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In the studio with John Roome

In this interview we chat to Durban based artist John Roome about his studio and artistic process.
View John's artworks online here>>>

Tell us a bit of about your background, education and experience - how many years an artist?

I started studying art formally in 1971 at Rhodes University graduating with a B Fine Art in 1974 and a Masters in Fine Art in 1976. Later in 2014 I obtained a Doctorate from the Cape Peninsular University of Technology. I lectured in Fine Art at the Durban University of Technology from 1977 until 2016 .  I was head of the Fine Art Department there for a number of years. During all that time, in addition to lecturing, I developed my own practice as an artist by participating in numerous group shows and held a number of solo exhibitions.

What is your favourite material to work with?

In my career I have experimented with many different materials and methods ranging from oil, acrylic, watercolour to industrial paints such as PVA and household enamel, paper pulp, and numerous printmaking techniques. At the moment my favourite process is relief printing.

Tell us more about your creative process.

I respond on a gut-level to the world that I interact with on a daily basis. Many of my ideas come to me while I am walking or driving to my studio. I usually start by taking photographs of things that catch my eye and intrigue my mind. I then interpret these images by drawing them - usually fairly big charcoal drawings. I also make small sketches directly from life. Using these drawings as well as the photographs to guide me, I use the relief print process to produce limited edition prints. This process is quite risky and full of surprises. The sense of not being in total control is an important part of my creative process. I see myself as collaborating with the process. Each layer of colour results in a surprise, and it is only when the last layer is printed that you know whether the print is successful or not.

How has your practice changed over time?

Essentially I have always worked from direct observation of the world around me and still do. What has changed over time is an increased use of photography for reference purposes although I still draw extensively from life. My choice of materials has changed constantly as I love to experiment with different media. At the tender age of 69 I am beginning to work with clay for the first time and am excited to see what develops.

What does your work aim to say?

I seldom start off with a particular “message” in mind. I work fairly instinctively and respond to subject matter that intrigues me visually and emotionally. Once I start working with that subject matter I begin to discover what it has to tell me and then try to express this through my interpretation. My aim is chiefly to express an emotional response to the world around me.
What are some of the key themes you explore in your work?
At the moment my key interest is in the relationship between nature and the built environment. Trees that either just survive or in some cases even seem to flourish in a pretty hostile urban setting, seem to talk to me.  In a way my prints are portraits of trees. I use titles like Sentinel or Hardiness to emphasise this anthropomorphic approach.

Where do you get your inspiration for your work?

From inside and from outside. It is a relationship between me and what I see around me. The work of other artists, living and dead, also inspires me. I am constantly looking for new approaches and different ideas.

Tell us about your studio.

I have two studio spaces. One is a fairly small and cluttered space at home where I can think and draw and do research on the Internet. I can work there at any time of the day which is useful should I get the urge to work in the middle of the night! My other studio is about 3 kilometres away in a light industrial area. I rent a space in a building along with other artists, architects and designers. I have equipped it as a printmaking studio with a press. This is where I do my bigger works and my printing. It can get messy and cluttered but printmaking does require a certain amount of cleanliness so it is a constant push and pull between creative chaos and the order required for producing professional prints.

Do you prefer to work with music or in silence? And if you could only choose one song to play in your studio for the rest of your life, what would it be?

It depends. Sometimes I really enjoy silence especially if I am concentrating on the technical aspects of printmaking that require extreme precision. Other wise I love having music. I mainly listen to Jazz as well as Classical music. The energy of Jazz, I think, helps to energise my work.
Only one song? Mmm, that would be difficult. It would have to be two. On a Classical day it would be a Mendelssohn violin concerto. On a Jazz day it would be anything by John Coltrane.

You have held 12 solo exhibitions and participated in numerous group exhibitions over the years – which was your favourite and why?

Difficult question. I think it would be my second solo exhibition in the early 1980’s because that was when I began to find my own signature or ‘voice’ as an artist. It was also the first time I received a really positive and encouraging review in the press.

If you couldn't be an artist, what would you do?
Drink and be very unhappy.


What do you collect?
Paintings, prints, drawings, small sculptures. I mainly have collected work by colleagues and students.


If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be and why?
No I cannot say. I love all kinds of trees for all kinds of reasons. All I can say is I would like to be a healthy tree that is not in danger of being felled.


Looking Down The Road Ed.1/4
What does success look like to you?

Success for me has less to do with financial gains and more to do with recognition and appreciation of what I do. Someone recently told me that my work made her see trees in a totally new way. That to me is a sign that my work was successful. If I can change how people think about the world around them then I have achieved a lot.

And lastly, what advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Stick to it. The road will not be easy and there will be hardships. But if you love what you do it really is worth it. If you are in it purely to become rich and famous forget about it. A career as an artist is a calling. You have to be passionate about it and you have to be prepared to work hard. You may have to do other things at times to make money, but don’t let that distract you from your goal. Commitment to your passion will eventually pay off.