INTERVIEW WITH JOHN GREEN 6/11/15
We arrive at John Green’s studio which is secreted away in the Art Space facility in a converted church in Portsmouth’s Somerstown district once known for being one of the most deprived wards of the City. It’s raining again but the little terrace of refreshed Victorian villas opposite the chapel look bright and sharp. We meet John in reception. He’s a couple of years younger than me, standing sprightly alert with short grey hair and obviously has no difficulty when it comes to moving quickly up the stairs to the top floor. His studio is off an anonymous corridor. It’s like the inside of a jewellery box, an absolute treasure chest of delights, immaculate and organised, with the walls carefully festooned with his ‘bits’, oil paintings, all manner of sketches, collages, abstracts, press cuttings, references. You feel you could rummage around it for a month and still go on finding fresh stuff. Rebecca, Director/owner of Jack House Gallery, says it changes every time she visits with displays of a new material and more fascinating clues as to John’s past life as a dockie rigger-cum-fine artist. He proudly shows us his ‘rigger’ examination papers (‘rigging of all kinds of masts and booms, sending down yards, striking topmasts, shackles, thimbles, blocks …..’) and chats about his dockyard workmates which he sketched on and off for forty years (he joined the dockyard at the age of 15 in 1956).
It is immediately apparent that John ‘knows’ his art in the broadest sense. There is no point in dropping into the conversation the usual informed representational guff trotted out by art critics. John has been there, seen the works, bought the catalogues and made the notes often accompanied by exquisite sketches in pen, pencil and water colours and meticulous referencing book’s ISBN numbers, publishers and prices. In the sketch books there are running commentaries on George Grosz, Frank Brangwyn, a sudden image of a Lucien Freud, historical flash backs to David Jones’s Celtic ‘poetic vision’ and the Portsmouth sea-scapists, William Wyllie and Arthur Wilde, alongside hundreds of precise sketches of John’s workmates like the jolly friezes on English medieval manuscripts, enlivened further by random academic nude studies from his art classes and ironic caricatures of his bosses. Later when talking about the clothing of the dockworkers John relates how when Stanley Spencer’s boredom of doing ship’s welder after ship’s welder in the Glasgow shipyards in scruffy old clothes he relieved the tedium by putting them incongruously in Harris Tweeds and Fairisle jumpers. All of which is delivered with a twinkle and a wry smile. John mixes his art chat with patient answers to my questions as to what his ‘dockie’ existence was all about.
It transpires that his strenuous, demanding, sometimes dangerous, day job was inextricably enmeshed with his life as an artist. ‘Dockie’ comes from the term ‘running the docker’, the ‘docker’ being the heavy line by which a vessel was quite literally pulled in to dock. John turns towards a large oil painting of a particularly busy dockside scene of workmen pulling massive lines in the menacing shadow of a warship. Unlike Brangwyn’s or Spencer’s dock workers, John’s mates are all very distinct individuals sketched to record every idiosyncrasy of clothing, posture and expression. The figure with the bright red tie, black flat cap and black suit is possibly the mooring officer. The weedy little man on the right in the posher neater light grey suit and matching trilby, the inspector of riggers. The slovenly bloke with the spanner in one hand and hammer (‘moll to you’) on the left may be a shipwright a trade not much liked by riggers. Looking on is a rigger’s mate, a diminutive figure carrying on his skinny shoulders what appears to be an outsize bulk of heavy cable. The atmosphere is smoky, almost tactile, textured. I am tempted to reach forward and touch the painting.
John picks up on this and takes me through how he ‘builds’ his paintings, initially working from the sketches he did in hundreds of lunch hours. First he lays down a backdrop, for example, of the warships, those vast sombre chunks of naval power full of a Cubist’s delight, blocks, cones and tubes, set against colossal dockside scapes painted in extraordinary juxtaposition, of colour (John is reported to be a fan of J.D. Fergusson the Scottish colourist), featuring surreal scenes of dockies pulling lines against distant colonnades. Then he adds to the work the large figures and heavy equipment in the foreground worked-up again from sketches, painted, cut-out, and pasted in. Nothing he tells me is wasted. Sometimes the surface of the work is lightly sanded to bring out different textures. This distressing makes the work look edgy, harsh and metallic. In one work the gate of a huge dry dock is etched scratched and sandpapered in rust red – ‘red lead, very dangerous’ explains John, which seems to have stained the dockie’s overalls, emphasizing the theatrical nature of the scene. It’s inevitable that you start to believe John composes his dockscapes as if creating designs for something even bigger, something of epic dimensions featuring huge war machines being cosseted by choruses of toiling workers. I check myself for being too romantic. John corrects any fanciful analogies by describing these scenes as being against a hideous clamour of banging and grinding in an atmosphere of stinking paints and burning chemicals.
The conversation reverts to the postures of the workers – bad backs were the default setting in the docks. You can see why. All that pulling and bending down to pick up the huge metal hawsers and stays – everything had to be manually handled, ‘you accepted it, it was part of the rigger’s job spec. – moving heavy loads’. John kept fit playing football. He was able to take Saturdays off. A fairly useful half back apparently. There is a delightful almost balletic sketch in one of the books of a skinny scruffy street urchin about to trap a ball in the air. He says proudly that the ‘dockyard and the streets were my school of art’. I am totally won over and seek to make arrangements with John to meet him again but this time to spend half a day walking round the dockyards perhaps just to get a glimmer of what dock life was like thirty or forty years ago. One final question (I have only interviewed him about his figurative work, he has masses of ingeniously textured abstracts): what does he prefer the figurative or the abstracts? “No problem, the former because they are full of precious memories of the past.”