t praise it enough for it’s detail and descriptive/ visual delights. I’m sure you’ll find something of interest for each and every one of you.
On the following day to the release of this post, I got a fab surprise through my letterbox .. Many thanks Clive, what a very generous gift !