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Jackie Morris
Jackie Morris: 1

Painter and Writer

I want to tread lightly, not to do damage. I try and use my work in a positive way as far as my career has gone. I suppose I’ve chosen the less wealthy path in that I’ve worked for charities like Greenpeace and Oxfam and not used my skills to promote car manufacturers, oil companies and things like that. I’ve been lucky, to some extent I haven’t even often had to make that the decision not to work for someone, because most of people who’ve come to me for work have been people that I’ve been more than happy to say yes to. I haven’t been approached by the sort of companies I would say no to. A lady who had a card company once approached me. She commissioned a library of images and she then sold them to charity, or to companies; I would have had no control over who they were sold to. I just said no, because I couldn’t bear the thought of my images being used as greeting cards for British Nuclear Fuel for example.

I’ve accepted that I’m probably never going to have lots of money; once I thought I’d never even be able to buy a house; fortunately, I’ve got just enough for a tatty house! I struggle to maintain it, but I love it. I like to feel that to some extent I live my life differently from the way people are pushed to do these days, by advertising and so on. So I don’t go out shopping to buy designer clothes, I don’t have a posh car, I haven’t got a fitted kitchen, I don’t take foreign holidays. Is this through choice or lack of money? I don’t know. On odd occasions that I do fly I feel terribly guilty. But not flying, eating organic foods, it’s a very small contribution really when you look at what needs to be done in the world. I hope some of my work helps a little.

I’m not sure where that innate belief in right and wrong began. It’s always been part of my way of life. Probably it came from my parents though they weren’t really political people. My Dad was a policeman; my mum was a proper ‘mum’, she made pies and things. I felt myself changing when I was younger: the miners’ strike was a big thing for me - my Dad as a policeman was part of that. I got into a huge argument because I took all my toys and put them in a big pile and said I wanted to send them to the miners’ families because it was Christmas and they didn’t have anything. I would have been 14 or so. Such a row – I was amazed. Before this my dad used to come home sometimes and go through his wardrobe and find an old coat, some shoes, a shirt or some trousers while mum put together sandwiches and cake in a box. He would then take them to a tramp who was at the police station. He gave people time as well, would sit and have tea with them and listen, so I was surprised that what I thought was a reasonable and generous suggestion seemed to cause such a fuss. But later my dad left the police force because of the way they handled the miners’ strike (as well as other changes).

That was the beginning of a divergence in my brain from my background. Rebel without a clue! My sister joined the navy; I joined C.N.D. My family was working class - no-one had gone on to further education before. But from the age of six I wanted to be a painter and I knew I had to go to college. I was very focused. But everyone said “you can’t do that, posh people with private incomes are painters”; their ambition for me was to get a job in a shop locally. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, their ambition was for me to be happy and safe etc…. The school (in Evesham, and I got there in its first year as a comprehensive after having been a grammar school; I doubt very much if I would have passed the 11+) wanted me to go to Oxford to do history. When I said I wanted to go to art college, the headmaster took me aside and said ‘girls go to art college while they’re waiting for a husband’. I had to fight - I didn’t have much confidence and I didn’t have much back-up from my family because they were worried for me. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I realised that parents were people too. And that was a revelation to me. I thought it had happened when I was 18, but it hadn’t. You understand those things much better when you have own children. And though I used to think the people who tried to make me ‘see sense’ were holding me back; in fact I think they gave me the strength to pull through. When I went to Exeter, which was my choice for a BA. I hated the college and I was desperate to go to another one; there were a lot of decisive conversations there! All the way through them, I thought, who do I think I am? I’m lucky to be in a college; why don’t I just knuckle down and get on with it? The best moment of all was when I came back from an interview at Bath, and they had offered me a place. Exeter had told me I wouldn’t get the place, and the principal said ‘we arranged an interview for you to go to Newport; why didn’t you go?’, (I’d also told them I didn’t want to go to Newport) and I said, very politely but with great satisfaction, ‘because I’ve just got a place at Bath’. And moving to Bath was a saving grace.

Jackie Morris: 2

I’m living here near Whitesands Bay in Pembrokeshire because when I was living in Bath an ex-boyfriend who had gone to Ramsay Island to work came back for the weekend said that he was desperately sorry he’d left me, it was the biggest mistake of his life and why didn’t we move to Wales and have babies? And I thought, for a minute or two, so we went there and stayed in the Druidstone Hotel (Pembrokeshire) while he went back to Ramsay to sort out work, and on the Monday went shopping and I bought this house and moved here. I’d only been here for a weekend but you know when you go to a place and you feel like you’ve come home for the first time in your life? That was what it was like. So he was working on Ramsay and I was living here; already three months pregnant by then because we didn’t waste any time. Since I’ve had children [Tom,13, and Hannah,11], they have been the focus of my life. The love I rate highest is the love for your children, there’s nothing like it. I can see why men get jealous. I know they have a similar kind of thing, but it’s very different. When I had my second child, I was frightened because I thought, ‘I haven’t got enough love left over, where am I going to get any more from?’ And then Hannah was born, and there was just more. And that love is so different from anything else. I love to watch them sleeping after a lovely day, and just check that they are there before I go to bed.

Since I had children, I’ve been more frightened of dying; I don’t want to die before they’ve grown up. But I’m very obsessive about my work, and a lot of the time I feel very guilty that I put my work before my kids. That kind of guilt is something that women carry all the time, isn’t it? I came to having children quite late and I’d always thought I didn’t want children because you couldn’t have both a career and a family, but now I feel very blessed; they’re wonderful, absolutely wonderful, and exhausting.

Things went wrong, and in quite a harsh way. The normal thing, your husband going off with your best friend. The most difficult conversation I’ve ever had was telling my children - they were 4 and 6 - that we were splitting up. It still makes me feel sick; it was absolutely awful. I felt isolated and trapped inside myself during the breakdown of my marriage. I realise now that I was having an emotional breakdown and I did in fact go a bit mad. There were times when I was quite frightened because if you have kids, you can’t afford to go mad. The best thing I did, the best therapy, was to get a dog. That meant I had to go out and walk, and the actual physical movement, on my own, with the dog, did something to help and to heal. You can’t go on being unhappy when you walk in sunshine and blue skies surrounded by flowers and butterflies and banks of meadowsweet, sitting on cliffs watching seals and birds. Also, I learnt the importance of having friends. I gathered a very good group of them, or they gathered me; some I met while out walking. They were mainly younger than me, and so good; they invited me and the kids out for supper, made sure we were fed!.

Jackie Morris: 3

There was one woman, who I didn’t know very well at all, who used to just come round with a bunch of flowers and a cake, almost every week. I used to be awash with tears and she’d just come in, and give me the flowers. A great blessing. I don’t think I’d be as good at helping other people because I’m so self-obsessed, so wrapped up in work. I’ve never read The Seal Children out loud because I can’t - it’s got lots of emotional things in it. I wrote it before the breakdown, partly because I could see so many families disintegrating. I thought it would be good to have a book which didn’t exactly deal with such things but which gave lots of openings, so that people could have conversations about them. Then I ended up trying to paint it in the middle of my own family demise. No, not demise. I hope we’ve emerged like butterflies. The kids happier now than they were before. They have a solid two home life, and they cope very well with it. It’s hard for Tim [their father] because he still comes back here. He loves the hill behind the house, it’s part of our home; we all spend our time up there, almost live up there, the whole hill, all the way down to St David’s Head. It’s like a huge extension of the garden than the – more of a home than a house.

It all helps to build character, doesn’t it, or so people like to tell you, once you’ve got through the emotional background and trauma and come out the other end, you’re the stronger for it, aren’t you? Though I have to say I would rather not have endured the experience and the emotional growth that goes along with it. I had lovely letters about The Seal Children; one said that it was her little daughter’s favourite book - she wants it read night after night. Which surprised me, as I didn’t see it as a children’s book. People have used it to talk about bereavement, and I feel quite honoured by that.

One thing that happened that was positive was that after a long period of being unable to work at all I began to paint, not for publishers, but for myself, images that came out of my imagination, experiences, dreams, all very personal, but cloaked. It was as though having been through such a trauma I had been freed to express myself. And what was wonderful was that the images spoke to other people too. As time went by the images became more bizarre but there was a wonderful freedom in having to please only myself with them, and not art editors and sales people.

I used to dream of a family life that was the standard unit, but I realised when I was coming out of things that what I was grieving for was not something that I had lost but something that I hadn’t had in the first place. And I don’t think Mum and Dad and children all getting on, full of mutual respect, giving everybody space exist; I don’t think that is possible.

I’ve become more of my own person. When you’re a young woman you’re trained, not necessarily to please, but I used to feel it was better not to upset my partner, and if he wanted to do something it was probably better to go along with it. Now I feel more self confident, and have more self-respect and sense of self. I think I could be described as being very stubborn these days, but I think it is partly just growing into yourself and having confidence. But I’ve always thought that this is why men like younger women, because they can mould them and make them what they want or be what they want. At 18 you don’t have a great deal of personality, though you feel that you know so much. Very few of these glorious young people have a strong sense of self. I sometimes wish I could go back to being 27, when I looked quite good, but if I had my brain now, I would be very dangerous – and probably would live in splendid isolation!

Friends? I’m a bit lazy about them; I’d never do Friends Reunited. For the most part I remain united with friends I wish to be with. I feel very comfortable with a lot of women. I like literate people who have read lots of books; not with people who aren’t intelligent, I don’t mean that in a snobby way but you can meet people who you have absolutely nothing in common with. You get less tolerant when you get older. There are people I know who I don’t like, and I have nothing to do with them. Whereas in the past I would have seen that as a failing in myself now I can accept it. It’s not a sense of feeling better than anyone, but sometimes I meet people who are really nice people but who you just don’t like. Possibly it’s a chemical thing. But there are other people who are just not nice people and the less time I spend in their company the better. And possibly they don’t like me. And I accept that. It’s a growing up thing; not to take it personally. I’m aware that I’m opinionated, and very unforgiving. I love it when people are frightened of me! Often I don’t like myself but I’m stuck with myself, and am usually happy in my own company especially if I have a good book.

What has limited me up to now has been that I didn’t realize that I didn’t just want to be an artist, I wanted to be a writer as well. The two images above are for The Seal Children, which I wrote and illustrated.

I’ve only recently started writing, and I want to write a novel now. Part of the reason that I felt I couldn’t write was that I couldn’t spell; I didn’t read very well until I was in my teens and I used to pretend to have read books at school - my spelling is still appalling. So I always felt that I couldn’t write. But I had a go because I got fed up with illustrating some books that I thought were badly written (naming no names!). And I used to fear losing my sight very much - I think that’s partly why I want to write, just in case. When The Seal Children was published it had really good reviews. It was like being given permission to write - why I felt that I had to have permission, I don’t know. But it was like a cork coming out of the top of my head. I’ve written quite a few things since, reviews of books and a couple of pieces for the Times Ed, and it was so exciting to see my words in print (especially when they were translated into Korean as with The Seal Children); I thought, I’m still like a kid. But I enjoy the process of writing almost as much as painting, almost more so. I can write while I’m walking, and I take a notebook - a dictaphone isn’t the same; speaking and writing are two different things. I want to be good at writing - I don’t want to do a thing if I’m not good at it. And that’s really difficult. It’s this constant searching for praise, acceptance. I don’t get it from myself; I don’t know whether I ever will. Most of the time I find I fill up with stultifying self-doubt, especially when it comes to writing. Just occasionally I do do something I like, but most of the time all I can see is what is wrong with anything I do from making a cake, to writing to painting. I still find I go to literary festivals and feel that my contemporaries are proper authors and illustrators, and I’m not sure why I’m there. But I said that to someone at a festival once, and they said that everybody feels that. That was quite reassuring. Self-respect is a most important thing for me. It’s taken me a long time to achieve any and what I have is fragile as a butterfly. Now, for the first time, I have a supportive partner; I never had it before because I didn’t have the self-respect to. Robin’s older than me, but doesn’t look it - or behave it. He lives in Milton Keynes, which is a long way away. When we got together I talked very frankly about what I wanted from a relationship, and what I hoped for, right at the beginning. Fortunately he wanted similar things.

One thing I demand from my children and my partner is truth. And I have a very strong sense of what I think that being honest is. I’m often told that I’m a bit too blunt, that I can be too honest, too harsh. But can you be too honest?

Jackie Morris: 4

My paintings reflect my environment, mental as well as physical. I try to be positive. There is so much harsh imagery around, I don’t want to add to it. When I paint, I try to paint pictures that are full of life, whimsically romantic.

When I lived in Bath, it was like being in a bowl. The houses are very tall, so my pictures were the same. Now I paint these long, peninsula landscapes . . . I’ve also got this bear obsession. The bears have been around my imagination for years. They keep me company. They’ve got bigger, bigger and bigger. I dream of them. And of whales. And at the moment, I dream of pirates, because I want to write this novel about pirates. Reading about pirates I found that though there’s a lot of savagery, there’s a lot of social equity. The reason I’m doing it is that there’s a pirate called Black Barty who grew up in Little Newcastle, which is about 7 miles from Fishguard. You go through the village, and there’s a green and a stone which says ‘Black Barty, 1682-1782, A Short Life and a Merry One’. He was the pirate that all the other pirates modelled themselves; he dressed up in a big frock coat and a lovely damask waistcoat and a sash with pistols hanging out of it. I’m going to be writing as a man. I’m not sure which way the writing will go, I don’t have any control over it at the moment. It just comes out; it’s like teasing wool. I am also discovering that I have something of an obsessive nature.

Some more money would be nice! I think I spend too much, and I have a fear of not being able to manage financially. I’m trying to push my book sales up, which involves trying to get publicity and going to festivals to “show and tell” about my work. Which is all good, but what I actually like doing is just staying at home, painting. For a brief time I had what I’d call a reasonable standard of living, when I didn’t have to worry about spending money. I’d like to have that back, because there’s a lot of stress in not having enough money which I, like everyone else, could do without. But what is enough? My neighbours’ house is their second home, they bought it for £650,000 and they’ve got a big house in England somewhere with horses and boats, and they have a four wheel drive which they use to drive up the hill instead of walking. And the last time they were up here, the wife said to me, ‘you’re so lucky, being able to afford to live here all year round’. I thought about that, and I realised that life’s a matter of priorities, choosing what you want in life and what you need. The world needs to accept that being wealthy doesn’t have to do with having money, as people think. It’s a state of mind. And I think that some of the richest people in the world are spiritually so poor that that’s where a lot of our troubles lie and theirs too. And when we talk about their corruption - look at our society and how corrupt our own government is! It’s quite shocking. Years ago I was doing some work for New International, and they were doing a pamphlet for Oxfam. I’d always thought of myself as being fairly politically aware, but this pamphlet was really hard-hitting about the tie-ups between trade and aid and how corrupt our aid parcels to Third World countries are. Then a Tory minister came on radio and said that if the pamphlet was published they would remove Oxfam’s charitable status. So it was pulled, because Oxfam couldn’t afford to stand up to them. I found that quite shocking. I do think the world would be a better place if money was shared out a lot more equally. But that’s never going to happen.

I haven’t travelled very much, though I once went to Australia. I think I’m a home bird. I travel by walking - I love walking. I’ve decided that I need to do that more and not to spend so much of my time working. I want to write a travel book about walking around here essentially a travel book about going nowhere, slowly. I love the pattern of the year, which you see when you are walking, especially if you walk the same path every day. Some days are snake days - there will be adders on the hill and hot sunshine; then there are seal days, when the sea is full of seals and the beaches full of pups, porpoise times when the sea is sliced through by dorsal fins. Always different ways of looking at the months. Harebells in autumn . . . I did go to Venice – one of my publishers [Egmont] took me over there to see how my books were put together; they’re great because they’re very thoughtful, they have a policy of using green paper. Which is wonderful - it’s bad if having your books made damages the environment, and also people’s lives. And I was overwhelmed by Venice; it’s an amazing place. I couldn’t get my head round it at all: a city rising up out of the water. I need to go back, I need to find a story to set there, explore the streets and alleys and waterways.

What I long for most is more time. Having said that I don’t want to live until 118. I’d be quite happy to shuffle off at about 80. I’d like to have 36 hours in a day, 12 days in a week, 17 months in a year, but even that wouldn’t be enough. I used to feel when I was miserable that there were too many hours in the day, and I used to crave for bedtime, so I could be asleep and feel nothing. But now I feel there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I can feel time slipping through my fingers so fast. I’m middle-aged - 44 this year. What I hate most of all is time wasted spent watching TV. I don’t have one now. People always say how do you find time to read so much and go for long walks. And I say because I don’t watch Eastenders. When my kids are here, they don’t watch TV. We watch a film, sometimes now, which is nice; it’s a special thing, all together.

Colour is what appeals to my senses most: walking first thing in the morning when colour comes into the day, and last thing at night when it all fades away. It isn’t just a visual thing - you can touch and taste it as well as see it. Your senses are all tangled up. I love music, especially cellos. And skylarks, that tumbling song that falls down out of the sky. And waves, and pebbles pulled on the beach . . . And the winds: I love walking when it’s storm time, and the wind is like an animal in the bushes. You hear it, and it gets closer and closer and closer, its touch on the skin’s like silk. There’s different air at different times of day, it laps around you, it has a smell in it as well - meadowsweet is my favourite, and honeysuckle. When it has been hot in the daytime and you walk of an evening, their scent hangs heavy. You can touch the air too, it feels thick as you walk through it. And the smell and touch of Robin’s warm skin, and his breath on the back of my neck, his hand in mine. And the children laughing and them reading books in the hammock in the tree with leaf shadows dappling, and their moth breath when they sleep. Sitting quiet in a room together reading. The colour of lapis and lapis beads like a piece of sky at night made into stone. Moon shadows, and the colour red. And I love the taste of chocolate, especially Montezuma truffles with chilli and vodka - I get them delivered by montezuma.co.uk. And cherries, their touch too, the feel of them bursting in your mouth. Chocolate cherries, even better! I hope people, especially children, enjoy the books I do. And the smell and warmth and softness of the top of a baby’s head.

Sometimes when I have paintings in a gallery, people say that one made them cry. And sometimes they come back later and say that they had to buy a picture because it was in their dreams, they were dreaming about it. That’s really is a privilege, to be able to get into people’s dreams.