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Shiplake College News

OV Spotlight On... Art - James Johnson (Staff 1981-96)
Old Viking SocietyArt

As part of our SPOTLIGHT on… series we interview our Old Vikings to hear about life after Shiplake College. We delve into what career paths they chose and what influenced them along the way.

This month we are talking all things ART – with a thriving Art department and decades of distinguished artists, who we are proud to call Old Vikings – we speak with former staff member James Johnson (staff 1981-96). James was Head of Art at Shiplake from 1981-96. We asked James a few questions about his art, what inspires him and how his time at Shiplake shaped his passion and his career.

Why do you paint?

I paint what I feel. Art for me is about emotion and expressing that on a canvas, in a photograph, sculpture or sketch book.

What sort of artist would you categorise yourself as?

As I work across a range of mediums, I don’t really know that I can categorise myself. Some days a sculptor, but most days a painter.

What is your favourite medium?

I use oil mainly but also charcoal and pencil in my sketches. I almost exclusively paint people.

What was your earliest inspiration to become an artist? How did you get into art?

I was born in Australia in the 1930s and grew up in both rural and urbans town and cities which gave me quite a unique perspective. I had an uncle who was an artist and can remember him painting – this was my earliest memory of being inspired. I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t draw or sketch.

Which artists shaped your thinking/biggest influences? 


What influence did Shiplake have on your love of art?

I didn’t really want to come to Shiplake to be honest! I’d worked in mainly inner London schools, I was always attracted to the rawness of things, Shiplake was the opposite of that. However, at Shiplake I found boys who were keen to learn and wanted to develop their talent. Trips to Paris, Florence, parts of Spain opened the eyes of the boys, and I enjoyed seeing them in their element. Also, Shiplake empowered me to introduce new ideas, methods and mediums which expanded the students’ repertoires and inspired me to learn more, to teach more.

How often do you paint and how do you get your inspiration?

From the very early days, my inspiration came from the people I met. I travelled extensively and did so many jobs before I became a teacher. I worked in a copper mine, in a sheep farm, I travelled to Bethlehem inspired by ‘The Long Brown Path’ with my friend Richard – so much was inspired by the journey and the faces of those I met on my travels.

I am in the process of clearing and tidying my studio and compiling some of my sketch books at the moment. I have over 70 years of art – canvas, sketch books, photographs - I feel I need to have a record to share with my family, somewhere to store those memories.

Why do you think art is so important to society?

For me it’s about realising the potential – I guess that’s why I went into teaching. Art can also be a social commentary – art can influence change.

How did you turn your love of art intro a business/ commercial opportunity?

My love of art took me down so many paths! As well as teaching, I’ve been lucky enough to be commissioned to produce work – like sculpture for businesses and personal collections. I’ve even sold a few paintings to The Beatles!

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

I’m most delighted when past students write to me and share their journey and their work. If I was able to help them navigate, to find who they are as an artist that’s the thing that remains with me. Receiving news that a past pupil, Simon Menzies, went on to have his work in the Royal Academy was something else!

How has your art/style changed over time?

I have always loved painting women – that hasn’t changed! The speed of my work has slowed down, maybe the urgency of it.

Do you have a favourite time of the day to paint?

I can paint any time of the day or night – when I have the urge to paint, I will paint all night – something drives me to finish.

What motivates you to paint?

An interest in things and a hatred of things. Sometimes it is the extremes like poverty that anger me to paint. It comes from somewhere quite deep.

What advice would you give your younger self or anyone keen to develop a career in art?

Be interested in the world around you.

A massive thank you to James for sharing his passion for art for the Spotlight series.

If you are an Old Viking and would be interested in sharing how you turned your passion into a career please contact [email protected].