"There’s also a sense that one will always be an outsider, an observer. That is probably heightened by being an artist: I would feel something of that wherever I was."
INTRO: Originally hailing from London, England, Julyan Davis has a fresh perspective on what it's like to live, paint and hike in the American South. His work is internationally exhibited and represented in many public and private art collections. He completed his B.A. in Painting and Printmaking at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. In 1988, he traveled to the South with a strong interest in the history of Demopolis, Alabama and its settling by Bonapartist exiles. His latest work explores traditional American ballads through the lens of the contemporary South. This work is currently touring museums and is accompanied by lectures and musical performances. With a keen awareness of his surroundings, Julyan depicts the American South with a sense of mystery, wonder and delicacy. We had a chance to chat via email. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Environment + Geography
Stephanie: What is your favorite part of living and working in Asheville?
Julyan: I would have to say the great community of fellow artists, and artists working in so many disciplines. I’ve lived here for 15 years and have made many good friends. I love the surrounding mountains, where I find the great majority of my subject matter, and where I love to hike.
S: How was the transition from England to the American South?
J: I was familiar with the South through its music, literature and its depiction in cinema. Arriving here, as I think many more recent immigrants feel, there’s an odd familiarity because of TV and cinema — it looks exactly as one expects. There’s also a sense that one will always be an outsider, an observer. That is probably heightened by being an artist: I would feel something of that wherever I was.
S: How much does your physical environment impact your work?
J: When I moved to the mountains I focused on painting the landscape, so I am very attuned to my physical environment. I’m fascinated by how places are changed by such things as ice storms, or heavy rain, or fog.
It’s interesting that I need a historical connection to the landscape. Wilderness alone does not interest me as something to paint. The settling of the Appalachians by the Scots-Irish brought a cultural history to these mountains that resonated for me, bringing an old, familiar presence to this forest. In the same way, I recently read several books that at last connected the American West to my own country in the same way. I went out there this past Christmas and saw it entirely differently.
S: What does your current workspace consist of? Do you like to stick to one space or move around?
J: I recently moved a large studio in North Asheville, that finally has good north light. I have several easels standing around and like to work on several pieces at once. I seem to pair things recently — a large and small canvas on the same theme, just in case one makes a leap and can influence the other. The studio is right on the French Broad river, and there are parks North and South if I want to take my four-year-old outside while I paint.
Media + Motivation
S: Do you consume media (music, podcasts, audiobooks, videos, etc.) while you work?
J: I listen to a lot of music — baroque, jazz, world music — through the day. I’ve recently gotten into the habit of listening to podcasts and YouTube documentaries while I paint, on the lives and works of authors, filmmakers and poets.
S: Are you involved in artistic / creative communities?
J: Not at the moment. I feel a responsibility to help younger artists, college students, etc. by opening my studio to pass on what I’ve learned and will keep trying at that. It’s not easy! My strongest memory of art school is ignoring the good advice I was given, so I was no different.
S: What motivates and inspires you? Do you paint daily?
J: I paint a lot of different subject matter — landscapes, interiors, the nude, portraits, still life. Following the traditional genres means you can always keep things fresh. I suppose overall, I paint my life, that I am recording my experiences. I’m inspired by so many painters, but also by film and literature. I’m noticing that I’m tying the ballad paintings more and more to sociology and even philosophical reading.
I paint every day. I used to paint all the time — too much really. Looking after my little boy forces me to slow down and notice little things like wildlife. He will look over my shoulder and say, “Do you see that bear, dad?” I’m realizing that not everything we encounter in life has to be weighed in terms of subject matter.
S: How do you describe your work to other people?
J: The succinct version might be, 'I paint both landscapes and cityscapes. I like to paint old, run-down empty places that tend to be overlooked, but that have a kind of inherent beauty. I also do big, narrative paintings that set figures in such locations, but let the viewer lose themselves in what might be happening.'
S: Do you have any personal definitions of 'art' and 'artist?'
J: Interesting. I think an artist, or a great artist, is someone who transcends their craft. A mastery of skill is almost always required, but great art comes from that distinct voice that comes through. In writing, for example, isn’t it amazing that you can identify a great author in a couple of lines, when each is fastened to the same harness of language and grammar?
S: Tell me about your current pieces: "...interpreting traditional American ballads through the contemporary South." What led you there?
J: I grew up listening to a lot of traditional music, mainly interpreted through the folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s. My father played guitar and sang these songs. He also had a taste for the macabre in his writing — crime fiction based on sensational Victorian criminals. I liked the tone — the dry humor and fatalism within these songs. When I moved to the mountains of North Carolina, I realized how very alive those songs had remained. In Madison County, just North of Asheville, I’ve listened to people, not professional musicians, stand up and sing verse after verse of songs handed down through their families over two or three hundred years — living history. And I realized that culture still affects the behavior and gender roles of mountain people. I decided to take the old songs and set them in the contemporary South. The Murder Ballad series was the start. It has been touring regional museums since then. Greg and Lucretia Speas perform the ballads and I give a talk on how each painting is approached. As the exhibit grows, it subtly alters. The last painting began with a title and ended with Greg’s composition of a song. If there’s a unifying theme, I suppose it is how culture can take us in a place or a situation we had not wished.
S: Do you work on projects outside of your visual work?
J: I enjoy writing. I had a couple of blogs on art, but I am focusing now only on fiction. I love the way fiction can surprise one. It’s something I have found again in the ballad paintings.
S: Do you have any new adventures, travels or projects coming up?
J: I will be painting in Maine again this summer. The ballad series is now represented by Evoke Contemporary, a gallery in Santa Fe. The work has been well-received there, and I am enjoying setting new paintings in the Western landscape.
For more of Julyan's stunning work, check out his website here.