August 7, 2022

Trinidadian artist and writer John Lyons is getting renewed attention in England

Features



Artist and poet John Lyons. –

RAY FUNK

John Lyons wakes up every day with poetry his first concern.

He has to write a first draft of at least one poem each morning before moving forward, then often spends his day painting in the studio attached to his home in Cambridgeshire, north London.

When not in the studio, he often draws, even when traveling by train and sometimes while watching television.

He is constantly creative. It’s part of his everyday life and he can’t stop.

His transition from poetry to painting is natural to him. He admits there are things he can’t put into words as he noted in a recent interview with Art UK:

“With painting, line, shape, color, texture and a surface plane are fundamental. So painting is about putting these elements together, in a syntactical connection that creates a harmony that can speak to people on a very intuitive level… There’s so much that I often struggle to put into words. When I paint, I am in a different place.

Full of energy, Lyons is excited as 2022 has brought new attention to his works.

He had four of his paintings in the dramatic exhibition, Life Between Islands, British-Caribbean Art The 50’s – Now.

The Visitation of Soucouyant, 1985. –

It ran from December 2021 to April 2022 at Tate Britain in which he was the oldest living artist to feature in this all-important visual recognition of Caribbean artists in the UK.

In the planning stage, he enticed curators to visit his studio to get him paintings out of storage for them to look at.

Following the Tate Britain exhibition, he recently had a month-long solo show, Unmasking the Psyche at the Felix & Spear Gallery in Ealing, West London.

Although attached to painting, Lyons remains active as a poet.

As one of the founding members of a decades-old poet’s circle called Off The Page, he recently traveled to Manchester to read with other founding members and some members of the public to celebrate the work of John Latham, a poet and a brilliant scientist from the University of Manchester who died a year ago.

Lyons was born in Trinidad, raised there, and for part of his childhood lived with his grandmother in Tobago.

Her childhood was steeped in Carnival and Trinidadian folklore.

Art was second nature to him; and as a young child he constantly drew in the margins of his schoolbooks. When he was reprimanded for this offence, he turned his attention to the walls of the house.

He never stopped drawing.

“When I was 12, I gathered some kids from the village of Tobago, near Scarborough where we lived then and started teaching them to draw,” he said.

It was natural for him to move from drawing to painting; first with colored chalks, then with watercolours.

“I remember, he says, playing with colors. Colors drawn.

“I also loved making my own kites and seeing the sunlight through the multicolored tissue paper.”

His uncle made him his first easel and painting became his focus. He was inspired by small picture books he found in a Port of Spain bookstore of works by Hogarth, Rubens and El Greco; and in the National Museum and Art Gallery of Trinidad, the work of Cazabon who became his absentee tutor.

He also remembers finding solace in literature as a young child after his mother’s death.

“I read and read and read and got lost in books. That led me to writing.”

No Apples in Eden book cover. –

After passing his senior Cambridge exams he worked as a young man in the Trinidad civil service and every day after work he went to a studio in the British Council building to paint, encouraged by Alpheus Charles.

At the age of 25 in 1959, he left Trinidad for England to study at Goldsmiths College School of Art and Design.

After graduating in design, he completed a teaching arts degree at the University-Upon-Tyne.

Lyons embarked on a teaching career spanning over two and a half decades during which he never stopped painting and writing.

He enjoyed teaching art, including pottery. He first taught at various secondary schools in Manchester, then at South Trafford College as a lecturer in art and design.

While there he also participated in some group exhibitions and published Lure of The Cascadura. Around this time he also started winning awards for his poetry and was also asked to teach creative writing.

Although he has lived in England for over 60 years, Trinidad’s folklore, landscape and carnival remain a driving force and inspiration for his paintings and poetry.

Even his vision of Eve in the Garden of Eden in one of his poems is very Trinidadian.

There were no apples in Eden,

Only sapodillas ripening among

Bougainvillea and frangipani.

His vivid memories of his childhood wanderings both in Trinidad and Tobago, his poetry and soucouyant-filled paintings and more.

Our story summoned

The Bloodsucking Wolfgaroo,

The Devil with her mortal coquetry,

Shapeshifting Papa Bois, Guardian of the Forests;

Liveliness for him as a child watching carnival in the streets of Port of Spain near his father’s shoe store.

Behind the carnival, African gods came out of the stones, gave power to the beat of the drum. Yokes and barracons could not destroy

deep harmonies of their singing

behind the carnival.

During his teaching career his own art became increasingly well known as he began to appear in more group shows and many solo shows across England due to his involvement in organizations artistic, writing about the work of other artists and co-locating. from Zamana Studio in Manchester.

The Furies, 2004. –

Later he and his wife Jean Rees, a poet, playwright and arts activist, established the Hourglass Studio Gallery in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

Lyons has published seven books of her own poetry, and her poems are included in numerous published anthologies.

His first collection, Lure of the Cascadura published in 1989 by Bogle-L’Ouverture, was so dense in Trini references that it came with a glossary.

His 2015 collection, A Carib Being in Cymru (Cane Arrow Books) filled with his woodcuts is based on poems from a writer’s residence in Wales.

One of her poetry books, Dancing in the Rain (Peepal Tree Press), is all children’s poetry with drawings and watercolors. He was shortlisted for the Center for Literacy in Primary Poetry award.

The Center for Literacy in Primary Education noted that “nature comes to life in the words and images drawn by the poet”.

Cover of the book L’attraction de Casadura. –

Most unusual is his Cookup in a Trini Kitchen (Peepal Tree Press). It is filled with 150 recipes, but also with his drawings, watercolors and poetry.

He cooked as a child at his crippled grandmother’s house in Tobago, and Lyons continued to cook after arriving in England, first for himself, then for friends and family.

“As Trini away from home, I drew a strange sense of identity and confidence from cooking that was grounded in memories of childhood and youth.”

Winner of the Windrush Arts Achievement Award in 2003, John Lyons is an artist and writer from Trinidad whose long career is getting well deserved attention in England this year. For more information visit www.jcmlyons.co.uk