Julyan Davis is an English-born artist who now lives in the United States. He was born in 1965 and received his art training at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. In 1988, having completed his B.A. in painting and printmaking, he travelled to the South on a painting trip that was also fuelled by an interest in the history of Demopolis, Alabama and its settling by Bonapartist exiles.
This interest in Alabama's early history brought him to Tuscaloosa, where he met his future wife. Julyan and Madeleine now divide their time between Highlands and Asheville, North Carolina. Julyan is known for his paintings of Western North Carolina, the Maine coast and the Low Country of Georgia and South Carolina. He also paints the figure and still life. (from JulyanDavis.com)
I primarily paint the landscape. When I began painting, I focused on the figure and the portrait but over time the landscape seems to have pushed its way past every other subject. I paint the coast of Maine in the summers and the South through the fall and winter months.
After leaving art school in 1988 my work settled into traditional realism. At the same time, I spent part of each day working on small paintings for myself that were quite expressionistic, even abstract. On these little panels I could experiment with other oil mediums and techniques. A few years ago I felt I could bring these two ways of working together-- keeping all the light and depth of colour of traditional techniques, but with an emphasis on surface and abstraction. My current painting pursues these concerns.
Cara Ellen Modisett: You said you live right here in Asheville, in the city?
Julyan Davis: Yes, I live in Montford, we moved there about a year ago. Although we’ve been in Asheville on and off for several years.
CEM: And how did you get here from the U.K.?
JD: Um, that’s an interesting story [laughs] – I was interested in the history of Demopolis, Alabama, and it was founded by Napoleon’s generals. I’d read about that in an old book, and came over here, researched it at the Library of Congress, and… just a sort of pet project after I left art school.
CEM: Are you a historian as well, or amateur historian?
JD: No, not really. I was trying to be a sort of budding writer – I had just left art school in London, so…
CEM: Well, tell me a little bit about that – I had not heard of that town in [Alabama].
JD: It’s southwest Alabama. It was, basically when Napoleon was sent to Elba, all his generals left the country, and they bought land in Cincinnatti, I think – just bought land in the middle of Alabama and went around, down to Mobile, and went up the river and at a disastrous time tried to settle this little town. And so three or four years of sort of Crusoe-esque misadventures, and … that’s what brought me to the states, sort of my curiosity about that, and I met my wife in Tuscaloosa, so I’ve sort of been here ever since.
CEM: Is she an artist as well, and what’s her name?
JD: She is an actress, and her name’s Madeleine, yeah.
CEM: Well, what made you decide to stay? England’s a wonderful place – what intrigued you about this area, and the mountains?
JD: Right, well, it was actually painting – painting the south. Absolutely. That was part of my coming over here and I was painting this sort of run-down south and, the rural south, some of the urban south, and we were living in Alabama and Georgia for a good while, but about 12 years ago we moved to western North Carolina. We were in Highlands for a long time, and then sorta… we’ve kept our place in Highlands but we’ve really relocated here. Mainly because of Madeleine’s acting – there’s a lot more theatre here, yeah, that’s basically it.
CEM: Well, what subjects were you painting when you were in the U.K. and were you not finding run-down subjects there?
JD: I was doing portraits over there, and actually I’m going back to doing quite a few portraits these days too, but there was that sort of thing and actually that’s very much what I painted over there. But as I say, the American south just drew me, and it’s kept me busy ever since. I still rush around painting all parts of the south.
CEM: I think a lot of southerners and probably a lot of people from the Appalachian mountains over the years have felt like their region has been stereotyped as run-down and as impoverished, and do you face, do you come across that kind of reaction to your work? How do you paint and not present it as a stereotype?
JD: That’s a very good question. Yeah, yeah, that is a very – I really try and avoid that sort of thing that sort of, is it Shelby Adams that does the photography of Virginia and Kentucky – and Kentucky, that sort of Harlan County type thing – I try to find something that’s not patronizing, and something that has, is evocative, but certainly, yeah, that is a fine line to tread.
CEM: Can you give me an example, and how do you do that?
JD: Well, for example, there’s the painting downstairs, you may have noticed, of um, it’s Montford Avenue in the rain, and it’s a big painting of sort of corner store, seen across the street in fairly torrential rain, and it’s just, um – it’s just looking for that sort of day-to-day type scene.
CEM: There’s a beauty in it?
JD: Yeah, there’s a beauty in it, and – yeah, it’s just trying to sort of capture the things that people see every day, and you know, to point out the beauty in it, and to point it out to them, yeah. But I’m looking for… always a mood in the paintings.
CEM: What sorts of portraits are you doing?
JD: Well, I’m doing a series of portraits based on Asheville, the fact that we’re now living here pretty much full-time, so I’ve just done those two large portraits downstairs of the belly dancer and the girl in her punk gear, so, they’re very much for myself.
CEM: So this is not the sit and commission a portrait kind of portrait?
JD: No, well, those are the ones I’m doing for myself. I do have coming in in a couple of weeks that sort of portrait, but no, generally I like to paint my subject.
CEM: What connections do you see between the people subjects you’re painting and the place subjects that you’re painting?
JD: Well, in this case, the whole show downstairs was about Asheville, so I’d done paintings of Montford, I’d done paintings of West Asheville and the old motels and that sort of thing, and when I came to Lexington Avenue, it’s very much about people watching down there, and about people – everyone has very much a visible lifestyle, based on what they’re wearing, so it just occurred to me to paint, at that point, to paint the people, rather than look at the scenery, so. That was the idea behind that.
CEM: Can you tell me a little bit then about the pieces you have in the Blue Ridge Parkway exhibit?
JD: Yeah – I’ve painted up on the parkway for – well, since we got here, so 12 years, so, I was revisiting an old spot and what’s happening my style – my style used to be very traditional and sort of I guess 19th century looking, rather painstaking, and I always knew that my work would get more painterly and more abstract, so it went through a sort of rather drastic change a few years ago and became quite abstract, and that wasn’t terribly well-received by everybody, but I think what’s happened is the two styles have sort of merged now. And so it’s quite nice to be able to go back and paint all these places again, but in this new way.
CEM: You knew the change was coming – what was the turning point?
JD: It was about four or five years ago. I always travel up to Maine in the summer, and almost all the painters I know there are of the New York school of painting, so there’s a strong vein of modernism and abstraction in their work, so they sort of galvanized me. In fact, the gallery up there was very interested in the little paintings I was doing for myself, and he said, “You know, I’d like to show those.” So that sort of galvanized me to make the switch. And so that’s how it happened.
CEM: You talk about a New York school – you were trained in England – do you see a regionalism, regional connections between the work of painters here in Asheville and just in the southern Appalachians in general?
JD: Actually, I think one of the things I like about the Appalachians is it’s pretty much untapped – it’s not, um, that well tapped as a source of painting yet, unlike, say, Maine or New England and parts of California or the southwest, certainly. There's a great many painters who’ve worked there for a long time, and when you’re up there, you get the feeling that you’re – it’s very hard to find things that haven’t been painted. And one of the things I really liked about this area is that, you know, a lot of the things that I’ve painted have never been painted before – that’s not the case with the parkway, but certainly when I – I like to sort of follow old creeks and things, and just get well off the beaten path and find places to paint, and it’s wonderful to know it really is the first time they’ve ever been subject to that [laughs]!
JD: Yeah, subjected!
CEM: Well, besides… beyond subject matter, what about technique – regional trends?
JD: Um, well again, I think that’s just sort of starting, which is very nice. And that applies to a lot of the south, actually. What I consider very much recognized in New York and New England about my style, in the south that’s not nearly as explored. So there’s still…a lot of traditional painting, a lot of impressionism, so it’s very nice to have this open ground, you know, to explore, in terms of style.
CEM: A lot of people travel to Maine to paint because of the light – at least that’s what I hear from the painters I know who work up there – there’s a difference in the light. What is the light like here, and how does that impact two-dimensional work?
JD: Ah, yes… [pause for background conversation] I need to think about that question anyways!... [discussion about editing and music festivals]…
Because I paint all over the south, I definitely notice a considerable difference in the light and uh, very different from the low country where I paint, but as I say, a lot of the paintings I do are in the forest, so it’s much more about the interplay of colors and things, you know, finding sort of abstract shapes and things, so I don’t really get – I used to do a lot of long-range views, but it’s not quite as much the case anymore.
CEM: The focus on traditional art that you came out of, that tradition – is partly a European thing, or do you think it would have been the same if you had trained here?
JD: That’s a good question. My training was in printmaking, so I don’t know – when I was learning at college, painting was sort of on its last legs, you know – shortly after I left, they really made a switch to installation art and performance art, and things. So I didn’t really get an academic training.
CEM: At your school, or you’re talking about a general trend?
JD: There are very few places in England that do it, that give you a full academic training, and almost none now, but there were very few then. So I sort of taught myself, and I wanted to know that I could work in that fashion, and it’s been good to paint everything in that way, and then move on to something that’s, you know, more exploratory.
CEM: Printmaking, though, I mean, that seems almost a little bit obscure itself?
JD: Yeah – the reason I did that is I realized that I wasn’t going to be taught very much as a painter, so I thought at least if I studied printmaking I would learn those skills, so that’s the reason for that.
CEM: Now how many pieces do you have in the parkway exhibit?
JD: I have five.
CEM: What are those, and if you could just give me a quick summary of what the work is?
JD: I went back up to the Black Balsam area of the parkway, which I painted many years ago, and uh, just revisited a lot of the spots and just took my canvas out there, and it was great fun. And a couple of artists I know tagged along, and so it was good company.
CEM: Do you finish the work there, or do you take it back with you?
JD: Um, I pretty much finished everything – there was one very, larger piece that I did bring back to the studio, and that’s a good point, because there’s a sort of final finishing – the thing with painting outdoors is that the painting can work very well in that light, but the eventual light the painting is seen in can be quite different, so you sort of have to drag the painting around and look at it in the shade, and look at it in direct sun, and look at it in a sort of indoor setting, and make adjustments to that. And that’s where you can – you know, you have to be very careful not to kill the energy of the painting. You can over-adjust it for interior lighting, and then you can – the danger is losing some of the energy of when you painted it outdoors.
CEM: That’s a tough balance to strike.
People who are listening to this won’t see your paintings. Can you give a little bit of a visual of what they would see if they came to the exhibit?
JD: Yeah – as I said, generally what I do is paint – I look for quite strong abstract forms, so I – I tend to get very up close, generally, you know, when I’m painting woodlands or whatever, but in this case, I went back to sort of long-range views, so these are somewhat more traditional in composition and sort of subject matter, and so it’s really about just looking for the strong shapes, and strong design. I did have the one moment of revelation actually, painting out there, which I will recall, and that was I was working with a very large painting and it occurred to me that there was no chance that I could really capture the painting. I mean, I could go back again and again and try and capture the painting at a very specific time, but because of the size of the canvas and the amount of time it was taking, I realized that it would take weeks, and even in that short time the light would change. And the moment of revelation I had was that it’s actually not necessary for artists to try and capture the most fleeting moment in time, but in fact the advantage to a painting is that you can paint the sensation of an entire morning, or an entire day, and I think almost… the Impressionists’ sort of way of thinking all got us off on the wrong foot, ‘cause we’re chasing after the camera, trying to capture something that is so fleeting, that actually the artist has the chance to paint a whole period of time.
CEM: I like that way of thinking of it.
You said that part of your reason for coming to research the Alabama town was you had a desire to be a writer. I expect you hear a lot of stories, or find yourself going after a lot of stories, as well as images. Have you come across any really compelling ones?
JD: Oh, well, I certainly – I mean, I certainly enjoy working with, as I say, going back, working with people, and doing the portrait, and working with a model – I’ve enjoyed the interesting lives that people lead, and hearing about all that, so, gosh – I can’t think. I don’t know – I will say that I definitely look for a narrative thread in my painting. That I can certainly say.
CEM: Even with a portrait?
JD: Yeah. Definitely a portrait. And even the landscape. One of the reasons I like the Appalachians is that I grew up listening to a lot of folk music and so there’s a strong musical thread in the Scottish-Irish heritage here, and I’ve always though I would have a hard time painting the Rockies, or the southwest, or say New Zealand. I mean, people, some artists I know can travel anywhere in the world and you know, for me, there has to be a sense of – a sort of human connection, and I don’t feel that I could connect with say, Apache Indian, but if I can feel that feeling of connection… So my landscapes are almost always empty – there aren’t people in them, but I – I always think of them as though the person has just left, or is just about to come in, into the scene. So.
CEM: That works for me. Thank you very much, I appreciate it.
JD: Ok! Not at all.
CEM: …Questions people ask you when you’re painting outdoors.
JD: Yes, you often get people coming up and asking you know, what are you doing, and the strangest question I ever had was painting – um, I think it was on the parkway – and someone came up and looked at the painting for a while, and then asked me if I was painting from memory.
CEM: What did you say?
JD: I wish I’d come up with a snappy comeback, really [laughs]… I think I just looked puzzled. But that would have been the perfect opportunity for some snappy comeback like, “Yes, I am – welcome to California!” or something.
CEM: That’s a good one. Ok, thank you. Anything else?
JD: I can’t think of anything else.