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Interview: Jake Lever, artist

01 January 2016

‘Artists are truth-tellers and excavators’


My installation in Birmingham Cathedral is called Soul Boats [News, 4 December]. It was commissioned by the cathedral to celebrate their tercentenary, and funded by the Westhill Endowment.


It consists of 2000 boats, made by people of diverse faiths and world-views from across Birmingham and the diocese who’ve reflected upon their own journey through words and images. They’re hung as one giant boat-shaped flotilla in the nave.


I hope it’ll inspire the many thousands of visitors to the newly refurbished cathedral . I hope that walking under the flotilla, which occupies most of the nave, will be an experience of beauty and mystery — an encounter with 2000 souls making one cloud of prayer.


I hope it also speaks of connection and community, exploring what unites us on our human journey. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews, as well as Christians of all denominations, have been involved in the project. There’s hidden richness in this abundance.


The depth of engagement by participants of all ages in making their boats was incredible. Some, for example, made boats in memory of loved ones who’ve died; some ranted about their difficulty in finding work; and others celebrated the high points of long lives lived well. These moving reflections are on the inside of the boats, as private prayers, hidden from public view.


I then created the installation, honouring these prayers and aiming to create a cluster of souls all on a journey, unknown to each other, yet brought together. I’m particularly pleased that neither process was compromised: participants had full control over the insides of their boats. I enjoyed the artistic direction of the final installation, working with a brilliant technical team and the visionary Dean, the Very Revd Catherine Ogle. Her first degree was in textiles, and she’s willing to take a lot of risks with the arts. She’s inside the artistic process herself, and exceptionally intuitive. Without her, I don’t think this would have been possible.


I wanted to be an artist from about the age of 14, drawing and painting whenever I could, visiting exhibitions, poring over art books. I felt that art was a way of evoking mystery and the world of the sacred, something I sensed from a very close communion with nature. At Reading University, where I studied Fine Art, I was able to fully explore the power of art to point to the spiritual, supported by wonderful tutors and fellow students.


Whilst at Reading, I visited John Piper, who was then in his eighties, and found him inspirational. This, and a tour around French cathedrals, and a summer working in the glaziers’ workshop at York Minster, led me to consider becoming a stained-glass artist. Then I reflected that the best stained glass, made by Chagall, Piper, and Matisse, came out of the studios of painters, and I decided to pursue a broader career as an artist.


I run a business, Leverarts, with my wife, the artist Gillian Lever, née Mowbray, in south Birmingham. My experience in education complements hers in arts and health, and we both work together and separately on projects of all kinds. We’ve worked in schools, hospitals, day centres, homes for older people, and hospices, as well as in churches and at festivals.


We seek to work soulfully with people and places; so our projects might be slow-burning and sometimes unglamorous, but engage people meaningfully, at a pace that is right for them. Underpinning all this is a commitment to our personal art practice. I make drawings, prints and installations, while Gillian makes abstract paintings.


I love teaching very young children and adults, where I can really spin off their enthusiasm. I enjoy seeing people connect with diverse materials and make something that delights or surprises them, something that lifts them and enables them to see themselves or their world in a fresh light.


I like a great deal of conceptual art, but feel drawn towards making as a primal, instinctive activity. I see making as a way of investing love into something, a process that involves an intimate communion with materials that resonates in the finished work. Industrially produced objects can’t hold that kind of energy. I respect the ancient traditions of craft, yet seek to push the boundaries and be utterly contemporary.


I’ve exhibited work in Worcester Cathedral, and in many different churches. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be artist-in-residence at Hailes Church in Gloucestershire, a beautiful medieval building opposite Hailes Abbey. A team of us organised a series of pilgrimages to Hailes that involved a series of art installations. One year, this included a five-metre-long gilded boat that I hung from the roof beams, almost filling the tiny nave.


Art is inherently contemplative, and I think that sacred spaces frame artworks in really interesting ways. Visitors to churches often come seeking some kind of inner transformation, and I think good art has an extraordinary power to evoke an epiphany in you, and transform you at a deeper level.


It’s taken me a while to warm to the architecture of Birmingham Cathedral, but I’ve come to love the confidence of the place, and the quality of light during the day. I’d certainly work in churches again, especially where the faith community embrace this mystical, transformational approach to art.


I seek to integrate artistic practice with Christian values, challenging though this is in a culture that often sees artistic production as the expression of ego or high-end consumer goods.


The making process for me is a contemplative, spiritual activity, a form of prayer. Mind, body, and spirit are united. When one’s in a state of flow, there’s a dance between these that makes one feel fully alive to the present moment. Then, something living and dynamic emerges that satisfies some deep human longing — that connects you with others across time and space, and, in some mysterious way, nourishes your spirit. This is less informational and more transformational, happening beneath your conscious awareness. Although I can’t explain why or how, I believe that God is right at the heart of this dynamic process of creation.


Artists seek to create images through which the mysterious depths of our being speak to us. They’re truth-tellers and excavators, speaking not in the language of fact, but in poetic, symbolic, archetypal images. This quest strikes me as deeply religious.It’s about confronting the fundamental questions of life and death, and teasing meaning out of our fragmented experiences.


In this fast-paced, data-driven, information-drenched culture, we easily lose connection with ourselves and each other. We need artists to perform the priestly function of creating images of connection that are healing and nourishing to our souls. Images, poetry, and music are, in the words of Mary Oliver, “fires for the coal, ropes let down for the lost, something as necessary as bread for the hungry”.


I grew up in Welwyn, in Hertfordshire. My father worked as an engineer at ICI, and my mother, who’s always loved art, taught what was then called domestic science. I have two brothers, Chris, who’s my identical twin, and an older brother, Andrew. Our home was on the edge of the village, surrounded by spectacular woodland, rivers, and fields.


As I’m a twin, the task of establishing a distinct identity seemed an urgent one during adolescence. Chris, who’s now a pilot, became fascinated by aircraft and flight, while I immersed myself in the world of art.


My home now is in the very different setting of Kings Heath, in south Birmingham: busy, urban, and culturally diverse. Gillian and I have two sons, Joe, aged 21, and Toby, aged 19. I’m happiest when I’m relaxing at home with my wonderful family, by the fire.


I love the art of Anish Kapoor, and we are really fortunate to live with two wonderful prints by him. We also have work by a number of artist friends, people like Bill Gear, who supported us when we first came to Birmingham in 1989. It’s very special having their presence with us. We also have our own paintings, prints, and drawings on our walls as well — work that stretches back over many years.


I have an ageing Fiesta; so I’m always thankful on cold winter mornings when I hear the engine firing up heartily. That’s the most reassuring sound.


I’m angry about recent government education policy that has resulted in the arts in schools being increasingly marginalised. This denies young people cultural experiences that would be life-enriching, as well as preparing them superbly for employment, where creativity is so highly valued.


Many people shaped my thinking about things. Gillian is passionate about the visual arts as a language for communicating from the depths of our experience, including our experience of God. Our relationship started 30 years ago, and in that time we’ve shared so much around art and the life of the soul. This has been so precious, and it’s shaped my thinking and approach enormously.


I pray that people, including myself, can put fear aside and learn to trust each other and celebrate difference.


I’m fanatical about the spiritual minimalism in the music of Sir John Tavener and Arvo Pärt. I had the privilege of talking with John Tavener for an hour in one of my exhibitions at Greenbelt a few years ago, and if I could choose someone to be locked in a church with, I’d choose Arvo Pärt. His approach to music as spiritual, contemplative activity is totally inspirational. I’d love to hear him compose and create music, and maybe say a word or two about the process.


Jake Lever was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. The Soul Boats installation will continue at Birmingham Cathedral, open every day, free of charge, till 18 March.


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