Interview with painter Ann Johnson

Ann Johnson is a painter living and working in Eastbourne, England. 

Ann Johnson

 She has had work included in the 2010 and 2011 Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibitions. Ann and I are friends, Friends and also collaborators: we have made a number of poemcards (my poems, Ann’s images) and she included some of my poetry, along with poems by the late Pam Hughes, in her 2009 solo exhibition ‘Gathering’,  at the HOP Gallery, Lewes. Cinnamon Press will be using an image of Ann’s as the cover of a forthcoming book of poems co-written by both Meredith Andrea and myself (due to be published in 2013).

I invited Ann to have a ‘blog-chat’ with me about her painting, her art-making, her approaches. Along the way, you will be able to see some of her beautiful, imaginative and colour-drenched work.


Ann, in a recent interview (Cultural Quarterly, Spring 2011) you called yourself a ‘working painter’ rather than a ‘professional artist’. I’d be interested to know more about why you make this distinction.

There are so many ways to be an artist but these days I pretty much stick to painting, so calling myself a ‘painter’ seems practical. As for ‘working’ rather than ‘professional’, this arose recently when a journalist from an arts magazine asked me if I was a ‘professional’ painter which struck me as an odd question.

There still seems to be importance attached to the handle ‘professional’ in art. Is it the same for poets? Contrast this, for example, with astronomy where ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’ work side by side and recognize that each has a valuable contribution to make in observing and discovering our universe.

I know what you mean. I like to remember that etymologically, ‘amateur’ means ‘lover of”. Doing what we do primarily for love seems like a meaningful and affirmative approach, suggesting the reach for something beyond ourselves.

‘Professional’ also implies earning one’s living exclusively from something and having a formal educational grounding. However, until a couple of years ago I had a day-job as a journalist. I moaned no end about what I perceived as a conflict but gradually came to appreciate how journalism provided me with a regular income, leaving me free to paint what, how and when I liked. I now value my years as a journalist, the horizons it opened up, and the skills I gained which continue to be useful in painting. I’ve enjoyed taking part in painting courses and workshops all my life. The learning – or should I say unlearning – continues.

Like many others, I lead a ‘patchwork’ life, switching between various commitments. It’s an on-going challenge to achieve balance and make real, substantial time for painting and drawing.

I have found that not having to rely on selling paintings has freed me up to take risks, maybe producing things people are not necessarily going to expect or be able to immediately relate to. However, I do sell through galleries and value that aspect. I show and share my work in a range of other ways. My paintings have been used to illustrate poetry in magazines, such as Resurgence, and lately books of poetry – including your own forthcoming collaboration with Meredith Andrea.

Yes – very pleased about that.

I value the way that you and I, Fiona, have explored ways to link our work, such as through the poemcards – and also through this blog interview!

I agree, Ann. There is something very inspiring about working across different art genres. I think it has something to do with relationship -? I do feel that there’s a symbiotic dynamic created from, in our case, poems in relationship to images/paintings. The paintings and poems each are their own thing and yet, set together, they ‘speak’ to each other in fresh ways.

You mention being freed up to take risks with your work. I have always seen a freedom in your painting, but do you feel you are taking new or different risks more recently? How is this manifesting in your painting – is it to do with technique, subject matter or something different?

It’s to do with a range of things including the ones you mention – technique, subject matter – but also ways of seeing and thinking. I sometimes attend courses run by the painter Emily Ball at the Seawhite Studios in West Sussex:

 Have a look at her blog – there’s some wild stuff!

We often repeat the way we do things without realising – and the same goes for painting. For example, it’s common to paint lines and marks in the same way all the time, to use tried and trusted colours, to place things carefully on a canvas in the same position. Emily’s classes help overturn these habits. Once you leave your comfort zone and and move into uncharted territory it can get very exciting. Emily and her co-tutor Katie Sollohub get us to do things like paint the sensations of hot or cool, to paint with our ‘other’ hand, to draw with our eyes closed – all that sort of thing. One week we even dressed up as characters from the Velázquez painting Las Meninas! All this is really liberating. It wouldn’t suit everyone, but my way of working is in being prepared to produce things that may look, frankly, horrible. I am slowly learning not to throw things away or paint over them when this happens.

By exploring the possibilities of new visual landscapes, new ways of expression, there’s the potential to end up creating things you could never have imagined doing. Just think – all that unmined creativity just lying beneath the surface! Working in a group like this teaches humility. We have to be prepared to make fools of ourselves in front of others, to trip up and fall over and look as though we haven’t a clue …

Yes, this is very true of all learning.

Working this way helps keep my work alive and fresh. It’s not that I want to drastically change how I paint – just to shift and see from a new angle. When I try new systems and approaches, I then apply what I have learned to my on-going work. However, there is a definite visual language threading through all my work over the years.

Here are two landscape paintings. The one I call Dartmoor Sheep was painted from several different photographs about ten years ago, I think. It’s traditional in the sense the sky is above the land and the sheep are firmly rooted on the ground. The second work called Ascending City was painted a few weeks ago and is about number six in a series of paintings derived from a 300 year-old painting of Krishna and his consort Radha (painter unknown). There is no break between sky and ground and the space contains far greater use of instinctive, spontaneous mark-making, rather than painting what is ‘real’. This is almost straight from my imagination and some drawings of cranes that I did from the train. Halfway through, I saw a photo on the web of building work in Mumbai – skyscrapers rising beyond traditional buildings and trees – which gave me idea for completing the work. The task with a rather random painting like this is to combine instinct and spontaneity with thought in order to organise, edit out then replace marks so they make some kind of sense to the subject. But both types of paintings require certain fundamental elements in colour, shape and composition to achieve contrast, rhythm and cohesion.

‘Dartmoor Sheep’ by Ann Johnson
‘Ascending City’ by Ann Johnson

Ascending City, by the way, is a good example of something I really didn’t like when I first painted it. I thought: ‘Where on earth did this one come from?’ But I put it to one side then reviewed later and now it has really grown on me.

It is very rewarding when that happens – when we get surprised by our own work and something reveals itself unexpectedly. I have often found some of my poems ‘ahead’ of me, as it were, so that even years later I feel they have something for me, maybe a little learning or a small new way of seeing things, if you see what I mean? I also wonder: how did I do that? It is as if, though born out of the matrix of my own life, they become separate from me, too, going on to have a life of their own, hopefully in the lives of others. Of course, Rothko spoke eloquently about this kind of thing – the need for a ‘consummated experience’ between the art work and the viewer. He talked about pictures ‘living’ by ‘companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer’ (in Harrison and Wood, 1992, p.565). He said: ‘If I must place my trust somewhere, I would invest it in the psyche of sensitive observers who are free of the conventions of understanding. […] For if there is both need and spirit, there is bound to be a real transaction’ (Mark Rothko, 1987, p.58). I have always found that powerful. It chimes with the Zen idea and practice of ‘Beginner’s Mind’ which cultivates a quality of approach which eschews pre-judgements and self-projections and engages with an artwork (or anything!) with an open, present-tense mind.

But to return to you, Ann what kind of artist are you in terms of favoured genre, would you say – landscape, still life, portrait? And do you find yourself attracted to any particular kind of subject matter?

I paint what is around me and what I’ve been up to: the landscape, garden, animals, wobbly bits of pottery, a train journey to St Ives… Through charcoal and paint I try to shift these subjects from ‘reality’ into more imagined presences. My pictures are essentially about marks, colour, gaps, edges, contrast and punctuation with, hopefully, a few surprises and acceptable ‘flaws’. The aim is to achieve something that fuses and communicates in a way that words can’t. Footpath, based on the South downs where I live and walk, is an example of using memory – and trusting in imagination.

‘Footpath’ by Ann Johnson

Lately I have been importing into paintings motifs, symbols and structures from other cultures and histories – things that touch me in ways I can’t always explain. These are things we recognize when creations, objects, sounds reach our underlying senses buried by the routines of daily life. The other day I came across exquisitely drawn Chinese recordings of comets dating from 1600-1046 BC. They were observed with the naked eye then committed to paper in wondrous shapes and forms – quite unlike how people would depict comets today:

And I was enchanted and inspired by the animal and plant forms depicted on those remarkable objects at the recent Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum. I have always had an empathy with art from past histories and, particularly, non-academic sources, such as Australian aboriginal painting, Cycladic idols, prehistoric cave paintings and what is commonly known as ‘outsider’ or ‘naïve’ art. These frequently non-western creations offer us deceptively simple truths translated in a way counter to the traditional perceptions of ‘reality’ once advocated by the Western academies which lingers on today.

I used to be suspicious of the way I paint intuitively but now I am learning to trust this. We can have fun with what we learn – lay on thick gooey paint, scrape it off, slap it on again, make blobs and splodges, rub it all out again – and see what comes up. If something interesting happens, then let it remain and never mind if it makes no immediate ‘sense’. Woodland is a good example of going with intuition. It was the end of the day and I wanted to use up the paint on my palette, so quickly sploshed over an old painting and, in about 15 minutes, this one appeared. Several little patches of the old painting remain.

‘Woodland’ by Ann Johnson

On the whole, I don’t set out to make paintings that urge people to think or react. I paint for me, and when others connect to the pictures, the fact we can share it is a real bonus.

Yes, absolutely. Your paintings are very easy to connect with, I have found!

I guess we should touch briefly on two things that further connect us – our concern about animals and our Quakerism -?

It is easy for animals to slip onto the ‘not acceptable’ list – rats, gulls, crows, strays – and now badgers have been demonised. I live alongside cats and gulls and painted Feral and Young Gull because both can have a hard time at the hands of humans. I was so glad that Feral and Young Gull – two ‘outsiders’ – were hung at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

Yes, wonderful. Congratulations on that.

‘Feral’ by Ann Johnson
‘Young Gull’ by Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson outside the Royal Academy

The other day I saw on TV how reptiles, bound for the so-called ‘pet’ trade, travel on airlines, packed tightly together in bags. Apparently, even if 50 per cent of them suffocate and starve to death in transit, the traders can still make a profit. The Land of the Exotics makes reference to the way discovery has led to animals being trapped and exported around the world to zoos, circuses, vivisection laboratories – and the wretched aquariums.

Yes, we still have a long way to go before we can call ourselves genuinely ‘civilised’. As Gandhi famously said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated’. Gandhi is someone who went all the way down and I really value that – not stopping at ‘boundaries’. There is no insuperable line, as Bentham said.

‘Land of the Exotics’ by Ann Johnson

Quaker Concern for Animals, of which we are both members, seeks to extend the Quaker Testimony of equality to non-human animals.

I have been glad of the opportunity to illustrate a leaflet for QCA to help highlight the suffering and death of non-human animals through warfare. The leaflet supports the ‘purple poppy’ campaign, initiated by Animal Aid, to include non-human animals on Remembrance Sunday in November.

You work very hard on behalf of animals, Ann – thanks so much for that. Shall we finish with a poem and image that we’ve made into a poemcard?

Painting is something of a sanctuary for me, a powerful and rejuvenating place in which to step aside from the difficulties of the world. We all have creativity in us and can use it in a positive, healing way. Using bright, warm colours, like the ones in Yellow Dahlias can be very nourishing. It seemed appropriate to partner this painting with your poem about Mechthild.

‘Yellow Dahlias’ by Ann Johnson
A single
as consummate
with the October sun
as Mechtild
with her God
I am your reflection.
How can I resist
my own true nature?
(Fiona Owen, Going Gentle, 2007, Gomer)

Thank you so much, Ann.

If anyone would like to look at more of Ann’s work, you can do so here:

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