John Lyons & Andrew Pierre Hart in Conversation (Transcript)

28 Apr 2022

In April 2022 ICF invited artists John Lyons and Andrew Pierre Hart to be in conversation, to share insight into their painting practices, their engagements with poetry and music, and their experiences of Carnival. Hosted by Black Cultural Archives, John and Andrew spent an afternoon getting to know each others’ work, telling stories, and enjoying some of the rich materials housed at BCA.


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John Lyons: My name is John Lyons. Painting and poetry discovered me. And I’m a painter, and poet, as I said, but my work is basically about Trinidad, carnival, folklore. And it is not… It’s figurative, but at the same time, I’m very much aware of the painting as a language. And therefore I pay more attention to what happens, the drama of what happens on a canvas in the way that I discover things when I paint, I discover, you know… Of course, you need to have the skill of drawing and you need to have the passion for colour. And that is really what I have, actually, a passion for color. And sometimes in mixing colour, I feel I want to lick it, I want to eat it, it’s so delicious to look at. You know. So basically, that is what my work’s about. But I also consider painting generally as a language and its base is fundamentally abstract. So whatever you do, you’re putting a shape and form on a canvas, a flat surface. And I follow what dictates, what Matisse says, he says that form and colour, they don’t merge, they are simultaneous. So even if you put a splash of colour, a dot on a canvas, a bare canvas, you’re actually putting a shape on and a form on. So that’s really what it is. And I really enjoy painting, it is an adventure for me, generally. And that’s it, really.

And as far as my poetry is concerned, it is the same. I find I’m beginning to see more and more links between visual arts, and the way I paint anyway, and the way I try to write. But I have to say, it is more difficult with the writing because I’m using words that already are well defined in dictionaries. And I have to play with that in a different, slightly different way. But it’s the same sort of adventure, you know? I aim to draw people into the work and for them to discover it, discover things in it for themselves, and to carry on what I continue.


Andrew Pierre Hart: I’m Andrew Pierre Hart, I consider myself an artist. The mediums I work through are painting and sound but not limited to. I also work with installation, found objects, word, language, rhythm etc. I think about rhythmic exchange, the experience of the human body through memory, sound and spacalisation, how we respond in space. I graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2019, I am now visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art and Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Just down the road from here, the Black Cultural Archives, there’s Black 336, it’s a space. So I had an exhibition there. It was in response… it was commissioned by ICF, International Curators Forum, for Diaspora Pavilion 2. It was an invitation to just make some work. But if you come… you know if we go to places and visit them and they have really powerful influences on you. And coming to Brixton to do my research and think about this show, I couldn’t ignore Brixton as a place. So that was the running theme of my exhibition, just kind of my memory and idea of the relationship between Brixton and my upbringing and growing up and then some maybe shared memories. But it was all thought through the idea of sound, so I had this sort of barber shop kind of installation but I just had the sound of the clippers. And then as we entered you saw the picture of a more lit space, with paintings that respond to some of the… what we see in the archive, these kinds of ideas around politic and empowerment. So lots of those ideas are included in the work, but again my main concern is kind of painting and sound, and how you respond, how we can respond in the same way that you have with painting and poetry, I think about painting and sound and how they infer on each other as a kind of painting or viewing experience.

There were some performances, local artists were invited, international artists were invited to respond to the space. And then we had a sort of live sound event, again artists responding. There was a dancer, someone who works really percussively. Someone who… when I say someone – Kamile, someone who filmed around Brixton. Another friend called Tick, he did a very percussive performance. Vasiliki, who is from Greece, we were in contact remotely, so you hear some music and then she responds to this in relation to your ideas of traversing or walking around Brixton and your experience of Brixton. She just came in and came into the space and yeah, it was just a very visceral experience for the viewers. I think it worked really well and yeah I’m here, I’ve come back to Brixton, I keep coming back to Brixton. In the same way as yours, the space or the location that we exist in or around really influences the work or can impact the work. So, for me, sound, wherever I go there’s sound, and the sort of different iterations of sound.

Yeah, I’m just starting to try and introduce the idea of text. I’ve kind of brought it into my work before but this… the way that text has this kind of lyric rhythm in the way that, as you said before, it sparks thinking. So I offer certain names of historical figures, Mia Mottley for example, Angela Davis, Bob Marley. They were great speakers of different…


John Lyons: Alright yes, visual metaphor.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah, just the idea of rhythm in language and spoken word, poetics, song. How song really is a way of speaking to people. I always quote Bob Marley as like speaking… he did a concert to 200,000 people in Italy, so he spoke to 200,000 people at the same time. And then I’ve started to think about how playlists, titling and the poetic of the word… just bringing them into, into the work for the audience to… So this has a kind of order to it.


John Lyons: Yeah, an order. And you’ve got… the other thing, what’s interesting about this is that you’ve got to look for it, it’s not bang emblazoned. It’s subtly linked in with the painting itself, you know? And you know it’s there, you can see it but you have to look, you’ve got to, you know? And I like the way that some of it is hidden, you know? It draws you in. And that’s good.


Andrew Pierre Hart: I’ve started to bring that sort of idea of language or the language of painting but as a device in my work.


John Lyons: There’s repetition there, poetry.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah. Yeah, this kind of rhythmic exchange and pairing, and vocal speaking etc. How that comes out. So, I’ve been… And then I kind of do it with playlists, you know? Words can kind of speak obviously.


John Lyons: That’s interesting.


Andrew Pierre Hart: But this is where, for me, abstraction can start to sit together. Because I’m always fighting between abstraction and figuration. I can see that in yours as well. There’s this sort of abstraction that comes into it… into the work as well.


John Lyons: Fundamentally abstract in a way.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah? The thoughts are abstract, the writing, the poetics is abstract.


John Lyons: Exactly.


Andrew Pierre Hart: So yeah, I’m trying to find ways… I’m constantly battling with the ways of bringing words, but you’ve done it in a way where you’ve kind of separated it out. Poetry is there and the painting is there. But the poetics are in the actual painting. Which is quite…


John Lyons: Yeah. Who said that? I think it was one of the post-impressionists, and he was saying that in fact painters use colour and form but their goal is poetry. Those might not be the exact words but that’s what they were saying. There’s a link between painters, what they paint and poetry. People like Chagall and people like that, it’s basically the same thing. We do it all the time.


Andrew Pierre Hart: It’s expression.


John Lyons: Expression, absolutely.


Andrew Pierre Hart: This idea of expression. So, Chagall, who else interests you in terms of western painting?


John Lyons: Oh my gosh, well Matisse because of his colour, Picasso because of his inventiveness and his don’t care a damn sort of attitude and his fluidity, you know? He just goes with it. But I like people like, what’s he called, John Bellany you know, again his paint, his quality of paint.


Andrew Pierre Hart: He paints of kind of religious paintings as well, fish is quite important to his work, the boat, journeys.


John Lyons: The journey, yes, absolutely. But then I have to say though, that even before I came to all this and before I came here. As I was saying, I found in SPCK bookshop in Port of Spain, little books of… tiny books, and there was Rubens there and El Greco there and Bruegel. So, even before… even before I came here and even before I even think of doing art as a career, I was already looking at that and thinking it was interesting.


Andrew Pierre Hart: It’s kind of… there are some ideas of, or there’s a feeling of some impressionism in the work. But earlier I asked about Trinidadian painters just to kind of see where Impressionism sits across the globe, in a way. And where it may have sprouted out of or happening all at the same time.


John Lyons: But there’s another aspect, which is of expressionism, too. Because in fact, in the culture there is a sort of, you know, I don’t know, I’ve seen it in things like the Shango, the Obeah Man, what you might call a Witch Doctor. And if you try to put that into paint, it becomes like expressionistic.

And I was saying about the experience I had at Carnival – it was just mentioned. When I was a child, a toddler I was terrified but at the same time excited. And I remember the experience of hiding behind my mother’s skirt when the devil came out completely, he’s wearing a little bit of thing at the bottom and he had things on his fingers, you know, long nails and mask. And he was coming and whining in front of you like this… and I ran. But at the same time, you got excited because eventually you got used to it and knew he wouldn’t do any harm to you. So, you got drawn in and you got really excited. And that was the experience of Carnival all the way through. And that was what you called the dark side and side of light. And of course, it relates to religion again, because why does it come in Trinidad? Monday and Tuesday, then what comes after that? Ash Wednesday, when the Lenten season starts, the churches. So therefore, you do as much as you want. You can go wild during those bacchanal times, you know, before Carnival, before Lent. And then after that you repent. So, there’s a thing about that, actually, that is interesting. And the church didn’t like it at first. And I got a painting, it’s not here, might be in here where there are two nuns coming out looking out of a window with their arms folded looking down at Jab Molassie and Moko Jumbie.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Are they deities?


John Lyons: Jab Molassie is the devil, devilish character. And Moko Jumbie is on stilts and that has a ritual thing. And they couldn’t resist, you can’t resist Carnival. So, although they were wearing their nuns habits, they were actually looking down on it. It was very interesting. I’m not sure whether that painting is here, maybe it’s not, but that is another painting that I find intriguing.

My first experience of Carnival was at the age of around four, coming out of my front door, which was really onto the pavement because we lived in a very urban part of Port of Spain, Queen Street actually. And we’d come out on the… and we always lined the pavement looking at Carnival, you know? We’ve got things to eat and all the rest of it. That’s where you looked at Carnival. And I remember, actually, the devil coming up, at the age of four, can you imagine? And he was actually painted all over… blue, right? And sometimes he’d paint himself in red, but this was blue, this one, I remember. And on the fingers you have extended nails made out of tin, right? And he was wearing this mask and it had horns. And it’s terrifying. And he comes up to you and, of course he’s whining, we call whining, you know? And the back is beating drum and he’s whining like this. And I screamed and hid behind my mother’s skirt, peeping out from time to time, you see. But eventually you get used to it, he’s not doing any harm, so you’ve been… you’ve got drawn out and you became fascinated then… And I think that is a typical example of what Carnival is like, because you grew into it, and you begin to become part of it yourself as a spectator. Enjoying it, enjoying it. But it was like, I call it a phantasmagoria because it’s band after band that passes, you stand looking. And it’s an amazing experience really and the noise. These bands used to meet together and you could imagine a noise happening with, you know, with his steel drums and oh gosh, exciting. Exciting.


Andrew Pierre Hart: How many days?


John Lyons: Oh just two days, Monday and Tuesday. But before that we’ve got children’s Carnival. And before that you’ve got on Carnival… actually, on the Sunday before Carnival Monday, you don’t go to bed. You don’t sleep and I did that myself when I got… was a teenager, and we went dancing all night, and then the next day you’re at Carnival Monday on the street. We call it Jouvert.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah, party.


John Lyons: And at that particular point… anyway, we can see some of it here [pointing to archival photographs] any old mask, anything from the last Carnival, people wear anything in that. And of course, the older costumes and so on, and they come out dancing on the streets, and it’s a sort of… the social aspect of it is equalising because everybody’s out there and it’s said that some people will find that after Carnival, they’ll find the person who’s judging them for misbehaving with somebody they’re dancing with or next to in the Carnival band. [Andrew laughing] So it gives you an idea of what it’s like. And I jokingly said to one of my student friends at Goldsmiths, he was talking about beautiful women, and I just said to him, “you want to go to Trinidad Carnival”, and he said, “Oh you’re just saying that because you’re from Trinidad”. And I met him a couple years afterwards, and he was telling me “boy, it’s true because we got there and we became part of Carnival, we were dancing ourselves”, you know? This English guy. So, it’s also, it’s that sort of thing, Carnival. That’s the experience we have of Carnival. And I’ve been to Carnival in Notting Hill but it’s not quite the same.


Andrew Pierre Hart: I was going to just ask you.


John Lyons: When you’ve lived that sort of Carnival where it’s in your psyche, there’s fear, there is anxiety. There’s a lot happening like that and the costumes are really fantastic, you know? They’re not really pretty, some of it. And you know, it’s not the same, you don’t have the same feeling, it is quite different.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah


John Lyons: And it’s something that I really hold dear to me, it’s in my… I can’t get away from it. It’s in my head, my psyche. So… and also the dancing, the rhythm, you know?


Andrew Pierre Hart: That’s the main thing, it’s the dancing, the rhythm, the sound.


John Lyons: You can imagine the sound. Yeah, the sound. And everybody enjoys Carnival, there’s… no one says at home.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Thinking of my first memory of Carnival, was I scared? I don’t know if I was scared. It was probably a different… one thing that I was thinking about, just when we were talking about Carnival, the locations are completely different. Completely different locations so that really affects it. But I do remember holding my mum’s hand. I also had this feeling of like this is a party, let me run into it and just let me go free and dance. That’s always been…


John Lyons: A party.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah, it just feels like being thrown into the world, like when we meet people, that’s really what I got from that first experience of Carnival. And just people, people and rhythm. And then that… just seeing the kind of shift, it slows down and the bass gets deeper. And 7, 8 o’clock it starts to get dark and the dub starts to come out. And then… yeah that’s what I remember. This very much high energy but then sort of as it gets later, it gets.. the sound changes and the energy changes. And then that was it every year.


John Lyons: Every year.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Just every year until that point where I could actually go by myself. And that that was it. Just every year. But yeah there was just this pulsating. That was the main thing, this kind of pulsating energy.


John Lyons: Yeah that’s really the soul of Carnival.


Andrew Pierre Hart: It just drives through the streets continually. I made a short film with a sort of poem type spoken word piece.


John Lyons: Where can we…?


Andrew Pierre Hart: It’s only be shown in Korea but it was a memory of that experience of going to Carnival and feeling the bass, feeling the rhythm, feeling the people, seeing people. And that my mum was the main thing to hold onto and she was the rhythm and she was the bass.


[Film clip plays] Hold on tightly. You move. You move through the bass. You move through the crowd. We see the legs, we see the feet, we see the hands, we see the heads. I see the backs, I see the blacks, I see the browns, I see the blues, as we move. As we move. I told on tight to the base, I hold on tight to the base, the base…


Andrew Pierre Hart: There’s this driving bass and speakers, so that’s why speakers kind of come into my work as well.


John Lyons: Oh good.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Again, as a visual metaphor.


John Lyons: It’s sound, sound, they love sound. Who could make the best, largest noise. Sound. We call it the sound system, everybody knows about the sound system. It’s good, you know? And that sound system was in your body, you could feel it all over. It’s like it’s different. It’s not just here…


Andrew Pierre Hart: It’s visceral.


John Lyons: A visceral thing.


Andrew Pierre Hart: And that’s partly… in my work, I suppose I’m interested in bass. Bass is a thing that’s sort of, I don’t know, it moves us and…


John Lyons: That’s it isn’t it, it’s like a heartbeat, isn’t it? You know, that’s our first experience of that sort of thing is your heartbeat in your mother’s womb, basically. And I think that’s… I think that’s there.


Andrew Pierre Hart: This kind of attachment to this… yeah…


John Lyons: This rhythm, rhythm… bum bum. I’m sure that’s it. There is a beautiful poem for you. [Laughing]


Andrew Pierre Hart: And a subject of probably all of our poems. There’s this rhythm that runs through all your paintings. It’s Carnival rhythm, procession. But then we stopped… there was the painting, Visitation, it still had masks, it still had elements of… I haven’t seen your whole oeuvre, so I wouldn’t… are all your paintings having this Carnivalesque, procession…?


John Lyons: Not all of them really but when you come to visit me, you’ll see.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Okay.


John Lyons: I don’t know what’s going to remain there, but I haven’t selected yet properly all of the stuff.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Because I think what we know of you is the Carnival-type paintings like at Tate [in Life Between Islands].


John Lyons: There’s another aspect of it which has to do with the folklore part of it, because we used to tell each other folklore stories. And there are more of my poems, some poems that have them. And we used to be terrified. We sat there, believe it or not, you wouldn’t believe this – us urchins used to…


Andrew Pierre Hart: Urchiners? What’s urchiners?


John Lyons: I call them… when I say urchins, they’re just youngsters really. We would gather in the village and we used to sit on the steps, usually in the moonlight night or some before we go to bed. And we would tell stories, Jumbie stories. And by the time we were finished, no one wants to get up…


Andrew Pierre Hart: [Laughing] Or go home.


John Lyons: … to go anywhere, because, you know. And I wrote a poem about getting up from the situation and walking backwards to the door, you know? That was one of the ways in which, you know, you don’t turn your back, you know? You walk backwards through the door. There were all these superstitions and things and folklore stories. Amazing, you know, Papa Bois. I’ve written stories about Papa Bois.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Who’s Papa Bois?


John Lyons: Papa Bois – again that’s part of the influence of the French, because there’s a mixture of nationalities in Trinidad as you know.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah.


John Lyons: And Papa Bois is called a maître bois. Maître is French for master, bois is wood. So, Papa Bois is the character who… he’s got cloven hooves and he smells of the forest, right? And he looks after the animals and the plants and everything in the forest. So therefore, if you find anyone who’s actually going against… killing too many… people who are hunting for food – you know, the poor people would do a little bit of hunting – but if you go beyond that… mmm in trouble. He’ll look after you, I wouldn’t bother to go into the gory details of how he does that but just remember I wrote a story about this one, which was commissioned as well. And eventually an old lady was gathering herbs and so on for her medication, who you would call an Obeah woman, you know? People do that here, they used to burn them and drop them in the river. But we call them Obeah women over there and they used to, actually she… this is a story huh? She was actually going into wood gathering herbs and all this, she heard a noise from a tree and she looked up… and what was hanging was a set of bones, you know? A skeleton. And she looked down and there was a rusted rifle at the bottom… and she guessed it might have been Papa Bois who’d done this to someone who was doing too much slaughtering of animals in the forest.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Does this idea carry across society in a way? That thinking? Through folklore stories?


John Lyons: Well, we’ve got a lot of folklore stories and I’m not so sure what’s happening now after I left Trinidad. The people, I’m not sure whether they… Actually maybe they do because once, one of the visits to Trinidad, I had to talk to a school, a girls’ school, and I went up on stage and made a big mistake and said ‘maybe you guys do not talk about Soucouyant and Papa Bois.’ And they all went on ‘yes we do.’ So I don’t know much… by the time they get older perhaps it’s all sort of permeated into society in a very diffused way, people don’t do that anymore. But I don’t know whether kids today would do what we used to do, frighten each other to death with folklore stories [Andrew laughing] about Jumbies and things like that.


Andrew Pierre Hart: They do it in Barbados.


John Lyons: In Barbados, right? Yeah.


Andrew Pierre Hart: They do, they sit, the guys sit around and tell each other stories or make up stories kind of thing… Was that your first poetry, your first way into poetry?


John Lyons: That’s part of it, because in fact it’s a rhythm as well, you know? You know, the whole idea… in fact, in one of the kids’ book of poems, it talked about Carnival dance lessons – “123, you can dance like me”. [Andrew laughing] And I would use that a lot, I used to go to schools and read for children and got them to do it.


John Lyons: Carnival is about the history of the place as well. Because we’ve got, you know, during the war we had sailor bands, you know, you had the bad sailor bands and you had the military-type sailor bands and you had the military things as well. It was all part of responding to what was happening in Europe, as well. And they had Calypsos based on that, as well. So, it’s like Carnival was a cathartic sort of thing, a release.


Andrew Pierre Hart: For the year.


John Lyons: For the year, for everything, you know. People forgot their problems, they lived in the moment at that particular time. But there’s always aspects of the history, of social history, basically, there as well. You know? It’s fascinating. And they’ve got the… we’ve got the Yankees, we called them Yankees. They were singing, dressed, they painted themselves with white faces and lips and everything, and they used to play guitars and things and come and serenade you. And so on, like a minstrel-type. There’s a lot of history. And I wonder where that Yankee bit came from, I think it came from the Americans, I’m not sure. So here we are.


John Lyons: Let’s look at this – Errol Hill, The Trinidad Carnival. “Celebrated with a classic study of Carnival” is what it says, lot’s in here, oh boy.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Who was Errol Hill?


John Lyons: Errol Hill, well he was, I think he was a Trinidadian, and he wrote… I can’t remember, he might have been a teacher, I’m not sure, I can’t remember. But I know the name. And I think I’ve got an edition of a book, something written by him as well on my bookshelf. Dame Loraine, yes. I don’t how that came about, that particular masquerade. Can you see, there’s a face here, isn’t there?


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah. How is it to kind of look back, to look back at images, archival images?


John Lyons: Oh, my gosh, yeah, for me, it brings back a lot of nostalgia really because in fact, because of my age. Look at this. I have this, Frederick Street, Port of Spain, 1888 of a drawing by Milton Pryor. This is, in the 18th, the 19th century, this is what it was like. So it goes back a long way. And here’s a Jab Jab, with his tail and his whip.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Do you think it’s important to have these?


John Lyons: It’s important to keep, to have this type… it’s very important to have this archive because people will get a good idea where it’s coming from. Because you see the haughty priest in the corner, the preacher. These ladies on the balcony, yes, looking down


Andrew Pierre Hart: Do you use archival images or archival memory?


John Lyons: I can, I can remember images like these here and this one, they continue to come up. This one turned into something, this particular clownish Jab turned into a Jab Jab that was quite different. It was a lot more colourful clothes, and so on.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Even here the costume, we’re not sure if that’s actual costume, carnival costume or the clothing of the time?


John Lyons: Yeah, well, maybe it’s just echoing, echoing the 1888, echoing the population, the nature of the population. Because you had a lot of East Indians as well, you know, East Indians, you had Syrians, Portuguese, everybody was there. I don’t know why but.. And therefore there was a lot of mixtures. [Reading] ‘Calypso war’… what would happen is they used to meet on the stage, right? And they didn’t… and the music would go and then they’d start making it up, improvising with each other. [Singing] ‘Look at you, you so ugly man’ and then somebody would say ‘I tell you something else…’ and they used to play like this. And sometimes they’d sing real calypsos, but they’d make it up on stage as well.


Andrew Pierre Hart: But for me, when you speak of that, it just makes me think of like early rap and that trajectory of… that history of spoken word.


John Lyons: Yes, yes it’s poetry. Remember poetry in the first instance wasn’t written, it was spoken.


Andrew Pierre Hart: And memorised.


John Lyons: Memorised.


Andrew Pierre Hart: And that spontaneity as well. That call and response. In the same way that you have that intuitive nature with your painting, that you were saying that some things just talk to you, that you have to…


John Lyons: That it just comes out. And that’s where the discovery is, you begin to discover yourself really, in a way. [Looking at the book] And this is stick, stick fighting, you know? Stick fight among slaves, that’s where it came from, the whole idea of fighting with sticks. That has developed into this, where… and the first person to draw blood, something like that. Stick fight today, you see, Guardian photo.


Andrew Pierre Hart: I don’t think youth of today would understand maybe the history of that image or that it [pointing back and forth between the two images].


John Lyons: I know, I know. But there was music that went with this as well. So, people, you know, they moved to it and so on. It’s amazing really. So, it’s gone back a long, a long way really. And you have, of course, the…


Andrew Pierre Hart: There’s Papa Bois.


John Lyons: Again Papa Bois, Papa Bois. Yeah. [Laughing]


Andrew Pierre Hart: I think these images are… for us to be able to kind of go back and make… it’s a way of going back to the past and maybe seeing – particularly this image…


John Lyons: Which one?


Andrew Pierre Hart: The one the kind of shows the demographic of people, kind of indicates what it might have been like at the time. Yeah, I don’t know, there’s just something that allows us to, maybe, pick apart some things or unpack some things or just see the connection for example of the stick dancing.


John Lyons: It’s interesting because in fact, this here, Frederick Street – I know Frederick Street, this is the street where they’ve got a lot of the stores and so on. And, of course, they had… I can’t recognise any of the names they’ve got here but it’s very much, very much… Of course, this is a drawing, a work of art but it’s based on the street that I know. And these are tramlines here.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah, understanding tramlines, that there were foreign investors. Clocks were existing at the time. Hat maker. But then also, a hat maker in this time in Trinidad who’s making a top hat, also speaks of the time, our understanding of what’s happening at the time.


John Lyons: Yes, colonialism.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah, particularly. But then also the architecture.


John Lyons: There’s some old houses, you see, they did have houses. So, Frederick Street wasn’t quite like that when I, obviously… because I’ve been, I’ve been going quite a while. [Laughing] Put it nicely.


Andrew Pierre Hart: This one, I introduced… this was a little bit before and always thinking about sound and music and perspective on things. So, in this it says ‘she said to balance the clockwise with the anti-clockwise to create a centre like the hole in the record, turn it up slightly.’ So yeah, in this painting it’s just thinking about balance, thinking about equilibrium. I know you like to kind of disrupt that a little bit with your work.


John Lyons: Yeah, but you see also, it’s here. Because what is interesting about this particular one for me is it’s obviously intuitive, you see these marks here, there’s little echoes of it in here, you know? And I love that little touch of colour and that sort of arabesque sort of pattern that you’ve got here, that goes along. And of course, there’s a rhythm across here at the feet, there’s a lot in there actually that I like.


Andrew Pierre Hart: And then there’s actually a second half to painting. Remember when we were talking about the… what’s off the canvas or this kind of metaphor of there’s more.


John Lyons: More.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Behind. There’s more… so underneath the painting there’s an experiment going on, a sound experiment going on. And then my concerns with like thinking about circles, talking about Fibonacci numbers and mathematical form within the painting.


John Lyons: Is this intuitive?


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah all this is intuitive.


John Lyons: It’s a rhythm, it’s this direction and then around again. It’s interesting.


Andrew Pierre Hart: This is anticlockwise [laughing] and clockwise.


John Lyons: If you can’t have light without the concept of darkness… And the interesting thing we talked about earlier on, when we were not on camera… [both laughing]… is that within darkness there’s light. But of course, there’s another sort of light, there’s a different type of light.


Andrew Pierre Hart: A light that we all, that humans might not be able to see.


John Lyons: Yes, that’s it. So therefore, this is important, isn’t it? This is where you put clockwise and anti-clockwise.

Andrew Pierre Hart: I’m just thinking about balance. Yeah, just balance. I think that balance means equal, equality, fairness. That’s what…


John Lyons: Yes but it has to be a little bit out of balance.


Andrew Pierre Hart: If it’s out of balance then it gives a cause to balance it out. But do we need that? That’s what… if there’s balance the other way? Then it’s more steady I think.


John Lyons: Well, I think, actually, it’s a little bit perverted the whole thing in the sense. If you… I like the idea that it’s slightly out of balance.


Andrew Pierre Hart: That’s an artist thing. A bit of agitation.


John Lyons: If it’s balanced slightly… nothing is perfect. If it’s too balanced, there’s no movement, because it’s still, isn’t it? It’s found its fulcrum, and it’s there, you know? I like to tip it a bit… [both laugh] And you do that with painting and you do that with poetry particularly, you know? And it becomes much more exciting. So you putting the clockwise or anti-clockwise, you need both, and it’s quite nice. Something to explore, to pervert.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Is there a kind of provocation?


John Lyons: That’s absolutely right. You provoke the intellect. You provoke the feelings of people. It’s worth… only in some aspects, you see, you don’t need to provoke people. [Both laughing]

That bird’s skull is a skull that I found on a beach, right? And I brought back and it’s in the things I gather and put together, I’ve got all sorts of odd bits and pieces. And they come into my painting from time to time. I just sort of… but intuitively I don’t really think ‘Oh I’m going to do a bird skull there’ but then I thought ‘Okay, right? Why not put that there’. So, I made that as a mask for this figure, character. And I’ve just got a human skull as well, but not a real one.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Ohh.


John Lyons: Not a real one. I bought it online, it’s resinous, resin but it’s white, and it’s perfect. And it’s there alongside the skull of a lamb.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Wow.


John Lyons: And right in the middle there is this blessing sign that they give you in the middle. So I’m playing, so even within the studio I’m playing with things you see?


Andrew Pierre Hart: You’re playing but also really studying as well, those forms are there in front of you. You’re really studying the actual form.


John Lyons: So, you create with things around you. This is where the authenticity comes in as well, another form of it. The environment that actually enters into your work and into your poems, into what you write.

Yes, this particular one here, I want to be exhibited in the… in the coming exhibition.


Andrew Pierre Hart: What’s coming up?


John Lyons: It’s in June at the gallery [Felix and Spear] and the reason that I want that is because it actually describes the approach that I take in the gestural, you know, intuitive approach to applying paint to canvas and losing oneself in the colour. But at the same time putting enough, as you do with poetry, putting enough hints, visual hints there that people can recognise and relate to. But it’s not quite the same, so we look at it and think, ‘Oh yeah. Oh, yeah. What is it about?’. You get curious and you’re just drawn in to it. And that’s why, I have things like, I have this skull here, that’s a skull that I found, discovered. It is a bird’s skull, I found it in a beach once. So I kept it and if you come to my studio you’ll see loads of things [both laughing] there that I’ve collected, you’ll think ‘what is this about?


Andrew Pierre Hart: Now you’ve said that you’ve got a bird’s skull, now I can imagine the sort of things that are in your studio.


John Lyons: Yeah, I collect all sorts of stuff. You’ll think ‘what you’re doing that for?’ But of course, you get… it’s all alive, you know?


Andrew Pierre Hart: Is that part of building the narrative in the paintings?


John Lyons: Yes, that’s part of it, but not in a worked out way but a lot of it is more intuitive. I say ‘Oh, wow. Oh, I can put that in there’. You know, I didn’t think of doing it before. But somehow I felt it will fit in. So, I don’t know what’s happening. I’m discovering, you know? I’m on a journey of discovery when I paint basically.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Always, always. It’s kind of, I don’t know… it’s just also thinking about the word and the poem and the text in terms of this work, all your work. What am I thinking? Is there a poem and a work? Do they work together? Are they completely separate? How does the word and the [painting]… because they’re both in the same…


John Lyons: Well, I discover the ambiguity, ambiguities in my own work as sometimes it happens in my poetry. You know what I’m trying to say? I put things together sometimes and it just comes, I have no idea how they got there. But the thing about it is that when you write, you write to stimulate other people’s imagination. If you tell them everything, putting it on a plate, there’s no work there. They say ‘okay, oh, we know what that is’. But if it’s slightly off kilter, a bit ambiguous, different shape, they say ‘Oh wow, I wonder what that is?’ or ‘Why is it there?’ and immediately you’ve captured them, they’re drawn into it and then they start making up their own stories. You do the same thing with poetry. Because when I taught creative writing, I always tell students, you just rarely… don’t put everything out there, don’t just say, that’s what it is. You can do it with prose if you want, but not with poetry, you know? It’s the cutting away and editing and bringing it down to just a few elements that draw you in. So, they have to think about it, use your own imagination. And then quite often I don’t understand a poem, I read some poetry and I don’t understand it at all. But I go back to it again, I think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. And you begin to discover more and more. Sometimes you decide ‘Oh I’m not interested in this’ and you put it aside, and you find some something else.

But what I’m trying to say, now I’m beginning to think about bringing in verse into my work. And I think you’ve seen it with the bones I have on the dome, and I say, ‘that’s my suppers that I’ve had in the past.’ So, there’s a poem by Yeats, you know, “Fish, flesh or fowl, commend all summer long / Whatever is begotten, born and dies.” You know? And I sort of took that poem, that verse, and I saw the link between the salmon I ate in the past, which is the bones I kept, you know? Bits of bones and thing, if I’m having a joint, I don’t throw the bones away right away. I put it aside and I bleach them and I look at them because I’m given them a new life you see? You understand? So that’s the idea, life continues really, through what we do. Sort of collect… putting things together like that. It’s wonderful.


Andrew Pierre Hart: How does archiving or the archive or archival images… yeah, how does it sit in your practice or how do you utilise it in your practice?


John Lyons: Well for me, yes, talking about bones and so on… because I actually, I think, in my practice, I think that everything, as I said before, nothing is for itself only and by itself. By itself or for itself only. And I think even though the bones once inhabited… it was all part of the structure inhabited by a living thing. So, in my way, my practice is carrying that on actually. I’m using it in a creative way. It’s still there, but it is morphed into something totally different. It changes and is metamorphosed into something that’s an artwork. And it still lives. And so… but in a different way, that’s how I’m thinking about it, in terms of my practice using… Well, I don’t always just use bone, but I play, put it that way. [Laughing] There’s a great sense of play, when I sort of finish eating my supper and there’s bones. And I say, ‘oh I must save that wishbone because I need it. I don’t know how I’ll use it, but I need it.’ And I save it. And you will find if you come to my studio, you’ll see many wishbones around. Some of them I’ve used, some of them are going to be used again. So, I don’t know how or when, you know, it might come into my paintings… for some… I don’t know. But it’s being kept alive, keeping alive everything in the moment, as you work, really.

How do you feel this Black Cultural Archive here is useful and valuable for younger people, for the community coming in, and for artists as well, actually?


Andrew Pierre Hart: For the community, particularly, there’s an element I think… it’s clearly important that a way to connect to the location you exist in or the we exist in, first of all, just to understand what the demographic is. Then also, Brixton historically has a powerful name. Why… what is it… why? You know, Brixton was always driven by something. People came from the Caribbean, Africa to know to come to Britain in the first place. It’s okay there. Just to kind of understand what that is, in terms of maybe self-empowerment, understand how community might operate, and how we can live together as human beings I think is really important. But then also this educational aspect, where you have documentation, you have visual references of something that reflects yourself that you can say, “okay this person was doing this at this particular time.” It’s not been washed away or is invisible anymore. It’s like, okay maybe I want to be an astronaut and here is the first astronaut or here is the first person from Brixton who did this. Or a person from Brixton, female, male. It just gives people chances and I think that sort of drive, that I’ve seen someone do it or I’m seeing someone do it, so I can therefore do it.


John Lyons: Yes, so basically what you’re saying is, it presents a hub, if you like, for people to come and be educated and get information. And from that actually have a sense of who they are… and what is possible in terms of achievements and so on. And show pride in their culture.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Yeah, and much more at the local level, rather than the sort of national level where it’s just like, hero type thing rather than local heroes… or people that aren’t even considered to be heroes as such but are inspirational.


John Lyons: Related to Brixton. Yeah, because, yes, Brixton did have a… at some point did have a sort of aura around it as… of rebellion, and the rest of it. And what’s happened here. So this is a very very positive part of… of being in Brixton really, to what is counter… counter that. And to give some sort of understanding of what’s possible in terms of achievement, what we… what is possible, in a community.


Jessica Taylor, off camera: John, is there one show that you’ve been in that you think was really important in presenting a conversation around the Caribbean in Britain, when things like BCA might not have existed?


John Lyons: Yeah, well, I think… not just one show comes to mind – there’s a couple I can think of. But the one, the last one that’s happened is, you know, Life Between Islands. I think that was a… and from what I gathered from a lot of people was that they were really surprised at the variety and the standard of creativity that has come from the Black artists’ community, you know? And they didn’t feel that, they didn’t have that. And there’s still more to come. But… so I hope there’s a sense of promise in that, encouraging other artists, but also younger artists. But there was one that went before called The Other Story, have you ever heard about The Other Story? Well that Other Story has got a big problem… well I have a problem with that one, because I was one of the people they left out of it, sort of. But what was interesting is that I was asked to review it for a magazine or newspaper, which I did, but I… it was a very positive review actually. And I remember talking about… about Gavin and Sonia Boyce, I mentioned her and Veronica Ryan… Veronica Ryan wasn’t in it, she didn’t want to be for some reason. And also the other person who was in it was Gavin Jantes, he did something that was very interesting. And… and also Lubaina Himid I mentioned again. So there were good examples because, you know, it was two womens’ work that was outstanding. And there’s also people like Gavin Jantes. And I think, although it was not as comprehensive, if you like, as Life Between Islands, yet it did give a sort of impetus, I think, for other artists. So those are the two shows I remember. But there are others actually too that I can remember that happened in England.

You know the famous one? [Singing] ‘England… London is the place for me.’ Remember that? Kitchener. [Singing] ‘London is the place for me.’


Andrew Pierre Hart: I need to hear a bit more.


John Lyons: Something ‘city’ [humming the tune] I can’t remember all the words. He came here and he actually enjoyed being here, Lord Kitchener. And…


Andrew Pierre Hart: Why? Was there something to respond to…


John Lyons: Because… Yes, he was actually, he was… well to put it, he was put into the bracket “exotic”, if you like. That’s what it is. And he sang Calypso and he was very well dressed. But I’ll tell you something, my father had… his business was designing and making shoes. He had his own business in Trinidad on Duke Street in Port of Spain. And he said to me, ‘I made shoes for Lord Kitchener.’ [Laughing] He came… had two-tone, what was called two-tone shoes. My father said he did make shoes for him, you know? So I thought, ‘oh did you?’

Oh my gosh, Calypso.


Andrew Pierre Hart: 1983.


John Lyons: I don’t know this guy. 83, I was already here.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Leroy “Fathead”…


John Lyons: Leroy “Fathead” Williams.


Andrew Pierre Hart: He doesn’t have a fat head, he has a fat nose though. [Both laughing]


John Lyons: Yeah. No, I’m looking to see if I can see… Oh, chorus. [Singing] ‘Symptoms, you’re getting the symptoms…’ Because you can hear them singing it… [Singing] ‘the symptoms, you’re getting the symptoms’. It’s repeating. So that’s… I don’t know this poem but I can tell right away…


Andrew Pierre Hart: Are your poems… are they set to rhythm?


John Lyons: Some of them…


Andrew Pierre Hart: Do you lay them out with a rhythm? Or do you… is there a rhythm that goes?


John Lyons: Some of it comes naturally, when, you know… but in the children’s poems particularly I try to do that, the way you put your stanzas together, and the repetition and rhythm, which is important. Repetition is quite an interesting thing to do in the art anyway, you know?


Andrew Pierre Hart: Definitely.


John Lyons: As long as you skew the balance from time to time. [Both laughing] You know, it’s important that. Where did this come from? Trinidad and Tobago 1983, okay yeah. Wow. Hmm I used to get – while I was here – I used to get people sending me images and so on. That’s why I kept in touch… And videos as well.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Have you had any Old Oak? Have you had any Old Oak lately?


John Lyons: Old Oak? Ah I’ve got the Plantation Rum at home. I’ve got five bottles of rum, some I haven’t opened yet. My son’s always sending me… giving me rum for Christmas and for birthdays and so on. I drink it, you know…


Andrew Pierre Hart: Spiced rum, Morgan’s Spiced Rum.


John Lyons: Oh Morgan’s Spiced. Yeah, but there’s something we do with rum that you perhaps know about, given you mentioned rum. It’s in Cook up a Trini kitchen – is Trinidad rum black cake, rum Christmas cake. A whole bottle of rum goes into it.


Andrew Pierre Hart: Oh don’t say that. Why are you saying that now? Now I’m going to have to buy cake.


John Lyons: A whole bottle of rum goes into that. You know, because we soak the fruit in that rum for a while. That’s going to go into the cake. But the other half… not a whole… a quarter of that bottle or perhaps a little less than that goes into heating up and drizzling over the cake. So, it’s soaked in. And that cake can stay for five years, if you don’t… So, I’ve still got some of that cake… Oh sorry, we’ve diverted, but it’s all part of it.




Disclaimer: Due to disruptions in the audio recording of the conversation there may be slight discrepancies in this transcription.