Artist John Lowrie Morrison on his life’s passion

Artist John Lowrie Morrison (JoLoMo) in his studio at home in Tayvallich near Crinan. Picture: Robert Perry
Artist John Lowrie Morrison (JoLoMo) in his studio at home in Tayvallich near Crinan. Picture: Robert Perry
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John Lowrie Morrison’s studio is rarely devoid of activity, but when I visit it’s in a quiet kind of overdrive. Not only is normal business continuing at the big glass-fronted building adjoining his house in Tayvallich, Argyll, where paintings are waiting to be dispatched for a show at the Gigha Gallery, but at the same time older works are being gathered, repaired and readied for his first retrospective which opens next Friday in Clydebank.

And, in the midst of it all, there is the pent-up creative energy of an artist being kept from doing what he loves best.

That whirlwind sits down at his desk, next to his immense flat-screen computer. “I haven’t really painted steadily for the last two months,” says Morrison. “I’m just dying to get back into it. I’m well used to admin, I worked in education for most of my life, but when you’re a painter, when that’s what you do for a living, you don’t find it easy. I’m getting a bit ratty, and that’s not like me, I’ve had enough of this!”

All the same the retrospective, A Passion For Colour, taking place at Clydebank Town Hall, Art Gallery and Museum, recently reopened after a £3.3 million refurbishment, is the most important show of his career. The 64-year-old painter is one of Scotland’s most successful living artists, with a turnover reputed to be around £2 million a year. His expressionist landscapes sell, sell, and continue to sell despite the recession, and have been bought by the likes of Sting, Madonna and Rick Stein. But there has never been a major show in a public institution which reviews the whole of his career.

Jolomo occupies a singular place in the art world. His work is loved by many, is instantly recognisable and sells like hot cakes, but it is not critically respected. While many admire his founding of the Jolomo Awards, Scotland’s largest art prize, for emerging landscape painters, his unshakable pleasantness and his support of various charities, too many assume that with an output of 100 paintings a month he is no more than a one-man art factory. One journalist described his work as the “visual equivalent of easy listening, blithe and cheerful in [its] depictions of candy-hued Highland scenes.”

The retrospective will challenge these assumptions by illustrating his artistic development, from award-winning student at Glasgow School of Art to today’s bestselling painter. The exhibition will show not just the evolution of his landscape painting style, but will include remarkable sequences of portraits and figurative drawings focusing on marginalised people. It is a chance to see the unseen Jolomo, and to understand his work in a new light.

“I think it will be a real eye-opener for folk,” he says, cheerfully, his purple shirt holding its own against the bright colours in the studio. “I’m known as a landscape painter, it’s going to be a surprise for a lot of people that I did so many figures.” The idea of critical acclaim doesn’t bother him a lot, never has, and he says that connecting with people is far more important to him than sales. But what does interest him is looking back at the work of the last 40 years and, for the first time, seeing the connections.

“It’s not something you do, say ‘I’ll sit down and have a look through my old work.’ It has been great to see where I was coming from and realise that the whole thing actually does connect through. There is a kind of meaning to it, it’s not just random. You don’t actually think that when you’re doing it. Probably any artist would see a thread through their life, I think for me it has been quite an obvious thread.”

We can even see the moment when the thread begins. In a red sandstone tenement in the West End of Glasgow in the early 1950s, a four-year-old boy draws a picture and falls in love with the feel of the chalks. He decides he wants to be an artist. It’s an ambition he holds on to, aged eight, when his classmates want to be astronauts and lorry drivers and laugh at him.

He draws and paints his way through childhood, copying pictures his mother brings home from her work in a factory making ornamental chocolate boxes. He paints on art trips to Castle Toward near Dunoon with school, and on family holidays to Argyll. When his friends are playing football, or later, going to the pub, he tends to prefer to paint. And in 1967, with his hair touching his collar, he goes to Glasgow School of Art.

But by this point, his artistic interests are being pulled two ways. He has won a fashion design competition run by Glasgow’s luxury department store of the day, Copeland & Lye (Lulu presented him with his prize, a cheque for £100). He is wondering about a future in the fashion industry. At GSA, the textile department take him under their wing, inviting him on trips to Balmacara with their honours students. He paints abstract designs in vivid colours, but also slopes off to paint landscapes. At the end of second year, he has to choose. He walks into the Mackintosh Building, smells the paint, and knows: he will be a painter.

Morrison isn’t exactly the rebellious type. The principles of his Christian faith, which he embraced while an art student, are guiding stars in his life. But he knows his own mind. Though the fashion among the students in the Painting Department was for pop art and hard-edged abstraction, he favoured expressionism, influenced by European artists such as Kokoschka, Chagall and Soutine. In his final year, he defied convention and instead of choosing an art history subject for his dissertation, learned about art therapy. He spent much of the year helping at East Park Home, a residential home in Maryhill for children with severe disabilities. He helped them to paint, but he also painted them, producing a remarkable body of work which looked unflinchingly at disability, while still being suffused with humanity.

In preparation for the retrospective, he has unrolled some of these canvases for the first time in 40 years and has been pleasantly surprised at the results: “I thought they were trashed. You never think that you’re going to have a retrospective of your old work.” He has also rediscovered the portraits he painted during his postgraduate year at GSA, many of them of the elderly people who shared the rundown Garnethill tenement which was home to the postgraduate studios.

He shows me Old Jeannie who lived on the landing opposite, a vision of white wispy hair and transluscent skin. “When I arrived in the morning, she would always come out to take her milk in. She was in her 90s, I think she’d seen a lot of goings on in those studios over the years. She looked like she was fading away. She’d be wearing her nightgown and this white home-made shawl and white slippers and white hair, and with the light behind her from the lobby, she just looked transparent. And I thought, this is old age, this is what comes to us all.”

Morrison had his first solo show in Glasgow four years after graduating, but by then he had other things on his mind. He had married Maureen (after a career as a psychiatric nurse she now manages the Jolomo studio) and their eldest son Calum was born. Morrison trained as a teacher and started teaching art at Lochgilphead High School. He would give himself ten years at the chalk face, he said, then back to painting.

In the end it was nearly twice that time. Two more sons, Peter and Simon, arrived. Morrison, who discovered he loved teaching, was promoted to principal teacher of art, then made an art adviser for Strathclyde Region. He and Maureen became carers for Morrison’s older brother Murdo, who had learning difficulties, and his mother, who suffered from dementia in her closing years. They have now been made vice presidents of the Carers Trust (formerly the Princess Royal Trust for Carers) in recognition of their work and support of carers’ charities.

But none of this stopped him painting. In school holidays, he did little else. Driving from school to school in Argyll, he would stop to take photographs to use as research material. In the family home there was always a space – a shed, an attic, a spare room – which functioned as a studio. “I have to say that I probably should have been playing football more with the boys when they were young,” he says, thoughtfully. “But they didn’t seem to mind. A lot of the time they were drawing and painting with me.”

Calum went on to study computer graphics, Peter to study painting at Glasgow School of Art and Simon is now his picture framer. In 1996, at the age of 46, Morrison took voluntary severance from teaching and started to paint full-time.

“I’ve got several dozen metal drawers full of several thousand works, mainly landscape work I did when I was teaching. That’s me. I’ve got to paint. There’s no other reason for getting up in the morning for me, apart from to get into the studio and paint. You might teach or do other stuff, but that’s what you do. And from the age of four I knew that, that’s what I had to do.”

That is his ripost to the critics who sniff that he’s just churning out paintings like a one-man production line. Nowadays, there is no shortage of demand for his work, indeed commercial galleries are hungry for it as it is seen as a strong seller. But, he says, he painted even when he wasn’t selling. The drive comes from inside, as does the desire to keep challenging himself.

“It’s that rebellious thing in me. Years ago, Harrods phoned up and said: ‘Your work’s selling really well and the beach scenes are the ones that are going, could you do us 20 more beach scenes?’ I stopped dealing with them. I have made a name for myself, people are interested in what I do. I don’t go by fashion or a whim.

“I used to do 14 shows a year, I’ve drawn back to eight. As I get even older, I’ll draw back from that. I don’t need to make a name for myself any more, I’ve made my mark. That’s done, and now it’s about the art, I’ll produce less and less and I’ll produce more different work, bigger work. But I’ll still do it daily. For as long as I can do it, I’ll do it.”

He pulls up on his computer an image of a recent painting Storm over the Machair, South Uist, which was left unsold after an exhibiton. There is a red-roofed croft, but it is almost incidental. The foreground is a near-abstract of flotsam and jetsam on a beach, and two upturned boats. The sky is vivid and stormy with purples and blues.

This, he says, is what he wants to do more of. “You couldn’t say that’s a pretty picture. OK, maybe the croft with the red roof is there, but what drew me to it is all this rubbish on the beach. That’s what I love to paint or suggest, crumbling peat stacks, broken gates, it’s all to do with man-made things, and the way man’s mark is on the landscape.”

This is what he calls “knitting” a painting. It’s done fast, intuitively, the more intuitive the better. “I love knitting a painting, painting underneath thick, then putting more on top, and more, until it’s knitted, embroidered. It’s very abstract work. Just because it hasn’t sold, it doesn’t mean it’s not a successful painting.”

He is increasingly interested in storms, he says. At his house on Mull, he has a studio looking towards Iona and Staffa, where storms can sweep in out of nowhere. “I think I’ve got more sense of joy out of painting a really moody picture than just a summer sky.”

The week after the retrospective opens, the winners of the fourth Jolomo Bank of Scotland Awards will be announced at a gala dinner at Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum on 19 June. Morrison launched the Awards in 2006 saying he wanted to “give something back”, and to encourage the painting of landscape, which he felt was dying. The competition is not about producing Jolomo clones – indeed he is scathing about the extent his work is copied. Previous winners have been artists who have displayed their own unique take on the landscape. The last winner, Calum McClure, a recent graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, presented a body of work inspired by the decaying estate of Cammo House near Edinburgh.

He is thrilled by this year’s shortlist of nine. “They are the most painterly yet, I wish they could all win something. I think it’s working, there are more people painting the Scottish landscape than there were ten or 15 years ago, though I think probably my own success has helped towards that as well, because some people inevitably only see pounds, shillings and pence.”

The Jolomo Award is one of the biggest art prizes in the UK, and the top prize of £25,000 is equivalent to the Turner Prize, prompting some people to view it as a reactionary thing, an affronted challenge to the world of dead sharks and unmade beds. Morrison says it’s anything but. The only beef he has with conceptual art is that it uses all the available air space, so more traditional forms such as painting and sculpture are in danger of falling by the wayside.

“I love a lot of conceptual art. I think a lot of it is not good, but a lot of painting isn’t good. I think there’s only two kinds of art, good art and bad art. It can be painting, it can be conceptual art, it can be anything. I always hated boxing art in, putting it in a wee box and saying that’s conceptual art, that’s painting, that’s sculpture.

“It’s like me in a way, a lot of people see me as a landscape painter. And next week, they’re going to get a fright!”

• A Passion for Colour: Jolomo – the Retrospective is at Clydebank Town Hall, Museum and Art Gallery, 15 June-21 September. Opening hours: Monday-Saturday 10am-4:30pm, admission free.