In the Studio with Jay Harper

British painter Jay Harper explores scenes of everyday imagery through her figurative works, often depicting subjects through her palette of muted tones. We met with Jay to tell us more about her practice, growing up in Bicester, and how she's been staying creative.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I don’t think there has ever been a point where I have seen myself as an artist as such, or never used that word to describe myself. I have always seen myself as being a creative. I started painting 4 years ago. This was when I became more driven to pursue the arts more so.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I grew up in Bicester, then my parents moved to a village on the outskirts of Oxford when I was 10. I grew up very close to my aunty and cousin as mum and dad worked long hours in the very early stages of my life. I spent a lot of my childhood being creative – cookery classes, making paper model people, pottery painting, making model villages for my toys. I spent a lot of time playing with friends as well as alone time, having no siblings.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

I went to art college – Oxford and Cherwell Valley college to study a National diploma in Art and Design when I was 17. I then went to Falmouth University where I studied a Fashion Design BA Hons. I knew before I started college that I wanted to go down a creative route with whatever I was doing. For my final college project I made a life sized sculpture that could be worn on the body. This was inspired by the lights on the side of what was then The Gershwin Hotel in New York. This led me to go on to study Fashion. I’m not sure looking back if I really wanted to study a Fashion course. It was more something that felt like the next step after my final project in college. Throughout the duration of my Fashion BA it became clear to me that I was more interested in creating the visual body of work behind the clothes I was designing. I had no interest in making clothes. 

What’s the message of your work?

I wouldn’t say there’s a message as such within my work. I see it as my emotional expression; painting is therapeutic for me. I think it takes this stance more so. The paintings I create are therefore more linked to what’s going on in my life. Maybe how I’m feeling – this could be through use of colour and the facial expressions of my subjects. Furthermore the way the figure is composed, the shape of the figure and the surrounding space in the painting.

All of these elements or a selection combined can create an overall mood in my work.

Who and what are your greatest influences? 

I am very inspired by photographers’ works mostly. Both new and old. For example Joel Meyerowitz who is an american photographer. His work has always conjured up moods that I pick up on when exploring different periods of his photography. His street photography in the 70’s is my favourite era of his work. It’s real, and his eye captures that realness in all of its beauty. The muted colour in these photographs and composition of people in relation to the space around is what sets the mood that I appreciate so much.

I am also very inspired and have always gone back to the performance artist Ana Mendieta. Her story alone gets me. 

Her self exploration in nature through her photography, sculpture, installations and drawings appear mysterious and dark. She used herself as a subject to create her ‘Earth Body’ series which is the work I am most drawn to. The way I see the work of Mendieta is an exploration of self acceptance and her life’s meaning. The images she created of silhouettes carved into the earth are symbolic. They are hauntingly beautiful. Her work is also ritualistic in the way she created it. I feel this relates to the way I paint as a place to put down and explore my emotions. 

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

My works are sometimes planned, sometimes not. I often create a mood board of imagery that informs a piece of work. I also go straight into the painting letting whatever I am feeling at that time lead the process. Paintings that come straight from my head in this way often appear more abstract in comparison to works created from a mood board.

I also work from sketchbook drawings and crops of other paintings. I crop sections of larger pieces I have painted that I want to explore further. This can create a new piece of work.

For the recent ‘Portrait Series’ I am creating I have also worked from life, photographing and painting people at my studio.

I don’t think the audience is always in mind when painting. I think the paintings are more self expression. This leaves the work open to the audience’s own interpretation.

How has your art  evolved? Do you experiment?   

I feel like my work changes often. Maybe not the general feel of the work but definitely my style depending on where I have taken inspiration for a painting. I experiment with different mediums – pastels, ink, lino print, gouache, acrylic. I’d love to experiment with more 3D mediums such as clay for sculpture.

The people who come in and out of my life often inform change in the way I work. Some people really inspire me, I’m very interested in people generally and psychology. Whenever I find myself going through any hardships of life, this often also comes out in the way I work; this might trigger a change in my work.

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

I feel like my ideal conditions for creating a ‘good’ piece of work isn’t to do with anything physical around me. It mostly depends on where I’m at in my emotional/personal life. I’ve seen my work change in different ways over the past four years of painting.

What are your goals for the future? (Projects, collaborations)

Through the pandemic I was painting, not as much as I would usually. Life circumstances felt tricky and I found myself too distracted to create much. I did create some 3D works out of air dry clay to stay focused on something unrelated to painting.


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