WITH FRANCIS POWELL in PARIS and... ELSEWHERE by NINA ZIVANCEVIC
Francis Powell comes from England (he always says jokingly “he's neither Scottish nor Irish, but simply plain English”)- however, for the last ten years or so he's been residing in Paris on a permanent basis. He has made a name for himself as a brilliant musician and a composer of electronic music, known as 'DJ WISE' and meanwhile he has been painting beautiful, sort of 'Art Nouveau- Klimt meets Aboriginal Art' paintings, all coupled with printed samples of his own creative writing and steady journalism. He often says that he belongs to a certain eclectic British tradition of visual artists who often turned musicians and then turned something else. The first legitimate question that one can ask at meeting this interesting, Renaissance figure, is – how does he find time and energy to attend to his respective and multifaceted talents.The fact is that he does not attend to any of them superficially or half-heartedly which means that he has a tendency to be equally good in all of his fields of interest. However, this time we will focus on his painterly talent as he has just showed his visual art at the Collective-Coop Gallery simply called L'Usine (the Factory).
Question: What made you attend an Art school? What was it like, what kind of Art College? Did it do you a lot of good in terms of developing your inner calling and, if yes- in what ways? Did the school do any diservice to yr original talent (stifling it, for instance, and so on?)
Powell: I went to an oppressive English boarding school, where my only retreat was in the art room. The biggest encouragement I received was from my art teacher in this hard institution, so when I was of the age when I needed to choose a career, art school seemed the only natural progression. It is hard to say what I gained from art school. When I was doing my degree in painting, the tutors tried to curtail my ardour for painting. They were restrictive, maybe with some reason, I was trying to let out all this energy I had bottled up, from going to this oppressive school from the age of 13-17 and I wanted to translate this into paintings, while they wanted me to paint basic still lives, in monochrome colours, so we were far apart in this respect. It was not until towards the third year of my degree, I was allowed to let rip. Art school gives you a state of mind, in the way you perceive the world, it teaches you to notice things, others might pass by and feel things others might not feel. It drew up lots of emotions, including frustration, rebelliousness. I learnt things not only about art, but also society, as we had some art-related studies to learn, because the course also had to be part academic to justify it’s status. It was also the period when Mrs Thatcher was vehemently against any course that she perceived as being non-profit making for the country (as opposed to science and business courses). There was a dismantling of the art school, which was an insane move on her part, as English art schools have been very productive and have a fine tradition.
Question: At that time, in England- if I'm not mistaken, and you confirmed that I was not,- interdisciplinary approach was big in art colleges (John Lenon, Eno etc). Who in particular influenced your thinking in an interdisciplinary sort of way- meaning, you've been doing music, painting and writing, all at the same time, right?
Powell: I don’t think the tutors at Art colleges, or at least at my one, encouraged students to do any other activities other than painting and drawing and taking photographs. The only piece of valuable advice I ever received from the tutor at my first art school, was to go and a see a film, at least once a week, because films have so much visual information you can feed off. At my degree course, quite a few students had a strong desire to form bands or be part of bands. I discovered a band via friends called “Pigbag” who played this fusion of jazz and punk. One of the members Chris Hamlyn had been a student of fashion at my art college and when I went to see one of their early concerts it just blew me away and I was introduced to a new style of music. I was given one of the first copies of their single “papa’s got a brand new pigbag” and wasn’t just a disciple of their music, I wanted to make similar music to them ,which involved buying a saxophone and learning how to play it. They went on to do world tours and their music received acclaim and their first single can still be heard today and people who love the eighties are still nostalgic about them. I was part of a band for much of my degree course, and then much to my surprise the band was selected to be part of week of concerts featuring bands connected (supposedly) to Art colleges, which went under the witty banner “Pop goes the easel” On our night we supported The Mekons and Strawberry Switchblade, but on one of the other nights the Smiths played. As to writing, when I was at my first Art school, I was fortunate to meet through a friend a writer called Rupert Thompson, who was in the process of writing his first book “dreams of leaving” having been signed to the well known publisher Bloomsbury. His writing style just really grabbed me. I have not seen him in years, but whenever I see he has a new book published I buy it immediately. His style is so dark and often disturbing but full of imagination and invention. I liked his personality and humour. He has lived in many countries, which means he has a strong and diverse backgrounds to his stories. I think it is more the like-minded people you meet inadvertently via Art school, than the art school itself that encourages a different range of disciplines.
Question: Tell us the truth- which one of the three is your favorite activity, and why so? How did you construct your DJ Wise personality?
Powell: It is hard to say. All I can say….painting drives me crazy, it is such an intense activity, I get paint everywhere, not only the target canvas or object, I can be in a wild frenzy…. Writing is calming and needs reflex ion. Writing and composing music is calming, but doing concerts/Djing can be tense and you are conscious of the audiences reaction to what you playing. But if the concert goes well, there is no comparable buzz or feeling. You put your head on the block, when you play music live, but if you get it right it is brilliant. Dj Wise personality just grew by chance. I had not Dj-ed for a long time, some people thought I was a Dj in Paris, and asked me to do an event, so I thought, why not and- things evolved from there. Question: How do these different arts intercept one another and where do they merge?
Powell: I am not sure how they intercept, other than the way time is devoted to each activity. I think my art and music merges on the account the fact that I love different ethnic cultures. There is a strong African element in my art and I have also used African rhythms/vocal chants in my music. Maybe in terms of my short stories, they are very visual and descriptive and surreal with a dark edge like some of my paintings.
Question: When it comes to visual arts, how come that you choose painting over sculpture or any other genre? What attracts you to painting, color? Drawing? what's your "kick" or primary attraction to it?
Powell: I would not dismiss any other Art medium or say one is better than an other. At Art college we were given the chance to do sculpture and in a way there are elements of sculpture in work, I love finding discarded objects in Paris and using them in my paintings. My paintings are not flat and two dimensional and I have also used a lot of pieces of broken mirrors. I love the spontaneity of painting. I did an MA at Wimbledon School of Art in printmaking and I sometimes see a printerly quality in my work, despite the fact I have not used any printing process in years.
Question: You live in a foreign country and you've traveled a lot- how did your living in Austria enoble yr artistic expression? And what did France did for you? Can you name some of major influences in both places?I can see some great predecessors in your paintings, Matisse in terms of color etc..but I am sure there are some others..Can you elaborate?
Powell: I found Austria, a beautiful country, and Vienna a remarkable city, but the people very restricted and with a small country living in the shadow of German mentality. I did try to get some music out and distributed but there was not the same passion and music industry as in the UK, where there are many record labels. France, on the contrary, after just a few years of living there, has creatively proved to give me almost a second life I could never have imagined. In the UK in the early nineties, I was lucky enough to work with some well known Djs, to get records released and to do some big “raves” as was the fashion in those heady days. However, I had some terrible managers who gave me terrible advice. In France I have been lucky enough to realise different activities. To have a one man show in Paris, means a lot. Paris has re-ignited me, it is such a visually stimulating place, there are so many minute details you can see as you walk down the street, such carvings and gargoyles. I have met a lot of interesting people and done some interesting events. The city, rather than invidual painter, is the strongest influence.
Question: What attracts you toward original, aboriginal or so called "primary, primitive forms" in your art , that is, painting? And where does that use of gold leaves come from? Byzantine influences?
Powell:Who knows ? Maybe it was one of my previous lives? There is so much mystery, but at the same time wisdom in so called primitive art. I want there to be spirituality in work and for the element of a painting being a precious object hence the gold leaves.
Question: What are your projects for future, any projects in particular? Meaning, this is the inverse way of asking : how do you see your art developing, in what direction?
Powell: Sometimes with my projects, they seem to come to fruition a long time after my original conception. The idea of making soundscape installations appeals to me a great deal. I hope to work with another artist to create a “bande designe” (cartoons) for a short I have written. Last year I started to get involved with making short videos and this is something I hope to develop, but this is something very time consuming and not as immediate as painting and music.
Question: You are also a writer and a critic, journalist, correspondent... How does it feel to live a language without reference, meaning to listen to foreign language all the time? Nourishing or a reductive experience for you?
Powell: It is strange but sometimes I walk out of my apartment (if my mind is immersed in some creative pursuit) and it takes me a bit of time to take in the fact that I am in foreign country. Sometimes I am tuned into the foreign language, sometimes I am so immersed in m my own world that I don't even hear it!
Question: Is there any other form of visual art that interest you, that you'd like to explore in future (such as film, video, etc...) Or, have you already worked on it and I am not aware of it?
Powell: Yes, principally video, as it offers another dimension combing the visual information of something I have filmed with my music and also poetry/video combinations.
Question: What is it in the French art world that you like, and what is it that you'd like to change? How different is it from the British "art market"?
Powell: I have a friend in the UK, who is a talented artist/printmaker Andrew Tyler whose work I really have admired, and he was in year above me at Art College. I feel he should have received a lot more attention, because his work is so special. Maybe if he had lived in a different place he might have been in a different situation. It is very hard in the UK, to gain gallery recognition and to make a progress as an artist. I was left in limbo for many years after leaving art college, frustrated at the lack of opportunities. I am not a great networker. Of course in Paris, you have to be persistent, but if you can find a galley where you find a niche, it is a good place for Artists. I have also heard that Berlin is the place to be, as it offers cheap studio space for artists and a lot going on.