Art & Culture,  Social Issues,  Thought-provoking

Painting the unseen

Lisa Fraser meets artist James Earley whose portraits of people living on the edge of society are making waves.

Roy’s Art Fair was London’s first major art exhibition since the pandemic began. Life had changed so much since then that I wasn’t sure I would still enjoy the art world. Yet, as soon as I entered the Bargehouse, where the exhibition was held, I knew immediately that the magic was back. 

I was wandering from stall to stall, happily transported into one dreamy world after another … until I stopped, struck powerfully by a portrait. A homeless person was staring back at me from the canvas, with the piercing gaze of one who has suffered too much. Next to him was the portrait of a girl, a refugee, wearing a worn-out, oversized jumper, but with a curious look, and a tentative smile. 

In the midst of the fair I was confronted by two very real human beings, who could be a father or daughter to us, offering their sufferings and hopes for the world to see.

These people did not meet the regular canons of beauty, but their dignity was undeniably the most beautiful thing in the entire warehouse. 

The Resilient King of Southampton by James Earley

I confess I was too intimidated to talk to the artist, who was busy chatting with other visitors. I took his card and left, shaken. I couldn’t stop thinking about the power of these images. I needed to understand why and how an artist could single himself out from his peers, and give people living at the margin a way to be seen again. That’s how I got to meet – albeit virtually – James Earley. This is our conversation …

Would you describe your paintings in a few words? 

My paintings are hyperrealistic portraits of people who live on the edge of society.

We met at an art fair, where guests and artists were cheerful. I noticed lots of colourful landscapes, relaxing scenes, or just decorative arts. Your stall, though, was grounded in reality; your paintings sent deep messages. How is your work received in the arts community?

I want my work to shout and scream, to grab hold of you.  A lot of people don’t want to engage and look away as they sometimes do when they see a homeless person on the street. Other people are drawn to the work and find it quite emotional. I have often had people in tears looking at my work.

Painting of someone sleeping rough on streets
Shadows by James Earley

How do you select your models? 

If I feel a connection when I first meet the subject, then I will ask to sketch them and ultimately paint their portrait. I don’t know what I am looking for initially, it tends to just be a feeling. I get to know the subjects over a period of time. And learn how they ended up homeless. This knowledge of the subject helps to show the raw emotion in the portrait. 

What message are you trying to convey?

I want to show the power of empathy. I want to show that in a world where profit and money are so important we are losing sight of what is the most important thing, which is love for our fellow human beings.

Unfortunately, there is no monetary reward in loving someone.

When did you decide to paint people struggling with life? Did you paint something else before? What made you focus on this type of art?

I have always painted people who are struggling. I want to use my art to help people. I can’t paint a still life or a landscape as there is no emotion there, there is no heartbeat on the canvas. I have to have a direct line from my heart to the canvas and I can’t deviate from this. If I do deviate by painting something that doesn’t boil these emotions in me, then it is not honest, it is diluted. 

Is it difficult to get people’s trust to paint them? How do you approach them, and convince them to pose for your painting?

It’s not difficult as I find that most of the homeless people I speak to value conversation and companionship above everything else, above money, above anything. They know that I am using my work to help raise awareness of the issue of homelessness so they are always happy to pose for a portrait. I class all of my subjects as friends.

Who is the most moving person you’ve painted? Why?

I think that my most recent painting was probably the most moving. Dave has been homeless for a long time. He has so many problems. He suffers mentally and physically every second of the day but I always see him smiling. I give money to homeless charities when I sell the painting and I offered to give him some money from the proceeds. He declined the offer and wanted me to give his share to the charity. It was only when I painted his eyes that I saw the sadness that he hides, it was a really emotional experience.

Painting of homeless man
David by James Earley

Do you keep in touch with some of your models? Do you know what happened to some of them? Is there a particular story that you would like to share?

I try to keep in touch but sometimes it’s difficult as most of my subjects don’t have mobile phones and can just disappear. I remember painting a really nice guy from Winchester, his name was Joe. His portrait was to be exhibited in the US and I spent two years trying to locate him and show him the portrait. Nobody knew where he was. On the day the portrait was shown I was in a coffee shop and on the phone to the gallery when I looked outside and there was Joe … standing waving at me.

What makes you hopeful for the future?

I feel that the youth of today are not blinded by what we are told by traditional news outlets. The internet allows them to have a clearer and bigger window on the world. They can see what’s happening, they can see the poverty and they know that it’s not right. We saw demonstrations all over the world last summer against racism. I feel that knowledge is power and the people today have a lot of power.

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Lisa Fraser is a writer for Adamah Media. She has worked as a political Special Adviser, in lobbying and as a consultant, before joining the Civil Service. She loves having long walks, visual arts, and reading books about history and politics.

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