Chelmsford-based Artist James Wilkinson is well-known through his portraits of celebrities, mostly famous singers and rock stars. Not to mention he is also a unique example of a British artist whose sole inspiration came from Russia. In 52 and with 5 kids Wilkinson is bursting with energy and is full of plans.
Russian Chelmsford: James, please tell me about your professional way, about your family
James Wilkinson: I’m 52 years old now. So I’ve got 5 children. I’ve got 7 grandchildren. 2 sisters. 1 is a long way away in Wales and 1 lives a long way away. They went as far away from me as possible. My eldest daughter is 36, my youngest is 6 years. .
RC: Wow) Is it children from different women?
James Wilkinson: The thing is I played in a band when I was young (laughing).
RC: So I suppose that all your kids are from different women?
James Wilkinson: Some of them. There were many back-vocalists in our band. (laughing)
foto8(James is second from the left, blond, Bambi group, 1982)
RC: How often are you all together with children to sit down and talk?
James Wilkinson: Yeah I see my children. I love them and they love me. I have a great relationship. Where I live at the moment I’ve got a huge amount of space in the garden, it’s like a park. So I put on a music concert in the garden and everyone came for that. We all had fun and it was great. We did that not Saturday gone but the Saturday before.
RC: How do you feel as a father now? I mean your youngest daughter
James Wilkinson: It was a huge thing for My other half was breastfed and everything for 8 months and then she would express and say bottles and stuff. I would fed my daughter here, in studio. She had her own little bed and cup that used to be here. I would work and there’s no difference between being in at home in my studio. She could’ve been working from home. She grew up here before she went to school. The day that she went to school everyone here was so sad because she was like part of this, she grew up here, she knew everybody, and everyone knew her. So Alannah going to school was like a sad day and also a happy day because Alannah grew up with adults. So seeing little people was amazing and being with little people was amazing for her. But she never ever spoke in like children’s language. She always spoke like adult because she grew up with adults. I don’t think that’s a bad thing because I think she can communicate with everyone.
RC: Very interesting speak about your childhood. How was your first experience with painting?
Tell me, please about your parents, maybe they are also artists
James Wilkinson: My dad used to draw. My dad died when he was 48, I was 24 when he died. It was a huge thing for me because he was my best friend. I loved him very much. So it was a big thing his death.
RC: How was your first experience, do you remember? Was it just interesting for you or your father showed you?
James Wilkinson: No he didn’t. No one ever taught me how to draw. I just wanted to do it so much. I found one of my schoolbooks from when I was like 8 or 9 the other day and in there it’s like an English book. But the whole book I would draw, I wouldn’t just write I would draw as well. I would draw a picture of what I was talking about. I just always did it. Then the first real portraits that I did where I thought oh I need to be good at this were of my father’s work. He bought some photographs and he said would you do some? I must have been about 11. He said would you do some pictures of them? I did them all in watercolour, just little tiny head portraits. He took it to work and they loved them and that was it that, kind of like when I realized I could do that
RC: Who was your art teacher later on?
James Wilkinson: A teacher Mr. Wilson who was a brilliant teacher. I think it’s important you get good teachers.
RC: Can you speak about him?
James Wilkinson: He only had one arm, he lost his arm I believe and it was originally the arm he used to use. This is what I think I was told. Then he retaught himself to use the other arm. He was brilliant. He was like a huge inspiration to me. He would amaze me. I would sit there and he would draw a portrait and I would be like oh how does he do that? I used to paint over and over again paintings. I used to do paintings of Elvis Presley over and over. It would drive him crazy. He would be like you’re never going to get anywhere by painting rock stuff. But he was a great teacher.
RC: You remember your first painting and you spoke about this. It was watercolour, acrylic
James Wilkinson: The first stuff I did was in the pencil of the Russian cosmonaut. I still have 1 of the watercolour I did – Yuri Gagarin. I was 16 years old.
When I was in school my teacher said I was always painting rock stars, Elvis Presley, rock stars in general. I carried on doing. Then I started to meet them I worked as a commercial artist and the studio I worked out was next to TV am Channel 4. They were 1 of the first.
RC: In London right?
James Wilkinson: Yeah in London. So all the celebrity people would be on the Breakfast Show. So what I would do if I knew he was going to be there the next day that night I would draw him and on my way to work I would see him coming out and I would get him to sign it, I did that for a long time and I had loads and loads them, hundreds of them. Then I worked in the city a bond trader for Marilyn Lynch and I became an associate director. After I finished as a commercial artist I didn’t want to do art anymore because it really bore the life out of me. I did it for about 3 years
RC: How was it?
James Wilkinson: No it was like an advertising agency when I was doing that. I was having to do advertisement for like screwdrivers and watches and that was awful. I would create those adverts but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Like I say to you, you always draw something or you paint something so much better if you if you like it. I was doing stuff all day every day that I didn’t like and it didn’t make me want to come home and paint anymore
RC: Is creative freedom important to you?
James Wilkinson: Yeah absolutely yes.
I can do whatever I want. That’s the thing, I paint that stuff better because I want to do it.
I was a commercial artist for a firm for 3 years. But then I stopped and I didn’t paint anything. Then I went into banking because I wanted some money. So I went into banking and made loads of money. While I was doing it it was so stressful so I started painting again to stop the stress. Then I had this London exhibition in 1999 in Leicester Square and it was a huge success. I had 80 portraits and they were all written on and signed by the people that I painted from the Spice, Rolling Stone, David Bowie. It was a big success and it ran for about 3 months in a place called Voodoo Square. Then I thought this is what I want to do full time so I came here. I’d been invited out on tour with Oasis the band and they had commissioned me to do portraits and they all loved my work. I went out with them.
Then I got to meet Ronnie Wood who’s a great artist from the Rolling Stones. Then I got invited out on the 40 Licks tour in 2002 with the Rolling Stones. I was in New York and Chicago
RC: How was it in the portrait, did you meet some real stars?
James Wilkinson: Yeah like Oasis the band. First I went on tour with them, then I was invited out to the Rolling Stones concerts in America and I was backstage with them just hanging, not painting. But it was because of the painting that they knew who I was.
RC: It was a real moment in real life. How was it? You can explain to the people that don’t understand how it works
James Wilkinson: It was just because I was painting. Ronnie had a club in London and he lent me that club to do one of my exhibitions in. Then they were like do you want to come home and hang out on tour and I did. I met Keith Richards for the first time as one of my heroes. It was just that, I wasn’t doing any painting. When I was with Oasis I did some paintings in the hotel room. I didn’t do any with the Rolling Stones. When I decided not to work in the city anymore and I came here. There was a studio. So I went to the studio here. The V Festival was. So because of what I’ve done in the past, this was kind of a good fit. Yeah. So I spoke to people at V festival and they wanted me to be their artist.
RC: What about V festival? How was the first time you were in this professional area and what about the portraits?
James Wilkinson: So in 2012 I became the first person ever to be the V festival artist. Then I thought well if I’m going to do this I’m going to do these exhibitions of the stuff I do anyway so I might as well try and raise some money for some charity. So first of all I started raising money for cancer charity Helen Rosen cancer charity. Then because I got kids and I love kids, I felt there’s only one Hospice in your whole of Essex that looks on kids that die or they’ve got life limiting illnesses and that’s Little Haven’s Hospice.
RC: Tell please about your exhibitions
James Wilkinson: Yeah, they did a big sale of my work at Madame Tussaud’s and everything sold. It’s all signed like this.
The first exhibition was in Lester Square in 1999. These were all in there. That was the one at Rodney Woods Club. These ones were in Mayfair, Madame Toussaint. Then we started and I came to and put these down. These are the V festival exhibitions in 2016
(James shows a catalogue with pictures)
RC: Some pictures, portraits did you draw from different pictures from the photo?
James Wilkinson: Yeah like when they’re dead and stuff
RC: Who sat down near to you?
James Wilkinson: Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith …
RC: How was it?
James Wilkinson: quick sketches and then a do a photograph because they can’t sit down forever. But then I do the quick sketches on stage that are done like this because I only have 30 minutes to quickly get something together
RC: How long does it take to do a portrait from the picture, photographers?
James Wilkinson: I always get asked that question. The answer is it’s different and it depends on what mood I’m in and whether I want to do it or not. If you said to me I need a picture, you need to paint me, I’ve got to do a tenuous portrait and I’ve got to have it ready by Friday, I’ll have it by Friday. If you said to me I’ve got to paint a picture of your dog I’d be like it’s going to take me a month because I don’t want to do it. That’s the thing. If I want to do it, I’ll do it and it’ll be good because I’ll want to work on it. But when I don’t want to do it
RC: Do you work in the night sometimes?
James Wilkinson: Whatever it takes. When I did this exhibition, the first exhibition. That painting in my studio is huge. It took me about 3 hours because working as quickly as I could because I had this exhibition. I was just knocking paintings out, some were taking me an hour because I just had to keep getting stuff done. I had all these people who had signed all this stuff and it was just like I need to get all this done
RC: Is it important how you feel when you paint?
James Wilkinson: I always listen to music when I paint. If I’m painting this spice girls I’ll have to listen to their music.
RC: You try to feel yes?
James Wilkinson: Yes because it just gets me in the mood for that. I take pieces out of their music. I painted a musician and listening to his music and then I made him write some lyrics because that’s what I was listening to that. I get them to do that a lot. There’s not many examples in here.
This microphone is what Jhon Lenon used when he recorded Imagine. You can see the microphone lead here, that was done in my studio. There was 7 microphone leads that he used when he recorded the song. You know the song Imagine?
RC: Yeah, it’s a favourite song
James Wilkinson: That’s the microphone that he used. I bought all of them. This one’s got from the guitarist checking right there. It’s like that from the guitar. That was Amy Winehouse’s guitar and I got Mark Robinson her producer and manager to write on it and stuff.
RC: All these singers are your favourite, you like this
James Wilkinson: I do because they inspire me
RC: It’s your generation
James Wilkinson: The thing is they are part of popular culture, they are the new art. 100, 200 years ago these kinds of guys weren’t here. We have classical musicians but we didn’t have the medium to create art with them or about them. Now we do so this is popular culture, what they do. I’m combining their culture, what they do, the new art in what I do. These people are all interested in art too. James Bay, he drew all these. I made him do drawing for me and he made this portrait of himself. Sam Smith did these portraits. I get them all to do portraits of themselves and then we raise money for charity by selling them. Ed Sheeran’s self-portrait we sold that for 2,000 like a stick man. It doesn’t matter, the point is we’re getting them to do it.
The money was transferred to the hospice Little Haven’s foto
RC: why do you do charity? Because not all people think about charity in your life
James Wilkinson: It’s only because I have kids. I imagine my children like you probably do when you hear about a child being hurt, you imagine your own child in that position and what you’d feel. I find that completely unbearable that I’d be in the situation. What I’d hope is that if I was someone would help me. right now these poor people have no one to help them. So they’re trying to raise money and we’re trying to help them. but I don’t think you should have to. Why should you have to wait to save a child’s life? You should just do it.
RC: Do you have a very high emotional IQ? Is it emotional IQ because you feel in ways, different people?
James Wilkinson: The thick is that we can all just turn away and worry about ourselves. But maybe I’m being selfish because I’m thinking about my children. I don’t want them to be in that position. It’s not totally unselfish act, it’s because I don’t want to be there. I hope someone is going to help me if I get in that position. So I want to help other people who are already there
RC: Thank you that you do it because not all people think about this.
James Wilkinson: I think a lot of people change when they have children. You suddenly realize it’s not all about you, you have to give out so much for your children. I think that changes people, it changes your perception. I remember when I was reading the story about a little boy called Jamie Bolger who was killed in his country. I’ve been standing with tears reading that story. I was trying to explain it to somebody who didn’t have children. I said when you have children you will completely understand this, you’ll feel all of that.
RC: Yes. Because you remember all small things in your life.
James Wilkinson: Exactly. And now that now that person has children she’s like I completely get it. It was impossible to feel it before, you sympathize but you don’t have that emotional component. So I think that’s really what it’s about. I think we all have it in us. We all have sympathy and empathy and we want to help. I just think people don’t think they can. This goes back to the school I was telling you earlier about the school for kids that are underprivileged. They don’t think they can. Everyone can you just have to start, put the first foot down and say I might not get there but even if I get half way we’ve achieved something. That’s what I’m going to do, try and do something.
We raised about 20000 pounds for those charities and now we are raising money for individual children who need emergency operations. They need to go somewhere but the NHS won’t fund it. Now I want to take that further.
So when I do the exhibition in Chelmsford for the museum I’m asking companies to sponsor each painting. There’s a little girl that can’t walk at the moment called Isabella, she lives in Chelmsford, she’s a twin. Her sister’s fine but she’s not been able to walk. There’s an operation that will allow her to walk but the NHS won’t fund it. So she has to go to USA, it cost 75000. I think the parents have managed to raise about 30000 so far. So I thought well let’s just do this because I’m going to do the exhibition anyway. I have to do anything. People just keep money and they never paid for them. (The interview was recorded in spring 2018, to date, all the necessary funds have been collected and Isabella is learning to walk)
It’s easy money for them to help this child because the exhibition is going to happen anyway. But now I’m thinking you know we can do more. So I’m actually going to talk to the politicians and see if I get a huge amount of money. So every year we can say this money here if you need to do that, you just go do it now. Don’t be worrying about trying to raise money for the next 2 years you go and do it now. When I leave here I’m going to go and have a meeting with a couple of people about that and I want to try and do it. I need about 12 million pounds but you know what if you don’t ask you don’t get. So I’m going to ask the politicians to give me a fund every year which is a small drop. If you think about what the foreign aid budget is and that is a tiny amount. But that could say I believe could save 120 children’s lives every year. So why not do it?
RC: You’re very open, positive. How do you feel about your life?
James Wilkinson: I feel like I need more hours in the day because there’s so much to do. I’m running out of time, I feel that all the time. I feel I’ve got so much to do and I haven’t got enough time to do it. City museum and going to do an exhibition about my work, a 5 year retrospective of my work at the V Festival. So I’ve got to prepare all that. I’m doing lessons here for children and adults. I’m teaching in 2 different schools in Essex at the moment as a kind of feature.
It’s just getting the kids interested in art and just pushing them a little bit further than their normal art lesson. Getting them to do stuff they wouldn’t normally do and just trying to improve and make them realize that they can create new art and something different. Try to make them do stuff like that, introduce them to new techniques or things so that they feel they can create not just learn stuff out of books but actually create it.
RC: It’s very important. How do you motivate the children?
James Wilkinson: It’s very important to motivate them. The thing is you’ve got to love doing it. Otherwise, why would you do it? If you don’t want to do art, you don’t want to sit and create something if you don’t like it or you’re bored. You’ve got to be loving it while you’re doing it. I think the problem is with a lot of the school curriculum, and it’s the same for everybody whether it’s geography or whether it’s art, there are bits that are gonna bore you that you’re not gonna be interested in. That’s natural. Let’s come away from the curriculum and let’s find something that you’re interested in in art. If you had the choice of painting anything you wanted to paint what would it be? Because I know that when you start with that you’re going to love doing it because you want to do it so much so it’s going to be better and then that’s when they give you confidence. When you’ve got that confidence you can do other things. That’s what I teach people, it’s about giving them confidence in themselves so that they can go and do it. I believe everyone can paint. I don’t believe you can teach people art because everyone can paint. All you have to do is develop that confidence so they can develop their own art.
James Wilkinson: The only people they know that have got a job are the teachers. They don’t know anybody who works. This is what their background is. So they wanted me to go and tell them about all the things I’ve done and how they do that to motivate them. So yesterday I did 4 classes back to back yeah of 25 children. Before I went in they said to me they won’t talk to you, they’ll just get their phones out, ignore you, won’t speak. That didn’t happen. All of them were putting their hands wanting to talk. I was really surprised and really pleased as well. I was saying to them you can do what I’m doing, you just have to want it
RC: One successful director in the Russian company told me once: a little bit more, little better. If you will do the same thing your whole life in the professional you will be number 1, the best
James Wilkinson: That’s what I was saying. I’m going to be with them for 6 weeks now I’m going to teach them about pop art and how pop art said art is not for the elites. It’s for everyone, you can all do this, you can all get involved in it. You can create it. So that’s what I’m doing with them, I’m finding out what’s interesting in their lives and we’re going to create something about them. Like on a commercial, they all love their phones. So instead of soup cans let’s do something about your phones so that they’re all interested. Some want to do basketball. But they were all telling me and that was a huge step. The teachers were like oh my god they’re talking to you. So that’s good.
RC: What I think about this one same but very important the child looks at parents and adults who make some interesting. Because the children are like sponges. But I think not all your children will do painting.
James Wilkinson: I think they’re all quite creative. One of my daughters is very good at singing. My oldest daughter was an art support teacher. Another one of my daughters she is 3D design. My son in marketing, business. He wants to get involved in promotion like putting on concerts and stuff like that. So all of them are involved in art.
RC: It is very important that some music is taught, in the last two days ago that not every child who’s teaching music will be a musician. But it`s foundation skills human to be
James Wilkinson: Absolutely right. It lays the foundation, like a teacher.
We are all influenced by everything around us and it doesn’t have to be your parents. It could be another relation or a good friend of the family. We all kind of take that in, I’m not sure it’s hereditary. If you’ve got that around you, it doesn’t even have to be a person. If you’re at home all day and all you’re watching is art, you’re looking at art books if they’re left for you, you’re watching the TV, music. It’s going to influence what you do. It’s going to be. Like you were saying about the games that you play when your children, all of these things influential your later life and determine
RC: What was your favorite childhood game? What was the housing like? General game? What was more interesting
James Wilkinson: It was playing with my friends, we would play board games. Early 1970s, there was a TV program, you won’t remember this you were way too young. But there was program in America and it was on television called Starsky and Hutch and it was about 3 detectives in America. So we used to pretend we were Starsky and Hutch, we had these little guns and everything and we would go out. They fired these little pellets. So we would be on the streets pretending to be Starsky and Hutch.
It was about 4 of us, my sisters and my friend Tony. Then I remember once they used guns called and they fired these little round plastic balls. I remember I was a really good show off. Tony put his head around the door once and I shot him in the eye. I was worried I’d hurt him but he was ok. We used to play.
Yeah I think you know we really believed that we were Stotsky not to really go into that. We weren’t we were playing the streets of Los Angeles. So that’s in our head. Maybe it was that kind of creativity. But then again at the end of the day I would sit inside and then I would draw Starsky and Hutch, like heroes.
RC: Something about your friends in your circle. It’s not artificial?
James Wilkinson: I have friends that are artists. But I have friends everywhere, all walks of life.
RC: Who was coming to your home when the children were small maybe?
James Wilkinson: It’s mainly family and their children. We’ve become friends. My little girl went to dance classes in Chelsea. So she made friends there, they come to our house.
RC: What’s your favorite food?
James Wilkinson: Anything with chilly in it, I love chilly con carne. I never used. I remember having my first Indian food when I was about 18 19. I was like why would anyone eat this? It’s blowing my head off, it’s not comfortable, it’s horrible. I couldn’t understand it. Now I just want to eat the really hot stuff. I love to eat steak. It’s funny, the only way I can do it by not thinking of what it is. That’s what supermarkets do, they package it do that it’s not an animal it’s just produce. I have to do that in my own head too because the minute I think of what it actually is I’m not sure. Also about the way that the animals are treated as well. So to eat it I can’t think about that. I just have to enjoy the taste.
RC: Your favorite place in the world
James Wilkinson: My favorite place I’d say is Florida because of the weather
RC: You love the sunshine?
James Wilkinson: I love the sunshine but it’s not just that. I don’t stay in hotels with lots of people. I like to rent a house that’s away from everyone. That peace with the sunshine and knowing that I can go somewhere beautiful. I’ve always had happy times there. I guess that’s what it is. Holiday places are always happy places because you associate them happiness.
RC: Sometimes when we are older we think of the dream place maybe. My dream place, I don’t know why has been Spain for a long time.
James Wilkinson: Spain is quite like Florida. Have you seen the film Sexy Beast?
James Wilkinson: It’s a great film, like a gangster film. It’s got someone called Ray Winston in it. If you get a chance to see it. See if you can see it. He’s like a retired bank robber and he goes and lives in a villa in Spain with his wife and they’re really happy. Then his old life comes back to spite him. That villa that he lives in on the top of the mountain there that’s where I want to live in Spain. He can see anyone who’s coming. He lives in this beautiful, calm, peaceful home.
RC: Spain or Florida for you?
James Wilkinson: They’re the same kind of thing. It’s that isolation, peace, calmness. Knowing that in the evening you can drive a short way and go for a nice meal or some entertainment. That’s what I like about it. Whereas here it’s a much smaller place. Everybody’s on top of each other. where I live at the moment I’m very lucky because I live and I’ve got lots of space. But there’s too many people in this country, too crowded and you can’t get away and it’s raining all the time.
RC: what did you think about the Russian community in Chelmsford?
James Wilkinson: I love the fact that you’re here. I think it’s brilliant because it gets us to just to talk to each other and to understand where we come from and realize that actually that we are all exactly the same. We are all exactly the same, we all want the same things, we all care about the same things. The only people that screw it up are the politicians, it’s true. The people of the same whether they’re in Russia, probably North Korea or England. We are all the same. We care about families we care about children. We worry about our health. We hope we’ve got a roof over our head and that we’re comfortable. Everybody wants the same thing and nobody wants war. So how we ever get into the position where we have war, I don’t know. Well, I do know because it’s not the people, it’s never the people, it’s only the people at the top. There’s an old saying about it’s young men fighting old men’s wars. And that is so true. So we kill the young people on the basis of what? Old men saying. It’s ridiculous. The Russian community here is fantastic. You’re interested in it. You’re giving something back to it. I think the fact that you know you want to get involved and you want to be part of our society is fantastic. I hope because I’ve never been Russia that if I go there I’ll be treated the same and that people would welcome us to Russia.
RC: We’ll try to develop, try to develop this area, this project to try to do something interesting together and maybe it will be not only for children, for adults too.
James Wilkinson: We should talk about those because I think there’s an opportunity for us to get the local authorities involved in letting people know. Maybe even here with Russia people who do something in the square like a Russia day. That would be fantastic, get all the people that can do something. Get them to make Russian food for everyone. I would love that! I think everybody would come because it will be interesting.
RC: We need more active people in our group. Not too many people are active because every family has problems, children, very busy with work. I’m expected all the time to do something interesting.
RC: James, thank you for the interesting interview
Interview conducted by Evgenia Muravyeva