The process of making art itself is very helpful. It teaches you a lot about discipline, abstract thinking and getting out of your own head. It also makes you very self-aware, which is a huge component in recovery from a mental health probleM.
Please share a bit about you and your artistic background.
My name is Josh and I’m originally from Wales. I was born and raised in Swansea and then moved to Nottingham for University. I moved to China for a bit before coming back to the UK to finish my studies. I then moved to London once Uni was over.
In terms of artistic background, I have very little experience. I’ve only been painting for about 3 years and have no formal training. I actually had very little interest in art growing up. When you grow up in a working class background, the focus on artistic endeavours and creativity isn't really there and it’s not seen as a route to follow. I studied Politics at University and when I moved to London with my partner, I ended up working in recruitment with no real focus on creativity.
I’ve always been fairly creative in terms of writing and I’ve always been interested in poetry and prose. I was sitting at my desk one lunchtime and I came across an article in The Guardian. They used to have this series where they would look at a famous painting and dissect it. The painting in this particular article was by Egon Schiele. I’d never heard of Egon Schiele before but when I saw that painting I thought, “I need to do that, I need to paint like that, I want my art to be like that.” That’s what got me into figurative art and portraiture. In the beginning, the only face I was really comfortable painting was my own because if I messed it up it didn’t really matter.
'Self Portrait with Ferns’
My art developed from there and I started to do a few shows. The first show I did was 'Stigma' with the Perspective Project, which was a big breakthrough for me. It was a big success because I sold one of my pieces, which was great for my confidence. That show really helped me to not be so shy or conscious of myself when I approach galleries and when I’m looking to put myself out there. My career in business and recruitment also informs the more commercial side of how I approach my artistic practice.
Over the lockdown period not much was happening. It gave me a chance to focus on what I was doing and find my own style. I think when you idealise artists you can easily mimic them and there’s nothing of your own in it. There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s always good to think where’s me in this. Lockdown was good for that because it allowed me to have the time and space to explore that.
You mentioned that you come from a working-class background and I see that you’re now doing a project based on that experience as well. Can you tell me a bit more about this project?
Yes, it’s a real passion of mine. With my politics background as well, I’m really interested in exploring things through a class lens. I was thinking about the gallery system in the UK and how restrictive it is in terms of cost for artists who don’t have the means of paying to have their art on the wall of a gallery. It’s a huge amount of money for anyone, let alone for someone who is working full-time and doesn’t have a family who can support them. So I wanted to start telling working class stories through the medium of portraiture.
I think in the media the working-class are kind of a punch-line these days. It’s seen as regressive or not very sophisticated. I think capitalism, individualism and the lack of support for people really plays a role. There’s so much anger in the world but no one knows where to direct it. In this project I really wanted to highlight the diversity that exists within a contemporary working class. Not a Maxist vision of a proletariat but what the working class is like now in 21st century Britain. It’s really to see if we are truly living in a post-class society or if people still identify as working class and the issues that come along with that, such as mental health issues. Also looking at how it impacts people day-to-day, do they feel they miss out on opportunities? It’s really just about hearing those stories.
At the end of it, I want it to be a show and then see where it goes. If you’re passionate about a subject then the end goal can come later. It’s not a job I’m working toward, it’s a passion project that I would eventually like to see realised.
'Unsubscribe From The Resurrection'
Could you tell me a bit about your mental health?
My major association with mental health issues is around body dysmorphia. I have a really fluctuating image of myself where it’s very hard to have a mental picture of what I actually look like. That’s why I focus heavily on self-portuature because it really allows me to know myself, to know my face and body, to know how it changes and how it reacts.
When it comes to weight, I’ve still got a very interesting relationship with food where I’m very restrictive sometimes but then indulge in binges. My weight has fluctuated a lot throughout my life. If you go through one or two crazy body transformations, it leaves you with a really unstable sense of what you look like and how others perceive you as well. Some days I’ll wake up and feel fantastic. Then other days I’ll feel like a mess and I don’t want to go outside because I don’t want others to see me the way I perceive myself. It’s all very much an issue of perception. I think portraiture and figurative art has really allowed me to explore that a lot better.
Coming off from these issues of body dysmorphia, there are supplementary things that come in. For example, low self-esteem, high anxiety, constantly thinking about how you are perceived or what you look like, always trying to get a glimpse of what you look like in the mirror to make sure your hair is alright or your belly isn’t sticking out. I’ve also suffered from a couple bouts of depression throughout my life and I had a really unhealthy relationship with alcohol up until about 2 years ago when I went teetotal. I think it always starts with one issue and everything else grows from there. Once you’ve got one, the way that makes you feel opens the door for a whole litany of other issues and complications.
It’s a growing problem now, which may be because people are more aware and more open to talk about it, but I think the society that we live in certainly breeds huge amounts of anxiety. If you have people living month to month on a salary that can barely cover their bills, of course they’re going to be anxious, depressed, worried or susceptible to addiction. I think it all comes from an overly capitalist society. Obviously some people will have predispositions to mental illness but that’s really exacerbated by our society.
If you look at mainstream media, mental health is always discussed as a very individualistic thing. “If you’re depressed then you need to go to therapy.” But if we think about why therapy actually exists, it’s just to make you a functional member of society again so you can go back to work and recontribute. Therapy is a capitalist tool to get people back into society. I’m not saying it doesn't help people, of course therapy helps people. I’m in therapy myself and I find it very useful. But if we look at the origins of Psychology and mental health, therapy is there to rehabilitate and re-introduce a previously unusable workforce back into the workforce. I think that is still prevalent today.
You mentioned that you are in therapy and I was wondering if you feel that art also helps with your mental health and wellbeing?
Yes and no. It’s not made everything better. For instance, if I'm doing a piece specifically about my body dysmorphia and I'm trying to imbue some darker feelings into the piece of work, I really have to re-feel those feelings in order to convey them in the artwork. Sometimes it can be pretty damaging and I can work on a piece which sends me into a bit of a spiral. I wouldn’t necessarily say it ‘helps’ in the traditional sense, but it does make you face unconscious things you are avoiding.
One of my last pieces ‘Unsubscribe from the Resurrection,’ shows me with my hands cut off and topless. This piece brought up a lot of anger for me. It brought up a lot of internalised anger about why it took me so long to get to a point in my life where I was even remotely happy with the way that I looked. Why didn’t I do that earlier? How much did I miss out on? Why did I have to go through all that pain and suffering to get to this point? An interesting school of thought in Psychology comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, specifically about the concept of an ‘eternal return’. The question I keep coming back to, and is a big influence throughout my work, is: ‘If you had to relive your life exactly the way it has been lived, in order to reach the point you’re at now, can you fully accept everything that has happened to you?’ This theory puts forward that until you can fully accept everything in your life, good or bad, you’ll never be able to move past trauma. That’s something that comes up a lot in my work. I’m constantly re-examining myself and re-examining the trauma I have been through. I think practicing art helps you to confront those feelings. The more I have done it though, the deeper I’ve had to go to look for stuff and find the deep reservoirs. It’s a form of therapy in itself but other forms of therapy work as well.
As someone who is self-taught, I'm always finding new ways to improve and re-evaluate something. The process of making art itself is very helpful. It teaches you a lot about discipline, abstract thinking and getting out of your own head. It also makes you very self-aware, which is a huge component in recovery from a mental health problem. You first need to reach a certain level of self-awareness to be able to move on, and art certainly helps with that.
As you touched on your artistic process, it may be a good time to discuss the artwork you sent over and the meaning behind that piece.
The piece is called ‘birth of a contributor.’ It’s kind of a self-portrait but it’s not a traditional self-portrait. I actually started working on that piece by accident. Previously, I was working on a different, very big piece. I was living in quite a small flat at the time and I didn’t have any space to hang it so I was working on it on the floor. I was bending over and threw my back out so I couldn't work on the piece anymore. The inspiration for ‘birth of a contributor’ came one day when I was reading and happened across the work of a French artist who is very into line work and sketching. It's very rough-around-the-edges kind of work and I really loved the freedom of that. Also, one of my favourite Egon Schiele paintings called ‘Dead Mother’ shows a transparent view of a woman's stomach with a dead foetus in it. I wanted to see what I could do with those ideas of innocence and death, and death once you’re born.
My work always starts with a very abstract idea and then I think ‘How can I visualise this, how can I convey this in an understandable way?’ But not too understandable, you want it to be something that gives people thought. Then my normal process is usually to do a very detailed sketch which is almost a piece on itself. I want to make sure the shading and the portions are exactly right so I know where the paint is going to go when I start painting. But this time I just sketched something out quickly, I was in pain too from the injury which didn’t help.
'birth of a contributor'
In the painting, the figures in the bottom-left of the painting are all me, but also not me. They’re all different versions of me. There’s one where I am very overweight, one where I used to smoke and then one of me with long hair which I have now. They are all dressed in suits and ties because I worked in a very corporate environment up until now. I wanted to convey that they are
waiting for the child in the top right-hand corner of the piece to be fully realised, so it could become one of them. They are waiting for the child to be born to then take it along with them on their path and they would decide what would happen to that child. It also speaks to pathways to success in society and that you need to have a job and need to contribute. That’s why it’s called ‘birth of a contributor’ because that’s all we are now as humans; we consume and we contribute. That’s our function and purpose. I wanted to convey that the child’s face is already losing its form. The other figures are all faceless and I wanted to make it look like the child’s face is losing the features of itself. Even in-utero, before it’s born, it’s already got a predetermined end point.
Could you speak a bit about the colours you choose to use in your work?
My relationship with colour has always been quite interesting in the sense that I’ve always looked at colour as thematic as opposed to being descriptive or physically there in the context of the painting. I like to use a lot of crazy colours, it’s deeply bred in my portraits. I use a lot of purples and now I’m experimenting with using a lot of green in my pieces. Green often contrasts nicely with traditional flesh tones.
The themes that are on my mind quite a lot at the moment are decay and disease. I’ve borrowed that from a Weimar period painter named Albert Birkle, who’s one of my favourite figurative artists. I came across one of his paintings in a Weimar exhibition in the Tate a few years ago, which showed a rotting, decomposing Jesus Christ figure and I really loved it.
'Self Portrait in Recline'
I also enjoy primary colours and my early work is very colourful. I was being bold by even starting to paint, so I thought if I’m being bold to paint, let’s paint boldly. Before I was a lot more expressive in terms of colour, putting in deep purples and angry reds into the face. They are very thematic and remain thematic to this day, it's just that the themes that I’m exploring have changed. I’m much more wedded to what the colour means than if it should be there. Should it be there thematically, rather than should it be there because it’s in my reference photo.
The biggest change is that I have ditched the black outlines that I used to put in a lot of my pieces. I still toy with that idea sometimes and I’m coming to a point now where I’m able to marry that desire to compartmentalise everything. If you look at a very realistic or renaissance style piece, you can see that all the colours are nicely blended together and it really creates that illusion of someone sitting there and looking back at you. However, what I wanted to do in my work is to shatter that illusion and really break down faces into their core parts. There’s a psychological route to that as I think we’re all made up of different traumas and different experiences which make us whole. But what happens when you lose some of that and you’re left with all these little fragments? My portraits are what I imagine that person to look like.
Do you have any upcoming plans, projects or events?
I’m really focused on the working-class project we discussed earlier. As part of that project I am interviewing people to get their experiences and to build up a biography of the person that will then inform the painting. I am always on the lookout for shows that are accepting new artists and open calls. Living in London it’s quite easy to take yourself down and put some work up on the wall. I am also represented by Blankspace, an online artist-centric platform. They are fairly new so they are only working with a few artists at the moment and I was lucky enough to be one of them from the outset. I’ve already sold a couple pieces through there which is good. I’ve also worked with different galleries throughout London.
At the start of 2020, before the pandemic hit, I was really focusing on making that year the year I try to get my own solo show. It didn't matter to me how big it was or where it was, but then the pandemic put an end to that. The working-class project is a good vehicle for that now and I think that would work really well in an exhibition space. The motivation is coming back now to paint, to work and to be productive. I’ve been having a bit of a low spell recently in terms of my productivity.
I always look forward to working more with the Perspective Project. I think you do so much for artists like myself, not only giving them a platform for their art but giving them a platform for what’s behind the art and what the art means for them. I think it’s important to hear those stories and I’m really happy to be involved.
To see more of Josh's work, check out his instagram