Thursday, August 7, 2014

Before Encore: An Interview With Artist John Lee Bird

For close to a decade, artist John Lee Bird has been documenting the underground scene in London via a series of pop art paintings compiled in an ongoing project he calls Before Encore. The subject matter of the paintings include musicians, artists, actors, poets, photographers, pole dancers, performance artists, burlesque strip acts, drag queens and club kids. Anyone that catches his eye and that he actually has a chance to meet in person.

Each painting is five and half  feet by three and a half feet. When he compiles thirty-six paintings, he has an art opening. And not just any art opening. He invites the subjects of his paintings to come and perform giving the audience half art show/half cabaret. Frankly, every art opening should be this way. So far, John Lee Bird has had five Before Encore art openings. That is 180 paintings. And, he is well on his way to his sixth!

Like most artists, John Lee Bird would prefer to let his art speak for him rather than write a bio. But, here is a pretty amusing one found online:

John Lee Bird lives in London. He once lived in Ipswich (in Suffolk) where he went to school, played with his cousins and liked to buy rabbits to afford him some time with his father whilst making the hutches. He studied art at Ipswich College, dropped out to work in a record shop and ended up as the Manager and stayed there 5 years before throwing his arms up in the air and returning to study art properly. He then had a little accident and forgot to eat anything, and was forced to work in a record shop again (after he’d gotten a little fatter) whilst he saved money to go to university the next year.
He studied fine art at London Guildhall University whilst working at theatres and nightclubs and finally graduated in 2000. Since then he has worked as a duty manager in theatres and as a primary school teacher and now he works as a full time artist; freelancing for different companies and most importantly to him, working on his own art.
What makes the prolific scope of the Before Encore series even more impressive, is that John Lee Bird does this as a labor of love. This is not his only art project. He is juggling numerous projects and freelance assignments at once but still finds the time and energy to continue painting the new friends and performers he meets. You can learn more about his work on his Website, Facebook, and Twitter!

Thankfully, John Lee Bird took some time out of his busy schedule to do an interview with us!

Q: You have been doing the Before Encore series for the better part of a decade. What was the eureka moment that inspired the project?
JLB: I was up in Edinburgh for the Fringe festival, me and my friends were doing a madcap cabaret sort of show together and I made friends with a load of other performers that were there; I'd met some of them on the scene beforehand and it just seemed the right thing to start documenting the people and friends I meet. It all spiralled from there, people suggest people I should meet and in true Edinburgh fashion there's always a few drinks to hand when I get around to doing the photoshoots. I like to work from photos, my photos obviously, the paintings take anything up to 2 weeks to complete and I'd lose the candid feel if people actually sat for me. I like these stolen moments that we have, pre-show or before encore where it's just a magical connection between me and them....which is how I hope the paintings come across to the viewer.

Q: I saw a video of your art opening for Before Encore 2 and it seemed liked the greatest party in the world! Do you have such extravaganzas at every opening?
JLB: Yeah, Before Encore 2 was pretty spectacular with Empress Stah hanging from the ceiling doing her aerial act and pulling a string of pearls out! I'll never forget that moment! Every Before Encore exhibition has to be an event; I wouldn't do it if there wasn't an opportunity for there to be a SHOW! I want these paintings to be brought to life by the people that are in the portraits. I want everyone to find out what these faces do. These are my friends and the people I love so I want everyone to share in that too. I see the series as one big family and it's Christmas, you're all invited to join the party!

Q: You don't have name names (unless you want to!), but has anyone ever been a dick about a portrait?
JLB: Hahaha, only one person, I'd love to tell, how much vodka can you supply?

Q: You have some painted some pretty big figures in the indie rock scene - Alec Empire, Jarvis Cocker, Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu. Do you have a bucket list of performers you would like to meet and one day paint?
JLB: I'm still blown away about meeting all 3 of them! I'm such a fan boy. Jamie Stewart was a long shot and all arranged on the spur of the moment, he's been really sweet and supportive and definitely the main reason I'm hoping to stage one of these events in L.A sometime over the next couple of years. To get Xiu Xiu and Hi Fashion and some other upcoming LA bands onboard would be great...and some funding! Otherwise I'll have to plan the next show around getting them over here again.

So, my bucket list; there's a few faces I'm dying to paint, I failed miserably when I met Patti Smith, I became a nervous wreck and mumbled and couldn't look at her - so I'd like to try that properly! So off the top of my head, Patti, Michael Stipe, Anthony Hegarty, Morrissey and Genesis Breyer P Orridge to name just a few. Just to drop into the mix with everyone else.

Q: Your portraits of The Mighty Boosh cast are pretty spot on. Do you have a favorite recurring sketch? Was The Legend of Old Gregg as popular in the UK as it was in the US?
JLB: The Boosh are amazing, and just as much fun in real life! Old Gregg is obviously the classic moment, I'm holding out for the Crack Fox to make a comeback.

Q: Is there a particular portrait you just couldn't bare to part with?
JLB: They're all quite difficult to part with, I think it's why I paint 36 portraits per series, that way I get to hang around with them a little longer...but then, I self fund everything and don't have an agent helping me (SADLY), I just can't be bothered with the endless nonsense of arts funding in the U.K - I need every waking hour to paint, and by the time I've paid for venue hire and sound systems and everything else I'm desperate to get the money back so I can start the next series so I'm quite happy to wave them on to new homes...but I do insist the buyers love them right!

Q: Off topic. Your Birds series of self portraits as medical school style anatomy charts is brilliant. Have you considered leaving your body to science when you die?
JLB: They're actually portraits of someone I was with, it turned out really intense and crazy and properly messed up so the series took a darker turn: what started off as looking at anatomy as a way of mapping love then became all about mapping what was wrong and trying desperately to find the roots of the problem. Thankfully (which seems odd to say now) a serious smash to my head made me see sense!
...But yeah, science can have my body, if it's any use. Anything is better than being left for the worms! I'm scared shitless by them, so I'm not a very keen gardener. ...and if science doesn't want me then please just make sure I'm burnt well!

Q: What artists do you currently follow?
JLB: I've never been good at following artists, music and these people from the paintings have always filled my head and heart, they're my artists. The biggest influence was (and is) Derek Jarman, he had it all!

Q: Drag Queens or Juggalos? Who would win in a fight?

Click any pic to enlarge!

**Photo of John Lee Bird is a collaboration with Jonathan Dredge.

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