Cymru Culture

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Interview with Shani Rhys James

(March 01, 2015)

Interview with Shani Rhys James

Shai Rhys James - Distillations
Shani Rhys James with Pink Room,
at 'Distillation': 30 Years of Painting at Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru National Library Wales, Aberystwyth
Runs to 23 May 2015 (image © the photographer, Keith Morris)

Few artists warrant simultaneous exhibitions of their work in the same town. But few artists are as extraordinary as the multi-award-winning Shani Rhys James.

Aberystwyth is the fortunate town, showing both a major new retrospective at Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru National Library Wales ('Distillation': 30 Years of Painting, 14 February to 23 May 2015), and an imagining of her paintings as sculptures ('Cassandra’s Rant' at Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum, 17 January to 14 March 2015).

Shani Rhys James kindly agreed to talk to us at Cymru Culture. Candidly discussing her artistic practice and the cultural scene in Wales.


CC … As we cover culture in Wales for a majority Welsh-based audience, firstly I want to ask you about the cultural scene in Wales. What do you think is Wales' most exciting contribution to culture at present? What events or exhibitions have you enjoyed here recently?

SRJ … The two cultural things in Wales that stand out in my mind this year are Artes Mundi and Eddi Ladd's performance/dance of Caitlin.

The sculptures of Theaster Gates stand out from all the work in Artes Mundi, and he has a wonderful and generous philosophy of life - and also he shared his prize. His political commitment was refreshing.

Eddi Ladd's performance was riveting and exceptional as Caitlin Thomas. She created the frustration of the wife to a narcissistic Poet. In many ways it was a feminist piece. The impossibility of two artists together and how 'something has to give'. The 'pram in the hall' scenario.

Shani Rhys James - Distillation 1
'Distillation': 30 Years of Painting
Shani Rhys James' exhibition at Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru National Library Wales, Aberystwyth
(image © the photographer, Keith Morris)

CC … What does the Art Market in Wales mean to your success as an artist? For example, as you are represented by Martin Tinney, a Cardiff-based gallerist who sells throughout the world, can artists have financial success without being represented elsewhere?

SRJ … Making money as an artist is rare. We don't expect it. Actually, it is not our priority. If you happen to make money from your art - well and good. in many ways it can hold you back. The scale of the work is reduced, modified to fit the wealthy home; the need to fill a gallery is a pressure. It is nice that I do survive by selling, and Martin Tinney has made this possible for some time, as has my London gallery, Connaught Brown. To be labelled a 'Welsh Artist' can be detrimental to one's career. To make money from one's art is scorned by some circles' As wild as most artists are, there is always the dichotomy, the puritanical attitude, confused with selling of the soul. This often comes from German literature such as Faust and Mephistopheles - the heart and soul go as soon as money is involved. This can happen, and I am very aware of this.

It is imperative I show outside Wales, such as in London and in Dublin and, one day, in New York. The work one does in Wales can often go under the radar. I may have won many awards - the Hunting Art Prize, Gold Medal at the National Eisteddfod, a National Portrait Award, the Jerwood Painting Prize, honoured with an MBE - but still there is that glass ceiling of the establishment in London! They label one, without any understanding of one's background. The obsession with identity, nationality, etc. I am of the world, lived in london Australia, France and 30 years, yes 30 years in Wales, but I shun all labels. I am an individual myself! What makes me survive, recharges my imagination, my soul, if you like, as an artist, are those public exhibitions, 'Facing the Self' at Oriel Mostyn, 'The Black Cot' and 'The Rivalry of Flowers' in Aberystwyth, 'Blood Ties' in Wrexham - those ones, those public exhibitions make me raise my game, challenge me. I refuse to be put in a box. I am an artist first and foremost; that is my priority.

Shani Rhys James - Red Self Portrait NMW 1992
Red Self Portrait

1992, 183.1 x 122.2 cm
oil on gesso panel
image: courtesy Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

CC … Your work is striking, bold and colourful. Can you describe your relationship with colour in your work?

SRJ … I am a painter. That involves colour, paint, and all that this material can do. It can be a thin wash, thick impasto, luminous transparent rich glowing colour. It is symbolic, red, passion, Indian Yellow glowing spiritual, rich blacks, going into the duende of Goya's blacks. It prompts an emotional response.

Shani Rhys James- Pink Room 2003
Pink Room
2003, 210 x 330 cm
oil on canvas

CC … As you are represented in National Collection, and you show your work in other public venues, such as the successful and long planned exhibition at Aberystwyth Arts centre last year, your audience is potentially very broad. What does audience response and the opportunity to show your work in this context mean to you?

SRJ … A broad audience is essential, and I do like feedback from my exhibitions. I do enjoy hearing how people are affected by my work, such as this response I received this morning:

  "What a totally stunning exhibition! The work looks really really fabulous and I can't wait to take Georges - now back from Paris. It is breathtaking and everyone is saying so. I hope it makes you very proud - it certainly makes all of us very proud to have you in our midst."

And this one this morning:


"Just to say that I was bowled over by your exhibition at the National Library. I've never seen an exhibition that fills that space so well – your paintings almost looked as if they had been designed to fit the walls – and you have filled the place with colour and life.

I particularly enjoyed the Australian ones, of course. I saw the Arthur Boyd retrospective in Canberra last year, and was reminded by the intense blue sky and white land (sometimes bare white canvas) in your own Australian work (hope you don't mind the comparison!).

Alison was thrilled that you popped into the gallery education workshop that her students were doing yesterday. It made everyone's day."

Shani Rhys James - The bath 2012
The Bath
2012, 317 x 183 cm
oil on canvas

(photographer: Gareth Lloyd Hughes)

CC … The environment that the work was shown in Aber' was modified specifically, recreating the rhythmic pattern of the painting's interior scene. Can you see your practice developing into more installation or other work that immerses the audience?

SRJ … It could happen, who knows? I am open to experience and experimentation. I am going to do a residency in New York at Columbia University next Autumn and who knows what I might do? I am essentially a painter, but one has to keep the fire alive by whatever means, and remain excited and charged.

Shani Rhys James - Yellow Dress Black Jacket 2003
Yellow Dress Black Jacket

2003, 210 x 330 cm
oil on canvas

CC … I find that when you include figures they are regarding the viewer as much as we view them. Your work seems to powerfully express personal experience, or a version of it. What would you say is the subject or theme of your artistic practice, and is this changing?

SRJ … The theme of my work is often the current experiences I am having at the time, and my version of expressing that. In the National Library work ranging over thirty years is shown: the early experiences of having a family; memories of my childhood in Australia; memories of my childhood arriving in England; the studio; and being an artist and what that entails. But simultaneously I am also looking at the paint, simplifying. Some paintings are filled with objects such as Studio with Gloves, Caught in a Mirror, and Studio, whereas Red Ground II has been pared down just to a red ground and two giant stark figures. It is the process of painting. The stylisation, coupled with the powerful energy of that moment. I aim to capture that feeling I want to capture. Like pinning down a feeling, capturing the essence of that moment. One evolves all the time, but there is a consistency in my work, the same thread running through, all connected in some way. The figures stare out because you are involved too.

Shani Rhys James - Studio with Gloves, 1993Studio with Gloves, 1993
image: courtesy Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru National Library Wales

Shani Rhys James - Caught in a Mirror 1997
Caught in a Mirror
1997, 213.5 x 182.5 cm
oil on canvas
image: courtesy Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Shani Rhys James - Studio 1993
Studio, 1993
image: courtesy Newport Museum and Art Gallery

Shani Rhys James - Red Ground II 2014
Red Ground II, 2014
photographer: Gareth Lloyd Hughes

CC … Does mid-Wales, the landscape and remoteness of your home, help you create?

SRJ … The silence and remoteness means one can think and have that time to develop. without the distraction of the busy metropolis. Though the internet is getting intrusive, it is also essential. I think I need that injection of mountains, trees and the river to feed the spirit. Occasionally, I venture to London to see important exhibitions such as the Rembrandt and the Anselm Kieffer exhibition.


CC … Did you have artistic inspiration as a child or throughout your training, in the form of a well-known artist?

SRJ … My parents were very creative. They ran their own theatre, put on plays, made the sets etc. They also both taught art and painted. The house was full of antiques and paintings. I was taken to plays and foreign films as a child and to exhibitions at the Hayward and Whitechapel, London, Europe to see all the main museums, the Uffizi in Florence, the Giottos in Padua, etc., but we hitched through Europe, my mother and I. My parents knew many artists, all the Australian ones, from Sydney Nolan to Aurthur Boyd, and avant guard theatrical people my mother acted with, such as Steven Berkoff and David Hare. So yes, an extremely stimulating home life. I stayed often with Charles and Barbara Blackman as a child. She was a poet and he an Australian painter living in London, and I was aware of his studio where he painted all day. I saw my mother struggle with a painting, push it around, knock it out and respond emotionally to a piece. My husband is an artist. We met at Saint Martin's School of Art, London, and he is a brilliant artist.

Shani Rhys James - Palette Knife 1996
Palette Knife
1996, 75 x 60 cm
oil on canvas

CC … What are you creating now?

SRJ … I have just finished drawing a hundred black and white ink drawings, which were included in the book I commissioned for the exhibitions 'Distillation' and 'Cassandra’s Rant'.

And, several things are happening this year. Starting from next week, I have to work on my London Show at Connaught Brown Mayfair, which is happening in the autumn, starting in September. Then in June, work is going to the Millennium Gallery in St Ives; the large scale paintings and the Automata. I am working for the second phase of the Womens Art Society for the Mostyn, Llandudno in June/July, and then in the Autumn I will be going to do a residency in Columbia University New York. We will also both, Stephen and I, be artists-in-residence working with a theatre group from Liverpool, 'Wicked Fish', for people with learning difficulties.

CC … Shani Rhys James, thank you.


'Distillation': 30 Years of Painting
Images of Shani Rhys James' exhibition at
Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru National Library Wales, Aberystwyth

Runs to 23 May 2015
(images © the photographer, Keith Morris)

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

Shani Rhys James - Distillations 4

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

Shani Rhys James - Distillations 6

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

Shani Rhys James - Distillation

And one last visitor reaction to the exhibition:

"This exhibition is quite fabulous. Totally stunning! Individually, each piece is enthralling. As a body of work encapsulating 30 years, breathtaking. Anyone who had seen it would agree. Shani Rhys James has every right to feel proud of this - it certainly makes us all very proud to have her in our midst, JP."

Very proud indeed.

Jennifer Pearce, March 2015

All exhibition images © the photographer, Keith Morris
All artwork images courtesy of and © Shani Rhys James

Jennifer Pearce is the founder of Art Club and can be followed on Twitter

Further details on Shani Rhys James' current exhibitions:
     'Cassandra’s Rant', Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum, Aberystwyth
     'Distillation': 30 Years of Painting, The National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth
     'Distillation': 30 Mlynedd o Beintio, Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, Aberystwyth

     Martin Tinney Gallery
     Oriel Martin Gallery

If you liked this, you'll also enjoy:
Cardiff Carnival 25th Anniversary Exhibition, March 2015

The Lumen Prize, December 2014

To This I Put My Name, Claire Curneen, March 2014

The Albany Gallery, Cardiff
, Christmas Exhibition, December 2013

Eight and a half Welsh comedians
, December 2013

John Gingell Award at g39
, September 2013
Response, Annie Giles Hobbs, June 2013
     Review: Arcadecardiff, June 2013

     Review: St David’s Hall exhibition space - Triad and Mount Analogue, January 2013
Review: St David’s Hall Christmas Exhibition, January 2013
     Taming the Drew? Graffiti as art,
September 2012
     Review: Nothing Like Something Happens Anywhere - Chapter Arts Centre, Canton, Cardiff, August 2012
     National Museum of Art, contemporary galleries, March 2012


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