Jelly Green: The Suffolk artist has a deadly new muse
- Credit: Nick Ilott Photography
Suffolk artist Jelly Green loves nature – over the years her meticulously observed landscapes have moved from wildlife-filled, ancient hedgerows, to be found in and around Saxmundham and Framlingham, to the wilds of north Wales and then out to the tropical rainforests of Borneo and the Amazon.
As a result, her canvases have grown in scale from modest, table-mat sized squares to vast, wall-filling vistas that deposit the viewer at the heart of an exotic locale. Over the past 10 years her work has gone from highly detailed and distinctive portraits of cattle belonging to her grandfather to energetic and immersive paintings of exotic jungle landscapes.
As her work with mentor Maggi Hambling has progressed, her paintings have become increasingly expressionistic. Her oils have the ability to transport you to a new world, a place so evocative that you could easily imagine yourself surrounded by the sounds and smells of an ancient forest growing half-a-world away.
One of her pre-lockdown exhibitions was at Jason Gathorne-Hardy’s Alde Valley Spring Festival where her huge, almost 3D paintings filled the walls of the Great Barn and refused to be overwhelmed by sculptor Laurence Edwards' powerful works dotted around the barn on plinths.
However, just before lockdown, Jelly became increasingly concerned with climate change and the dangers of deforestation. Gradually, the lush greens and healthy browns contained in the clearings of the rainforest were replaced by fiery reds and oranges as an inferno leapt from canvas to canvas.
As Jelly, 29, shows me around her latest series of paintings, entitled Burn, she points out where she had painted a firestorm over one of her vibrant forest paintings – a completed, unseen work that was completely transformed by her representation of a beautiful but violent destructive force.
Looking at these new paintings, you can see that Jelly has picked up Maggi Hambling’s technique for making a still image leap into life. As Maggi’s waves explode onto the beach in her North Sea paintings, so the flames in Jelly’s new forest fire paintings leap and lick their way across her large-scale canvases.
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“My last show in London at The Oxo Tower in 2019 was pretty much all rain forests but there were a few paintings which toyed with the introduction of fire but immediately after that show, with the news of what was happening to these tropical rainforests, I realised that my work had to follow that route. I could not avoid talking about the burning and destruction of this wonderful habitat.”
There is so much movement in Jelly’s paintings that you find yourself as mesmerised as you would be by looking into the heart of a campfire.
“My work over the last eight years have been very much a homage to these amazing, ancient spaces. I went to live for an extended period in the forest in Brazil when I was 22 and was just taken aback by the beauty and the magnificence of this wonderful space.
“Then you read what’s happening to these life-giving forests and you can’t help but feel it and you need to do something to draw people’s attention to this devastation”
Jelly said that a trip to Borneo in 2018 emphasised just how perilous the state of the world’s rainforests is. “We would get up at 5am and just move up-river and we would sleep and paint in the rainforest as we moved we would see so much wildlife.
“I was just blown away because wildlife was everywhere and just so close. We saw orangutans, loads of different species of monkeys and even saw a large python suffocate a monkey and eat it. We were dazzled by what we were seeing. I remember thinking that this was just the most amazing place in the world but then I found out that these animals are not supposed to be at the water’s edge and the only reason they are there is because their habitat is being destroyed further into the rainforest. They are being squeezed into an ever-smaller space.”
She said that the forests are being laid water to make way for commercial palm plantations which supply palm oil to western manufacturers. “You drive around Borneo for hours and hours and there’s nothing but palm plantations and its then you realise that this was once all rainforest.”
It is this deliberate destruction of this fragile eco-system that informed the change in her artwork and the dramatic shift in her colour palette from lush greens and various healthy shades of brown to fiery reds and incandescent shades of orange.
“I came back, and I looked at some of my recently completed or half-finished paintings and realised that this was no longer how I saw this world. So, I started painting over the top of them. If you look at a few of my Burn paintings, you will see the remains of previous ‘lush’ green forest paintings underneath. My painted firestorm has literally consumed my old forest – just like what is happening in the real world. It’s harsh and terrifying but the flames also have a strange, haunting beauty.”
This work was started before lockdown in 2019 and completed after a hiatus lasting more than a year.
But, lockdown brought with it a surprising but happy event. “I found myself pregnant with my son, Oberon, who is seven months now. I tried working at home, but it was very difficult because my partner was also at home all day and we have a housemate and it was really difficult to get any work done because I am used to working eight to 12 hours a day alone in my studio.
“Trying to paint in my living room, trying to work around other people and you quickly realise that it just doesn’t work.”
“In the end I was just sitting at home doing lots of embroidery. I also went for lots of walks and it make you really appreciate the countryside and Suffolk is really beautiful. It also made you realise how resilient the earth is. Without cars roaring about and aircraft filling the skies, the air quality immediately improved, and you could see the Earth healing itself and hopefully we all learned something from this.”
Jelly said that with more people continuing to work from home or having a split week then it should cut down on the number of journeys that people make.
Jelly said the arrival of Oberon has also necessitated a house move from Darsham to Dennington and the house renovations that any house move entails. “Moving house while also preparing a London show of my Burn paintings and looking after a seven-month baby – I must be mad!”
But, Jelly appears to take it all in her stride, thanks to her parents Ros and Doug, pitching in to provide babysitting support and canvas storage for the new paintings which can no longer fit into Jelly’s studio at Old Jet on the former Bentwaters airbase.
She said that the arrival of her son took many of her friends by surprise because hardly anyone saw her during the pregnancy because of the Covid restrictions. “No one knew I was pregnant, so it felt very strange. I was at home or at my parents with my big bump and I didn’t see anyone else. My friends are amazed that such a huge life-changing thing happened, and they didn’t get to see it because of lockdown.”
But, Oberon is a happy chap and, now lockdown is over, he enjoys accompanying his mother to the studio, watching her work. His presence in the studio has also encouraged Jelly to change the chemicals she uses in her work.
“There’s no longer any white spirit or anything like that in my studio because it’s not good for him to breathe it in but I do miss it. Whenever I go into Maggi’s studio, I catch a whiff of white spirit and a host emotions and memories come flooding back. It’s a very evocative smell.”
So, what of the future? Jelly says that she wants to explore what else she can do with large-scale paintings. “I just love working at this size. I love working on compositions which fill a vast space. I still do smaller work but at the moment my attention is really focused on a larger scale. I just need to find people with walls large enough to hang this work,” she laughs.
But, looking around Jelly’s studio a strange contradiction leaps out at you. Seeing her smaller A3-sized work laid out on a table and you realise the views contained within the frames are quite expansive whereas the vast five foot tall painting propped up against the wall are much closer studies. The scene captured on these giant canvases would make up only a fraction of the composition of the smaller works.
This is an observation that takes Jelly by surprise. “I hadn’t realised that before but now you say… looking at the paintings you are right. Wow, that’s really weird. I wonder what that says about me or my work?”
But, the close-up views of a single tree or a small clearing being consumed by fire appear to be alive. You can almost see the flames moving. These are active paintings eager to strike up a conversation with the viewer.
“I love working at this scale, This is what I love to do and I am excited to see where it leads.”
With a new baby in her life plus moving house and house renovations, painting trips to the Amazon or to the Far East are going to be a rarity in the coming years but Jelly is happy to be exploring her own county once again. “Lockdown gave me a renewed appreciation of Suffolk. I love walking the country lanes and following footpaths along fields and out into the middle of nowhere – and I love the coast as well.
“Being brought up here, you tend to take your home county for granted but lockdown forced me to open my eyes to what I have around me and I feel very lucky to be living here.”