We sit down with the wonderful James Foot and learn all about his journey as an artist, from the farmlands of Cornwall to our very own Rock.
James foot has been a familiar face around Gibraltar for almost 30 years. In 1991 he held his first exhibition; a series of watercolours inspired by his trips to Morocco. The following year, he began painting Gibraltar: “It’s interesting how outward-looking Gibraltar is now. It was really a very insular place in the early 90s; the border hadn’t that long been open, people were very aware of their own space, and people were only interested in seeing images of Gibraltar. I’ve really enjoyed the changes within Gibraltar over the years. I think probably my paintings reflect those changes.”
James has painted using watercolours since he was quite young, going on to work in other media – acrylics, printing and so on – while at Art School in the late 70s, but before painting took his heart, the theatre had it. “I moved to London around 1980 and formed a theatre company, which went on for about 5 or 6 years, and did a lot of artwork – painting the scenery, creating costumes and whatnot. I always painted but it’s quite hard to have credibility as a painter when you’re young. Collectively as a theatre group people will buy tickets and come watch you, but to actually sell your art can be tricky.” James starts exhibiting paintings when he was 26, and has made a living out of the profession ever since, which is a testament to his work. His work has evolved over the years, becoming what he describes as “more drawn and academic” where they were once “quick impressions of things”.
James’ most recent exhibition in April featured intricate pieces depicting urban scenes, exquisitely detailed water and various flora and fauna that would be perfectly in place in the pages of a fashion magazine wrapped around a model in print. “Several people have asked whether I would produce prints, but I’m quite keen on keeping the originality and ‘one-offness’ of them.” James’ work has been so commended that it led to him being commissioned to paint the handover ceremony in Hong Kong in 1997 which was made into a print of 500 (“a very exciting and interesting thing to do”), as well as a couple of the facade of the historic hospitals in London. And what of the facade of our very own Ince’s Hall? “They missed out an apostrophe didn’t they?” James says with a smile. “Murals have to be done very well to be effective.
James works with great scale at times, which can be very difficult to do with watercolour. A large painting can take up to a week to complete. “I paint a lot of water; reflections, boats and things that light does on water. It’s a very traditional medium. It pushes what I can do. I’m compulsive. I work from about 8 in the morning through to 4 or 5 in the afternoon. I think you have to be an obsessive to do something like this – you’ve got to go for it.”
So which artists influenced and inspired James growing up? “Do you know… I wasn’t terribly aware of them. I grew up on a farm in Cornwall in the 60s/70s.” Regardless, it was evident from an early age that James, the youngest of four, was destined for great art. “My mother told me that when I was about 4 or 5 years old, before I can remember, that she would ask me why I was drawing one cow bigger than the other one, and I would look at her like she was stupid and say ‘well, because its further away!’ so I was working with perspective when I didn’t even know what it was.”
Growing up in the 70s in the middle of nowhere wasn’t too conducive to James’ current trade, and he soon set his sights on bigger things. “When I was a kid growing up I just always wanted to live in London. I think I was just rebellious. I didn’t want to be a farm boy. My father never left the farm, never went to London, never got on a plane… I think he didn’t believe the rest of the word existed – I think he thought I’d made it up. In fact my father used to claim they got me mixed up at the hospital and he got the wrong one. I had been to art school. I smoked dope, dyed my hair and wore bizarre clothes, and I thought I looked a million dollars. My poor father… I lived a very bohemian lifestyle; living in London, travelling to morocco and hitchhiking to Italy. I would just get it into my head that I was going to go somewhere, like the Sahara, and go. “
So what advice does the artist have for young Gibraltarians wishing to be like him one day? “Don’t be like me. [laughing] No, go for it! It’s very nice working in the creative arts. It’s very difficult – you need a lot of self-discipline. It’s good to go to other places so that you have the impetus to say something about where you are, and where you fit.