In the series 'Seven questions with...' Art UK speaks to some of the most exciting emerging and established artists working today.
Working as a painter, writer and educator, John Lyons' creative career spans almost 70 years. When I visited his home and studio near Cambridge, the cultural influence of his Caribbean home and upbringing was as obvious as his boundless creativity, straddling different media and different art forms. Paintings and prints are stacked next to assemblages of found objects, homemade masks and sculptures. Sketches and a portrait bust he created of the poet Harold Massingham in the 1960s, were the result of their acquaintance and their work as poets.
Lyons was born and brought up in Trinidad and Tobago. He came to the UK in 1959 to study at Goldsmiths College and later at the School of Art at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He is also a writer and prize-winning poet. He received the Windrush Arts Achiever Award in 2003. Much of John Lyons' work draws on themes linked with Caribbean folklore and mythology.
As a painter and poet, Lyons feels an intuitive link between painting and poetry. He believes that the use of metaphor and the play of psychological associations in our human experiences can live with equal validity in the creation of visual art as in poetry.
His paintings are held in several public collections in the UK, including the Arts Council Collection, the print collection of the V&A, Kirklees Museums and Galleries and Touchstones Rochdale.
Anne-Katrin Purkiss: Earlier this year, four of your paintings were part of the Tate Britain exhibition 'Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now'. Can you say something about the history or background of these pictures?
John Lyons: They are paintings about my culture, inspired by my life in Trinidad. The pictures are carnival scenes and also folklore. One of these paintings is called Folklore Convention. In this painting different characters from Caribbean folklore appear and they are an endless source of inspiration for me. As I paint, the paintings get transformed. In a way the picture tells me what to do.
Anne-Katrin: Your artistic practice covers not only painting, but also printmaking, installations and sculpture as well as poetry and creative writing. Do you see a connection between them?
John: Yes, there are similarities. If you want to write well and inspire people's imagination, you have to choose the right words in the right order.
When you are painting, you are using another language. You don't have a syntax as in written language; but with painting, line, shape, colour, texture and a surface plane are fundamental. So painting is about putting these elements together, into syntactical connection that creates a harmony that can speak to people on a level that is very intuitive, that is feeling. The same thing happens with writing.
There is so much that I feel that I often find difficult to put in words. When I'm painting, I am in a different place. Both painting and writing have the same origins: they come from how you feel, how you think, from your psyche, from the experiences you've had in the past.
Anne-Katrin: You mentioned experiences and the past. Looking back at your childhood in Trinidad and the early years in the UK, what do you see as defining influence on your work and on the person, the artist you are now?
John: I have a different attitude to life compared with many people here. My cultural background has helped me a lot, especially the attitude of my family, who were very poor, but very well respected, they had a set of values of good education and good manners.
I had to pay my way through college. I struggled for four years. I did absolutely every kind of work I could think of, and this was a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when prejudice was in your face. But my art helped me and there were people who helped me, because I wasn't the kind of person who'd get angry, and that's why I got through – it gave me strength.
Anne-Katrin: Teaching and engaging with younger people and your audience as an artist and writer is still an important part of your work. Do you see this interaction as a mutual process?
John: I believe when you've been given a talent, it's not just for you, you share it. And when I get opportunities to share, I will do that, by giving exhibitions when I can or by holding workshops,
I did a workshop at Tate Britain recently, we made masks. It's very simple, I've been doing this with children and it's wonderful to see all the mums and dads helping the youngsters.
I think that I am learning all the time and I am being taught. I am having tuition, or if you put two words together: I am having 'in-tuition'. That's where tuition comes in.
Anne-Katrin: In your studio, you are surrounded by your own work, but also by collected objects, cuttings and quotations. How does this workspace influence your work?
John: The quotes are my affirmations, it comes from my reading, I see something and want to remember it. For instance, this one here: 'It's not the goal that is interesting, but the means to reach it'.
Or you see that cutting there, that was just a picture I found in a newspaper. And it reminded me of my ancestors.
I knew my Nigerian maternal great-grandmother. Her grandmother would have been a slave. She brought my mother up, because her mother, died when she was very young, and my mother died when I was 9 years old and my father's mother, looked after me and my siblings. That magazine clipping of a black man brought all that history back into my head.
So I thought, I want to paint that person. I want that look in his eyes.
Anne-Katrin: Your current exhibition in London is titled 'Unmasking the Psyche'. What is the origin of the title?
John: When I am painting or writing, I am 'Unmasking the Psyche' – going into myself and into memories I've got, and I am trying to put them down. I have a rough idea of what I want to say, but I don't know how I'm going to say it, what form is going to come out or how it's going to work. When you are painting, you are in that moment, it's almost like a meditation, and you see meaning in ordinary little things.
I'm very interested in the visible and invisible spaces that we inhabit. There is a lot invisible in our psyche, that is important to us, and that can become visible, but in different forms. And they work together. Everything is interconnected.
Anne-Katrin: What are your plans for the future?
John: I shall be 90 next year, and I've been told that I should think about summarising my work as a painter in book form, perhaps as a monograph. I think I'd much rather spend my time making new work, painting and writing.
I am still searching, and this is the reason why I write poetry. It's like painting – it's the potential to see something new every time you return to a piece of work. It might only be a splash or daub of colour, and all of a sudden, I can see something else. That's the wonder of painting, and it's the same with literature, and the reason for that is, that we never stand still, you are not the same person today, that you were some years ago.
Anne-Katrin Purkiss, photographer working with art institutions and galleries
John Lyons 'Unmasking the Psyche' runs at Felix & Spear from 10th June to 17th July 2022