Hello English language learners and friends of Blue Noun English Language School Scotland! We have a treat for you today, as part of our, Creatives Talk Shop series, artist Johanna McWeeney discusses the common ground between words and images within her art practice.
I chip in with a few thoughts and observations too ( I can’t help it, I LOVE talking art). By the way, this is very similar to the kinds of conversation we have with within our language learning hub, when we talk about all kinds of creative subjects together! (Come join us!)
Johanna McWeeney is an artist, musician and writer living in Devon. She often uses snippets of text or references poems in her paintings.
Specially written for our English language school – because we teach English to international practitioners across all kinds of creative industries – Johanna explains the reason behind her creative processes and the common ground between images and language in terms of communication.
“I’m an artist, musician and writer, and I find that each of these creative outlets provides a slightly different way to communicate aspects of the human experience.”
I’m fascinated by how different creative outlets all inform each other and are interlinked, probably in ways we can’t ever know.
I wonder having three creative outlets takes some of the urgency out of each, like you are not trying to do everything in your painting – express every emotion in your head because you have other ways of doing that. I wonder if having other creative outlets give you peace to explore when you paint.
Creatives Talk Shop: what is your creative process for painting?
When I paint, I work a lot with feelings, and with an inner dialogue that expresses sometimes quite complicated emotions. Each one of my paintings tells a story.
In fact, I often use painting as a way to uncover and understand my own emotions. In the same way you might find an inspiring quote or poem that describes how you feel about something, my paintings are designed to communicate feelings, allowing the viewer to discover their own internal story.
‘There’s so much symbolism in your paintings, even if we don’t have a key to decode them, there are dreamlike messages – like in Bird on the Wire, (pictured below) the swallow looking away – is it leaving? Thinking of leaving? Not wanting to leave but must go?
Your paintings capture that urgency of dream state when your subconscious is telling you riddles that are important to understand, but they slip around. It slightly bothers me that I don’t know what the swallow means. I feel it is important. That’s why I love this painting. I would never ask you, I feel my own subconscious should make sense of it. It’s got right under my skin.
Art as a common language
I think art, and our response to art, is very personal, so I tend not to explain the stories in my paintings. But what’s interesting is that when others write about my work, they often identify exactly what it is I’m trying to say.
Sometimes words can be hard to find, and pictures provide a more intuitive expressiveness. In the same way, intuition or “feeling” can often provide answers to a problem more effectively than conscious thought can. Words and language are often caught up in our intellectual minds, when we really need to access our deeper subconscious understanding.
The Value of Things, oil on canvas Johanna McWeeney, 2019
How much is art (or anything) really worth?
I also like to use words because of the humour and context they can add to a painting. In The Value of Things, I was exploring concepts of fashion and the value of art using the dog as a central theme. There’s the Fisher Price Snoopy dog, which is an iconic 1980s toy that, as a child, I absolutely longed for.
Then there’s Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog sculpture, which sold in 2013 for a record $54.8 million — the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. Koons tried, and failed, to copyright his balloon dog. The judge ruled it was never his original design.
The painting contains other things of real personal value, including an egg cup given to me by my beloved childhood next door neighbour. The symbolic narrative is referenced in a piece of text, a quote from Marcus Aurelius:
“Look beneath the surface; let not the several quality of a thing nor its worth escape thee.”
There’s an interesting mix of levels of languages here. A joke that someone who knows the artworld would get, a reference that only you and your neighbour could possibly get, and images of birds in flight which are universally a symbol of freedom of movement – or transcendence – perhaps here transcendence from childhood to adulthood. Again, you are making your audience work quite hard to decode the symbols: perhaps even by taking on your memories in the process. I’ve looked at the egg cup for so long I’m starting to feel it was once mine!
I have tried, in my way, to be free
Bird on the Wire is a painting with two different text fragments. The name of the painting — along with the bird on a wire that it features — is the name of a song by Leonard Cohen.
“Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free…”
Bird on a Wire, oil on canvas, Johanna McWeeney, 2020
I often use birds to symbolise the inner freedom that comes from being fully yourself. But in this painting, there’s another layer. There’s the freedom that comes from being kind to others. This quote, which I weaved into the image, came from an elderly lady who came into a gallery where I was painting — she wanted to ask about the Marcus Aurelius quote.
Then she recited this to me:
“I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.”
It’s by William Penn. It had to go in the painting. What struck me here was the conversation we had would only have been possible because of the story in my first painting. Proving that images, as much as words, can connect people.
Creatives Talk Shop: why self-portraits can be so expressive
This painting, Human Condition II, explores the concept, “Human Condition” from the definition:
“The characteristics and key events that compose the essentials of human existence, including birth, growth, emotion, aspiration, conflict, and mortality.”
So often, my work comes from words like this.
Human Condition II, oil on linen canvas, Johanna McWeeney, 2020
This isn’t meant as a self-portrait in the visual sense, although it is a painting of my face. It tells a story of growth, aspiration, creative drive.
The most defined thing in it is the chrysalis, symbolising the rebirth of spiritual growth. The text says, “Practice and all is coming,” which is a quote from one of the great yoga teachers. The endpoint is that sense of one-ness, transcending ego.
There’s an irony here, in that by painting myself I’m also disappearing.
Self-portraits often come about through a lack of anyone willing to sit. I think of them as a kind of safe practice zone. Here, however, you are using your portrait as a sort of example of a human in a different way; as a representative of all humans and the human condition.
With the chrysalis, some change is happening whether you do anything or not. The message about practice is clearly there in the image yet you are not acting on it, you seem to be daydreaming through it, albeit quite determinedly. I find it truly peaceful as an image. Like ignoring a ringing phone or something.
As a comment on growth, aspiration and creative drive, it’s a very clever one, because you are not rushing around practising at all. With your body language and expression, your mindset seems ready/resigned to take on anything at all.
I think as artists that’s something that we must train ourselves in, perhaps above all else.
Expressing poetry in paint
Finally, this painting, The Season Has Shed its Mantle, is expressed perfectly by a poem I found. Something that’s slightly unsettling is that I quite often finish the painting before I find the piece of text that pre-dates my work but says exactly the same thing. There’s a comfort in this, because it tells me that nothing in our human experience is new or unique, and so it’s possible to deal with all of it.
The Season has Shed its Mantle, oil and gold leaf on wooden panel, Johanna McWeeney, 2021
This poem was originally in French. It’s by Charles D’Orleans.
The season has shed its mantle
Of wind, cold and rain,
And has clothed itself in embroidery,
In gleaming sunshine, bright and fair.
There is no animal or bird
That does not sing or call in its own tongue:
The season has shed its mantle!
Stream, fountain and brook
Bear, as handsome livery,
Silver drops of goldsmith’s work;
Everyone puts on new garments:
The season has shed its mantle.
“There is no animal or bird that does not sing or call in its own tongue”.
I like that part in the quote.
I can’t ignore the religious iconography in this image, even if it seems to be venerating a natural world rather than a spiritual one: it’s powerful, international and timeless language. It’s a very generous, gracious image of blessing or being blessed – again as a human, not as a goddess.
Artist Johanna McWeeney at work in the Lost and Found Gallery, Exeter
Can words really describe art, or art really replace words?
I think art and poetry/prose are two expressions of the same human need to communicate. Because I love words, and use them in my writing, and because I tend to overthink any emotional situation, I find it really useful to match words to the images I create.
It’s also a useful exercise to look at a painting for a while and then write down the feelings or words it evokes for you. Or to find a piece of text that describes a feeling you recognise and see if you can draw it. You can find words everywhere. Sometimes I may even use a phrase from a personal email to trigger a piece of work.
Words and images are both versatile, personal and expressive. But images can transcend language — just like sound can. And I think that’s what makes art so powerful.
Further Resources: Creatives Talk Shop
If you’ve enjoyed Johanna’s guest blog, please do click through to her site. She’s got great resources for artist, including advice about getting your work into a UK gallery, buying art online – loads of top-quality professional development tips. Find her here.
Thank you Johanna McWeeney for giving us much to think about on the subject of the common ground between words and image – and language and art.
We cover a broad range of topics in our language school blogs – some a lighthearted look at Scotland, others an in-depth look at art and culture. There’s something for everyone.
If you’ve liked this blog, you might want to read another with a Creatives Talk Shop theme.
Find out about our English language school celebrating International Woman’s Day in:
Your Blue Noun English Language Challenge is:
Today in our virtual conversation, we talked about different ways to improve as an artist; Johanna mentioned that she works across 3 different creative media which inform each other – and we had a discussion about practising, with the quote, ‘practice and all is coming’.
Without picking up your usual tools, what other ways can you improve your creative practice?
Let’s collect them all here in the Blue Noun blog comments – although be warned, they may turn into a Creatives Talk Shop blog if they’re good!
English Language Tip:
The English language of giving advice is tricky. We tend to use certain phrases to present our advice gently, and you shouldn’t underestimate how important this is.
‘You might want to’ (+ verb in present simple)’
I suggest (+ verb_ing)’
‘You could try (+ verb in present simple or verb_ing)’
If I were you, I would (+ verb in present simple)’
There’s a good resource on practising the language of making suggestions here
Americans tend to be a bit more direct, but in British culture, this can sound rude and communication can quickly break down. I recommend practising this language (see what I did there!) as it is critical to professional discussions across all creative professions. If you need to bounce ideas around, it is essential to foster what feels like a safe and open space for sharing – and in English, this language for making suggestions is critical to this, whether your own language has similar structures or not.
Practice here! Give us your suggestions! As usual, write as much as you like, and if you would like us to check & correct your English, write CP (correct please) at the end.
Live language learning!