• Prerna SM Jain

The Symphony of Paints


The Value of Thinghs © Johanna McWeeney


“Painting becomes a cathartic and complimentary opposite to the exacting demands of perfectionism, a time to be childlike and adventurous.”- Johanna McWeeney.


Johanna McWeeney’s work reminds one of the well-regarded ties between music and art. Her lyrical compositions flow onto Art Nouveau like imageries. The self-portraits that center her work evoke a sense of contemplation and a tinge of melancholy.


Floral motifs saturate the background and envelope the figures, reminding one of the stylistic distinguishments of The Nabis. The wavy, eel-like curves of the flowers and the decorative considerations further delineate the same. The lettering of the halo almost reminds one works by Alphonse Mucha, while the rendition of repetitive motifs is like those in Japanese woodblock art. The inclusion of gold leafing in conjunction with the same reminds one of the Viennese Secessionist member Gustave Klimt.


Bird on the Wire © Johanna McWeeney


The most interesting portions are the writings in McWeeney’s works- quotes from people, handwritten, and free from any formal boundaries. The lines seem to go on their own trajectory, as if to symbolize the pitch of music or the feelings associated with the words written. In some works, it seems as if the artist, who herself is a trained classical violinist, is staring at the handwritten words. Like the trajectory of the violin bow, her compositions have a vertical flow to them that gracefully lead the viewers eye back and forth the set path. The deliberate im- perfectionism is intriguing, especially as it comes from a mind accustomed to play the perfect notes. This amalgamation between music, art and the written word is very engaging.


She is an artist who is a keen observer of her surroundings. She notices public works of art and is able to appreciate, as well as incorporate them into her work. She is also inspired by seemingly common symbols that we may have developed a nonchalant attitude towards because of repetitive exposure and visual satiation. One of the symbols that Mcweeney uses is a blue origami crane which she connected with during a visit to Regent Park. Originally, origami peace cranes have been used to signify peace post the unfathomably tragic loss caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.


What does Panda think © Johanna McWeeney


“In some ways, while the work may sometimes come from an emotion that is not particularly happy, it is designed to transmute that into something beautiful. I would say that the underlying motivation behind everything I do is to create a more beautiful world.”- McWeeney


One can think of artists like Wassily Kandinsky when they think about art’s correlation with music. Colors and lines convey notes and melodies. McWeeney’s work touch upon the same notions through their hues and in some works, through the direct inclusion of musical sheets fragments.


Smaller details hidden like a mouse peeping from underneath a flick of hair, can be easily missed, but adds on to the joy of exploring her work.


Earth Angel © Johanna McWeeney

In an interview with the artist, Johanna McWeeney here’s what she had to say-


How did your journey into art begin?


My grandmother was an art teacher and my mother always encouraged me to draw. As a child I could lose myself for hours, creating stories within pictures. I had some art training in my late teens, but I wanted to be a musician, so I set my art aside for years. I actually picked it up again progressively. I started drawing little stick cartoons of my life as a musician. People liked them, so I used to sell them as greetings cards. But stick figures are very limited and to a large extent I was limiting myself because I was scared, I couldn’t draw.

I moved away from London to Devon where my partner is an artist. I began to get curious about painting materials. So, one day I began painting. That was back in 2013. It’s definitely taken me a few years to find my style, and to allow myself to be ‘seen’ in my work. But all along I’ve been driven by this curiosity and the need to get something out. Now I’m back where I started- creating stories within pictures.


Blue Origami Crane © Johanna McWeeney

Which artists have inspired you?


I’m inspired by many artists – Maggi Hambling, Rose Hilton, anyone whose work is overtly expressive and who has a strong spirit. Larry Poons is one of my favorites. I love his work, but more than that I find him fascinating. Like many people I guess, I discovered him in the documentary The Price of Everything. He initially studied music before becoming an artist. I’m a trained classical violinist, and two of my violin professors were also artists, so I’m attracted to the connection between forms of expression.

Music can really trigger my unhealthy perfectionism and I love his attitude to that. I deliberately choose to avoid that side of myself in my art. He says: "Paintings are mistakes. You put a mark on a canvas, and it’s a mistake. Of course, it’s a mistake, otherwise it would be wonderful, because it would be finished. But it’s not. After maybe 50 or 60,000 mistakes, you give up. Like Leonardo said, 'Works of art aren’t finished, they’re abandoned.' That’s absolutely true, art is never finished. People say, 'Oh, that’s a nice romantic thing to say.' But it’s not romantic. It’s like saying that physics can be finished. Real art is never finished... But that’s the only place that art lives, if it’s any good."

You incorporate a lot of your self- portraits in your works, how does that effect the meaning of your work?


They aren’t intended as physical self-portraits. I use my face because it’s nearest to hand. They’re really emotional portraits. I can find it hard to express feelings or to know what they are, and they become trapped inside in a sort of melancholy. I use self-portraiture as a way to explore and express the human experience. If the experience is negative, it should create the most beautiful painting, so life, even the difficult bits, can be a way to communicate joy.


Why should I cry for you © Johanna McWeeney

What does the halo as a symbol mean to you in the context of your work?


I find iconography very interesting. It’s so delicate yet opulent. The faces, if you really look at them, are so expressive. The halo perhaps indicates the higher self or the universe – some greater force. I paint intuitively, which means I’m looking outside my intellectual head for ideas, and for the wherewithal to express them. It’s the same as being in flow during music performance – something comes through you. It’s like a meditative experience. The halo references iconography but its meaning is spiritual, not religious.

I also like playing with materials, so my work Gaia Weeps is made using oil, gold leaf and plastic bags on an MDF panel. I enjoy that juxtaposition between traditional and trash.

Educationally, how do music and art connect for you?


I’ve studied a bit of art, but my main education was in music. I’ve worked as a professional violinist for about 20 years. I’m also a trained writer – journalism and copywriting. Again, the words have a connection with music. It’s all very kinaesthetic, how words sound on the page, how paint feels on the brush, how emotions feel when they’re expressed visually, how the violin feels when you’re performing in flow. I’m feeling my way through life.

What are the three things that one can always find in your studio?

Three things I couldn’t be without:

  • Tea;

  • Liquin;

  • Rublev oil paints (they have amazing pigments).

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