A studio visit with John Lee Bird – by Charlotte Elliston

Whilst Corrina has been away on her travels, I have been trying to keep out and about in London. I recently went to visit East-London based artist John Lee Bird in advance of his show Before Encore 5, an on-going project documenting and highlighting the friends and performers he meets.

I arrive at an alley in East-London, where the back-yards of chicken and chip shops lead me into a narrow, ivied passage to the small courtyard garden enclosed by John’s home and studio. I am struck by the Jackson Pollock of a floor, which John tells me he created one summer afternoon with some tins of paint and assisted with plenty of vodka. There’s a bright yellow t-shirt hanging on the line which has an artistically defaced logo.

I’m offered a cup of builder’s tea and meet Edward the cat, named after Edward Gorey, and settle down to the questions.

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You’ve been a practising artist for 10 years now, how and why did you start?

I suppose the first piece of art I made was for a competition at school, which was to colour in a picture of Snow White and the seven dwarves. I was the only one who didn’t colour over the lines.   I won despite the fact that one dwarf had a blue face; I think I might have confused dwarves with smurfs. When I left school, I continued making bits of work in my own time, whilst working in a record shop. I had all of these ideas I wanted to pursue so went to study Fine Art at Guildhall University (which is now London Met), as they were the only place who offered a fully studio-based course which allowed you to experiment in mixing elements of different practice and combine disciplines like photography and painting.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I’m mainly inspired by medical and first-aid diagrams, and old instruction manuals. I like the fact that they give you information, and are images which also teach you something.  My work is inspired by the ‘instantanousness’ of pop art but I want them to give you something more than surface. My aim is that my portraits look at you, draw you in so you want to keep looking. My main inspirations though are the people I paint, you find me through looking at them.

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You say that line is very important in your work, what techniques do you use to create your pieces?

Yes my work is always line-based, even when it smaller, sketchy work. For my portraits, I start with an A4 sized drawing onto acetate, then project it on to a large scale canvas. That way I keep the essence of small drawings, but seeing it on a larger scale you get the chance to reevaluate and make changes. I am short sighted and paint really close to the canvas, so it’s nice to have that extra moment to move back and see a piece in its entirety.

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And do you ask your subjects to come to you for sittings?

No, I work mainly from photographs. I always do a backstage photoshoot before I begin the portrait, for convenience –I like to paint in the middle of the night sometimes – but also to avoid a very ‘staged shot’. I want the portrait to be relaxed and intimate, even if the subject is wearing a show-stopping outfit, the image should remain personal. I want the image to be a true portrait of the person rather than just to reflect their persona.

Tell me about your upcoming show Before Encore 5?

Before Encore 5 is the most recent in the Before Encore series. There will be 36 portraits, as I always work in series of 36 – I have a thing about even numbers, and 36 fits perfectly into a grid. I’ve created 180 Before Encore portraits over the 10 years I have been working on the series – I keep saying I will stop but have another planned for next year.

My exhibitions always merge art with performance, bands and DJ’s. It stems from the first burst of the Shoreditch scene, where people were experimenting with putting new things into clubs and performance art became more prevalent. People displayed art in clubs, alongside cabaret, bands and theatre. We started trying to document this with a show we took to Edinburgh called Fabaret. We had one person in the first night whose review said “I would rather have a whole pincushion’s worth of pins stuck into my eyes than watch this again”. We loved the quote and used it on our flyers, and had 12 people in the next night.

I will be performing during the exhibition with bands Slapper and Tranz Vaginal Mesh Recall. I’ve got a costume made from a chicken mesh helmet and wig which hides all of my face except for my eyes. There will only be 3 hours over the full two days of the exhibition where there is no performance scheduled, and even then I’m sure there will be some kind of craziness going on.

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Can you tell me which is your favourite portrait from all of those you have painted?

I  couldn’t say which is my favourite, they are all my children!

So what are the plans for the future?

I’m planning the 10 year anniversary exhibition for next year and a show of works on paper. I will possibly be taking the ‘Birds’ (first shown 2012) exhibition to Berlin. Lots of my friends have moved out there now, as there are lots of available warehouse spaces for art and performance. In Berlin, people seem more interested in seeing new art forms. There is more acceptance of people who do what I do- putting on events that are not just an exhibition. In London, this is often seen as a gimmick, but my aim is just to make people stay and look at the art longer. The art gallery has become just as bad as something like tumblr in that viewers don’t engage with what they are seeing any longer. You find people visiting galleries mentioned in magazine listings as it is seen as the ‘thing to do’.

I’m very excited about next shoot for the 10 year anniversary. I’m looking forward to painting Genesis Breyer P. Orridge and Jamie Stewart from Xio Xiu. Because it’s the 10th anniversary, rather than painting friends and those people I have already met or worked with, I thought I would treat myself by painting some of my idols. I still feel they are relevant to the overall series as they are people who have also had a great influence on my previous subjects.

All paintings are always in the same style and to the same dimensions as I want them to all be equal in importance. I did consider making some smaller portrait works for Before Encore 5, but was worried then that these would seem less important than the others, so will keep them all the same size.

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People have asked me about Before Encore “ Why would anyone want any of these paintings? Who knows who any of these people are?”  This is why I get the ask all of the subjects to perform during the exhibition. It makes people see why I want to paint them, and takes the Before Encore concept full circle – you get the whole story if you come to the event.

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Before Encore 5 is on Friday 20th and Saturday 21st June

Stamford Works, Gillet Square, Dalston, N16 8JH

Find out more about John here:  http://www.johnleebird.com/

You can download a full catalogue of works here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/9ky10cpmf4nw3q4/BE5%20catalogue.pdf

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