Interview: James Mortimer

by Danni Gillespie

James Mortimer is a Swindon born artist, originally studying in sculpture at The Bath School of Art before turning his hand to painting. An prize winner sculptor and self-taught painter James is one of the most humble and down-to-earth artists, believing in the need for self expression. Mortimer's fascinating landscapes are home to neutrally expressionless humans interacting with the natural world. The sheer abundance of nature and soft colour palate lend Moritmer's paintings an almost surreal insight into human nature. 

An adventurer, outdoors-man and free spirit at heart: we learnt more about the man behind the paintings.

On The Beat: Would you like to tell us about your new body of work?


James Mortimer: Sure, I'l start by saying I'm absolutely terrible at answering questions! I think a lot of people when they put a show on, well not a lot but some people have a kind've theme or uh, but this is something I'm carrying on doing, its not themed in any way. 


But this year, its nearly a years worth of work and there's probably more landscapes this time. I quite like these big, quite complicated landscapes with lots of strange things going on in them, there's quite a few people being drowned in one of them and a lot of water and I, yeah there's a lot of water in almost all of them I think and all kind of interacting with animals in strange ways. The people kind of have quite predominately quite blank facial expressions, so they're sort've aimlessly milling around. 


OTB: What's drawn you to this subject matter? The people, the animals, the interactions, like you said the blank facial expressions? Is there anything in particular that's drawn you there? 


JM: Well I think with these people, because they're doing slightly odd things and I quite like the idea of people, of people going around behaving in strange and inexplicable ways, like Lemmings kind of milling about. I thinks a lot of its just what i see, because I go rowing in my free time and i see water, and I paint water, so a lot of it is simple like that. 

Art by James Mortimer

And then I look out the window and I see a tree, so I paint a tree. So it's kind of taking the world around you and then reforming it in your own vision. But it's not very conscious, so I'm not very good at explaining work because a lot of it comes out of sketching and then, you probably do that, you know for no reason whatsoever you've just drawn a man hitting an Ostrich with a stick or something like that and you think "well that's interesting, I think i'l work that in somewhere." 


OTB: That's quite a refreshing answer to that question, often it's about some deeper meaning (not that that's not amazing, its's just nice to hear a different approach).


JM: I don't think a lot of artists actually know what they are doing, I listen to a lot of interviews and most of them are slightly introverted, strange people who do their own thing. Usually when people ask what my works I usually describe what's in there or what's going on, which is what i've just done! Something i do things in my sketchbook, which is whe​re all  my creative stuff is done, i'l do some drawings from life as a kind of exercise. but not with life infront of me. For example if i had a camping trip, I would do a drawing of the camping trip and sometimes you come up with new interesting things from that. So something is drawn from really mundane reality and you do something strange to it.


OTB: How has this new body of work evolved from your previous work, if it has?


JM: I think it's kind of a continuous change with whatever I like the look of at the time and presumably going on in my life and what I'm interested in, but like I said its not too conscious. Actually I think this body of work is more colourful, I don't know whether that's interesting or not. I did a sculpture degree and around that time my work became quite monochrome, I think because I was focusing on form more than anything else, and I'm not that good with colours, so there were quite heavy shadows and now I've got very bright blues and greens coming up in places, not very good at using the colour red though! I find it quite a tricky one...


OTB: Do you feel there are any artists you feel inspire your work? 


JM: I kind of like looking at everyone so on little desk I've got some works. You've got Lucian Freud who does wonderful faces and Anselm Kiefer who has amazing textures and does huge, amazing things on a huge scale. I quite like Dutch Renaissance landscapes with very sharp details and lots of things going on in them and lots of little weird things. I worked out recently I quite liked "Where's Wally" when I was a child and I think these complicated landscapes with lots of little things going on in them have inspiration there. I saw Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch and I thought they were amazing, and that's probably from liking "Where's Wally" so much. These things are weird, it's gone full circle in a way. 


Sometimes It's something like that, or your watching a film and you see the way they have framed something, or you like the colour of a piece of rock - so it can have quite mundane origins. But artists, at the moment I quite like Renaissance painters. 

Art by James Mortimer

OTB: If there was any artist, through out history that you could spend a day with, who would it be? 


JM: Michelangelo I would say. 


OTB: No hesitation with that one at all! 


JM: He could sculpt, paint, architecture, he made amazing snowmen as well. I was actually saying this to my friend earlier, apparently the Prince of Florence or the Pope had a big heavy snowfall and they sent for Michelangelo and they dragged him out quite begrudgingly and he built huge horse or something so yeah him! So in Vasari's "Lives of the Artist", its a short book by a man who lived at the time, so he did a little pamphlet on all the artists who lived at the time, so Michelangelo and Da Vinci, it's really fascinating because hes's writing as someone who knew them so he'd say things like "I was having a drink with Michelangelo the other day" and it's quite funny and he'd talk about all these fights Michelangelo would get into and how he had his broken nose because he would get on people's nerves. He was quite an aggressive, strange individual and when he was making his sculptures he would be so intensively captivated he wouldn't wash and people would think he was a homeless person. I like these sorts of strange people. You read about Lucian Freud as well and he was getting into fist fights in supermarkets in his eighties. 


OTB: Sounds like that would be an interesting day! How do you feel about the upcoming exhibition?


JM: Quite nervous, it's always quite nerve wracking putting your work in the public eye, and I've not finished one of them so I'm slightly worried about that one! But I'm really pleased with a couple of them, I feel I did something new so I feel confident about putting them up because I like them. If you like them yourself I feel that's the most important thing. 

James Mortimer lives in Bath. Make sure you keep an eye over on his website for information on upcoming exhibitions. ​

Danni Gillespie is a Bristol based freelance artist and writer, editorial assistant at On the Beat and an aerial hoopist. 

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