Lucy Jones may well be the best British painter who you’ve never heard of. There is no doubt about her disability, because she was born with cerebral palsy. But she has no intention of identifying as a disabled artist. She is a simply an artist, and a very, very good one at that.
I hadn’t heard of her either, until a friend of mine tipped me off about her show last year at Kings Place, London. The next chance I went into the Gallery to see it and it blew me away, walls full of vibrant self-portraits and landscapes.
Lucy Jones is an expressionist, oozing hot Mediterranean colours that we would normally associate with someone like Matisse or Derain. Her canvasses are full of energy. I was so excited that this painter was doing work of the first order, had never been part of the disability arts world, but was a leading British painter, that I tracked her down to discover more. I met her in Newcastle, where her show transferred after London. We had dinner with mutual friends, and then met in a tea shop in Whitley Bay to talk some more, dragging our wheelchairs and walking frames behind us.
Lucy Jones was born in 1955. She told me about her early years, crawling around after her dad, painting the skirting boards. While her sister went to ballet class, she went to the Byam Shaw Art School in Notting Hill from age 7. When she won a prize for her work, her mum was gob-smacked, she said.
Lucy went to Cheyne Walk Spastics Centre, and then to King Alfred’s, a progressive school in North London, “the only one that would have me”, she says. There, her humiliations were about dyslexia. Nobody could understand why she couldn’t read. Luckily, there was a very good art department. Even more fortunately, she got an amanuensis when she reached O levels, and suddenly she could express by dictating what she could never have written down. Having only ever got an A for effort, now she was getting good grades and feeling like a real person. Geography at Durham University beckoned.
It was an old boys network, she told me. It was all about going to the pub – she couldn’t get into the pub, being disabled, and partying till the early hours wasn’t for her.
But Lucy Jones chose art school, and went back to Byam Shaw for a couple of years , where she says that the best thing she was taught was colour theory. Then she went to Camberwell School of Art, where she got a first, and to the Royal College for her MA followed by the Rome Scholarship for Painting, which took her to Italy for two years. After that, she taught at Chelsea College of Art and the Slade. But she never became part of the metropolitan art scene. It was an old boys network, she told me. It was all about going to the pub – she couldn’t get into the pub, being disabled, and partying till the early hours wasn’t for her. She pursued her work in a cold, East End warehouse studio until she was spotted and taken on by a West End gallery.
Ten years ago, she moved to Shropshire. With her family, she had often holidayed in South Wales. One of her earliest memories was of being sat in a rock pool on Pembroke beach and nearly drowning, only noticed by her Dad after her screams and she was saved. She would sail with her Dad in a boat, outside in all weathers, feeling in the moment. Now, after moving away from London, she felt rebalanced, with her own garden and allotment: “I can crawl from weed to weed pulling them out hour upon hour. I can eat what I grow – gorge myself on fruit so good that it lies beyond the dusty expectations of London, as does the landscape, and evoke memories of the occasional taste, as a child, of the perfect strawberry.” Lucy and I now exchange regular email updates about the progress of our gardening, our successes and failures.
Where previously her landscapes had shown Thames views, now they depict parts of the countryside around Ludlow where she now lives. They’re vast and bright and absorbing. She talks about “depicting the surface memories of life, perhaps with some nostalgia, as if we see the world not as it is – but through our projections and hopes.”
She says that in order to paint, you have to inhabit the landscape and become part off it. She gets out of the car and kneels on the ground, doing a preliminary watercolour. Or she crawls into a field. She’s out there to record what she feels and sees, not sketching but using paints or pastels. She’s trying to cram a 3 dimensional experience into a 2 dimensional space. She’s cold and wet and doing the only thing she can.
Back in her studio, she selects something on paper, and makes a painting of it. She told me “I have not got a natural facility. Every single brushstroke I have to fight for.” She creates rhythms and vibrations of colour, like Matisse or Derain. Being in the country after London, she had to make her peace with green. There are no figures in her landscapes, no narratives, because she doesn’t want baggage. Just a vivid presence, a real sense of place, a heightened sensibility to movement and colour. The critic Matthew Collings talks of her saying “a fond yes to landscape, to the uplifting feeling of being out there in the atmosphere, loving its effects: light, wind, heat, the constant changes, the sense of timelessness.”
The canvases are huge. She has many of them going at once. She works on them flat on the floor of her Ludlow studio, and then props the work in progress against the wall to have a look at it. Often, she goes back to paintings a year later and reworks them. But she says, the responsibility of the artist is to know the right moment to stop.
“I use myself to find out about the funny and surprising, the awkwardness and ambivalence of looking and moving differently.”
I’m awed by the physical efforts and the integrity which goes into the landscapes, but it’s the self-portraits which I am particularly interested in. Describing them, she says that: “Painting is like slowly taking bits of myself out of a box and beginning to examine them… I use myself to find out about the funny and surprising, the awkwardness and ambivalence of looking and moving differently. I look at the hidden parts, which cannot be seen by the outside gaze.”
Her series of self-portraits began when she went to work in Rome. It was cheaper to paint herself than to use a model. Now she has two full length mirrors in her studio. But it’s not an egotistical interest. I think it’s more like research into the awkwardness of being human, a kind of reconciliation with her condition. The portraits are very expressive, powerfully emotional, with piercing eyes always looking straight out at the viewer. Eyes are very important in self-portraits, she tells me.
These days, she writes a lot as well, using software for people with dyslexia, and sometimes text creeps onto the painting, perhaps lettered backwards. Sometimes the work is funny too. One typical portrait is a metre and a half by more than two meters, and shows her in a striped black and red top, like Minnie the Minx, above light blue trousers. Her head is tilted back. Her hands are grasping her walker, the mobility device she needs to get around. The background is a deep indigo, against which her green face draws the attention, with those powerful eyes. It’s called “Lucy in the sky”, an example of her habit of choosing wry titles for these works.
Her images are unflinching about her physique. A rear view shows her bottom jutting out with the distinctive posture caused by her cerebral palsy. Her head is often angled on one side. We see her in her bra, or naked. She seems to be daring us to be embarrassed. Over and over again she is trying to communicate herself, capture herself in those vivid colours.
Some self-portraits show some of the everyday paraphernalia of impairment. A walking frame. A walking stick. In one painting, a stick is hovering near the bottom of the blue canvas. Lucy, in bright red trousers, is walking down the right hand edge of the picture, eyes fixated on the stick ahead of her, and glasses falling towards the bottom. The title? “It’s a long way to the bottom of this canvas.” I am currently negotiating with her gallery to have this image as the cover of my new book on disability.
But what does disability mean to Lucy Jones? It’s not much mentioned in her exhibitions or brief biography. She tells me about being on holiday in Penang, Thailand. She saw a disabled man in a pen, segregated and powerless. She had a moment of recognition, when she thought that in a different life, that would have been her. The vision haunted her, and a year later, she went back to try and find him, without success. She also talks about a sense of disjointedness, of being the only one like her, of not fitting in, but never talking about it. She is wary of people taking control, of taking her over or putting her down. She has ploughed her own furrow, and fiercely defended her own vision. She’s been married for a while now, which has made her life richer, and I think calmer. Her husband is an accountant. He says he knows nothing about art, but he’s obviously quietly supportive of her work. They
None of the other artists I have discussed in this series of essays would have identified as being disabled. Most of them lived at a time when the category “disability” did not even exist. For them, illness and impairment was just a part of life, not a key to identity. For Lucy, it’s different. There’s now a disability movement out there. People are wheeling down the street, with banners and songs and pride. This opens up new ways of being a disabled person, and it also changes the possibilities for being a disabled artist. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a new breed of disabled artist emerged, people who were making work about struggle or self-consciously using art to challenge oppression. I did it myself, standing up on stage to make jokes about social workers. The best of these disabled artists have gone beyond this agit-prop approach and are now doing great work. But disability arts is still very much seen within the disability niche or the community arts niche. A major institution like Tate will flirt with the radical fringe, but they won’t put the work on the walls.
I don’t think that this is what Lucy Jones is about. Like Toulouse-Lautrec or Paul Klee or British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, she is an artist who happens to be disabled. She does not use art as a political strategy. She does not even want to be categorized as a disabled artist, because it feels to her like a limitation. Cerebral palsy and dyslexia and depression are part of her biography, but they’re not on the label for the artwork, any more than being a woman or living in Ludlow should define her or explain what she does. “If I say they are political”, she tells me, “they will be grabbed by somebody, leaving me feeling boxed in”. She wants her portraits to offer a universal comment on humanity. And so they do, in the same way that Rembrandt’s did.
While respecting Lucy’s perspective, I want to claim her as a role model for what disabled people can do, just as I want to claim all the artists in this series, and many more besides who have made great creative contributions, either despite or even because of their illness or impairment. I want to say that humanity is diverse, our experiences and physiques and mentalities are diverse, and that this is reflected in our lives, and to a certain extent in our achievements.
We need to remove the barriers so that more people have a chance of going to art school, of being nurtured, of flourishing and expressing themselves in the mainstream.
Someone like Lucy Jones has struggled against the current to become a successful artist, in ways that a privileged non-disabled person who follows a traditional route to fame has never dreamt of. We need to remove the barriers so that more people have a chance of going to art school, of being nurtured, of flourishing and expressing themselves in the mainstream. We don’t want a niche, a separate enclave of “disability art”, but we do want to be there, represented alongside the Young British Artists or the Royal Academicians or the Tate blockbuster exhibitions. We can do that by being non-discriminatory, by being accessible, by recognizing that talent knows no boundaries. And we can also do that by celebrating the great artists with disabilities of the past and of the present.
Lucy Jones is a tremendously powerful painter. She is also a very honest person, who is not afraid to be vulnerable, as I found out when I talked with her over tea and cake in that Whitley Bay cafe. It felt like we made a real connection, which has been sustained since those meetings. Despite this vulnerability, her paintings have an enormous power and self-confidence. It feels to me like painting enables her to rise above the struggles of having a disability in a world that is so often unwelcoming. She operates within a hidden tradition of artists with impairments. As they did in their own time with words, and scissors and chalks, and fabrications, so she too now masters life through paint.