Interview with Tessa Jaray RA, RA Editions at Multiplied Art Fair, Christie’s, London

Interview with Tessa Jaray RA, RA Editions at Multiplied Art Fair, Christie's, London

Art Sales at the Royal Academy, London, promotes and sells unique work and limited editions by Royal Academicians and invites emerging and established artists to participate. Their stand at Multiplied Art Fair, Christie’s, London, will showcase the RA Editions portfolio – a collection of contemporary, limited edition prints by Royal Academicians, graduates and associates of the Royal Academy Schools. Since 2009, internationally renowned artists have worked alongside some of the most promising postgraduate art students in the country to create the diverse range of prints in the RA Editions portfolio.  All proceeds from the sale of RA Editions prints contribute directly towards the School’s endowment fund allowing the Schools to continue to flourish. We interview artist Tessa Jaray RA, whose prints will feature in Multiplied.

A: You taught at the Slade School of Fine Art for 31 years, from 1968 – could you talk about how you managed to successfully balance the demands of teaching and pursuing your art practice for such a sustained period of time?
TJ: Looking back I find it hard to understand myself. I needed to do the first in order to survive, and there wasn’t any question of not painting, that was a given. At that time very few artists could even consider making a living from their work, and art schools were great places to be with other artists, to be able to talk about what really mattered to you, and have the fun – and privilege – of working with young artists. I formed close relationships with many of them, and some of them remain real friends to this day. Though they are also no longer young…

What wasn’t quite so easy was having children and continuing to work. But I always felt it was easier to do that if you were an artist, rather than, say, a chemist or a factory worker. You can at least order your own time. It wasn’t quite so difficult for my generation as it is now.

A: Your books feature writing alongside your work, adding to the creative process. Is the process of reflecting on your work part of the artwork itself?
TJ: The process of reflecting on the work really comes after the act. Otherwise there is always the danger of too much reflection at the time of making, and things become academic. In other words, you are doing what you already know, so what’s the point? It’s much more exciting to discover, to find out. As Picasso once said, “I don’t seek, I find.” I’m not sure that has changed much since then, because what is interesting about the creative process is finding out what you don’t know. Then you can reflect on it and decide if it has any value.

As far as writing is concerned, although there are of course parallels with the visual arts – many writers say they write in order to find out what they think –  I have always found writing quite easy and enjoyable, as a sort of record of things that have been important to me. I don’t at all consider myself a ‘writer’. I’m rather in the tradition of artists who write, of which there have been many. So I find writing much easier than painting, which matters much more to me.

A: How important was the accolade of honorary fellow of RIBA given to you in 1995 for your contribution to urban design and public commission work? Can you see yourself creating larger scale projects in public spaces in the future, and does this compare to creating work to be viewed in a gallery?
TJ: It was very important, and I felt very honoured. I would love to do more large projects, but the notion of Public Art has radically changed, and now much of it is temporary, with the identity of the artist being central. And local councils and planners, as well as most architects, are not always thrilled to work with artists. They consider them to be impractical, which need not be the case at all. And the so-called Art World is not remotely interested. Perhaps it is considered to be too close to Design, which to some extent it has to be. To work in the public realm on a large scale artists have to be able to put their own concerns aside, and learn to understand the context and needs of the immediate environment.

A: Your recent work, Light 1 and Light 2, Diptych, appears nearly monochromatic. What influenced this departure from your previously brightly coloured, geometric pieces?
TJ: Is there any such thing as no colour? Surely only a lack of light. I’m not certain that bright colour is more colour than a pale grey, for instance. More colourful, perhaps. It is light that reveals and expresses feelings, irrespective of what colour it is. It is always the relationships that count. More or less like everything else in life…

A: You are showing work at Multiplied Art Fair this October, which specialises in contemporary prints and multiples. What is the appeal of producing prints for you?
TJ: The fact that they can be reproduced, within an old tradition, I like very much, but making prints is such a very particular discipline, the transference of a mark from one surface to another, from one tool to another, is always thrilling. And quite difficult to get right. A line made as an etching, a wash by a lithograph, the cut of a wood-block, these things are unique, there is absolutely no other way to make them. To make exactly that. That creates great satisfaction, both in the making and the looking.

A: At Multiplied your work will be shown alongside work by graduates of the RA Schools. What advice do you have for them as they embark on their artistic careers?
TJ: This is always a difficult question, and I have yet to hear of a young artist who will take advice from an older one… when I went to the Slade, on my first day the then Professor, William Coldstream, gave us all a pep talk. You won’t earn a living by making art, he said. I advise all the young men here to leave now and become bus conductors. And the young women to become seamstresses. Quite apart from any sexism in this statement, I don’t recall anyone taking his advice.

Perhaps one could say, develop a thick skin, because your life will be full of rejections. If you believe in what you do, or need passionately to find out what that is, stick to your guns. And don’t expect, ever, to be rich. Because on the whole that’s what happens to other artists, not yourself.  And if that matters to you, probably best to look for another way of life. But if you go for it, the rewards can be very great, though mostly when you are alone in the studio. You will become a tiny part of the great river of art running right back through time.

Now in its 6th year, Multiplied is the UK’s only fair dedicated to contemporary art in editions, and returns to Christie’s South Kensington from 16-18 October. Visit for more information.

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1. Tess Jaray RA, STACKS BLUE, 2015, Digital print, © Courtesy of RA Editions.