Jan Walker: Coast lines
PUBLISHED: 14:37 17 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:51 20 February 2013
Stephen Swann meets an artist whose paintings are inspired by the Jurassic Coast
Listening to Jan Walker talk about her life and art, it didn't take me long to realise that here was someone who had thought long and hard about the nature of painting and what it means to be a creative artist. It didn't take me long either to realise that Jan had a keen sense of how such talk can quickly descend into clich at best and meaningless pretentiousness at worst. And so every now and then she would stop in full flow and laugh and question out loud what she was saying. It made for a wonderful meeting, a delicious mixture of the serious and ironical, and a chat that was scheduled to last an hour or so lasted nearly three...
Jan has always been involved with art. As a teacher she taught art for some 25 years, and having retired some three years ago she now works full time as a painter. Jan was born in London in 1952 and brought up in Devon by the sea.
"I suppose that is where my love of the seasons comes from - the sea and the sky, the feel of the sun and the wind," she explains, looking just a touch sheepish as she does so, as if what she is saying strikes her as sounding a bit cheesy. "My father, a geography lecturer with a particular interest in geology and geomorphology, has given me an added dimension to appreciating the wonders of landscape and coast."
Jan trained as an art teacher and spent her early years in the job near Ely in the Fens. Here, together with her husband, David, also a teacher, she restored an old farmhouse and got into self-sufficiency. "I stopped teaching to be at home when my two boys were growing up," says Jan. "I began doing batik and had several exhibitions of my work. I would often use red dye: anyone going into our old bathroom would think there had been a terrible massacre!"
Although they had a great affection for the Fens, both Jan and her husband missed the sea, and so when a job came up in Dorset on Portland, David applied for it and got it. "We moved here more than 20 years ago," Jan tells me. "I got a job as an art teacher at Thornlow Senior School, which is where my two kids went, and when that closed in 1999 I got a job at a prep school near Blandford. I stopped teaching nearly three years ago and now work full time at my painting."
Today Jan and her husband live in Rodwell, Weymouth. From her home she can walk to the shore of Weymouth Bay in only a few minutes. It is a walk she does at least once a day, whilst other times will see her going further afield, both east and west, along the Jurassic Coast. "I feel immersed emotionally as well as physically in the natural elements of the coast," says Jan. "Talking to my dad about the geology of the Jurassic Coast helped me to understand why the landscape looks the way it does. It's thrilling to think that the rock which is now exposed is millions and millions of years old. And geological change is still going on, sometimes very suddenly - look at the land slips around Lyme. How do you do all this justice on a bit of canvas?"
I ask how she goes about trying to do just that. "My paintings are not intended to represent specific locations, but rather to embody the shapes, movement, textures, moods and character of the coastline that impress upon my memory," explains Jan. "I don't work from photos. I might draw on the spot - drawing makes you look - but it is mostly memory. I have to have time to mull, to use my imagination. When I begin to paint I have no completed image in my head, the painting evolves and takes on a life of its own. It might pull in one way and I have to take it back. I get totally involved - I am thinking but not analytically. It's about expression and feeling and intuition.
"The act of applying the paint, layering, scratching back and applying more paint, echoes my response to the processes that continue to shape the coast. The painting becomes a journey and exploration of past events and connects to the original physical and geological inspiration as well as an experience of the present," she explains. Then she laughs, before adding: "Oh hell, does all that sound a bit pretentious?" I tell her that it does. More laughter, then this: "All talk about art descends into this sort of stuff. In the end it is the work that should do the talking."
Currently Jan has turned her attention to the Ridgeway. She has been asked to contribute work in connection with the Ridgeway Project and this will involve showing at the 'Spirit of Place' exhibition from 16 March until 17 April at the Dorset County Museum. "I have been walking the Ridgeway," Jan tells me. "I need to keep going back, to focus on it. It's all a journey, a journey that I'm really enjoying."
This journey of Jan's is one we should feel privileged to accompany her on, for the paintings that result from her engagement with the places that inspire her are very beautiful. Not only that, because they depict appearances in a way that does not rely on direct representation, they manage to say profound things about those places, things elusive and half-understood, yet which somehow touch us all.
Jan is also exhibiting until early March at Whitestones, Portland, and at The Engine Room Restaurant at Poundbury Garden Centre from mid-March until mid-April. You can find out more by e-mailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I don't work from photos. I might draw on the spot - drawing makes you look - but it is mostly memory"
"I feel immersed emotionally as well as physically in the natural elements of the coast"
"The act of applying the paint, layering, scratching back and applying more paint, echoes my response to the processes that continue to shape the coast"