BBC4’s What Do Artists Do All Day? – Shani Rhys James

‘I think an artist has to live with an artist because I don’t think people understand artists, because you know, not many people understand why anybody would do this.’ – Shani Rhys James

 

From the very start, dispelling one of the many truisms that surround the popular conception of the ‘artist at work’, both the painter Shani Rhys James and her husband, the sculptor Stephen West, are early risers. No coughing and spluttering here, no side-stepping empty vodka bottles or discarded cigarette packets to awaken the slumbering muse; instead their day begins with a healthy pro-biotic breakfast as they await the imminent arrival of a van to collect a specially painted room-set devised for an exhibition of Rhys James’ work at Aberystwyth Arts Centre (until January 11th 2013) entitled, The Rivalry of Flowers after the recent monograph of the same name.

Clearly a creature of regular habits where the creative process is concerned, notwithstanding the initial mild disruption caused by her earlier visitation, Shani Rhys James’ is obviously eager to restore some form of normality to what remains of her day. In this instance art, like nature, abhors a vacuum and so it is not long before both she and her husband have replenished the newly freed-up space with examples of her most recent work in an attempt to create an artistic cocoon whose ambient influence Rhys James hopes will help to inform the content of the large painting on which she is about to embark.

Were this a truly normal day, one suspects that events might well have progressed slightly more smoothly than shown here, but the intrusion of the camera, however minimal, on the more often than not private world of the painter would appear to have inhibited Shani Rhys James’ modus operandi. Much of what an artist does when starting out on a new canvas is of necessity the product of solitude and thought often allied with a fortuitous measure of serendipity. Evidently this is not an experience she felt she could share easily under the watchful eye of a production crew. Taking up to a month to complete each new picture, Rhys James usually likes to work in short, intense bursts, constantly re-engaging with the project in hand by re-framing it both in her own mind as well as visually from different angles and viewpoints. Unfortunately, perhaps with the notable exception of the great American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, to-ing and fro-ing before a near empty canvas was never really intended as a spectator sport, an observation Rhys James freely acknowledges soon afterwards as she departs the studio to ponder the product of her morning’s work still further.

For Rhys James the urge to paint is an essential part of her make-up, a necessary and integral part of her daily round, the absence of which makes her an unhappy bedfellow. As a mother bringing up her two children she now feels that this was something she was able to do successfully only because she could combine both her own ongoing need to paint with the specific needs of her two young charges. For a painter of Rhys James’ temperament an artist’s work is never really done, a fact made all the more clear by her venturing out to the studio, torch in hand, in the hope of experiencing something new within the painting one last time before bed.

2013 has been a busy year for Shani Rhys James. Newly turned sixty, this television programme and the exhibition in Aberystwyth follow on from similar shows in both Cardiff and London. In the past it has been a frequent failing of television programmes about artists to try to reinforce their otherness, their not-like-you-or-I-ness. That is not so much the case here. Living in their isolated rural farmhouse in mid Wales, as one would perhaps expect from the daughter of an actress, Shani Rhys James comes across as thoughtful and articulate throughout as the long and ponderous silences of old are kept to a minimum. Shot over a typically grey and drizzly Welsh autumn day, despite her own suggestion that artists should only ever live with other artists, unlike the earlier installment in the series that featured a day in the life of Cornelia Parker, there is no hint of the emperor’s new clothes here. Whether releasing an errant robin via the kitchen window or later on discussing her day over supper with her husband, the programme paints a suitably humane picture of Shani Rhys James at work which should only serve to consolidate her reputation within Wales and perhaps if we are lucky, even further afield.