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Those of you that know me know that I’m a big champion of community art. But Richard Jeferies, the artist featured in this blog, has ‘community’ running through him like a stick of rock, which is apt because he does live beside the seaside, in Sheerness on the sunny Isle of Sheppey, on the Kent coast.
The Kent art community is pretty well networked and artists from all over bump into one another from time to time. Richard designed a playing card and painted a couple of his ‘fun face boards’ for the launch of my Hand of Artists community arts project in 2015 (click on the link and scroll to the bottom of the blogpost for a slide show). He also contributed to the charity Christmas Card project that I organised in 2019. I turned up for one of his chalk art events, which, unfortunately, was rained off. I’ve also participated in his online drawing projects.
The coronavirus lockdown has been difficult for all artists, but it must have been particularly difficult for Richard because so much of his art is made with and for other people.
If you know the Isle of Sheppey, you will probably be familiar with Richard’s work, stretching along the coast or dotted around the island. You might also stumble upon his work if you are out shopping in Chatham or taking the kids to school in Gillingham.
‘Some people have said, there can’t be an inch of wall locally I haven’t painted,’ Richard laughs.
And if you live on Sheppey, there’s a good chance that you’ll know the man himself.
As well as being a familiar figure around the island with his ‘Artist’ tee shirt and brushes, Richard has become an integral part of his community.
When he moved to Sheppey from London in the mid-80s, Richard joined the local art group, eventually becoming chairman. He also got involved with the local Little Theatre, painting sets at first and then moving on to acting and directing. Theatre has been a passion of Richard’s ever since, he jokes, he played one of Humpty Dumpty’s soldiers at primary school and was allowed to wear his red and gold trousers to the Christmas party!
‘Acting is another art form for me,’ he says. ‘It’s like drug in a way. You can’t resist it. It draws you in and then you can’t stop doing it,’
In 2014, while he had an art studio in Chatham, Richard auditioned for a role in a comedy adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps at Medway Little Theatre.
‘In an astounding piece of miscasting, the ruggedly handsome 37-year-old hero, Richard Hannay, turned out to be me in a wig!’ he exclaims. ‘It was so much fun. Very energetic, lots of quick costume changes, slapstick and improvisation.’
Since then, Richard has continued to channel his energies into the community where he lives: designing carnival floats; leading community art projects; entertaining passersby with his window displays at Christmas; and even DJ’ing on Sheppey FM for a while.
Community art workshops
Richard has no formal art training. He started painting as a child alongside his father who painted in oils and, when he left school, trained to be a draughtsman, which is how he still earns his living today.
Although, like most artists, Richard says he would give up his day job if the right art project came along, he believes that his day job and his work as an artist are complementary.
‘It’s great because I draw as a hobby and I draw as a profession,’ Richard explains. ‘My professional knowledge of perspective and scale and even just laying out a page feeds into my art, and the art feeds back into my technical drawings, in that I know when a drawing is telling the right information.’
In the early 2000s, as a result of contacts through the local art group, Richard became involved in a project to commemorate the Battle of Britain. It was inspired by the ‘Battle of Britain lace’ which hangs in the Sheppey Healthy Living Centre. The lace is one of 38 commemorative laces made by Nottingham lace-making company, Dobson and Browne, in the mid-40s. Laces were presented to those whose invaluable contributions to winning the Battle of Britain hastened the end of the War.
‘We came up with the idea of photographing the lace, breaking the photograph down into individual squares and then getting as many members of the public as possible to recreate that square in their own style and in colour, rather than in the black and white of the lace,’ Richard recalls. ‘It was a resounding success. Lots of people of all ages got involved and, for many, it opened their eyes to things that they might never have had the chance to do before.’
The finished work, comprising two hundred individually designed squares, was laid out on the tennis courts at the Healthy Living Centre, where it could be viewed by the public from the upper gallery.
The interest and enthusiasm the project generated, led the council to fund some evening art classes for beginners, and some creative workshops, around the Battle of Britain, drawing on local knowledge about the Second World War. Richard led these sessions and then, subsequently, a series of 10-week community art courses. And although he really enjoyed teaching, artistically it was a steep learning curve for him.
‘I had to learn techniques in so many media,’ Richard says. ‘Everything from drawing, watercolour, acrylics, pastels, oils, even egg tempera – where you mix ground pigment with egg yolk, as Michelangelo did when he painted the Sistine Chapel.’
But it was worth it.
Richard loved it when novice artists found a medium they loved and were inspired to continue their creative journey.
‘Some members of those early classes have gone on to have artistic success of their own, and I’d like to think I’ve encouraged them slightly,’ he says.
Richard remembers, in particular, one man who came to classes with his wife.
‘It was clear that he was just there to keep his wife company,’ Richard says. ‘He didn’t really join in. Until one day, everyone had a small canvasses and some oils. And during that evening, I noticed that people were leaving their desks and wandering over to see what this man was doing. And he was having the time of his life creating this fantastic sunset using a palette knife. The next week, his wife took me to one side and said, “Thank you for that. It has cost me a fortune. After that class, we went out and bought all the materials and he hasn’t stopped since!”
‘And I thought, that’s exactly what it is. You can’t teach art per se. Art is an expression, it’s heart not mind. What I can teach is how to use the media, but in the end the spark comes from the individual.’
The arts funding that made those initial workshops so inclusive is no longer available and Richard is concerned that the introduction of fees for art classes excludes many people from opportunities to be creative.
‘At that time we were able to offer workshops for free. Now you have to charge people £20 a time, and you need at least 20 people in a class to cover the overheads, and many people just can’t afford that,’ Richard reflects. ‘That goes directly against what I try to achieve, which is opening up art to people who would not normally have had the opportunity to have that creative experience. So now I try to do that, whenever I can, through my public art projects.’
Public art projects
Richard’s first big public art commission came in 2013. The local council put out a tender for a mural to be painted on some hoardings, owned by the Emmaus Church, on Chatham High Street, . Richard’s winning idea was to use the space to portray Chatham past, present and future.
‘But I didn’t want to say, this is the mural you’re going to have, I wanted to include local stories and even to get local people involved in the painting,’ Richard explains. ‘And as we were working, we had people rolling up and saying, that looks fun, I wish I could join in, and I’d say, well here’s a brush and some paint, off you go!
‘And as I was painting I thought, maybe we could include some of the local people out shopping in the mural. So as people were passing I asked, would you like me to put your picture up there, or perhaps you’d even like to paint it yourself? By the time we got to the end, one panel had become six panels and we had 250 faces!
‘Hundreds of people were involved in that project – young offenders who helped us with the base coat and 150 children who contributed paintings or messages on tiny clay bricks, as well as other artists and the general public. And that, for me highlighted the whole success of the project. And it was what really gave me the buzz for public art projects.’
Inspired by the success of the Chatham Mural Project, Richard decided to try to make a go of it as a professional artist.
He rented a Studio at Sun Pier in Chatham and set up Squarecube Artisans. (The name came from a project where Richard decorated a foam board cube in a different way each day, which earned him the name ‘Squbie’ among his son’s friends.) But although Richard continued to be offered commissions, there was never enough work to enable him to give up his day job.
‘What I really needed was an agent,’ Richard says. ‘ I hate chasing work down and I hate forms. I just want to do the painting stuff.’
Despite not making it as a professional artist, public art commissions have continued to come in over the years and Richard has remained true to his principles in their execution.
‘There’s a large community of artists locally and so I always ask them if they want to join in,’ he explains. ‘I’m not precious about it and I’m not here to take the credit for everything. I like other people to be involved.’
Following the success of the Chatham High Street mural, Richard took part in the Medway FUSE Festival for a couple of years. One year, working with other artists, he created larger-than-life cut-out characters to line the Chatham High Street. These figures proved more popular than their creators imagined.
‘The Frankenstein’s Monster cut-out, designed and painted by artist Riven Gray, was stolen that day and was apparently last seen on a train heading for London!’ Richard laughs.
Other community projects followed, such as annual pavement art events along the long sea wall on Sheppey, involving both local artists and the public.
In 2019, Richard was commissioned to restore a poem written by Ros Barber. It had been painted by Simon Barker, fourteen years previously, onto the risers of the massive concrete steps on Sheerness sea wall, as part of the Four Shores project. The poem, which faces out to sea, recalls a ship carrying explosives that was sunk there.
‘The action of the salt water and sand movement had eroded it,’ Richard explains, ‘So I repainted the whole poem which, in many cases, involved recreating the text from scratch and even repositioning some lines, because sand movement had covered the original locations.’
The pandemic strikes
In 2020, all public involvement in public art events stopped because of the pandemic.
‘Last year was a real bummer,’ says Richard. ‘ We had four or five projects that we were hoping to kick off with and they would all have been community projects but, because the money had been allocated in the local council budgets, I ended up doing them either by myself or with just one other artist.’
Working alone outside can have its disadvantages. As he started work on a mural of a giant bumble bee on the sea wall at Beachfields. Richard was approached by the police.
‘I was engrossed in my work when a police car pulled up and an officer told me they had received a report of someone drawing graffiti on the wall,’ Richard remembers. ‘ Luckily I had all the correct permits, so they went away smiling.’
The twelve foot high mural, which took Richard three days to complete, signals the start of the ‘Bee Road’ at Barton’ Point Costal Park, as part of the Making a Buzz for the Coast run by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. The route is marked by smaller bees along the way.
Minster Parish Council also commissioned Richard to recreate JMW Turner’s famous painting The Fighting Temeraire on the sea wall. The original vessel, after fighting in the Battle of Trafalgar, was towed up the Thames by a paddle steam tug , before being broken up for scrap in Rotherhithe. Turner, who was a regular visitor to Sheppey, painted his original masterpiece there.
Other lockdown projects have included painting a set of concrete steps in descending tones of the rainbow, to make them more visible to people with sight loss, and an ‘Alice Maze’ for children, on the seafront, inspired by the original Tenniel illustrations .
Unfortunately, the maze was later removed by the council.
‘It was a great tragedy that, having devised and painted a fun, interactive floor mural for children to enjoy, it had to be removed because someone thought a children’s play zone was a good place to ride his bike,’ Richard says sadly. ‘So when the cyclist slipped over, he decided to claim against the council and the maze had to be power washed away to prevent further “slippery when wet” incidents.’
When Richard is not working or painting, you’ll find him at home, drawing or making things.
‘I go through phases,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I can’t think of anything to draw so I’ll start making something. Then, when I’ve got no inspiration for making something, I’ll start drawing again. It means there is always an outlet if I really need it. And of course there are days when you have so many ideas, you do nothing!’
The days that Richard does nothing must be few and far between. Once, when he was bored at work, he drew a small ‘goth’ on a Post-it note, stuck it on his computer keyboard and posted it on Facebook and tagged it #gothonmykeyboard.
‘The next day I had another idea and she became a recurring theme,’ Richard explains. ‘Sometimes she was just a silly cartoon and sometimes she might have a message. I found that she could say things that I wanted to say and people responded to her. She became the voice of inclusivity.’
Later, when Richard came across the charity SOPHIE (Stamp Out Prejudice Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere) set up in memory of Sophie Lancaster, who was murdered in Lancashire in 2007 for being a goth, he published a fundraising book for the charity, featuring a collection of his #gothonmykeyboard cartoons, along with poems by Jaye Nolan and Alison Eley.
‘People suggested that my goth character would be good for that,’ he says. ‘She never came down hard on anyone.’
During lockdown, last year, Richard featured another character, Luna the Librarian, in a series of free colouring sheets for children, published via Facebook. Luna made her debut in a mural that Richard painted on a boarded up window at Sheerness Library.
‘One of their large plate glass windows had been smashed and was boarded up awaiting repair,’ Richard remembers. ‘Having walked past it for several weeks and seen the boards still there I asked the library if I could paint it. They agreed and until the glass was fixed, Luna was on show.
‘Because of that project, I was commissioned to paint another mural in the children’s area of the library.
‘The colouring sheets were just my little bit of something I could do in the first lockdown, a) to keep myself sane and b) to help other people. I ended up producing nearly one a day, almost 50 in all. Some of them were exhibited at The Beaney Art Gallery in Canterbury as part of their Life in Lockdown exhibition.’
Richard has also illustrated a book for an ADHD charity, ADHD Awesome which was published this year and is now raising funds via Kickstarter for an adult colouring book of ‘saucy seaside postcard style drawings’ featuring Instagram model @SunnyToni85.
In 2009, as a challenge to improve his inking skills and develop positive drawing habits, Jake Parker created Inktober. Each day in October, artists were given a single prompt word as a stimulus for a drawing.
Richard was inspired by the idea and helped found a Facebook Group called Drawing Days, where members – including me – followed a word prompt each day and uploaded our themed drawings.
The daily drawing format has since been picked up by all kinds of groups and each year the Discworld forum, one of the forums of the late Sir Terry Pratchett, issues daily Terry Pratchett themed prompt words for Disc-tober.
In 2020, Richard, a great fan of Terry Pratchett and his books, decided to challenge himself to make a model, related to the prompt word every day. He then arranged the whole set of models in a tiny handmade room – a library containing all Pratchett’s books.
Tiny rooms had featured in Richard’s work before.
During December 2018, he transformed the front window of his house into a giant advent calendar, adding one themed room each day. There was a library, a 60s themed room, a kitchen, a Terry Pratchett room, and an observatory, complete with a telescope to commemorate the late astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who Richard once met while on a visit to the Herstmonceux Observatory in East Sussex.
‘He was as eccentric in real life as he came across on the screen,’ Richard recalls.
‘He was filming a show and I asked him for an autograph. He agreed, reached into his left pocket for a pen and came out with a pair of glasses. So he reached into his right pocket and came out with another pair of glasses. He held them both and said, “Oh, I was looking for them!’
Everything in each room in Richard’s advent calendar was handmade. The final piece to be added was an attic containing ‘old computers and all the usual paraphernalia you’d probably find in your own house’.
‘It was great fun to do,’ says Richard. ‘And it certainly created a lot of interest, especially with youngsters and their parents on the school run.
Recently Richard has been experimenting with making models out of tin foil using scrap cans collected from his local beach.
‘I just had a feeling that I could make something out of tin cans and feathers seemed the easiest, so I made a kite which I’ve got in my garden,’ Richard says. ‘I’m now building a hare, also out of tin cans, for my mum, because she wants that for my Dad’s memorial grave. And a couple of weeks ago I was contacted by the owner of a local holiday park. He saw the kite and wants me to do a tin can sculpture for him, to promote recycling.’
Just before lockdown, Richard completed a painted ‘Elmer the Elephant’ to go into Elmer’s Bog Heart of Kent Parade to raise funds for the Heart of Kent hospice. The parade was to have taken place last summer, but has been postponed until this June because of the pandemic.
For the future, Richard is just looking forward to the end of lockdown so that he can continue with his community art projects.
‘My art is no different from thousands of other artists,’ he says. ‘I create stuff that somebody else can easily do. But if I can inspire somebody who didn’t necessarily think they could do it to do art, I consider that a resounding success.’
You can find out more and follow Richard on:
Kickstarter ‘Saucy Toni Colouring Book: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/squarecubeartisans/saucy-toni-colouring-book