Posted on Leave a comment

Richard Jeferies: Creating artistic communities

Richard Jeferies: Hand of Artists: Five of Hearts
Richard Jeferies: Five of Hearts

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery
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.

Richard Jeferies: Hand of Artists - Fun Face Boards
Richard Jeferies: Hand of Artists – Fun Face Boards

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.

Richard Jeferies: Remembrance mural, Sheerness
Richard Jeferies: Remembrance mural, Sheerness

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.

 

Richard Jeferies
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,’

Richard Jeferies in John Buchan's The 39 Steps at Medway Little Theatre
Richard Jeferies in ‘The 39 Steps’

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.

 Battle of Britain Lace, Healthy Living Centre, Isle of Sheppey
Sheppey’s Battle of Britain Lace

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.

Sheppey: Battle of Britain Lace art project
Battle of Britain Lace art project

‘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.’

Art classes
Art classes

 

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.’

Richard Jeferies: Art classes
Art classes

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.

Community Art: Beachfields, Sheerness
Community art project at Beachfields, Sheerness

 

‘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!”

Community Art Project at Beachfields, Sheerness
Community art project at Beachfields, Sheerness

 

 

‘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

Preparing for the mural: Chatham High Street
Preparing for the mural

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.

Mural Chatham High Street: Tiny clay bricks
Tiny clay bricks

‘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!

Richard Jeferies: Chatham High Street Mural
Chatham High Street Mural

‘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.’

Richard Jeferies: Chatham High Street Mural
Chatham High Street Mural

 

 

 

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.’

Medway FUSE Festival: Frankenstein's monster
Frankenstein’s monster

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.

Richard Jeferies: Pavement Art
Richard Jeferies: Pavement Art

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.

Four Shores Project, Sheerness: Restoring Ros Barber's poem
Restoring Ros Barber’s poem

‘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.’

Richard Jeferies: Bee Road mural, Sheerness
Richard Jeferies: Bee Road mural

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.

Richard Jeferies: Fighting Temeraire mural Sheppey
Richard Jeferies: Fighting Temeraire mural

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.

Richard Jeferies: Alice Maze
Richard Jeferies: Alice Maze

 

 

 

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.

Richard Jeferies: Rainbow steps, Sheerness
Richard Jeferies: Rainbow steps

‘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.’

Drawing projects
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!’

Richard Jeferies: #gothonmykeyboard
Richard Jeferies: #gothonmykeyboard

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.’

Richard Jeferies: Goth on my keybord says:
Richard Jeferies: Goth on my keybord says:

 

 

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.’

Richard Jeferies: Colouring sheets
Colouring sheets

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.

Richard Jeferies: Luna the Librarian
Luna’s first outing

‘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.

Richard Jeferies: Terry Pratchett frame
Richard Jeferies: Terry Pratchett frame

Making models
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.

Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar window
Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar window

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.

Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar attic
Richard Jeferies: Advent calendar attic

 

 

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!’

Richard Jeferies: Kite
Richard Jeferies: Kite

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.

Richard Jeferies: Hare
Richard Jeferies: Hare

‘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:
Facebook:  www.facebook.com/SquarecubeArtisans 
Instagram:  #gothonmykeyboard  
Website:
http://squarecubeartisans.co.uk/
Kickstarter ‘Saucy Toni Colouring Book: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/squarecubeartisans/saucy-toni-colouring-book

 

Posted on 2 Comments

Joe Machine: From Marine Town to The Holy See

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

My mum was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1930. She lived there until she was about 12, when her family moved to Gravesend.  At the age of 90, she remains one of the town’s biggest fans. She acknowledges that Chatham is ‘not what it was before the dockyard closed’ but she still has fond memories of a lively town full of  sailors in their crisp uniforms, on shore leave. Very much On the Town.

My mum (aged 4) on the beach at Margate with her sister, mum and Gran

Just up river from Chatham, at the mouth of the River Medway, is Sheerness, another former naval town and seaside resort. Mum remembers day trips there with her dad. They used to set off from Sun Pier in Chatham, sit on the front eating rolls with butter and cheese, which they brought with them. And then they’d have their dinner at the Co-op cafe  – fish and chips –  served with ‘real tomato ketchup’, which was  really hard to find, apparently, and so was a real treat.

It’s funny how those impressions of places that we have as kids or as visitors to a place can contrast so starkly with the experience of the people who live there – how we can miss the more threatening undertones that are everyday reality for others.

Like my mum, Joe Machine (born Joe Stokes), one of the founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog) was born in Chatham, but over 40 years later, in 1973. But there, any similarities with my mum’s experiences end. As a child, Joe was exposed to extreme violence and had every reason to fear sailors.

Joe Machine: I'll Cut You
Joe Machine: I’ll Cut You

Growing up in Marine Town
‘I was brought up in pubs and clubs and my father’s business was near to some pretty unpleasant pubs,’ Joe remembers. ‘By the time I was 7 years old, I’d seen a lot of alcohol fuelled violence. Sailors to me were men of violence. I used to see fighting in the pubs, windows going through, pretty unpleasant stuff for a young child to see.’

Joe went to school in Marine Town, in Sheerness, where he was badly bullied.

A lot of the kids at Joe’s school had fathers in the Royal Navy.  Joe tells an unsettling story of going round to a friend’s house to play when he was just 8 years old.

‘I went into this terraced house and his dad was cooking in the kitchen,’ Joe says. ‘I can remember seeing his dad’s blue serge Royal Navy uniform and square rig hat hanging up there. That really did make an impression on me.

‘So I went upstairs playing with this kid for a while and when I came down to use the toilet his dad said, “Come over here”. He asked me if I got bullied and when I said I did, he said “Look I’m going to give you something that will stop the bullying”.  So he got a toothbrush and held it over the gas stove and he melted one end of it. Then he got two razor blades and he set them in the melted end. He said, “Look lad, I’m going to give his to you. Take it to school with you and if anyone upsets you, slash them in the face with it”

‘I was absolutely terrified, completely and utterly terrified. I wanted to get rid of it. I couldn’t take it home, so I dropped it down the drain. The next time I saw weapons like that was many years later, when I was 16, in young offenders institutions.’

Joe Machine: The Drinking Contest
Joe Machine: The Drinking Contest

Drawing on experience
Young Joe’s way of dealing with the violence he witnessed was to draw.  At first school he drew scenes from his own experience – pictures of the things that scared him.

‘While other kids were drawing what they were supposed to, I was the kid drawing people with blood jetting out of their necks, people getting glassed in the face, people getting their eyes popped out,’ Joe explains. ‘I think making drawings of the kinds of violent acts that I’d seen was a pretty healthy way of dealing with things, but it wasn’t seen that way at school. They stopped me drawing and I had to go and sit at the back of the room away from everyone else.’

Things got worse for Joe as he moved to the next class. He wasn’t allowed to draw at all without having the subject matter checked first. Things came to a head when a teacher humiliated Joe in front of the class. His drawing of the incredible Hulk had spilled off the paper and he had coloured in some of the table as well. Joe couldn’t take any more. He grabbed a blackboard compass and stabbed the teacher in the hand with it. He was removed from the school aged just 6.

Throughout the rest of his, sometimes chaotic childhood, Joe continued to draw. Outside school, he worked for his father in the arcade, but when he wasn’t sweeping up or cleaning fruit machines, he was doodling and drawing.

‘Drawing saved me,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what I would have done without art. The things I saw as I grew up really did affect me. They worried me. They disgusted me. I produced thousands of drawings, most of which ended up in the bin. Drawing for me was a kind of therapy.  It was like an externalised part of what was going on inside my head. It helped me make sense of it.’

Joe Machine: Self-portrait breaking into public house
Joe Machine: Self-portrait breaking into public house

Thievery
As well as showing an early talent for drawing, young Joe also showed an aptitude for theft. Even as a very young child, when his dad took him shopping, Joe was caught putting things into his pocket.

‘I’ve got no memory of it but my dad says he picked me up and shook me and a load of batteries fell out of my pocket,’ Joe says. ‘Most of my friends, their parents were alcoholics or drug addicts so they’d be out stealing. Everybody was at it. It was just natural – and I took to it like a duck to water!’

Joe started with easy targets – he stole from his mother’s purse, his dad’s arcade, local shops – but as he got older, he got more ambitious and took more and more risks.

‘It was like a drug to me,’ he reflects. ‘I think I kind of justified it as, I was trying to claw something back. I was trying to make something of myself in a society that I thought wasn’t up to much and had failed me at every level.’

For a while Joe made good money from a ‘pretty foolproof’ method of breaking into arcades. He bypassed the alarmed steel shutters on the front doors by dropping down through a hole cut in the felt and baton roofs . But his luck finally ran out when he tried to steal a till from a greengrocers in broad daylight. He cut through the electric cable but didn’t realise that the till was also secured to the wall by a chain.

Joe Machine: Ear cut off, numb with drink
Joe Machine: Ear cut off, numb with drink

‘I eventually managed to get away with the till,’ Joe recounts. ‘I got round the corner, where I dropped it. So I had to leave it there and run off. But, of course, they knew who I was. I got grassed up and about a day after that the police came to my mum’s flat and that was it.’

In 1989, Joe was convicted of theft and sent to  Borstal, Young Offenders Secure Training Centre where he was allowed to paint.

‘I carried on painting sailors and things like that,’ Joe says. ‘But I still couldn’t quite paint what I wanted to because everything was highly censored.’

Bill Lewis, the Medway Poets and Stuckism
After two years in prison. Joe went straight back into crime. But things had changed while had been away. His parents had split up and Joe was living with his dad. He was still paining but also writing.

‘I’d been writing for years as well as painting,’ says Joe. ‘I had this silly idea that I was going to be a novelist and I’d written loads of stuff all of which was rubbish – really, really bad.’

Fed up with him hanging around and getting into trouble, Joe’s father suggested that he join a creative writing class.  The class was taught by Bill Lewis – member of the Medway Poets and, as it turned out later, another founder members of the Stuckists (see previous blog)

The creative writing class folded after a short time because numbers were low so, instead Joe and two others met at Lewis’s place in Chatham. After a while, the other two students dropped away, leaving only Joe and Bill who became good friends. Bill introduced Joe to the Medway Poets and, in the early 90s, Joe started writing and performing with them.

Stuckists protesting against the Turner Prize
Stuckists protesting against the Turner Prize

Through that connection, Joe met Billy Childish and Charles Thomson and with them and others, went on to found the Stuckists. It was possibly an unlikely alliance. Joe was one of the only members who hadn’t been to art school. But although his background was in crime, rather than punk, he identified with the punk ethic of the Stuckists – rebelling against the established order. He also enjoyed being in the company of other compulsive obsessive painters – ‘people who just couldn’t do anything else’. And he shared their contempt for conceptual art.

‘The more I thought about  Brit Art, the more I thought that it was utter rubbish – contrived, prefabricated rubbish,’ he explains. ‘I was painting stuff from my life. I didn’t know how to do anything else. What they were doing was as far away from honesty as you could possibly get. It was nihilism. It had no belief whatsoever. They were doing it for awards. They were doing it because they wanted to be famous.’

Joe Machine: Blonde Strippers
Blonde Strippers

Joe started exhibiting with the Stuckists. His work was given prominence and he did well. He became known, particularly his ‘sailor paintings’, depicting the violence of his childhood and the sex and pornography that he was exposed to too early, in the homes of his friends’ parents. In 2006, he had a sell-out show at the Spectrum Gallery in London, where most of his paintings were acquired by the David Roberts Art Foundation

Through the Stuckists, Joe finally had an opportunity he craved to work through his early experiences through his art. The more he painted, the further away he became from being involved in crime. 

‘I realised then that I had no need to be doing some of the things I was doing,’ Joe explains. There was no point in me putting my energy in that direction, it was either going to end up with me being dead or in prison fo a long time.  So I slowly turned more to painting than the other criminal stuff and once I started giving my energy to that, it gained its own momentum and it worked out very well for me.’

Joe Machine: My Grandfather Will Fight You
Joe Machine: My Grandfather Will Fight You

Family matters
Joe’s mother was an Ashkenazi Jew and his father was an English Romany Gypsy. They were both from East London originally.  Joe’s great grandfather was a professional bare-knuckle boxer, fighting in a travelling boxing booth owed by the family. When he retired, he became a boxing promoter.

His paternal grandfather was a professional boxer, but he never spoke about his career with Joe.

‘He never talked about violence but I knew it was there because that was his life,’ Joe explains. ‘All my other relations, my cousins, were terrified of him because he had this kind of glowering violence about him. But that never came across with me. He was always kind to me. I was his favourite grandson and I loved him fiercely.’

The subject matter of Joe’s early paintings, his previous criminal activity and his post-jail work as a bouncer on the violent rave and ecstasy scene have caused some commentators to mark him out as a tough guy too.

Joe says they’ve got him completely wrong: ‘I’m not a tough guy. I’ve been involved in violence but whatever I’ve done has been a reaction to the things that I’ve seen. I certainly didn’t feel like a tough guy when I was a kid. I felt vulnerable and that fear of violence has never left me.’

Joe Machine: Diana Dors
Joe Machine: Diana Dors

Spirituality and sucess
Becoming involved with the Medway Poets and then the Stuckists were key steps on the road to a new ‘more holistic’ life for Joe.

In 2000, after exhibiting with the Stuckists, Joe was announced as winner of the Stuckist’s Real Turner Prize show and his painting of Diana Dors, painted in response to a chance meeting with Dors as a child, was used as the cover image for the original Stuckist book. He was gaining recognition as an artist and able to devote more time to painting.

‘It was a big thing for me. I’d gone from seeing all the stuff I’d seen, being in prison, working in situations where I was threatened with guns and knives, to sitting in rooms where I could be at peace, I could paint, and it had a restorative, cathartic element to it,’ Joe says.

Fellow Stuckist, Charles Thomson describes Joe as a very spiritual person and Joe himself talks about his ‘great faith in God’.

‘I’ve always had the sense of the hand of God in what I was doing. Even as a child I knew there was something else, something was there, a very definite presence,’ Joe explains. ‘There was no epiphany or red pill moment, the realisation has gradually crept up on me that it has always been there.  I’m not a religious fanatic. I don’t do organised religion. I’m not born again. But  I speak the truth when I say I don’t believe in God, I know God is real because of my experiences of Him.’

Joe Machine, Edward Lucie-Smith
Joe with Edward Lucie-Smith, Machine Evolution show, 2013

The Stuckist protests against the Turner Prize and the wider art establishment (see previous blog) grabbed the headlines and attracted a lot of publicity for the movement. Many art critics were hostile, but independent art critic Edward Lucie-Smith took an interest in their work and in Joe’s work in particular. He described Joe as his ‘favourite Stuckist’. Lucie-Smith has gone on to hail Joe as ‘one of the most important British Artists’ and ‘the successor to Francis Bacon and William Blake’.

Joe too holds Lucie-Smith in very high regard.

‘There’s nobody like him,’ says Joe. ‘He’s incredible. He’s a legendary art critic and he’s a maverick. Although he works with the art establishment, nobody tells him what to do.’

Joe met Lucie-Smith for the first time at a Stuckist exhibition in 2008, and from 2012, the pair began to collaborate more closely. Lucie-Smith promoted Joe’s work and encouraged him to broaden his artistic horizons.

‘Edward sat me down and said “I like most of your work, but I don’t like all of it”,’ Joe laughs. ‘I think Edward wasn’t very keen on the sailor stuff – the sex and violence – because he thought I was going to be pigeon-holed. He helped me see the potential of working in other areas.’

Joe Machine: God and Tree
Joe Machine: God and Tree

Joe  has since illustrated two volumes of Edward Lucie-Smith’s poems, Making For The Exit and Surviving.

In 2012, Lucie-Smith encouraged Joe to enter the Cork Street Open Exhibition in London. Joe won the Grand Prize for his religious painting God and Tree. The painting shows God standing next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from Genesis. The idea came from some work that Joe had been doing with Charles Thomson about Kabbalah, matters of spirit and meditation, but it was Joe’s son, Joseph, who finally gave him the confidence to paint it.

‘My son said, “You do this stuff so much in your life, why don’t you paint God?”‘ says Joe. ‘I told him, I can’t. I’m not really supposed to depict God. I’m Jewish. But Joseph said, “I don’t think God would mind”. So I did. I took his advice and painted it, and that’s when things really started to take off for me, artistically.’

Joe Machine: Last Blossoms of Spring
Joe Machine: Last Blossoms of Spring

Religion and mythology
Spurred on by his success and supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe gained the confidence to tackle a greater variety of themes in his painting, themes as diverse as the Russian Revolution and landscape paintings, inspired by Kentish woodlands.

In 2013, again supported by Lucie-Smith, Joe held  a solo, retrospective exhibition Machine Evolution, at the Cock ‘n’ Bull Gallery, beneath the Tramshed restaurant in Dalston, featuring some of his Russian Revolution paintings. The restaurant, owned by celebrity chef Mark Hix, recently went into administration.

The Tramshed restaurant

Ironically, the gallery was named after an installation by artist, Damien Hirst, bête noire of the Stuckists. The piece, a Hereford cow and a cockerel preserved in a steel and glass tank of formaldehyde, was on permanent display in the restaurant.

‘The irony wasn’t lost on me,’ Joe laughs, ‘and I think Edward could see it as well!’

 

The exhibition was a great success and, in conjunction with the show, Russian investors brought out a major hardback book of Joe’s work.

Joe Machine, Steve O'Brien
Joe with Steve O’Brien, Brittanic Myths book launch, Mayfair

It was at a private view of Machine Evolution, hosted by The London Magazine  that Joe was introduced to magazine editor, academic and mythographer, Steven O’Brien, who is now his agent.

In 2015, Joe and O’Brien collaborated on a book Britannic Myths  which retold ancient stories from Britain and Ireland through text and painting. The collaboration generated a number of London-based exhibitions of the  paintings included in the book.

Also in 2015, Joe was invited to become artist-in-residence for the Prometheus Project in Trieste, Italy.  This  project,  the brainchild of Italian concert pianist Claudio Crismani and Edward Lucie-Smith, was based around Alexander Scriabin’s last musical work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, reinterpreting it through music, visual art, literature and history.

‘It was a great time and resulted in three wonderful shows for me,’ Joe recalls.  ‘I had a sailor show but also new paintings of Greek Gods and the myth of Prometheus were exhibited in the Arts Centre at Trieste harbour and at various other venues around Trieste.’

Joe Machine: St Guthlac Assailed by Demons
Joe Machine: St Guthlac Assailed by Demons

Joe now refers to myth as ‘his preferred genre’.

‘Over the years I’ve done so many paintings working through he stuff about sex and violence,’ Joe remarks. ‘But  more recently, my work has moved further and further into religion, spirituality and mythology so that is now about 90 percent of what I do. There’s no way when I was first involved with the Stuckists that I would have painted some of the stuff I’m painting now. I still do the other stuff sometimes, but now I’m more whole than I used to be.’

Joe is now working on a series of 30 paintings showing  scenes from the Arthurian legends for another of Steven O’Brien’s books,  and has been commissioned by mythographer and author, John Matthews, to produce a series of paintings featuring the characters from the old English poem Beowulf, which will be used to illustrate a series of oracle cards.

Joe Machine: Joseph of Arithmethea
Joe Machine: Joseph of Arithmethea

Among his other roles, Steven O’Brien is a curator for the Vatican Arts Trust. Through him Joe has been invited to exhibit a new series of paintings Saints of Britain in the Vatican, Rome and Certosa di Tresulti monestary, Collepardo. The exhibition is planned for 2021, pandemic permitting.

Joe is still astounded by his success. ‘Who would have thought that a boy from the back streets of Kent, with no prospects, no hope, a criminal record, would through art and through his own momentum, propel himself into getting a show in the Vatican,’ he says. ‘And that’s pretty much because I followed my star. I kept painting because it is the only thing that ever helped me. And it’s only by sticking to my guns that I’m in the position I am now.’

Bedtime stories
When Joe first met the Medway Poets it was as a poet, not a painter and he has recently returned to writing, alongside his art.  He still writes poetry and he has recently written that novel. It is called DeadTown Boy and and tells the story of Joe’s childhood up to the age of 18, when he was released from Borstal Young Offenders Secure Training Centre.

But Joe now lives in Somerset with his wife and five children. His current writing project is a novel for children The Invisible Kingdom based on the bedtime stories he made up for them when they were very young.

Joe Machine: The Krays
Joe Machine: The Krays

‘It’s an allegory of World War II, where my children are characters in the story,’ he explains. ‘When I was a kid, my dad used to sit on the end of my bed telling me stories about the Kray twins, who he was friends with in London during the 1960’s. It wasn’t the kind of Rupert the Bear stuff most kids got.’

Joe is trying to use his past experience in a positive way these days, including  through working with charitable groups and young offenders.

‘I have to square my past  with being a father now and doing the right thing by my children,’ Joe reflects. ‘There’s no way you can be be involved in the kind of life I had and maintain a good relationship with your family.’

Now Joe feels positive about the future.

‘It’s wonderful, I do feel very happy and very, very lucky now,’ he concludes. ‘Because I’ve been able to turn around an obsessive, compulsive need as a child to produce work that was based on my experience.  I’ve gone from having to do that to that, to wanting to do that and then absolutely loving doing that. It’s an obsession in another way I suppose, but it’s a good obsession.’

Website
You can see Joe’s work on his website: https://www.joemachineart.com/

His most recent show Unseen Spring was a virtual exhibition with the London Magazine

The Arthurian Cycle exhibition will be at the David Game College, Aldgate, London in November/December