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Jen Delyth

Celtic Art Studio

Official Site of Welsh Artist

INTERVIEWS

INTERVIEWS jen delyth

Personal Interview by John Davies 2000

Hi John.  Thanks for having me here...

Well I never thought I would end up living in the States. It was a complete surprise to me, and still is sometimes that I’ve made my home here. I think this experience has been good for me, and allowed me to grow in ways I may not have if I'd not had this adventure, but I obviously miss my family, and many things being far away.

Before I came to San Francisco I had been living on the island of Korcula - near Split, Croatia for a year, and was studying photography.  Set up my own darkroom in the corner of an ancient shed and took photographs of the local people – who were really wonderful – amazing characters like old women who had fought in the mountains with guns in the wars, now wizened soft gentle old ladies – Babas – with grand children running around and baby goats.  It was wonderful.

After moving back to London for a while, I then met my husband Scott while I was traveling through Crete, Egypt, Israel.  I was with a journalist friend of mine, Juanita Philips – who is now one of Australia’s top television newscasters.  She was writing travel articles, and I was taking photographs for a magazine back in London – LAM (London Alternative Magazine) that we both freelanced for.

So I was in Jerusalem, it was July 4th actually, and I met this cool handsome guy playing a saxophone doing American jazz tunes from the 20s and 30s outside the cafes and bars. I thought jazz was wonderful – although I hadn’t heard much until then.  Obviously I thought Scott was wonderful too!  because we continued traveling together.  He came back to London and then I came to San Francisco to see him – and the rest is history!

And that’s when you started Keltic Designs?

Well not immediately.  First I was a bit startled being in this country, and hadn’t quite figured out what I was doing, how to pay the rent even.  I set up a darkroomin the large closet of the San Francisco Victoria that we lived in, but I wasn’t sure what to do next.

I was pretty homesick actually for a while.  Especially when I realized our relationship was becoming pretty serious, and we were thinking about getting married.  That maybe my future was going to happen here, or maybe not.   We were young – anything was possible!

So I started thinking more deeply about home, who I was, where I had come from.  I had been fascinated by mythology and folk tales as a child, and when I studied philosophy at University became intrigued with the writings of Carl Jung and the concepts that symbols are archetypes, that speak through the images and are deeply resonant within us a people.

After traveling so much after University, I now had some time for my experiences to settle in, and synthesize. I started creating designs that were Celtic in their form, but that communicated these ideas that are universal and mythic, that were Welsh, but also universal really.

I really had no idea or clue that Celtic art was of interest to people here.  I mean its really obvious in retrospect that this is the country so many Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants came and brought their culture – but for me, it was a personal thing, my own exploration, through being a bit homesick, and appreciating the culture I had left behind.

Tell me more about that.  You grew up in Wales?

Yes, I grew up back in the 60s and 70s, in the industrial heartlands of south Wales, Port Talbot, Baglan.  I always have to say at this point, that this is the area that Dylan Thomas, Anthony Hopkins, Richard Burton & Tom Jones came from!  In fact my great uncle Ieuan was friends with Anthony Hopkins at his first acting club - the local YMCA in Port Talbot!

It’s a steel working town, but surrounded by the lovely Welsh hills and stunning coastal beaches and coves – ugliness and beauty, lots of character within the hard working people.

Although we lived in a few places and moved around due to my father’s work and education, this was the home base, where most of my family were.  It is still my home really.

It was a time of transition for Wales, and for a lot of people. My Father was studying for his degree and later a doctorate in Psychology.  He got deeply interested in education after I was born, and worked in the steel works at night to pay the bills.  We lived in my grandparents’ house for a while, and I remember being brought down from my sleep to see the man land on the moon on the first television my great aunt and uncle had.  We had a big street fair for the investiture of Prince Charles, and had lots of jelly and blancmange and waved flags with our Welsh Dragon on them for the Prince of Wales… which is funny to me now, but that was the 60s for us.

Lots of family all around, it was comfortable really, although looking back I realize that everyone lived quite humbly in comparison today, and shared everything, all home cooked foods and nothing was wasted.

Do you speak Welsh?

We didn’t speak much Welsh at that time in south Wales.  A bit at home, but it was not encouraged in school and in the workplace, so it’s a shame.  In fact speaking Welsh was strongly discouraged in the mid 19th century until my generation, and it wasn’t until later in school that I was taught Welsh.   Now they realize that being bilingual is a positive thing - in education I mean, but back then they were afraid that we wouldn’t learn as well with both languages going on.  And it was a political thing also.  Later on I represented my school at the Yrdd – the youth eisteddfod – reading Welsh, and singing Welsh folk songs in the choir.  All Welsh people sing in choirs you know!  But no, I’m not a Welsh speaker, although my mother is. Dwyn dysgu cymraeg!  (I’m learning Welsh)

Did  you study Celtic art at school?

No, not really.  In fact I don’t remember much art going on at all.  A lot of emphasis on book learning, helping us “improve ourselves”.  But I was a very creative child, always inventing things, and making things.  I was never bored, and when we got together with our cousins, I would make up plays and make us all do little theatre performances.  I wrote poetry and verses, and made mini-magazines and decorated them and had a John Bull Printing Set that I absolutely loved.  I’m a completely self taught artist, and still enjoy the innovation of exploring and learning in my own way.

So this brought you to your design business later on?

Yes, its funny how things that start out so intuitively and naturally when you’re a kid, then end up blossoming later on in your life, and at first you don’t’ even realize that connection!

There I was in San Francisco, really enjoying the colors of the city, the architecture, and the people – the liberal political and creative environment with so much music and art everywhere.  I loved it.  I really felt like I had found my place where I could flourish. Wondering what to do next.

And then the first apple computers came out – and I realized that I could use my photography and creativity with these new graphic oriented machines to make prints, booklets, books even.  I was really inspired by the potential. I started a small graphic design business Dryad Graphics, working freelance out of my studio, putting ads in the local paper. My logo was this Celtic design of a women, strong and stylized, and people started coming to me wanting Celtic images and logos – which I was happy to do.  

I was so surprised that people recognized the Celtic work, and that they resonated so strongly with it.  And back then 1987,1989 there was not such a strong commercial availability of Celtic images as there is today. It was more of a fringe “irish shop” kind of thing. I felt like it was an innovative fresh language to talk about the world – one that was personally to me, drawing from my Welsh heritage and roots.

This was the beginning of the modern primitives movement and tattoos were just starting to become known as a form of body art. I was working with stylized black and white images with archetypal Celtic symbols, so people were wanting my work for their body art.  Nothing was really available on the web at that time, so it was an intense grass roots movement amongst serious alternative minded people who were interested in the “tribal” art expression. I realized pretty quickly that there was potential to take my work out into a wider audience, and “talk” about my interest in mythology and philosophy through this language of Celtic patterning.  I decided to take it out into the world and see what happened!  So we started doing a lot of festivals and events around the country.  Travelling about and having a lot of freedom, and working quite hard at the same time.

Tell me more about that.. what were you talking about in your designs?  And do you have tattoos yourself?

Funny enough, although my work decorates thousands of skins, I do not have one tattoo!  I don’t feel like choosing an image to live with for the rest of my life, but I appreciate the honor when someone uses a design of mine to become part of their body.

From the beginning, I started creating my own designs – rather than just copying the old ones – to express this philosophy of nature, through contemporary stylized designs.  I thought we should move forward since it’s a living tradition, not just something that happened back in the past.

I was working all in strong black and white back then, and no color at all.  I was really coming from being a black and white photographer, and I loved the simple strong contemporary style of working in lines, and black.  It seemed to resonate more with the stone work and metal work, rather than trying to emulate the medieval illuminated manuscripts.  I wanted to express something in a new way, a contemporary style, bring the old into a new form.  And no-one else was really doing that at the time.  My style was its own, and I have been told it is still highly recognizable..

I mostly illustrated mythic symbols drawn from the Celtic earth mysteries.  Such as the Tree of Life, Taliesin the shaman poet, the Stag- Herne the Hunter.  I have always loved nature, my parents also. We appreciated the beauty and wild places that were at the edges of the towns and villages, and we went camping for holidays.  The Lake District was one of my father’s favorite places, and we lived near there once, and I hiked regularly in the mountains and lakes with the local fell walking society.  I think that’s one of the reasons I love northern California – the coast here is so unspoilt and full of energy.  The mountains, the lakes, the wilderness that you can find still here that is disappearing in Europe.  I appreciate it, and want to help protect it for the future.

Politically the environmental issues are very important to me.  I started to explore my spirituality more deeply through the poetry and mythology of the Celtic tradition.  Its so inspiring that this is where both the ancient pagan earth worshipping folk, and the Celtic Christian traditions both come together.  I mean, why must we separate all the religions like we do?  Its all one big mystery, the earth, the universe, being alive.  Just amazing and wonderful to me.

Also I was very excited to be using a computer to do this.  A tool of our times. I was one of the very first people to usea computer to create Celtic patterns.  Back when my brother assembled his first computer – which really only could create patterns with x’s and os, or black squares and white squares, I was fascinated.  I remember the moment I drew a simple Celtic knot on the computer, and I thought of the significance of this ancient image, and this modern technology coming together – and how they worked so well together – computers being all about patterning and interconnection, language and so on.  It really excited me.  This was before the internet was flooded with clumsy clip art and bad copies.  The web was really only just born back then.

When we got one of those early portable Macs – not the first generation, but very early – the Mac SE – it had 1mb ofmemory, and used disks that held 256K on them (!)  – I actually managed to make some pretty complex images which I would get printed to film in maybe 12 different parts, from 12 different disks, and then paste it  together to make silk-screens for  serigraph prints on Arches watercolor paper.

It was an extension of my photography background to want to make prints, and working with silk screening to make multiple limited edition prints on beautiful archival water color papers was really part of the San Francisco art movement – since the 60s. I started doing some local art fairs and festivals, to sell the prints, and made some Greeting cards and a couple of Tshirts with the black and white images on them.  It was an amazing response, and I realized that I could start doing this fulltime, and not have to be freelance any more.

So Keltic Designs began!  In 1990 actually, with our first local fair the “Haight Asbury Festival” – which I’ll never forget, because we sold out basically of everything we had brought with us!  I was amazed.

That’s great.  So you were an entrepreneur at the beginning of the computer revolution?

Yes indeed!  I like the way you put that… We felt very much like we were on the cutting edge, and bringing the language of the ancients into the modern times.  I made a web site –one of the first Celtic art sites on the web at the time – although the pagan groups were really communicating on the net, so it seemed like we were linked together in some way.

Unfortunately I didn’t realize how the web was going to grow, and we could have taken any domain we wanted back then.  I chose Keltic Designs because that was our business name.  I could have chosen celticart.com – but we weren’t thinking like that.  Just getting a web page with Celtic art on it seemed revolutionary at the time!  Now I wish I had, but we were being artists not business people.

You spell Celtic with a k rather than a C …

Yes, always trying to be different.  Well you know the original spelling of Celtic is Keltoi –with a K.  Also C is a roman letter, and doesn’t appear in the old language.  Always a K.  You go to Cornwall (Kernow) or Brittany and everything is spelt with a K!.  Also I was making a distinction between my work being contemporary and original rather than copies of works of antiquity.  I liked the strong look of the K more than the softer C.  It was more my style.  And also some Americans do say “seltic” instead of “celtic”. It’s a really hard C where I come from.

So tell me more about your work today.  What mediums you use, and what you’re doing..

Well, its interesting talking about how it all began, and what I’m doing now.  It’s a journey like everything else.  The success that we experienced – the demand for my designs on prints, textiles, jewelry took quite a bit of energy, and as was learning I realized I wanted to deepen my process, my art, and not just stay in this same place just because it was commercially successful.

Today, my partner Scott runs Keltic Designs, promoting my work internationally as well as here in the States.  Our business has grown to be far more successful and professional than I would have dreamed when we started.  We don’t do shows and festivals any more, and sell more directly to shops and catalogs, galleries and so on.  I have worked with a number of book publishers, and now with Amber Lotus – who are very supportive.   I work closely with them and have a lot of creative control – which is important to me.

I have a studio in my home, and basically work from there, sometimes developing and experimenting on my own personal paintings, and sometimes designing for Keltic Designs, but I have the creative freedom now to learn and grow as an artist.  I’m very lucky.

I began a personal study of  painting back around 1998, when I met a well known and respected Welsh artist – John Uzzell Edwards – at a show we did together at Swansea University.  I was showing my Celtic serigraph prints there, andhe had these amazing paintings of miners and local people – all with the dark rhythms and energy of the Celtic form, but in a fine art modernist expression.  He encouraged me to paint, and move beyond “graphic design” which I then did.  Although I still primarily use the language of Celtic art to work contemporary images that are less directly illustrative, and perhaps more open and interpretive – but continue to express the spiritual aspects of nature, the mythic elements from my Welsh tradition that speak to us today.

Although I was enjoying oil painting, I realized I was highly allergic to the solvents involved.  I began exploring the old masters mediums to find an alternative for the underpainting process –which involved a thinned solvent layer – andcame across egg tempera painting.

I started experimenting with this – grinding my own pigments into egg yolk and water – which makes a luminous, and very long lasting emulsion – which you paint on top of a gessoed board – much like the Russian Icon painters have done for centuries.

It’s a lovely medium, going back to the ancient Egyptians, working with the natural pigments – many from the earth, or ground up gem stones and minerals – and the egg yolk is a sensual and amazingly tough bridge between oil and water.  So no solvents!  And that’s what I still am working with today.Also I’m writing a book for my publisher, which will be out in Spring 2008 - “The Celtic Folk Soul” – which is a collection of my artwork and designs, with essays and poetry about the philosophy and mythology behind them.  A celebration of the spiritual aspects of nature and how it relates to the Celtic tradition.

Its been an amazing challenge actually, to put into words the philosophy I have developed over the years, and also to see my work collected into one place, a kind of retrospective of the last 20 years.

You work in many different mediums.  Including video animation.

Yes, that was very interesting for me, to explore animated mulit-media applications for my work.  It took me back to the beginning of my process really.  A few years ago I started doing photography again, which I collaged with my artwork, and video – which was really moving stills. I would frame a scene – such as a lake, or a forest, video it and then collage images over that.  Also layer video of birds and creatures over that. So there is a luminous natural movement below the surface, and an interconnection between nature and image, an organic mythic interwoven tapestry of Celtic art.  

I also enjoyed telling the stories in a less static way than with still images.  Putting ancient and modern poetry to music, and then collaging that with the images and nature video just seemed to bring everything together, make it alive.

It was very hard work, and an investment in expensive equipment, but the fact that today’s technology made it possible for an artist to do this in her studio was tantalizing for me.  Although it would have been better to have better equipment – such as now only a few years later – for the multilayered high resolution work I was doing. So it took a few years longer to complete than I thought when I started.

Its been worth all the work for me when I see it on huge theatre screens at festivals with large audiences, and being able to communicate in a powerful way through image, music, and poetry, making this film and interactive DVD has been quite a learning experience.

Since completing “Beyond the Ninth Wave”, I haven’t done any more animation work, but gone back to the Egg tempera painting.  Working with so much technology brought me in a full circle to the relative simplicity of materials that are ground earths, an egg yolk, and an animal hair brush!  Its all a rhythm, and I may get an urge to dip back into that multifaceted world of video animation again some time, but for now I’m in love with the way the brush feels on the smooth white gesso, and being in the organic world, rather than in front of a computer monitor.

For me, all creativity is valid.  Tools are interesting in themselves, but do not dictate whether work communicates or not.  Tools are there to facilitate the inner voice, the eye, the heart of the artist out into the world. I am not a purist, although I do appreciate the aesthetic of say a Paleolithic cave painting, created with ground ochres and the end of a burnt charcoaled stick.  And also the most cutting edge tools of digital animation and so on.

For me it is the creativity and rhythm, the power of the symbols beneath the work that are most important. The different tools and mediums are a constant exploration. Celtic art is my one constant obsession, and love - the language that I speak as a visual artist working today.
More Interviews Americymru 2011  & Americymru 2009
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updated: 3 years ago