"art moves you in some way.It fits and feels right, or it doesn't fit in a way that feels deliciously wrong.You can talk all you want about brushstrokes or shades of green and blue but non of those are the things that move you. It's something else you might call spiritual".
Vapour Trails over the Eastern Seaboard - Keith How
On a dark and wintry night in February I walked through the starlit night to the home of Keith How, artist, writer and Sloucher contributor. Sitting by a blazing fire, with a glass of chocolate wine to hand, we began to talk.
When did you start painting and drawing?
I guess it’s in the blood. My grandfather was a classic oil painter in Edinburgh, and Mum trained as a designer in the 1930s. So there is some heritage.
My mother was a talented artist, and I have an early memory of it snowing outside, whilst she taught me to draw birds. Later she showed me how to draw figures, which combined my main interests at school – sport and art.
In my teens I painted a psychedelic mural on my bedroom wall, whilst my parents were on holiday. My brother discovered it many years later when he was redecorating.
What are your inspirations and influences?
The natural world, sky and horizons. Beauty, nature, dawn, twilight.
That’s really interesting to me as a folklorist, because dawn and twilight are liminal times – a space between two worlds, night and day, where anything can happen. It’s a time full of creative and even supernatural possibilities. There are also liminal spaces, a horizon, a seashore, a river bank, a cave – these are all other worldly places, a kind of threshold. I know you have a blog you call Low Horizons which seems to reflect this. Can you tell me how it got that name?
I try to explore the relationship between earth and sky, the energies of the land. ‘Low Horizons’ came about after a conversation with a friend who asked ‘Why are all your horizons low?’!
Why not? It’s how I see them!
You are also a musician – what part does music play in your creative output?
Seeing These Monsters play at the Harley in Sheffield one night completely changed the way I approached painting. I actually saw the music in shapes and colours. I wasn’t sure what was happening but I knew everything had changed. The E.C.M. cd Kurtagonals was the inspiration behind my Keefagonals series, and the dark folk band Stone Breath fed my fantasy period. These inspirations keep returning – often in time with a change in nature’s seasons.
Without music there’d be no paintings.
Do you think that all your creative experiences – writing, painting, and music – come from the same place, or do you feel more drawn to one over the other?
For me the creative force is like being pregnant! Ideas grow, and then my waters break…. And all paint breaks loose!
Which artists have influenced you?
The St. Ives School, Kurt Jackson, Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites for their surreal fantasy, Sandra Blow, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, anything minimal – a bit of a mash up really.
I can see elements of all those influences in your work – landscape, colour, and fantasy – do you think you can describe your style?
I don’t like to be boxed in by descriptions. I have no formal training so I guess my style is just what comes out – I don’t know if this is a good thing. I’ve found that being untrained (whatever that means) is quite a drawback. But I paint for me, not to please others.
I think for you, and artists like you, there are great advantages in that you haven’t been told what to paint and what is fashionable. You have been able to explore your own style in your own time, following your own inspirations. But do you wish you had gone to Art School? – and if so, at what stage of your life?
I wanted to go after I finished school. I was good at art and sport, but I had to drop art at school and take maths and science. Of course I didn’t last and ended up leaving school to start work.
What work are you most pleased with so far?
The Keefagonals series, and Vapour Trails over the Eastern Seaboard – a recent departure in style.
Where have you exhibited?
I’ve had exhibitions in Finland, London and Derbyshire.
So international or local?
Haha – international!
How do you feel about exhibitions? Would you prefer an alternative way to share your work?
Nothing beats the moment you see a painting you weren’t sure about going up on a big white wall.
How do you feel about people admiring and even buying your work?
Embarrassed! And I find it impossible to paint to order. Something has to move me! I have tried commissions but it’s hopeless.
Have you ever not wanted to sell a painting?
You can have the lot! Seriously, I let them go – it’s a joy if someone likes it.
Do you have any particular work habits?
I’m basically lazy until the mood hits and then I just get on with it.
Are you a happy or a troubled artist?
I’ve never met a happy one!
Who do you most admire as an artist?
Rothko, pure perfection
How are you developing as an artist?
I received some very helpful criticism after my first exhibition in Finland, challenging me to put depth into my work. I took this on board! My greatest failure is ‘painting to please’. By this I mean compromising my vision. I paint something that is recognisable, but it is not the picture I ‘see’.
I want to create an awareness, a sense of place, to convey the way a place feels. I hope to touch the viewer’s spirit and challenge the pre-conceptions of a landscape.
I have started to experiment with found materials, such as sand and ash, and new textures. This is really exciting… Passion for what I do is a huge and essential part of the process.
And finally who would you have round for a fantasy open studio?
Mark Rothko, a 24 year old Sandra Blow, Charles de Lint, Eckhart Tolle, Jackson Browne,Graham Nash (we share a birthday), George Harrison and Patti Boyd, Joanna Newsom, Syd Barrett, P J Harvey, Nico and Patti Smith.
When I left Keith’s for my moonlit walk home, I couldn’t help noticing the low horizon that is the view from his house. I used to think of it as a big sky, but he’d changed my perception. That’s what being an artist is all about.