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Interview with Jo Lewis

Artist Jo Lewis works primarily with paper and watercolour and uses the ebb and flow of the River Thames as inspiration for her painting. Drawn to shorelines, the places where water and land collide, her work has evolved from a life-long love of being in the landscape.

What is your artistic background?

I took an Art Foundation in Edinburgh before moving to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Valence, France to pursue a degree in painting and then moved to London in the early 1990s. For 7 years subsequently I attended Maggi Hambling’s weekly painting class and she is a brilliant teacher.

What artists do you admire and have influenced your work?

For years I have looked to Chinese ink landscapes, and Japanese scroll paintings. The contemporary Yang Yanwen is a favourite. It’s about their use of the watercolour and ink, their approach to space, and the journey they take the viewer on through the landscape. And of course working with watercolour in the landscape I love many of Turner’s watercolours. At the moment the work of Richard Tuttle reminds me of the importance of keeping a sense of playfulness and experimentation at the centre of my practice.

Water is an important theme in your work. Why do you think this is?

I’m not sure why, and that’s maybe why I’m still doing it. It’s both experiential in that it’s about being in that place of flux and movement at that moment, and yet it’s also indexical, in that I’m trying to find ways to let the water ‘write’ its own record. Water makes up two-thirds of our bodies: there may be something in that connection.

Describe your process of working?

The majority of my work is made outside. I carry my watercolours, inks and paper to the waters’ edge, put on my big wellies and take it from there. There is a simplicity and almost ritualistic routine to the preparation but once there every day is different dependent on tides, weather, and of course the water. I love that Heraclitus quote, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Although, of course, it should say woman too.

How did this way of working evolve?

I think it evolved from a time when I was doing a lot of walking along the river Thames, and the Grand Union Canal, thinking about how I and my materials interact with the landscape and, more specifically, the water. I slowly moved from making work on the paths and shores to actually putting myself and my paper in the water, creating situations/collaborations whereby I can then ‘welcome’ the water’s unique intervention.

Which materials do you prefer using and why?

Watercolour is a medium I love – it is very ‘honest’ in that everything you do is evident, and yet it is also a very humble and portable medium. It doesn’t require a room full of equipment or expensive stuff – I can literally pack a small rucksack and go. I feel the same way about paper and ink. Artists working in the landscape for centuries have used these things and I like thinking about that connection and the continuity of these media through time.

What work will you be showing at this year’s Artists’ Open House?

I will be showing work made since last year’s show. Some of it was made during the time I was working on a large commission I received last summer that is now installed in Beijing. This is a new series of quite large paintings. Other works will be new smaller work, which I hope will give a sense of where my work is taking me now.

What do you like about being involved in the Festival?

I always love the fact that people actually bother to come and see the work. The only downside is that because I’m here I don’t get the chance to go out and do the same thing.

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