Artist exorcises his brush with demons

Artist Rob Marrison has been a pub landlord, a photographer and a prison officer.

Andrew Clarke

Artist Rob Marrison has been a pub landlord, a photographer and a prison officer. Now he produces what he calls emotional landscapes. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke caught up with him at his Suffolk home.

It only takes one look to see that Suffolk artist Rob Marrison produces unique and powerful images. His larger-than-life paintings are dark and dramatic. Inspired by landscapes and Suffolk's big skies, the pictures, however, are more about feelings and emotions than literal translations of the scene which inspires him to put paint to canvas.

The reason for this is that Rob was a prison officer before he reinvented himself as a full-time artist. He was not just any prison officer, he was part of the security detail at Rampton Hospital, a holding facility for people with dangerous mental conditions. Rob worked in the prison service for seven years and started creating his rich, dark, brooding works as a form of therapy. “It was just a means of exorcising the demons of the day. It was a healthy way of getting rid of all the things I had seen and the experiences I had had to deal with.”

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Rob has had no formal training as an artist since doing A level art while at school. He did study photography at college and was a professional photographer in his early years and has retained that artistic eye - the ability to see an image in his head and then realise it in a tangible form.

It was seven years ago, when Rob was living in Nottingham, that he made his courageous decision, as he put it, to chuck in his prison service job and become a full-time painter.

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“I had had a couple of small scale exhibitions, several people who I respect had said some nice things about the work and I had got to the stage when I needed to make a fresh start. Basically I had been attacked once too often and I thought that there had to be more to life than this and painting seemed to be the obvious choice.”

Opting for a life as a painter is always going to be a difficult choice but Rob's situation was made even more precarious by the fact that his wife Liz was heading back to university as a mature student and they had a one year old child.

“If you stopped and thought about it you wouldn't do it. It was totally reckless but I was in a position where I had to make some changes and so I did and just set about making it work.”

He said that he has met several art teachers who have marvelled at his audacity and have said that they envied his determination. “Many of them have said that they would love to earn their living from painting but I have a theory that they never will while they have a regular income from teaching. You have to burn your boats, you have to cut yourself off from an easy income otherwise you'll never have the impetus to make it work.

“There are times when things look really desperate and you do think about maybe chucking it all in but there is something inside you that gives you the courage to give it another six months or provides the inspiration to come up with a work that sells and keeps you in food for another month or so.”

Rob was fortunate to be able to build upon some successful exhibitions in Southwold and at Snape which encouraged him to sell his Nottingham home and move to Saxmundham. He also landed that all-important London Gallery reasonably swiftly - he is on display at the Baillie Gallery, near Tower Bridge.

He said that although life can, occasionally, still be very hand-to-mouth, he has received a boost from doing work at the Latitude Festival at Henham - conducting a series of open studio workshops, where people can see him at work, talk to him about his paintings and if they want, have a go themselves.

“It's great I really enjoy meeting people and just talking to them at Latitude. The life of an artist can be quite solitary if you're not careful, so it great to spend a couple of days just working with lots of people around you and just having a chat with folk. It all helps demystify art and make it more accessible for people.”

He said that his life has been a series of unexpected detours. After leaving school he attended the Harrogate College of Art studying photography before earning his living as a commercial photographer in London. “Then, one way or another I drifted into being a licensee, after about four years. I managed various pubs for about eight years after that, decided to start a family, left the licensed trade and, again for some reason, became a prison officer. It seemed a responsible, well-paid job but you can only do it for so long before you need to get out and do something different. I got out just in time.”

He said that although it does appear that his life has been lived out in seven year cycles, he has no plans to change career again - or at least for any time soon. “I feel as if, at long last, I have finally found something that I can really connect with. I can really put myself into my work. As long as I still enjoy it, as long as I am still passionate about what I do, I shall continue.”

He said that even though, at times it seems, as if every second person in Suffolk is an artist, he can see that his work is very individualistic. “I can see it is very definitely me, very definitely my work, my view of the world. I paint things how I see them. I very rarely use a brush. I take a very hands-on approach - using a palette knife or more often than not my hands.

Although he has no formal training when it comes to painting, the compositional rules he learned for photography keep him on the straight and narrow, as does close study of his artistic heroes - people like Turner.

“I love Turner. There's no work that even comes close in my book. There's no one to rival him. I love the weather, big skies, light and atmosphere. When I first started painting, those first two years were based mainly on the north Yorkshire moors, the Peak District and as I discovered Suffolk and East Anglia, I started to do more work around here.”

He said that when he moved away from Nottingham, he was seriously considering moving and working in France but in the end opted for Suffolk. “I don't know why - perhaps it was cold feet or because we had family here, that may have tipped the balance. Moving to another country is always a big move, maybe with my new career and Liz back at university, maybe subconsciously it was one change too many.”

Surprisingly, his style hasn't changed a great deal over the years. “I've never been a particularly figurative painter - it's always been about feeling and emotion. I am drawn to scenes with a lot of atmosphere, powerful, evocative scenes which hopefully say something to people.

“When I used to work in advertising photography, I was working with large scale cameras, everything had to be brightly lit and perfectly sharp, so maybe this is a reaction to that.”

He said that perhaps it may make more sense commercially to go down more literal landscape route but he feels his work would lack soul. “Also I like to think that people buy my work because they are different, they are distinctive, because they are not like anyone else's work.”

He said that because he was never formally taught to paint, he enjoys the element of trial and error that goes into his work. He said that much of what he does is intuitive. “Personally I admire anymore who can conjure up an accurate representation of a scene but for me, I think I would soon tire of doing that work myself. I prefer work where you can get lost in a picture and when you come back to it, you can get lost in it again and hopefully see something different, something you hadn't seen before and maybe gives you a different way of looking at the picture as a whole.”

He said that his sense of self-belief comes and goes. He admits to looking at his work one day and seeing little of value there and yet coming to the same paintings on a different day he can be quite pleased with them.

He said that one of the things that inspires him is turning a picture around that he has discarded. “The great thing about working with oils is that you can just pile on more paint and completely change a picture. It was red and now it is blue. You don't produce a great picture every time. I love the fact you can resurrect a picture which you have consigned to the waste bin. I do get a wonderful sense of satisfaction being able to change I considered worthless, or perhaps fatally flawed, into something that really works.”

Rob is proud of the fact that his work has matured over the years - they are no longer as simple as they once were when he was first starting out. “I still find that they work first time and therefore they are finished quite quickly or they take forever. I can leave them for six months or a year before I go back to them. I don't really tinker, I tend to start again using the textures underneath to inform an entirely new work.”

He said that his immediate ambitions are to try and boost his London profile. He contributed to the Affordable Art Fair in London this year and has realised that he needs a bigger profile in the capital. But he says he doesn't want to do that at the expense of turning his back on his beloved Suffolk.

After all those big Suffolk skies and coastal landscapes provide the inspiration for his big dramatic works.

Rob Marrison has currently contributing to a mixed exhibition at The Pond Gallery which runs until Christmas.

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