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House Of Paint: Big Jeff Johns Interviewed
John Doran , February 18th, 2021 10:01

If you watch live music regularly in Britain, the chances are you already know Big Jeff as a legendary gig-goer but did you also know that he is an artist? John Doran investigates

Some folk attend gigs with such devotion that they are in danger of developing the kind of legendary aura that most young musicians can only dream of. Numerous publications recently ran obituaries for the Zelig-like figure William ‘Jesus’ Jellet, who danced his way through many notable countercultural events of the late 20th Century and beyond. Such was glamorous wordsmith Simon Price’s punishing gig going schedule and inimitable haircut during the decades he lived in London that, prior to the ubiquity of smartphones, a tradition of, ‘We’ll meet by Pricey’ sprang up across the city’s live music ecosystem. But if one person attracts the soubriquet of ‘legendary gig goer’ more than anyone else today, it has to be Jeff Johns.

Big Jeff, as he is known affectionately around his adoptive hometown of Bristol and across the fields of such festivals as Sea Change and Green Man, is well liked by fans and bands alike, to the extent that he was the first ever non-musician to become an ambassador for Independent Venue Week. I say non-musician and not non-artist – which is how he has been described in the past – as Big Jeff is currently celebrating the opening of his first ever art exhibition.

The show entitled Welcome To My World – which was postponed last year due to COVID-19 and is now by necessity only accessible online – is located in the Bristol Beacon space. A total of 34 works will be unveiled to the public in three phases and the first, consisting of 14 oil on canvas paintings, can be seen now at the Big Jeff Johns’ Art site, where prints are also on sale. Jeff had been painting at home for many years but it was only after he published a photograph of a large scale canvas he created of the musician Rachel Aggs on Twitter, did people start to get in touch wanting to know more about his own creative practice.

One of these people was Lee Dodds who helped organise and curate the show. Jeff describes the process of whittling down his 150 paintings down to the initial 14 for display as being “very hard… the walls of my flat are still five inches deep in canvases. My kitchen at this stage is more art studio than actual kitchen.” But eventually he managed to make the choice: “When I saw them up on the white walls of the gallery for the first time, it was like, ‘Wow.’ I was in tears at the idea I might actually be good at something.” He explains that it was frustrating not being able to launch with a physical exhibition but assures us: “When lockdown ends, it’ll still be there for people to visit.

“It’s called Welcome To My World because I guess most people will know me for my gig and festival-going, and here’s the other side to that coin.”

Gaelynn Lee by Jeffrey Johns

Speaking about the portrait of Rachel Aggs he adds: “Some of my subjects are musicians, so if I feel inspired by a musician I’ll draw or paint them. Art is very emotional, it has to be very honest I think. This was the first ever portrait I painted. She has such a distinctive sound that I’ll always go and watch her play, no matter who she’s playing with. I took a photo of [Rachel's band] Shopping at [venue] Start The Bus - it was such a great show and I had this really blurry picture of her. Later I found this really big canvas in a charity shop, it was a metre and a half in height. And really I just challenged myself to do a portrait. I painted her and then this completely made up world around her. I had to paint on the floor, the canvas was so big. And then later that night I was just dancing round the flat and all of sudden I trod on it and went, ‘Oh fuck!’ And if you look really closely at the canvas you can just about see my footprint on it.” Other musical subjects of Jeff’s work include the violinist Gaelynn Lee and Pete Judge from Bristol post rock band Get The Blessing.

Speaking from his parents’ house where he’s spending lockdown (“I need to be around people or I go stir crazy”) Jeff explains that his roots as a painter go fairly deep. Born in Milton Keynes, his family moved to the Gloucestershire village of Horsley when he was just five: “It’s a really beautiful village but if you imagine The League Of Gentlemen on steroids… It’s just full of rich, eccentric artists. They were strange enough to accept me for who I was.

“One of our neighbours when I was growing up was Kit Williams who was the artist responsible for one of the biggest selling picture books of all time. Masquerade contained clues that, when solved, could lead the reader to the location of an 18-carat, jeweled brooch of a hare, which sparked this nationwide treasure hunt. But when I was a kid I’d go to his open studios and be like, ‘Wow! This place is amazing… but slightly odd at the same time.”

Portrait by Ania Shrimpton

Jeff had been going to shows in Bristol since he was a teenager in the mid-90s and moved there in 2002 at the age of 20 to attend music college. He nearly died after complications arising from an appendectomy and was trying to deal with his frustrations at the world via a short lived, alternative rap alter-ego Manic F, heavily influenced by groups such as Dälek. But eventually he found that painting, for him at least, was a much more effective form of self-therapy than confrontational industrial hip hop.

He says: “I got involved with a group called Art And Power. It was like a disabled, outsider arts organisation. Originally I wanted to be a beat poet writer and I was at this place called the People’s Republic Of Stokes Croft. They had a show where they were encouraging people to paint on pieces of wood which they were then auctioning off.

“I’d never seen myself as being a good, classically trained painter, so I started painting with words and that gradually developed into painting. To be honest it was having the access to materials and the opportunity to paint [that was important] and that’s where it spiralled from. I’m currently with a group called Art And Motion and they have taken me to places where I’d never have expected to go like being displayed in a huge gallery in Cork, Ireland. When I visited I realised that they’re also displaying David Hockney. It was a case of, ‘OK, I need to pinch myself now.’”

Are You OK by Jeffrey Johns

He adds that a lot of his painterly inspiration came from his grandmother: “My gran, Pat Johns, was a very prolific tapestry artist and quite well known in Devon for her art. Sometimes when we used to stay at her house, I’d get up early in the morning and just watch her working.

“And then one year for Christmas, about five years ago, I asked if I could have some art supplies and she gave me a lot of her old supplies.”

Then when he took the plunge, the subject of his first canvas was himself… sort of: “I wouldn’t say it was a self-portrait because it was more of an abstract piece that expressed how sometimes I felt alienated or detached from the world. But when people saw it their reaction was positive so it was a case of, ‘OK, I’m going to continue with this.’”

Jeff, who is diagnosed with borderline Asperger’s Syndrome, OCD tendencies and has various problems with anxiety, says he receives a substantial therapeutic effect from creating art: “I find painting to be very constructive. It literally changes my mood sometimes. It will take me from a depressed, anxious space to a feeling of, ‘No, I’m putting my energies to good use actually.’ It’s like meditation. It is a release from anxiety and it is a release from stress. It reminds me of when you go to see a band like Sunn O))). You’re not there to hear specific songs, so much as you’re there to get a sonic bath for two hours. So the art changes how you feel.”

Welcome To My World is open now