Ewart Johns by Edward Cowie

‘A LIFE IN HIS WORK’  An appreciation of Ewart Johns by Edward Cowie, 2001

After more than fifty years as a visual artist, it’s sometimes a time when a practitioner likes to look back and ‘take stock’.  In November of 2001, Ewart Johns will be invested with an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Plymouth.  Most particularly, however, it is an award that has been promoted by Dartington College of Arts, in recognition for a life of distinguished achievements by a remarkable visual artist. The College salutes his life-work and the living mind behind it.

The works illustrated in the publication form only a small part of an output that has been concerned with far more than just the human figure.  There are other works that deal with landscape, townscapes, and many accompanying drawings and colour-sketches.  For a man who has been a teacher for the greater part of his life, he has nevertheless been a prolific artist.  His studio is filled with many paintings and sketchbooks, all fastidiously stored and annotated.

Ewart has had to deal with the gradual and progressive encroachment of blindness.  Yet even now with the aid of a video camera and projection screen, he has continued to draw in white on black, and for the past few years, has completed a very large number of sculptures in wood and clay.  The wood sculptures in particular, are concerned with bird-like figures of totemic flying forms.

It was decided that a major exhibition of Ewart’s work would be mounted at the same time as the award of his honorary degree.  It was naturally left to Ewart himself to decide on the structure and content of the exhibition.  That he chose to focus mainly on the theme of the human figure came as no surprise to me since figurative work, (the female form in particular), has been an enduring, if transforming focus for his work in the part five decades.

In looking at and into such a body of work (pun intended), we can see that his treatment of the human figure has indeed passed through a number of stylistic changes over the fifty years of his creative output that this publication covers.  The earliest works, dating from the 40s and 50s, merge the human figure with strong colour-grounds of oil paint.  Often, the texture and mass of the figure is similar to that of the space the figure inhabits.  In a few paintings from this time it is almost impossible to distinguish the human form from that of objects such as chairs, drapes, floors, and windows.  All of these paintings are quite strongly lit so that the figure itself beams out at us in a blaze of light, as strong as the source with which it is lit.  These are mainly studies in the somewhat veiled portrayal of the figure and not focussed upon the texture and colour of natural flesh alone.

But within only a few years, the paintings become more explicit in their treatment of the flesh and form of the figure.  The personality of the model is now more clearly visible.  This is in no small way attributable to Ewart’s use of the camera in his work.  Models were often photographed as well as drawn.  The artist has stated that he ‘preferred to give the model the chance to be spontaneous and relaxed.  To have made the model sit for hours on end might have prevented that spontaneous aura of relaxation’.  Whilst the earlier figurative works seem to celebrate the marvel of the human body, these later works from the 70s and early 80s reveal a much more concrete representation of the sensual attractiveness of the female form in particular.  Once the veils of light (paint) have been removed, the figure is more touchable – more readable as something voluptuous and beguiling.

In the 1970s, Ewart completed a number of paintings of woman with automobiles.  These were painted at the same time as a series devoted to buildings; namely those of the campus at Lancaster University, where he was then working as Head of the Department of Visual Art.  The choice of a Volkswagen (‘Beetle’) was a fitting one.  The curves and soft forms of this car-design are perfect scenarios in which to situate the human form.  Like many of his other works from other periods, the angle (position) of the artist to the model was striking.  Very few paintings work with the figure as though the artist were on the same level or below the model.  The artist views the figure from slightly above and in a few cases, quite an elevated position.  Strikingly (to me) those works where the artist IS on the same level as the subject, are those works inspired by members of his family – wither his wife or his daughter.  I should add, however, that in addition to a sense of the figure being observed as something located in relationship to other forms, there is also a sense of the sculpture’s eye to be witnessed and enjoyed.  Symptomatic of this three-dimensional aspect, is the shift from works mainly done in oils, to works using pastels or crayons.

Clearly he also enjoyed the ‘vested’ aspects of his subjects.  He focussed as much on the defining ‘rhythms’ of striped and textured clothing as he did on the human form beneath.  This is not to say that his work at this time was decorative or dominated by decoration.  A move to an emphasis on pattern and decoration was to come in the female painting and studies of the 1980s and 1990s.  In the main, the women painted in the last two decades of the 20th century are closer to an archetypal and thus symbolic portrayal of woman rather than the more personal and personified earlier treatments.

Ewart has been interested in theatre for a great deal of his life, including both design and the work of a director for and of stage work.  But there is nothing theatrical about these late studies of women.  Many of the late figurative works (especially those executed in watercolour), seem to represent a kind of idealised woman – almost as an ancient goddess would be portrayed.  These women are often ‘ageless’ though always seemingly wise and meditative.  In a strange way, they appear as neither ‘mother’ nor ‘lover’.  They live in a world of introspective calm, looking at us from within an orb sometimes framed by a large hat and/or clothed in exotic dresses (costumes).  Like many of Klimt’s paintings of women, there is as much energy and excitement in the designs of the clothes and the patterns of drapes and curtains as there is in the form of the figure itself.

Perhaps because they are somewhat distanced from a personal vision of a female intimate, they are some of the most powerful paintings in his entire output.  A painting of a woman that teases us into wondering what the relationship was between the artist and model, is not always the most generally apposite to the viewer.  These late paintings are pertinent to any that wonder just what ‘woman’ is!

In spite of the often-used camera, Ewart is a brilliant draftsman and drawing has always been a significant part of his constant ‘play’ with visual ideas.  I once saw him make a drawing of my second wife, Judy.  Though the finished drawing numbered perhaps fewer than a couple of dozen lines, the collective of those lines was a vivid representation of both the form and character of Judy.  Truly, he has always been able to capture essences with a minimum of lines and marks.

Now that he is virtually without sight, Ewart has been working a great deal as a sculptor.  If to a man, woman is an archetypal figure – more body and embodied than it might be to some women, these recent sculptures of ‘birds’ represent an archetype pertinent to both genders.  Birds represent ‘flights of imagination’ and sing and dance with voices and movements that touch humans of either sex.  Icarus aspired to the flight of a bird in order to reach the sun.  Mercury (Eros) flew through the world on the wings of a bird.  Angels fly with feathered wings and have no definable sex.  Human beings still habitually (and often unconsciously) imitate the workings of a syrinx and NOT a larynx, and whistle like a bird.  Ewart’s ‘birds’ are literally ‘flights of fancy’.

Larger recent sculptures are also in totemic form.  They stand almost like altar-pieces or monoliths that would fit easily into ancient sites of ritual and magic.  Both the ‘birds’ and the ‘totems’ have an underlying sense of the human figure.  These totemic and bird-forms have been created from off-cuts acquired from a wood-turner’s workshop.  By using the sense of touch, Ewart is able to visualise how these forms can be brought to life in an integrated way.

But the greater body of Ewart’s output has remained close to the representation of the human figure.  This is not at all surprising really, given that his life’s work has been working with and relating to people.  Ewart’s work has always hovered between realism and abstraction.  His curiosity for life is boundless and is represented through interdisciplinary outcomes such as the recent songs he has composed and the lyric texts.  Though the works within are retrospective, his life-work is cyclic and progressive.  There is no knowing where his restless searching will lead him next.


Edward Cowie        2001

Dartington College of Arts

Totnes, Devon, England.