Visual Arts

An Interview with Jonny Hannah


The high street as a portrait of the artist: An interview with Jonny Hannah By Peter Lloyd From Journal of Illustration Volume 1 Issue 2 Published January 2015 IQ Extract Originating from Dunfermline in Scotland, Jonny Hannah is very recognizable in the UK visual arts landscape as a prolific Illustrator with a healthy CV of high-profile international clients. Trading under the name ‘Cakes and Ale Press’, Hannah also produces self-initiated works; prints, paintings, limited-edition books and 3D constructions, which he exhibits widely to great acclaim. While sustaining his professional profile, Hannah also manages to maintain a successful academic career by presenting papers at conferences and leading the successful Illustration B.A. honours course at Southampton Solent School of Art & Design.I recognize the length, breadth and consistency of Hannah’s outputs as an impressive achievement and an inspiring example. But with all these different commitments to consider, with all these different hats to wear, where does he find the time or mental space to meaningfully engage with them? How does he compartmentalize these responsibilities? What framework has he created for himself that allows him to function at such a rate without becoming formulaic or derivative?I decided to use Hannah’s presentation as a starting point to scratch beneath the surface of his eclectic fascinations and dive deeper into his methodology to try and understand the approaches and devices he employs to make sense of the disparate sources he references to create his own visual world. I started off by asking him to discuss the content of his paper.

Figure 2: Hannah, J. Unquiet Grave, screen print, lino and letterpress, 2003.

Figure 2: Hannah, J. Unquiet Grave, screen print, lino and letterpress, 2003.

JH: Well it was about how folk tunes and folk tales are not forgotten about, partly because they don’t answer all the questions, Folk songs give you a story that doesn’t have all the answers I think that’s why we still listen to them, because now you can get anything you want in 24 seconds via Wikipedia or anything like that but folk songs I suppose they tell us stories that are inconclusive, but also very dramatic and very human. Folk songs are about love and death, so I suppose my talk was about how the constant reinvention of love and death through folk music opened up the doorway and it stretches way beyond what we think of as folk music as well. So that’s the whole basis for country music, which was called folk music a long time ago before it became a hugely commercial successful thing. PL: Those early country songs that you’re talking about, they were like biographies or portraits in a way, recognizable archetypes that people could relate to, weren’t they? Early country and folk songs have a provenance to them, they feel genuine, from the heart. Their modern counterparts seem formulaic and predictable, don’t you think? A bar, a drunk, a heartache, etc. JH: It became a formula, definitely, I think. Yeah, it was pre the Nashville side so, after Hank Williams died, that’s when it all goes a bit wrong because it takes the form of Hank Williams, the drunkard, drug-taking singer who dies young, who sang of a fairly unhappy life, then it becomes a cliché after him. But him and pre-him it’s much more, it’s new ground, there’s no cliché as such and the singers were just reinventing the songs they knew really, so again they still have taken what they’d heard from old Blues singers or Cajun singers and reinventing that, so there’s a real temptation, reinvention of stuff, that is exciting because it deals with everyday life that’s the thing. There’s a sort of clichéd preconception that folk songs are about slain Knights, and they’re not. Well some are. But they’re rubbish. It’s about when you get up in the morning and what happens when you go to bed at night and all the stuff in-between. PL: There’s always a little bit of the fantastical in there, though. And knowing your work I’d imagine that would be a strong appeal for you? JH: Oh aye, there’s those elements of the supernatural which are quite good I think. The idea of ghosts is a really powerful one for me, ‘unquiet graves’ as it’s called. How long have we asked that simply question ‘do ghosts exist?’ we don’t know, possibly not, but it comes from a time when there were fewer hard cold facts. The idea of stories growing in the telling through small communities really appeals to me – invention for entertainment. Commercially, I suppose M. R. James1 captures it best in his tales – every day life, but with a glimpse of the supernatural edging in from the periphery …

Figure 3: Hannah, J. Why Does Every High St. Have to be the Bloody Same?, Screenprint and lino, 2008.

Figure 3: Hannah, J. Why Does Every High St. Have to be the Bloody Same?, Screenprint and lino, 2008.

PL: So thinking about folk music, the things that attract you are, they’re suggestive, they can be interpreted because there’s not necessarily a definitive answer or culmination. They’re also timeless because they deal with timeless themes like love and death, good and bad, and they’re all motifs that exist in your work aren’t they? They’re all things that you incorporate and reinvent in your work. You mention the term ‘unquiet grave’ and I recognize that as the name of one of your prints? JH: That’s the name of my shop, as well. PL: And was that inspired by a folk song that you’d heard? JH: Aye, there was a song called Unquiet Grave, which is an old English folk song, but it’s also the name of a book by Cyril Connolly (1944) who wrote under the pseudonym Palinurus. I particularly like that book because what he’s doing is he’s thinking out loud. It’s a great book, it’s not a page-turner but it’s a good book. He wrote it before the Second World War was about to start. He writes this kind of stream of consciousness, a totally different approach to writing a book at that time, but again like the folk song thing, the stories he’s telling are just collections of other things, interpretations. To read more from this issue click here 

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