Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
I am so fortunate to be able to connect with so many inspirational women through Fab after Fifty. Janice’s story is one of the most moving and inspirational I have shared to date.
I am now a very, very 69 years young. I was born in Manchester with my two sisters Suzanne (who is a dancer and choreographer) and brother Stephen (who trained as an architect and musician), and Julie,(who achieved her degree in languages).
I knew immediately that painting would become my major passion. Paint flows in my veins….
I have been married twice and suffered an abusive relationship for many years after that. I met the love of my life, Roy, in 1996 and he passed away from cancer in 2012. We never married, but we did receive a special blessing at his hospital bedside. I have no children.
I had always dreamed of the Caribbean and I have been travelling to Barbados for half my life now. In 2000 I was able to buy a beautiful gallery/working studio there called ‘Brocklands’ in St James, it’s built on a hillside and overlooks the panoramic views of the crystal blue ocean. It is truly idyllic. I have frequent visitors of the furry kind and they are very mischievous and love eating my ripened mangos!
Green Monkeys are wild and hang about in large family groups. They are quite beautiful but not to feed, although I do like to paint them.
What were your main activities before turning 50?
Since the age of ten I have been a painter, loving colour and movement in my work. Being creative is what I do. I love writing poetry too though my painting takes first place.
I have also started writing a play but have a long way to go with it yet.
What have been your main activities since turning 50?
I would say that despite having had at least one major operation every year of my life, my commitment to painting has strengthened with each debilitating stage of my illness. When my fingers could no longer grip the brush, I discovered I could clutch it between both my hands, and that is how I paint today. I severely broke my painting arm a few years ago but through sheer will power I have managed to get my arm working perfectly again.
Why did you become an artist?
As a very sick child at the age of ten I first started to paint from my hospital bed. I had been diagnosed with Still’s Disease which is an acute form of arthritis. At that time, I was not able to walk.
My father played a big part in the start of my painting career as he had purchased me a set of ‘painting by numbers’, but I quickly decided not to paint by numbers at all and did my own thing on the canvas board provided. It was a step in the right direction. Focusing on the painting was a distraction from the excruciating pain I was in. My arms and hands would not work at all and it was an effort of will through gritted teeth to force my left hand to move. I wanted to produce something beautiful out of the pain. It’s a great positive working through pain and I recommend it. It helps focus away from your troubles.
Where do you find continued inspiration for your art?
I am inspired by shapes and movement. I am not afraid of colour and once I start on a piece everything flows. My West Indian ladies are curvaceous and provocative. They hold a strong presence. These works from Barbados are all about body language: long dresses and floating silken wraps, black velvet skin tones against the golden sands and cerulean blue seas are so magical. I am so inspired when I paint transparent fabrics and seek to capture the impact of light on colour.
The prevailing theme within these works is my attempt to paint the easterly winds of the Caribbean.
I love detail, but sometimes it’s not what you put into a painting but what you leave out which complements the subject matter. In recent years I have been painting figurative work which is quite minimalist, with strong lines. Often my faces have two sides to them; one side strong and pronounced and the other reflecting the inner child within us.
Did anybody in particular inspire you?
I adore the pre-Raphaelite painters. I love the detail, the colour and the romance which they portrayed.
I love any art that transports the viewer into another space or time, which is incredible.
I also love Chagall, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso – all of whom were geniuses. They all portrayed beauty in all its forms.
How has your style evolved as you’ve got older?
I think my work has evolved in strength of line and subjects.
My art is everything to me. My passion, my energy. It is paint which flows in my veins, not blood. It is wonderful to be able to create something from a blank canvas. Each time I start a new painting it’s an incredible journey into the unknown.
My work has been compared to Picasso and Modigliani – which is immensely flattering. I do like to experiment with different styles in homage to the masters.
How do you meet the challenges of your physical limitations?
Three years ago I was offered a very unusual commission to paint four huge murals in the Colosseum Suite at the luxurious Nirvana Spa in Sindlesham in Berkshire. When I saw the four giant spaces (which were twice my height) I was rather daunted. I am only 4’ 10” so it was a huge undertaking.
I have never steered away from a challenge in my life. I knew that I would be able to do it, with the right people around me. I was so excited. I knew my physical strength would be tested to the limit – I have had major operations for every year of my life, but I have a very strong physical core, which helped me through all the twisting and bending as I stretched to reach every inch of the arched spaces.
I chose to paint the ‘Goddesses of Life’ which are inspired by Greek and Roman myths and depict the four seasons. The project took four and a half months to complete and involved working from a special arrangement of gantries which my colleague, Russ, helped me to climb so that I could access each part of the paintings.
Have you ever felt like ‘giving up’ – if so, what enabled you to continue?
I have never felt like giving up. My art is my life and it breathes life into me. When you have challenges in the physical sense you have to work even harder……..NEVER give up.
What have been your career highlights to date?
I have been lucky enough to have my work displayed at prestigious galleries across the world and there are two pieces of mine hanging in the White House. I was incredibly excited to exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery in 2010 and HRH Prince Charles attended a private viewing of my work.
What have been the greatest challenges you have had to overcome?
The first greatest challenge was to deal with the relentless boredom of being trapped in a hospital bed at ten years old. I was in too much pain to move much or get up and it was extremely boring and depressing to be away from home. I came from a very happy childhood which I am truly blessed……BUT! I spent most of my time fantasising about tropical islands, dreaming about life beyond the stars. I had so much time on my hands, lying in bed for a year and a half the first time I was taken into hospital as a child!
I started to read about the Gods and Goddesses of the Greek & Roman myths. In 1974, I began my first set of ‘Mythology’ paintings. Each one took three months or longer to complete.
My next biggest challenge I would say has been completing the ‘Goddesses of Life’ murals at the Nirvana Spa.
Do you have any plans to retire?
Of course not! Life is exciting and I love that my Art gives so many people much pleasure over these many years.
In the art world – is getting older viewed as a negative or a positive?
Getting older is viewed as a positive as one’s talent is naturally shaped by life experiences. I think it’s accepted that as the artist matures, their skills and range of influences will be widened as well as the scope of experimentation.
What has been the best aspect of your journey so far?
Many doors are opening for me which is truly exciting. I wanted to be a missionary years ago and would still so love to share my testimony with the world. Not for vanity or self-gain but to reach out and to show with a positive attitude that God can move mountains for people.
I never give up hope even after all these years of failed operations to keep me walking.
Professional recognition has meant the world to me and having my work displayed in the Saatchi Gallery and hanging in the White House was the ultimate endorsement of my efforts along with a TV documentary on me that was aired in 2007.
However, being able to put something back to helping the lives of others has been an equally wonderful part of my life’s journey.
I have held art therapy classes in prisons, psychiatric hospitals and nursing, empathising with those for whom surviving is a constant struggle.
I am especially committed to helping children and the disabled and actively support the NSPCC, Crisis, the Royal Variety Club and well as children’s charities in Barbados. I am proud that one of my paintings raised more than US $250,000 in 2006 in support of disabled children.
What was /is your biggest fear?
That my body will give up and me and I will lose the ability to paint. I’m coming pretty close to that now but I remain positive and optimistic.
What other opportunities have materialised as a result?
I am very proud that my second book, a coffee table autobiography illustrated with colour plates of my art, My Life on Canvas, is now in print. I have also met HRH the Prince of Wales in the course of my career and attended a Buckingham Palace Garden Party, but I would say having the chance to buy my own home in beautiful Barbados has been one of the great benefits of my success.
Which of your previous experiences (if any) did you draw upon the most?
I have always been inspired by the Greek and Roman myths, even though my work is itself, individual. I love the classic sculptures depicting the Gods and Goddesses from the ancient world. They are at once powerful and poetically beautiful and their shape and form influences everything I paint, even my gorgeous Barbadian big-bottomed gals who inspire me when I am home in Barbados!
I believe that any medium can be used to create art in whatever shape or form. I once created a larger-than-life nude on the beach at Bathsheba in Barbados, using smooth curved rocks to make a 3d shape. I adore representing female nudes because it represents not only a perfect female form which is classically beautiful, it is how I see myself in my mind’s eye. I don’t think of myself as someone with a crippling disease.
What are your next steps?
I am currently working on a TV series that involves retracing my late brother’s year long journey throughout India, Thailand, Goa, Bali and beyond and ending up in Australia. He was an accomplished architect and kept a diary recounting his amazing experiences, some which I hope to relive and also capture on canvas.
He was also a brilliant musician and had his own band called ‘Innocent Bystanders’
If you are asking, do I regret that I have been battling Still’s Disease since the age of ten when I had hopes of becoming an athlete, then it’s not a question that means anything to me. I believe that we are sent trials in life for a reason and in my case, it has been the catalyst which started my life long love affair with art.
What 3 tips would you give other women over 50 looking to do something similar?
If it makes you happy, do it! Never let pain, disability or age stand in the way of doing something that inspires passion and challenges you.
A little bit more about you……
We will always need romance, dreams and expectations. I am a serious romantic and the thought of being gathered up in somebody’s strong arms and swept away from the hustle and bustle of life’s endless challenges is wonderful.
All-time favourite book or film?
I adored ‘Avatar’, not just for the expertly realised graphics but I had such empathy with the hero, who rediscovered his ability to run and walk within the virtual dimension. I also enjoyed ‘Spartacus’, which I found both powerful and very moving.
One of the best pieces of literature I have ever read is Silk, by Alessandro Baricco. The writing is exquisite and the reader follows every step of the protagonist’s travels into a closed Japan in the mid nineteenth century.
How would you describe your own style?
My personality and personal style is captured in my work. It’s diaphanous, colourful, feminine and vivacious! As an artist I have the ability to capture special moments in paint. I love movement, curves and interesting shapes. As I get older, my work is evolving; it’s becoming simpler and more colourful. Every part of my emotions, including my humour, are illustrated on canvas.
Three words that sum up your life over 50
Still exciting and challenging. Living with passion and pain.
I Love meeting people of all walks of life. I was invited to Longleat to spend some quality time with the Marquis of Bath and loved every moment. He is an amazing man, who has an incredible creative mind. When he greeted me he was like a huge Viking King, arms open wide with a wonderful warm smile – to greet little me at 4 foot 10!!
As a person, I put all my thoughts, words and actions into positivity. I think that’s the secret of life.
I also believe in eating a healthy diet and nourishing the brain and body, as well as looking after my spirit.