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War and folklore inspire South Shields artist

WAR and folklore inspire artist Jane Lee McCracken. She tells Tamzin Lewis about her intricate Biro art.

Jane McCracken
Jane McCracken

THE first thing you notice about Jane Lee McCracken’s exhibition is the traditional wooden bed frame. Jane inherited it from her beloved grandmother and as it is currently on show, she, her husband and her wolf dog Lily are sleeping on an air-bed.

So why is the bed in the Customs House Gallery? Well, it makes perfect sense for a show called The Woodcutter’s Cottage, inspired by fairytales, forests and wolves.

Jane, who lives in South Shields, says: “I think fairytales were warnings to children about the brutality of life. Stories were explanations for things which people didn’t have scientific reasons for. They can be exceptionally brutal – like life is. But they can also be very beautiful. I hope to create images which are beautiful but which underneath reveal brutality. I like juxtaposing hope and beauty with darker forces.”

For this exhibition of work made since 2008, Jane wanted to create the imaginary world of an isolated fairytale woodcutter. His interests, like Jane’s, are stories, animals, nature and war.

She says: “I tried to imagine myself as a woodcutter living as a recluse on the periphery of Europe’s forests. He gets his perspective from TV and film. I imagine him sitting in his cottage at night making, for example, the quilt on the bed.”

As a child growing up in Edinburgh, Jane adored books and fairy stories and remembers shutting herself away with pens and paper and telling stories to animals.

She also became obsessed with travelling, as her father’s job with a pharmaceutical company involved regular trips aboard. He would always send Jane postcards and return with gifts such as Russian dolls and Swiss cuckoo clocks.

“As a wee girl, my father travelling to far-off countries really fired my imagination,” says Jane, 44. “My father was very interested in wildlife and that rubbed off on me too: I have a great love of animals. He had served in the RAF and liked to watch war films. For me it was great to sit and watch films with Daddy.”

Jane studied graphic design at the University of Humberside and freelanced as an illustrator before realising she wanted artistic freedom.

“I took a gamble and decided to give up illustration. I experimented with my work which took the best part of 10 years. During this period, I took shift work jobs so I could have plenty of time to fit in my art.”

Living in London, Jane worked as a park keeper for Camden Council and a guard on the Northern Line to pay the bills.

She says: “I would shut up 23 parks across Camden so had to deal with a lot of drunks! Then I decided I would really like to be a Tube driver but in order to be a driver you had to be a guard first.

“If a train broke down, which they frequently did, I had to be able to fix it. It was a thrilling job.”

Jane later worked in the offices of the London Underground which is where she started doodling. “I was so frustrated and I felt very trapped,” she says. “I had the dream of keeping my art going so I started creating drawings on Post-it notes with a Biro. I really enjoyed using Biro to draw.”

In 2003 Jane moved to Northumberland where her parents live and became a full-time artist committed to drawing with Biro.

She says: “It’s a really challenging medium because you can’t make mistakes. It requires a lot of concentration. The ink is quite gelatinous and it is almost like printers’ ink which gives it great depth.

“I started with black Biro and then moved to green, blue and red. Then I discovered a pack of 20 Biros and started experimenting with them to do full colour pieces. I have to get several pens and mix the colours, a bit like paint really. It is quite an intense and exhausting process.”

It takes Jane about a day to do a square inch of work and she describes it as “extremely time- consuming.” One piece in the exhibition took five months, so she realised to make larger pieces she would have to change her medium.

She says: “The drawings take so long to do that if I wanted to do them bigger it would take years. I like to keep experimenting and I enjoy making cushions and curtains so I started printing drawings which I could transfer on to fabric by hand, thereby making bigger pieces like the quilt and cloak.”

Many of Jane’s drawings incorporate stills from films and documentaries, and she likes the pixel effect the camera catches. She overlays these drawings, often of 20th Century warfare, with images from folklore and fairy tale. Jane describes some of her drawings as “memorials to lives lost during wars or disasters”.

“I’m really interested in the relationship between humans and animals and I’m also interested in the brutality of war,” she says. “Often after wars people become statistics, but each person and animal had a life. One of my works weaves together images from war films with a picture of my dog. It is partly about nature being destroyed by war, but can also be about a dog keeping vigil for its dead master.”

:: The Woodcutter’s Cottage by Jane Lee McCracken is at the Customs House, South Shields, until July 29, www.customshouse.co.uk


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