John Lyons gets up every day with poetry his first concern.
He needs to write a first draft of at least one poem every morning before he goes forward, then often spends his day painting in the studio attached to his home in Cambridgeshire, north of London.
When not in the studio, he is often sketching, even when travelling on a train and sometimes when watching television.
He is constantly being creative. It is part of his life every day and he can’t stop.
His movement from poetry to painting is natural for him. He admits that there are things he can’t put into words as he noted in a recent interview with Art UK:
“With painting, line, shape, colour, texture and a surface plane are fundamental. So painting is about putting these elements together, into syntactical connection that creates a harmony that can speak to people on a level that is very intuitive…There is so much that I feel that I often find difficult to put in words. When I’m painting, I am in a different place.”
Full of energy, Lyons is excited as 2022 has brought new attention to his artwork.
He had four of his painting in the dramatic exhibition, Life Between Islands, British-Caribbean Art The 50’s – Now.
It ran from December 2021 to April 2022 at the Tate Britain in which he was the oldest living artist to be featured in that very important visual acknowledgement of Caribbean artists in the UK.
In the planning stages it did awaken curators to visit his studio to have him pull paintings out of storage for them to look at.
Following the Tate Britain exhibition, he recently had a month-long solo exhibition, Unmasking the Psyche at the Felix & Spear Gallery in Ealing, West London.
Though committed to painting, Lyons remains active as a poet.
As one of the founding members of a decades-old circle of poets called Off The Page, he recently went to Manchester to read with other founding members and some members of the public in celebration of the work of John Latham, a poet and an acknowledged brilliant scientist of Manchester University who died a year ago.
Lyons was born in Trinidad, raised both there and, for part of his childhood, lived with his grandmother in Tobago.
His childhood was steeped in Carnival and Trinidad folklore.
Art was second nature to him; and as a young child he was constantly drawing in the margins of his schoolbooks. When chided for that misdemeanour, he turned his attention to the house walls.
He has never stopped drawing.
“At the age of 12, I gathered a few urchins from the Tobago village, near Scarborough where we lived then and began teaching them to draw,” he said.
It was natural for him to move from drawing to painting; at first with coloured chalks, then to watercolours.
“I remember,” he said, “playing with colours. Colours attracted.
“Also I loved making my own kites and seeing the sunlight through the multi-coloured tissue paper.”
His uncle made him his first easel and painting became his focus. He was inspired by small picture books he found in a Port of Spain bookshop of the works of Hogarth, Rubens, and El Greco; and in the Trinidad National Museum and Art Gallery the work of Cazabon who became his absent tutor.
He also remembered finding solace in literature as a young child after the death of his mother.
“I read and read and read and got lost in books. That led me to writing.”
After being successful in passing his Senior Cambridge exams, he worked as a young man in the Trinidad civil service and every day after work he went to a studio in the British Council building to paint, under the encouragement of Alpheus Charles.
At the age of 25 in 1959, he left Trinidad for England to study at Goldsmiths College School of Art and Design.
After his design degree he went on to get an art teaching diploma at the University-Upon-Tyne.
Lyons embarked on a teaching career spanning over two and a half decades during which time he never stopped painting and writing.
He enjoyed teaching art, including pottery. Initially he taught at various secondary schools in Manchester, moving on to South Trafford College as a lecturer of art and design.
During his time there he was also exhibiting in certain group exhibitions and published Lure of The Cascadura. At this time he also began to win awards for his poetry, and was asked to teach creative writing as well.
Though he has lived in England for over 60 years, Trinidad folklore, landscape and Carnival remain a driving force and inspiration for both his paintings and poetry.
Even his vision of Eve in the Garden of Eden in one of his poems, is very Trinidadian.
There was no apples in Eden,
Only sapodillas ripening among
Bougainvillaea and frangipani.
His vivid memories of his childhood wanderings in both Trinidad and Tobago, his poetry and paintings filled with soucouyants and more.
Our story-telling summoned
The blood sucking Loupgaroo,
La Diablesse with her lethal coquetry,
Shape-shifter Papa Bois, keeper of forests;
The vividness for him as a child watching Carnival on the streets of Port of Spain near his father’s shoe shop.
Behind the carnival African gods came out of stones, gave power to the throb of drum. Yokes and barracoons could not destroy
deep harmonies of their chanting
behind the carnival.
During his teaching career his own art was becoming better known, as he started to appear in more group exhibits and many solo shows around England as a result of his involvement in art organizations, writing about the work of other artists and being a co-occupier of Zamana Studio in Manchester.
Later he and his wife Jean Rees, a poet, playwright and arts activist established the Hourglass Studio Gallery in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.
Lyons has published seven books of his own poetry and his poems are included in numerous published anthologies.
His first collection, Lure of the Cascadura published in 1989 by Bogle-L’Ouverture, was so dense in Trini references that it came with a glossary.
His 2015 collection, A Carib Being in Cymru (Cane Arrow Books) filled with his woodcuts is based on poems that arose out of a writer’s residency in Wales.
One of his books of poetry, Dancing in the Rain (Peepal Tree Press), is all children’s poetry with drawings and watercolours. It was short-listed for The Centre for Literacy in Primary Poetry Award.
The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education noted that “Nature comes to life in the words and the pictures drawn by the poet.”
Most unusual is his Cookup in a Trini Kitchen (Peepal Tree Press). It is filled with 150 recipes, but also his drawings, watercolours and poetry.
He did cooking as a child staying with his infirmed grandmother in Tobago, and Lyons continued to cook after he came to England, first for himself and then friends and family.
“As a Trini far from home, I derived a strange sense of identity and confidence from cooking that drew on memories of childhood and youth.”
Winner of the Windrush Arts Achievement Award in 2003, John Lyons is a Trinidad artist and writer whose long career is getting renewed attention in England this year and it is well deserved. For further information, visit www.jcmlyons.co.uk
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