The workings of John Rowley’s imagination refuse to surrender to familiar patterns. When he’s not co-directing and performing with fellow artist Richard Huw Morgan under the name good cop bad cop, John works on a self-portrait project where he uses materials found in his house or garden to make masks or “sculptures for the face”. Constructed, photographed and uploaded on Instagram in 15 minutes, the masks that John creates seem to integrate the wonder of the child with the experiences of the adult, and their greatest gift is the depiction of an ephemeral, playful and inquisitive affirmation, of a precarious relinquishment: before and after, normality. We caught up with John to get a glimpse into the workings of his lofty imagination and to learn more about his process of creating a mask image.
John, what were you like as a child? What did you want to be or become?
Probably quite similar to how I am now, I think. I was quiet and thoughtful. I sat looking out of windows quite a lot. Looking at other children playing but not really knowing how to join in. I spent time by myself. I loved making Airfix models, until the bit where you had to paint them. By that time I was bored of them. There were lots of unfinished, unpainted models in the house. I would sit at a table in front of the TV, make models, smell the glue and Humbrol enamel paint fumes and have my dinner brought to me on a tray… so I could carry on watching TV and making (a mess). I also liked to draw, mostly copying characters from comic books, using blue biros and blunt pencils. I loved the way comics were drawn, particularly their facial expressions. My grandparents had a newsagents. They’d send us Marvel comics every Monday. I was also a big fan of films. My dad would take me and my brother to the cinema most Saturdays. It was the 70’s so lots of big disaster movies like the Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Some films had Sensurround and the cinema seats vibrated probably due to the deep base on the soundtracks. I also like to collect things like snails and other insects. I had Hermit crabs for a while. As I got into my teens I collected Sci-fi magazines, particularly American ones. I was a bit obsessed about America then. From a young age I wanted to be in films as an actor, or possibly a film director. I still have school books from primary school in which I wrote such dreams.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I was about 4 or 5 and was riding on my Yellow Arrow bike. I was going down Kendal Avenue, a steep road near to where I lived. I was going very fast when a stick got trapped in the spokes of the front wheel. The bike came to an abrupt halt and I was catapulted into the air and landed face first onto the pavement. Without thinking, I picked up the bike and crying my eyes out, went home. My mother, when she saw me, had a horrified look on her face. I looked in a mirror and saw my face was covered in blood and pine needles were embedded into the flesh of my face. I was cleaned up with TCP (oh, the smell of TCP). We then had to visit my Grandma and Grandad. I can’t remember their expressions.
What about your first memory of art?
This is a difficult one. As I mentioned earlier I did a lot of drawing at home and in those days much of the school day was taken up with art and making things. A lot of papier mache islands and puppet heads being made. I entered a competition at primary school once, to draw an owl. It was on a massive piece of paper as big as me. I can’t remember what medium I used but I was very proud of it. It was a snowy owl. I thought it was the best. I thought it should’ve won. It came second to Ashley Nicoll’s owl. Her owl had stupid curly eyelashes. I thought it was ridiculous and silly, not realistic at all. But hey, ho… There was a lot of art for children on TV. A programme called Vision On and then Take Hart. Both showed ways of making art in exciting, experimental ways. I loved looking at the illustrations in books in the school library. I was rarely interested in the stories that they were illustrating. I wasn’t a big reader but I loved the pictures.
How did you get into art? What are the milestones of your journey?
As I went into secondary school, Art was one of the only subjects that I was really interested in. I was introduced to lino printing, ceramics and sculpture. The art teachers were always cooler than the other teachers and the art rooms were full of intriguing objects and posters of famous art on the walls. I also loved the smell of paint and inks. I wasn’t very interested in drawing rubber plants though. Some of those still life set-ups really sucked! I liked drawing and painting monsters, from Horror films and scenes of ‘low life’. I was obsessed by drug addicts and prostitutes, the ones I’d seen in films anyway!. After school I went to an FE college to do a BTEC in Art and Design. It was a really great course that allowed you to try out all kinds of stuff from woodwork and graphic design to painting and, even, performance art. I made a performance in my final year. Something about fluidity in sexuality with big props of body parts made out of papier mache and horse hair (from an old sofa I found on the street). Sex was obviously very important to me as a 16/17 year old! After this, instead of doing an Art degree I chose instead to go to drama school to study acting. Art gets left behind for a while here while I try and work out how to get into the movies by being an actor. It doesn’t go so well… but that’s another story.
How did you first become interested in photography?
There were always cameras around the house when I was growing up. There were always boxes and boxes of photographs in cupboards. My dad would go on business trips to Hong Kong and Japan and bring back the latest model of Polaroid camera or a new 35mm camera. We, as a family, would always be taking photos on holidays, around the house, close-ups of our pets and relations. My first camera that was all mine was a Kodak Instamatic. The first images that I took were of the actor Tom Baker, who was Doctor Who at the time, doing a ‘signing/personal appearance’ at a newsagents in Woodford, Essex. I loved Polaroid cameras. Seeing the images come into clarity right in front of your eyes within minutes was like magic. I was completely amazed by this process. Some years later I was allowed to rig up a rough darkroom in my parents back room. I started processing my own film and printing photos. I completely fell in love with it. I would stay in the dark for hours and hours. I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to do this yourself. I was constantly amazed by what you could do with film, chemicals and light. It was only when the summer came and the chemicals started to really stink out the house that I had to dismantle it.
When and in what context did you decide to turn the lens on yourself?
Simply, it has been a solution when you don’t have access to other people. When I make theatre or performance works, which is generally how I make a living, you are part of a group and you all need to turn up to make the thing work. For the visual art projects that I make it is usually me sitting at home on my own so I often turn to me as a subject. It means I don’t have to do so much or any forward planning. I can be spontaneous, I can work quickly. If I had to wait for other people, then I wouldn’t get as much done. I’d probably give up. Also, I know what my face can do, what it looks like when I do this or that to it. I’ve looked at it a lot. I’ve made a lot of theatre shows. Lots of images have been taken of me in various states. Actors get to look at images of themselves all the time. Your actor’s ‘headshot’ is your calling card. For the Instagram ‘Mask’ project it had to be me. It’s me in my house working with materials found in my house or garden. I can’t imagine having someone else taking the image of me wearing a mask. It’s quite a private task. If anyone is in the house I can’t proceed. Several photographers have asked me if they can take photos of me in the masks but that isn’t the project. Maybe I could collaborate in the future… on a slightly different project.
What is your process of producing an image? And why the 15 minutes rule?
So… mostly I wake up and don’t know if I will or won’t make a mask image on that day. If I see some material or object(s) that I like and think would work then I give it a go. Often, I make an image while the bath is running. I have bad water pressure in the house and it takes time to run. So I’ll make it after breakfast and before a bath (which is useful if I get messy). The biggest problem is how to attach something to my face. More often than not I use string. Sometimes I use sellotape. Sometimes glue. Sometimes cling film. Whatever holds the thing onto my face the best. Occasionally, I’ll just use my glasses to hold the mask on. When I’m happy that the thing isn’t going to fall off I go to the back door, open it and stand just back from the door frame. I get my phone camera open, hold it at arm’s length and take about 8-10 shots. I choose my favourite, play about with the filters on Instagram and upload it.
Why 15 minutes? I like working with rules and restrictions. Without these the project could be anything. Would be different. This is about an idea and how to best serve the idea. I mean, I do get bored quickly so I like to work fast. If I didn’t have the restriction then I might spend ages making a mask. I might go to a shop and buy something to make the mask look better. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in ‘this is what it is’. Sometimes I will make a mask that I think is great, other times I’m not so thrilled… but they all go up on Instagram. I just don’t want to get caught up with perfection in this project. It’s about the ‘what I have now at my disposal’... Not what could be.
Tell us about your fascination with masks? Why are they significant to you?
To be honest, I’m not really that fascinated with masks. In a way it’s been easy to call this a ‘mask’ project because people know instantly what a mask is… or what they think it is. I think I always thought of this project more as creating ‘sculptures for the face’. I’m thinking a lot about materials and the qualities they possess and how I can work with those qualities. I’m thinking about form and balance and material manipulation. As someone who works in the theatre I’ve been exposed to a lot of masked actors and this kind of work generally doesn’t really interest me. If anything I guess I am kind of interested if masks allow people to become transgressive, behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t… but this project isn’t about this. It’s me, by the back door taking photos of me wearing stuff I’ve pulled together. Saying that, I’m sure that under analysis there would be a lot more to say about why and how I’m doing this!
What message do you want your photographs to convey?
I don’t really do work with messages. I am more than happy to let the people who see the work get from it what they want to get. I’m always happy to have people tell me that they are disturbed or amused or delighted by the work. People find them funny and horrific and sometimes a bit of one and a bit of the other. People have told me that they really look forward to seeing what will come next and I’m really happy about that. I just remembered, someone who knows me said that the more they see of the masks the more it reveals about me, rather than hiding me… which is erm, interesting. I didn’t ask them what they thought it revealed about me!
You incorporate such playful and experimental ideas into your work. What keeps you inspired?
I like pushing at things to see what I can get beyond the usual or the obvious. I can’t quite help it really. It’s just how my mind works. I’m curious about how things work. I think I always bring an inquisitiveness and playfulness to whatever I am working on, be that theatre or a visual arts project. Also, it’s that thing about restricting yourself which I talked about earlier. If I’m in an empty room apart from two rocks and a bag of salt and nothing else, then what can be done? What can I make here? And allowing yourself to fail is also good. Not having too many expectations about what your experiment will produce. Failing is really useful... I find inspiration by looking and listening to all kinds of stuff. Paintings. Somebody with a limp. A mountain. How a woodlouse moves. Maybe dropping stuff from a height. The usual stuff.
Do you see any dangers for artistic freedom?
I’m not quite sure how to answer this but I’ll just say this. When I first came to Cardiff in the late 80’s it was possible to see a wide range of work, from home and abroad. I’m primarily talking about theatre. This could be often quite challenging, provocative and sometimes dangerous work. It wasn’t always necessarily work you liked but it was available for you to see on a regular basis and it would inspire you. You didn’t have to go to London to see it. It was right on your doorstep.The experience of seeing this was enriching. It was vital for developing your own work. Now, sadly, I feel like the opportunity to see this kind of contemporary work no longer exists and particularly for younger students and practitioners their work can only be stunted by this. People tend to make work inspired by what is around them and what they see and if they only get to see a ‘limited palette’ of work then I fear their work will suffer. I do fear for the ‘beige-ification’ of creative works. Probably not the answer to the question. Sorry.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
Why don’t the arts in Wales get a platform similar to the one in which sports is celebrated?
Where did the love go?
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
What advice would you give to someone who is unsure about how or what to create?
To start. Just begin. Don’t think too much. Do that later. Just jump in. Get your hands dirty. Don’t be timid. Make a mark. Make a move. Make mistakes. Enjoy falling over. Don’t stop until it feels good. And then carry on!
You live and work in Cardiff. As an artist and city-dweller, can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with the city and its people, and how does this relationship influence your artistic practice?
I have lived in Cardiff for nearly 30 years. The city can’t fail to have gotten under my skin and influenced my moods, actions and my works over the years but not in any particular way. Not an obvious way that I could put my finger on. I’ll think some more on this.
Any other creative endeavours you’d like to talk about?
As for the masks, I am looking into producing a book and looking for other opportunities to show the work. I am currently working as a performer on a project with German composer/theatre director, Heiner Goebbels. The show, which premiered in Manchester last year, goes to The Armory in New York at the end of May and St.Petersburg in the autumn. My own performance company, good cop bad cop (with Richard Huw Morgan) is about to go on a British Council-funded trip to Hanoi, Vietnam to have creative conversations with, amongst others, a champion breakdancer! We’re hoping also to collaborate with the Rhodri Davies/Richard Dawson fronted band Hen Ogledd. Oh, and I am playing Robinson Crusoe in an experimental theatre piece in April/May in Cardiff and beyond. I continue to work on a children’s book project for Walker Books.
Finally, what ideas are obsessing you at the moment and where do you think they will lead you?
Interestingly, for me at the moment, I am getting quite obsessed by certain kinds of ‘Spam’ email coming into my Junk folder. I am liking the way it attempts to talk to me in a very ‘personal’ way. There’s something about the way words are used, sometimes in a very crude grammatically incorrect way. It’s a special kind of language which appeals to me. I know there’s a project there but not quite sure what form it will take yet!