Q&A with artist Kurt Jackson about his life and work in West Penwith.
Each month, Seasalt celebrates Cornwall’s vibrant artistic community by shining a light on the county’s creative pioneers.
For this edition, we travelled to St Just to meet leading contemporary artist, Kurt Jackson.
You’ve lived and worked in Cornwall since the mid-1980s. What first drew you here?
A lot of my childhood was spent in parts of Cornwall. Family at that time were in Truro and later down in Penzance. My parents who were and are artists had lots of connections with the Cornish art world through their contemporaries. There were a lot of associations through family and through the art scene that drew us as a family down to Cornwall.
As a kid you become fond of a place and it brings memories. A lot of that continues to feed into my work now. I met my wife, Caroline at college; after a year travelling in Africa we settled here permanently, so in a way our whole adult lives have been in Cornwall.
My early years were spent around Delabole in North Cornwall and our first home was in Boscastle. Once we had our first kids we moved to St Just, where in those days the properties were cheaper and more affordable. I also liked the connection with the art world. There is more of a thing going on with the art scene down here.
Did you always want to be an artist?
I think when you grow up in a family where art is encouraged and there is a general enthusiasm for it then it rubs off on you. My brother ended up being a performance artist, but I chose to make painting and sculpture. When you look around at people with their own families, I think it’s always the case – you either do what your family did, or you do something completely the opposite, and I have elements of both.
My father was an abstract artist, minimal abstract art, if you think of what people were making in the ‘50s and ‘60s, that’s what he was doing. I went the opposite way, because I’m a figurative artist, all about the environment and nature. I’ve always had a fascination and passion for natural history. This came from different elements of growing up as a child in west Africa and my parents’ enthusiasm, just as my politics came from a lot of that.
The way I make art is a result of many decades of experimenting and playing around and finding things that work. It’s a long process of experimentation and discovery.
Can you tell us a little bit about the landscape around St Just and how that inspires you?
I’m continually drawn to those places where nature still has a chance to survive. More and more of these are marginal areas. Areas on the edge, away from cities, away from those concentrations of population. I also like places where there is stone coming through the earth and trees.
West Penwith is where the weather hits first, the agriculture is not very intensive, and the community has a strong sense of Cornishness.
St Just is out on its own so has a mindset that allows it to get by, the geographical isolation feeds into it. I love it as a community for the family, where the kids have grown up, and now the grandchildren. This all feeds into my art and what I choose to paint. Whether it is elements of the Cornish community, the lie of the land, the topography, the flora and fauna, the way the weather changes the sea, the moor, the valleys – it’s all here for me, really.
What else inspires you?
When I look around at what other people are making and doing there is loads of fantastic work going on, as there always has been.
It’s very difficult for me to say that one person has been a key inspiring force to me. I tend to jump around and I’m more likely to say a couple of poet’s names than a couple of painter’s names.
I open my eyes in the morning and look out the window, I see the sun coming up over the hill, the farmer getting to work in the field or the fox walking past the hedge and I think: “There I go, this is just amazing.”
Where is your favourite off-the-beaten-track place?
Cornwall is just full of so many magical places it’s hard to say: “Bam, this is the place,” but there is a woodland on our land. A couple of fields away from here, Caroline planted around five acres in the year 2000, and now it’s got that feel of a British woodland. It’s a mix of native trees and now the buzzards, badgers and the deer are in there. It’s a great place to go, to make work and to find yourself. Just to go for a wander alone or when I’m with Caroline around the fields. I think that I’d choose that place.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It completely varies depending on what projects I’m working on. Sometimes it’s very studio-based, sometimes outside, sometimes in Cornwall, sometimes up country, sometimes on a boat out at sea, sometimes down a hole underground. I can be anywhere, that’s what I like.
I need that variety because I don’t do routines. I do, in that I work from morning to dusk every day and sometimes later, but I don’t work in special ways. I change the size of my canvas every day or I’ll jump from a painting to a sculpture to printmaking, jewellery or writing. I like it to be fresh and mixed up and a big mess, these little moments of discovery pop up out of it.
Can you tell us what you’re working on now?
As usual, I’m working on maybe half a dozen different, overlapping projects.
I’m working on a river up country, which I’m following from source to sea. I’m working on a series about a specific creature, which is found in the sea around here. I’m working on another one of my Cornish industrial projects, based around extractive industries taking stuff out the earth. This has been a series I’ve been working on for years, ever since I went underground with the tin miners. I’ve been working on a project at Frenchman’s Creek, over on the Helford, that’s been going on for the past three years. Lots and lots of different projects.
You collaborate with environmental organisations and charities. What role does art play in raising awareness of the environmental issues we’re facing today and how can it help bring about change?
We work with environmental groups or charities or NGOs or pressure groups. I want the work to have some involvement with how we’re responding to what’s going on in the world.
I want my work to open people’s eyes, and that can sound a bit patronising, but I want people to look at nature and the world around them with fresh eyes. It’s easy to become very blasé about what is around us. This world is full of such extraordinary beauty and complexity and diversity.
I’ve always argued that without being aware of what is living and growing around us, what’s on our doorstep, we can’t be aware of what we stand to lose.
Caroline and I raise funds and awareness for what other groups are doing. Whether it’s Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Surfers Against Sewage, Cornwall Wildlife Trust or whoever we choose to work with, it’s very important to me to be involved with people who’re doing good work.
Whether we’re talking about climate change, species loss, habitat destruction, all these things are going to come back and smack us in the face. It’s not just about saving some pretty little flower, it’s our own lives we’re saving as well.
How does your practice help you to understand the landscape and environment better?
I’ve always had this connection to the arts and the natural world. They cross pollinate and feed into each other. I’m fascinated by how the natural world and the environment works, how it changes, how it’s changing the past and potentially the future. I’m learning and discovering and playing with art to create things.
I need continual contact with the natural world to discover, understand and just enjoy what’s out there. What is living in the hedge, the fields and flying above us – all of that is my daily inspiration.
I spend a lot of time out in the open air – en plein air, as they call it. Making work but also seeing, hearing, understanding and finding stuff that feeds into my work all the time, whether it’s the work I’m making at that point or later in the studio.
Tell us about the Jackson Foundation
The Jackson Foundation in St Just is the environmental art space, which Caroline and I set up a few years ago. It’s managed by our daughter, Zinzi and her husband Fynn Tucker. Most of the time it’s my work showing there, but we do involve guest artists and collaborative projects with organisations.
We call it an environmental space because the building is carbon positive, with heat pumps and solar panels, but also in terms of the material shown there and the way we want to engage with the audience.
It’s quite a revolutionary idea, I think. The way it’s been taken on board by the St Just community and by the wider world shows it’s been well appreciated in its working.