Today we have the pleasure of talking with artist Trevor Jones who is not only an extraordinary painter and fine arts teacher, but a remarkable person as well. He is one of those rare artists who is always looking for new ways to connect and give back to the larger arts community. Even though Trevor has been incredibly busy organizing the upcoming Trees for Life art exhibition, we were excited to have the opportunity to sit down and talk for a few minutes with our latest Featured Artist.
First of all Trevor, how did a Canadian like yourself end up living, painting, and teaching art in Scotland? And secondly, how is your hybrid Canadian & Scottish accent coming along these days?
Wow, I’m not sure if I can answer all that in a few sentences Drew but I’ll give it a go! To keep it short and sweet I’ll just say it was a backpacking trip gone wrong. I left to Australia and New Zealand, always intending to go back home but I never quite managed it. That was 15 years ago.
As for the painting and teaching, that too was a bit unexpected. Although I very much enjoyed drawing when I was a kid I’d never planned on making it a career choice. I think that’s one of the best things about life. We try to make plans but they never turn out as expected so we should just learn to enjoy the ride. Who really wants to know how the story ends anyway?
And the hybrid accent? Och, I dunnae ken wit yer sayin, pal! I’m just having a wee blether wit ya. Honestly though? It’s rubbish. I sound as Canadian as I did 15 years ago :)
One of the things that I found most interesting about your story is that unlike a lot of other artists, you didn’t decide to pursue a career in art until you were in your thirties. Given the fact that you obviously have quite a bit of artistic talent, what took you so long?
Hmmm, another long story. I really hope your editing skills are decent. As I’d mentioned above, it was all quite unexpected. Although I used to draw a lot as a kid and I did well in art classes, I never took it that seriously.
So fast forward about 15 – 20 years, I’d hit my 30’s and I wasn’t so much burning the candle but more the flamethrower at both ends. Inevitably, it all went a bit pear-shaped and the next thing I knew, I was with my doctor getting the low down (literally) on clinical depression. It was not a good time for me. There’s actually a very, very funny story in that conversation but I don’t have enough space here to tell it.
Anyway, for some inexplicable reason, while in this lengthy and terribly, depressive state, I came to the conclusion that art would be the only thing that could ‘fix me’. I have no idea why I would think that as I’d thought very little about art in any capacity the previous 15 years. It’s kind of embarrassing how cliché it all sounds but that’s pretty much what happened.
Who are some of your favorite artists or influences?
In ways I’m a little backwards. I’m something of a Modernist in this Post Modern era. My current paintings are underpinned with individual expression, formalism, the ‘primitive’, and, to a certain extent, even the idealising of beauty. My philosophies and formal approaches have been shaped predominately by the Abstract Expressionists. Artists like Pollock, of course, Rothko, Newman and the Scottish painter, Alan Davie, have all helped develop the way I engage with paintings and therefore, affect the way I paint.
At the same time, I love taking chances and I can see my work continually evolving while pushing boundaries. Maybe next year I’ll pickle a shark in a big tank of formaldehyde or perhaps mess about with my unmade bed….
What? They’ve both been done already? Really? Oh… crap. Back to the drawing board, dammit.
I know that you attended a traditional fine arts program in Edinburgh. As you know, we’ve had some rather heated discussions on the site about the overall value of attending a formal art school program. What was your experience like and what kind of advice would you give to someone who might be thinking about enrolling into a fine arts program?
OK, I’ll try not to burn too many bridges here but I’m sure I’ll fail miserably. As you know, I was a mature student going into Art College. I had what I thought were fair expectations but I felt the college let me and many of the other students down in disastrous ways. There was a lack of accountability amongst some tutors that in almost any other occupation would get someone fired.
Saying that (and I could say a whole lot more using many more colourful words to make my point!), I wouldn’t be where I am today without having gone through that system, as flawed as it is. Being immersed for so long in any type of art environment, good or bad, completely changes the way one thinks about… well, almost everything. Just as importantly, being part of the ‘traditional art establishment’ definitely develops one’s network of contacts.
And one mustn’t forget Nietzsche’s words, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” – However, that still doesn’t excuse the irresponsibility of a couple of my previous art tutors!
Not only did you attend a fine arts program, but now you’ve actually gone so far as to join the other side and you’re currently teaching art at the Leith School of Art as well. How has teaching art to others changed your perspective as an artist?
Funnily enough, I never intended or even wanted to be an art teacher (is it just me or is anyone else seeing a pattern emerging here?). Looking back now it’s obvious to me my aversion to teaching was driven by an extraordinarily, intense fear of public speaking and, of course, making a complete Muppet of myself.
I think overcoming that fear has had the most impact on my perspective as an artist, even more so than the rewards and enjoyment I now receive from teaching. Learning to first recognise and then face one’s fears is one of the most difficult lessons to learn in life. When I began speaking in front of people and I realised that I wasn’t going to die (and I really did think I would die), I immediately developed transferrable skills for my art…
For me, great art (painting, writing, music, film, etc) is made by people who are willing to take chances while being fully aware of the very real possibility of failure and rejection. They’re willing to risk everything to face their fears. For me, great art is edgy – and it’s flawed, it shows me the artist is human. I want to feel the tension the artist was experiencing when he or she was making the work and that’s also what I’m hoping to convey in my painting.
One of the things that I find fascinating with your work is the distinct contrast between the realistic nature of your drawings and your paintings which are mostly abstract. Is this just you proving to us that you can do it all, or have you found yourself at an artistic crossroads these days?
Another tough one, Drew. I honestly don’t know the answer to this and I only hope that after 20 or 30 years I can look back and be able to follow a thread that will help to piece it together.
The only thing I can say right now is that I really enjoy working in the two ways for different reasons. I find my observational drawing more meditative (in a mentally exhaustive kind of way) whereas with my painting; my heart is usually up in my throat most the time I’m working and I’m completely physically knackered by the end of it. Although the two ‘styles’ may confuse my audience, for me, as working processes, I feel they actually compliment each other really well.
One note: people sometimes use the term ‘non-representational’ when talking about my painting; however, although they’re abstract, they represent something just as real as my drawings do. The paintings just use a different language to describe it.
As a visual artist, are there certain types of media that you prefer to work with? Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about your typical working process as well.
I’m the first to admit that I’m still very much in a nascent stage of my art career. I’m learning and adapting as I go… although, to be honest, I hope that never changes. For me, there needs to be a balance between the formal elements, or physical qualities of the artwork and the concepts and philosophies behind it. I work with mixed media; acrylic paint, ink, collage, spray paint, stencils, oil pastel, graphite and pretty much whatever else I happen to be tripping over in my studio.
At the moment I’m interested in the phenomenon of synaesthesia and in particular, the correlation between colour and music. This is far from revolutionary and so right now, my work is largely an exercise in paint handling that happens to be fueled with self-expression and abstract concepts. I have no idea where this journey will take me, if anywhere at all, but then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
Regardless, great painters are able to create a personal language that can describe very complex ideas succinctly. It’s not easy and I have a long way to go. When I’m in the studio there’s a lot of ‘toing and froing’ regarding thinking and feeling. There is no preconceived idea of how a painting will turn out. I begin working with the music and the media; adding things, reacting to it, scraping it off, engaging, responding, and continuing to push the paint around until something begins to happen for me both visually and emotionally. It’s exhausting but rewarding.
I hope that makes at least a little bit of sense.
I know that you’ve done a lot of work for Art in Healthcare over the last several years as the Assistant Director for that particular charity. How did you get involved with this organization and why do you feel that it’s important for you as an artist to give back to the community?
The answer to this question is actually quite a good selling point for the benefits of attending a traditional art programme. My history of art professor saw the job posting at the university and he forwarded it on to me (there’s the importance of contacts). I’d been volunteering for a couple years at the Sick Kids while studying and so I’d already taken a personal interest in the correlation between art and health – so much so that I chose to investigate the connection between nature, landscape painting and the healing process for my dissertation.
And so with my practical art training, my volunteering at the hospital and my academic research of art and healing, I was a perfect candidate for the position, my dream job. I was over the moon when they hired me!
As for giving back to the community, I’m a big believer in Karma (and not just artists should give back but everyone!). It’s amazing how many good things happen to you when you live by three very simple rules. 1. Accept responsibility for your actions. 2. Give back to the community. 3. Don’t be afraid of failing (this sounds like something from My Name is Earl). I was a bit of a Muppet and I didn’t figure that all out until well into my 30’s. I never said I was the sharpest crayon in the box.
Speaking of your charity work, I know that you are currently organizing the Trees for Life art exhibition to support the Trees for Life charity’s mission of helping to restore the Caledonian Forest in the UK. What can you tell us about this upcoming exhibition and how can artists get involved?
I grew up in Western Canada and I miss the trees. It sounds silly but it’s true. I decided to organise an exhibition of my recent drawings from the Edinburgh Royal Botanic Garden, where I tend to spend a lot of time when I’m not in my studio. I wanted to give a percentage of the sales to the fantastic charity Trees for Life, which aims to replenish the ravaged Scottish Caledonian forest. The problem, however, was that with all the work I’d put in I doubted I’d raise much money or awareness for the charity. I needed help, lots of help… and I’ll talk a little bit more about how I’ve been finding that help in your next question.
Any artist can get involved, amateur or professional, by sending a nature inspired postcard artwork, approximately 6 x 9 inches (16 x 23 cm) to me by 31 July for the shiny, new and improved international Trees for Life exhibition! Already over 100 artists from around the world are participating and their work will be included in the show with all sales going to the charity and their image will be posted along with their website details at the Trees for Life exhibition site.
It’s looking to be really impressive as sponsorship is starting to come in and a couple big names have already agreed to show face at the opening! Yay! So please, all you artists out there – get involved and get in touch!
A lot of the artists who are participating in the Trees for Life art exhibition are people you have met on Twitter and Facebook. We often talk about the importance of connecting with the larger arts community on this site. Why do you think using social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can be worthwhile for any type of artist?
Admittedly, it’s taken me almost a year of mucking about with Twitter to figure what it’s actually good for other than for stalking my favourite celebs (Damn you Stephen Fry, why don’t you tweet me back!). I mentioned above that one of the benefits of a formal art education is that it creates a network of important contacts. This is so important, for all walks of life, and social media provides a similar (but not exact) type of network as well.
Artists tend to cringe at the word “networking” but as individuals, communities, nations, etc, we thrive solely through our support networks and by continuing to work together. You can call it networking or you can call it helping each other – the more people you help the more help you get in return. Its not rocket science. Social media creates a platform for a lot of people to come together; to support each other, to network with, and to help each other – and everyone can benefit. And let’s face it; we artists need all the help we can get!
I tried to imagine how I would have set up something like the Trees for Life exhibition if the phenomenon of social media didn’t exist. Even 4 or 5 years ago, the logistics of it would have made it next to impossible for an individual like me to organise this. If it’s used with the right intentions, social media will be the magic of the 21st century.
Finally, after everything you’ve learned so far in your career as a working artist, what kind of advice would you offer to someone who might just be starting out?
Fill your life with art and fill your art with passion and integrity.
“Non, je ne regrette rien” ~Édith Piaf
Thanks again Trevor for taking the time to talk with us today!
Thanks very much to you too, Drew