In conversation with Jan Phethean

I met Jan virtually while organising a digital art fair for the Association of British Naive Artists (ABNA) of which we are both members. I was instantly mesmerised by the energy and brightness of her paintings, by her life journey and her positivity in the video conversation we had. 

So I suggested we make an interview for my blog and I was delighted when she accepted. Moreover Jan agreed to a video recording of it, something I’ve not done before. I usually either sit in the artist studio, ask questions, have a chat and take ones or recently just send the questions and the answers are written by the artist. 

So bare with me on that new venture and excuse my nervousness and constant repetition of the word ‘amazing’, but that’s just what she is! 

It was supposed to be a short interview… oh, well 45 minutes down the line, that kind of short, haha I hope you would enjoy it! 

I’ve also transcribed some questions from the interview and you can read through below if you prefer reading rather than watching:

S: Tell me a bit about your background?

J: I’m an artist, I paint in acrylics. I paint naively, I always have. I worked most of my life as an interior designed and muralist. I used my art as an art director for event dressing and I could always produce visuals for my clients. But 20 years ago I moved to Cornwall to paint full time so I’ve been full time painter for 20 years.

S: What inspires you?

J: I think it’s always been nature. I’ve always just been blown away by what I see in nature and we live in the countryside, we have a wildlife field that we’ve been creating. So it’s all the things that I see in this field that slowly fit into my paintings. 

But for a long time, I would say for about 40 years of my life I painted field systems. So all over the howled there are these field systems but they are gradually disappearing because it’s not a very money-making way to farm and they’ve been destroyed. 

Initially my work was based on field systems for may years but as I’ve gradually started seeing more nature round here the birds appeared. And I’ve travelled a lot, I’ve lived abroad and my childhood was in China and South Africa so all those things have fed into my imagination. 

The Procession by Jan Phethean

S: I did see this morning a picture of a pheasant that decided to visit your garden. Is he going to be in one of your paintings?

J: For sure he is! But he is so beautiful, I look at him and he has this wonderful iridescence – it’s lilac sheen over the chest. And I keep looking at him and I’m thinking ‘How can I possibly reproduce your beauty!’. 

S: How important is the quality of the materials you use?

J: I’m afraid I think it’s very important. I have very large family of nieces and great-nieces and nephews, so whenever I buy them artist materials I buy them the very best. So if you can afford it or you have to be clever. Just a quick story – when I was five in South Africa the next door neighbour gave me a 100 wax crayons. I remember this moment. And they were standing up in a box, and there was a silver and a gold! That was it! I just wanted to create pictures. With colour. 

S: Which is your signature work?

J: I think now it’s the birds and I’ve got one behind me. I’ve got bigger and bigger recently and in fact I really enjoy painting larger. 

The thing is we are all worried about the environment, all worried about what’s going to happen to this beautiful world that we are threatening in every way. And I can see that down in Cornwall where the farmers, I know they have to make a living, but I see the toll it takes. Because lots of birds here nest on the ground. Pheasants nest on the ground. If they’re nesting and the farmer cuts the field like he does in the summer to put winter food for his cattle, the pheasants won’t move, they just get killed. We don’t get many pheasants here for that reason. They, the ladies, usually don’t survive the summer. 

But my work is also about what a miracle it is that we are here, over thousands of thousands of years look at how creatures have evolved, so a lot of the birds images are based on the notion of how minor things change in the appearance of the birds and how this evolves in my painting. I quite often put what people think are birds shadows but to me they are all like a lineage leading back to ‘once upon a time’. 

There is a lot in my paintings. A lot that I worry about. But I don’t really want people to pick up on that. My paintings are naturally joyful. I think that’s just instinct. For years I’ve been obsessed with field systems and the kind of energy that goes through a land: sometimes it’s this kind of S-shape that I do. Some might think it’s water, it could be water, it could be energy. Or the patterns left by water on the sand in the desert. 

So it’s all tied in, different things going on. Sometimes I hide leaves, sometimes I hide insects. I hide things. I like to do it, adding a new layer, so there is always a discovery within the painting. 

The Midnight Garden

S: What would you advise artists that are just at the start of their artistic career? 

J: It is not an easy path to follow but you must stay true to yourself. For me there are no rules. Don’t listen to people who tell you you have to paint in a particular style. In order to be the best possible artist you have to be congruent with yourself.

S: What’s the most valuable advice you’ve ever got regarding your artworks? 

J: There is an artist that I really admire – Russel Hedges. Who is not very well known but he’s a fantastic abstract artist. To me he is a pure artist. He starts his day by writing titles for his paintings over his breakfast. And I think that’s wonderful! He paints in series which I haven’t thought of doing. I have just kept my one theme of field, and once you start to explore series it’s huge… He told me that before I started painting I should get third of all the images in the front of my head. Just put them down on the paper. You know, play a little with the paints and with the images that you have and allow the true part of what you are painting to come through. Which is actually quite an interesting thought, isn’t it? 

Another advice he gave me… You know when you spend an awful lot of time on a painting and when you reach a point where you turn a corner and it’s starting to work and then you do something and the next morning and you think.… ‘Argh, I’ve ruined it!’. He calls that ‘making and breaking’ and he says it’s an important part of the creative process. So I hear his voice when I paint.  

S: Which is your favourite colour and why?

J: It does change. I fall in and out of love with different colours.

I once bought some blue pigment. So it was cobalt blue and it cost a lot of money. It was the powder. And this was when I had my business and I had to do a very serious presentation to a block of flats I’ve been working on for two years! I started painting with this blue pigment a few days before. And then they called me and said ‘Where are you, Jan? You should be here!’ I said ‘Is it today?!’ I was so lost in the pigment I forgot about this very important job. It’s a bit like the work of Anish Kapoor, I know that there has been a lot controversy about his blackest black, but one of his works has this blue inside it, it’s a circular piece, and it’s the kind of blue that you can almost dive into and there is no bottom to it. 

Moon Meadow

S: Do you paint more when you are happy or unhappy?

J: I paint every day I can. And everybody knows, especially my poor husband, if you ask me what I’d rather be doing, it should be on my forehead. 

I used to get up at half past five. It’s before the phone rings! I used to get so much work done by 10:30. Because at that time I still had other consultancy jobs along the way. 

I just used to love free days where the whole day is stretched in front of me and I can paint all day, maybe not even worry about getting dressed or eating. That’s my dream! 

But of course you can’t live like that and it become obsessive so that’s no good either. 

S: What was your biggest challenge in art?

J: It’s lack of room because I like painting big. I have a very big mirror which I think is a real help. And it also helps you to see the work differently. You can see instantly where you need to make changes. So my biggest challenge is to do these quite large pieces in small space. 

I also take photographs of my work process as well. Some of my paintings start with a completely different colour to what they end up as.  

The Arroyo Santa Fe

S: Who is your favourite artist and why?

J: I have several. I think the obvious one is Georgia O’Keeffe. She was an amazing woman and she dedicated her life to her art. And I was so lucky because two years ago I went to her home and stepped into her studio and, honestly, my eyes filled with tears! She was so ahead of her time. Her house was so ahead of its time. Of course, I had this interest because of the interior design background and architecture. It’s an adobe house but she was one of the first people to open it up and put big windows. She made her own table. It’s so simple but it looked really like an office. Everything was really simple in her house but fell along. 

I think of artists as receivers. They are like satellites. 

S: Are you influenced by a particular style?

J: No, I don’t think so. I think found my own technique eventually.  

But I love the work of Michael Morgan, he set up the South West Academy of art of which I’m a member. 

The Arroyo

S: Do you think there is art that’s purely decorative?

J: I think so. I think that about my art. That it’s decorative. I think that the years working with patterns and fabrics have a lot to do with that. 

I can give as an example some of the art in the Middle East, it’s very beautiful and very decorative, so many patterns. And also in India, beautiful work that comes from centuries ago. 

S: Are you collecting something?

J: I’ve got all sorts of things I collect, of course, like all artists. Among other things I collect plants. I am crazy about plants. 

S: Do you think you are born or made an artist?

J: Born. Although we all have that creativity within us, some of us are driven on. 

S: Have you ever created a piece of artwork that you were afraid to show? 

J: Often. It’s a big journey, depending on your personality. It took me a long time to become confident about my art. I don’t know why but that’s the way I am. I was very confident about my business and my design work but when I moved to Cornwall and started painting I didn’t feel at all confident. You have to drive yourself on with self-belief, you have to keep going. 

Moon Meadow

S: What do people say about your paintings?

J: Mostly they comment on the colour. I’m always being told my work makes them feel happy and raises their spirits. 

S: How do you respond to criticism?

J: Well, it’s very hurtful. We are all delicate, aren’t we? But if I get criticism which I have and probably will continue to, it does make me question what I’m doing but then I remind myself that the muscle of self-belief is the most important muscle and not everyone is going to like your work or appreciate it. There is a place for all of us. But we don’t all have to paint the same, do we? The most important thing is to paint what you feel inside and let it come out as accurately as possible. 

S: Which is your favourite place and why? 

J: I absolutely loved the Redwood Forest in America. You just stand there and those trees and the beauty of them. They’ve been there so long some of them, it’s just incredible… That’s what I love. But I worry about the bears. 

Any forest is my favourite place anywhere. 

S: Tell me about an artwork of yours with an interesting story…

J: I occasionally have a painting and I think ‘I’m going to keep that one! I just like it, it’s part of me.’ I do have one that I’ve had a long time. It’s a painting of a chameleon together with a very beautiful flower called passion flower with lots of very unusual tendrils and things. Living in South Africa I had pet chameleons from time to tome, they’d stand on my hand and bounce like this. Fantastic creatures!

memory of africa

You can see more of Jan’s works by visiting her website: http://janphethean.com

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