Journeys of Welsh artist Shani Rhys James

Shani Rhys James, The Rivalry of Flowers
amous Welsh artist Shani Rhys James was only nine years old when she moved from sunny, hot Australia to grey, cold London. That journey much later resulted in intense self-portraits often depicting powerful childhood memories. Shani describes herself as Welsh, rather an Australian (her father was Welsh) and she is the most exciting and critically acclaimed painter of her generation in Wales.

Shani Rhys James
She has a very long list of accolades and was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2006, but shamefully, she’s not well known in the land of her birth. Her most recent exhibition, The Rivalry of Flowers, opened at the Welsh Aberystwyth Arts Centre in November and continues through to January 11. Shani is married to Welsh sculptor Stephen West and they have two children.
The Rivalry of Flowers 2

Childhood journeys

According to a BBC biography, Shani spent her early years living in a modest former gold miner’s cottage in the Australian bush with her actress mother and stepfather. In 1962, she and her mother, who wanted to break into the London theatre scene, moved to the UK with just two suitcases in what was to be the worst winter for many years – the infamous Big Freeze. Shani had never seen snow or felt so bitterly cold before. She and her mother were turned away without explanation from the accommodation that they had previously arranged. The tough welcome and the six months they endured living in a bedsit left a lasting impression. It’s this overwhelming sense of hostility and rejection that Shani has recalled with some of her work.

The Rivalry of Flowers 5
“I remember vividly this dreadful black and red flock wallpaper (pictured above in a self portrait at the new exhibition) in the bedsit which was such an alien thing after living in my plain white-walled house in the Oz bush,” she recalled. “It was meant to be luxurious but it was so grimy and overpowering. Maybe I am so fascinated with it as I get older, as I am reconnecting with London and that whole transition we had to make. We were only meant to come for a year but we sold our return tickets and travelled around Europe. When we finally found a nicer place to live, I cut myself off from the experience.”

 My Q & A with Shani

Your work has been described as: “She lathers and slathers on the paint with a kind of unrestrained glee. No wonder the eyes of the model are always slightly bulbous with a kind of childish wonderment.” Can you relate any of that back to your Australian roots?
This may come more from going to Saint Martins School of Art. I think I was very loathe to use colour before I went there. The freedom of abstract painting, the awareness in the process of marks, depth of paint, scrapings or thin coats. There was an awareness of what paint did and those marks, so you were reading the painting for its abstract qualities as well as for the image. I always remained figurative, though sometimes the link became tenuous. But the memory of Australia in my mind’s eye has always remained so I’m sure the memory of the vivd colours of the red earth, bleached or blackened trees, vivid blue sky, parrots and the light has stayed with me and it probably is the only landscape I am interested in painting. I grew up in a gold miners house in Kangaroo Ground where my granny panned for gold in the creek. We had no electricity back in the mid 50’s and the toilet was a dunny outside, but it was surrounded by eucalyptus gum trees and I ‘m sure I live in Wales instead of London because it reminds me a little of my childhood in Australia. But here it rains…

How did the Aberystwyth opening go?
The Aberystwyth opening went really well. There was over 250 people, our eldest son Matthew played jazz guitar which gave an extra dimension to the opening. A French friend said it reminded him of an opening in Paris. The exhibition was opened by Lord Dafydd Elis Thomas, and the director of Arts at the Arts Council of Wales, David Alston. Also it was the first time Florilingua (a made up name from James Joyces Finnigan’s Wake) was shown. This is an installation and it consists of a room placed in the middle of the gallery and the walls have been painted with flowers to resemble wallpaper and a small video of a mouth has been inserted into one of the walls. It is a video of a mouth – the mouth of Sue Jones-Davies, from the Life of Brian fame. She is reciting the poems of the 7 poets I commissioned to write poems in response to the paintings which are on the walls.

The Rivalry of Flowers 3
You were recently the subject of a BBC arts program, A Day In the Life of an Artist. The BBC has few arts programs and no book programs at all. Would you like to see more programs on the arts on television?

I think the BBC will be doing more arts programs in the future, but they are always to do with popularity not content so cooking, food and houses do well. But yes, the visual arts are sorely neglected. BBC4 is a good channel and always has interesting programs.

Have you exhibited in Australia?
No I have never exhibited in Australia.That would be nice….

Do you have any plans to visit?
After I have done a retrospective  in 2015 we had thought of coming over and travelling around Australia in an old van and painting. 

Does your home in southwest France inspire subjects for painting?
It is very interesting going to another country and experiencing that culture. In France the light is wonderful and reminds me a little of the Australian light. Beautiful blue skies and experiencing a new way of life. France always makes one think of romance and the very name makes people say “ah, France” in a sort of wistful way. But actually we still have lots of work to do on the house. I have done a lot of painting in the house and my husband Stephen loves it as he carves in stone and it has wonderful white stone in the area. Though so far it has been a building project. It is a bit like an archaeological dig.We have used hemp and lime as insulation on the walls, and hand made terracotta tiles on the floor, a local builder/restorer of old buildings lives in the village and made the windows in the old style also the roof, the stairs,  the oak floors, the beams in oak.

Shani Rhys James at her exhibition
What advice would you give to younger artists developing their art and trying to make a living?
It is so personal to each individual. Be persistent, get used to little money and rejection and keep going, be receptive, to change and keep an open mind. I have had a living. I think as an artist this initially not why you do it. You do it because you love it. Artists are doing better, well, some artists, especially those in London.

The Rivalry of Flowers 6

* All images of the Aberystwyth exhibition courtesy of Shani Rhys James

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