Joseph Rowntree. Photo: Florence Charvin

[Editor: This article first published in Jul/Aug BayBuzz mag.]

On a lonely windswept peak, close to where the mountains sweep down to the sea, an eclectic collection of almost dwellings cling to the hillside. A rosy glow emits from the window of the old school two-tone turquoise house bus. Chickens meander through vegetable beds. An ecstatic staffy wriggles with delight on the deck of the shipping container kitchen. Newly planted trees bravely battle the significant wind. 

Here, in the smallest possible cabin capable of housing a man of his stature, Joseph Rowntree hones his craft. 

He paints people not portraits, apart from the occasional commission. “I paint people as metaphors. I’m intrinsically fascinated by people but as an image to reference something else. They’re not paintings of a particular person, they’re paintings of humanity, of my experience. Really, they’re paintings of me,” he explains. 

Also known as JR the Free, Rowntree is invested in autonomy and authenticity in his practice and his product. “I want to be really genuine with my art, not put a whole lot of afterthought onto it. I want to really think about what’s going in and why it’s going in,” he muses. He captures his subjects himself, moving through the world honing his lens on people in attitudes that speak to something he wants to express. 

Back in the studio, his photographs become source material. He will paint with anything, but lately the legacy of oils has been calling him. “Oils are super technical. I’m finally getting to the point where I can play with them, I kind of know what they’re going to do, so I can experiment. They’ve got a richness to them acrylic doesn’t have.”

Rowntree is an artist in evolution, constantly pushing himself to new things. He initially painted on windows, laying acrylic over glass, scratching away in relief with an experimentation of textures, layering them over the imagined landscapes of the mind. Then, their temporality appealed, but now that his skill and style have grown into their own, he’s drawn to longevity. “It’s for the paintings. I want them to mean something…It’s archival. I want my work to be around for two, three hundred years.”

The bleak solitude of his surrounds has seeped into his work. “It’s good for me to isolate myself a bit. I’m easily led astray. It keeps my thoughts clear. You know the ideas you’re having are your own as much as they can be,” he says. Certainly, the paintings have a renewed simplicity – a paired back maturity. “Negative space creates a kind of awkwardness I’m really into. Everything is so busy visually right now. I want to make paintings that are really paintings. Where you can feel the paint. They’ve got just enough going on, the bare essentials there, as opposed to trying to wow someone with your intensity.”

His renewed connection to the land, putting down roots and investing in legacy, also bleeds into his paintings. “I’ve never been a forward thinker but it’s good to plant trees and things like that. You’re being forced to forward think. And that’s made me think about my practice more. Do I want to make the same pretty thing over and over again and make money from it? Or do I want to make weird looking things that tear my heart out a little bit?” he asks.

Living on a shoestring in the middle of nowhere gives Rowntree the freedom to work on the kinds of pieces that speak to him. With low overheads, he is at liberty to mine the vaults of his heart and mind to produce work unadulterated by what the market might demand. His latest partnership with the newly opened Ākina Gallery should provide a fertile place for his paintings to speak his truth to those who care to listen. 

Check out Joseph’s upcoming exhibition at Ākina Gallery here.

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