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A Magazine for Sheffield

John Ledger: Humans in Cages

John Ledger is an artist based in his home town of Barnsley. Working with the straightforward combination of biro and paper, John creates bewilderingly intricate dystopian landscape murals with strong political overtones. Reflecting the problems the world faces in the 21st century, from environmental concerns to 24-hour surveillance, his work is chock full of fine detail which takes months to realise, and likewise takes the brain of the audience a few minutes to fully absorb. We spoke to John about his working processes, his inspiration and his approach to creating a new piece. What got you started as an artist? I’ve always drawn/doodled/made stuff from a very early age, and although I stopped doing most things during the often necessary conforming required during secondary school years, I always knew I’d return to art because something still informed me that artistic expression was in tune with the way I experienced life. But actually feeling like artistic expression as something I was compelled to do? Well, this mindset was instigated by world events and personal events that occurred during my mid-to-late teens. Being witness to the horrific televised spectacle of 9/11 when I was 17, and to a collection of smaller news events that precipitated uncontrollable concern about the future of our species on this planet. The isolation that I plummeted into during this stage of my life gave me the first chance since school to think my own thoughts, and although it wasn’t a particularly grand time, I found myself compelled to make art as a sort of coping method. I was a bit naive and a day dreamer as a teenager, but these events shattered this bubble. Making art was my reaction to this. What is your working process when creating a new piece? For years I used to spew out ideas for pieces in quick succession to no avail. I discovered that large landscapes mapping out everything that upset or angered me about the world were the best way of saying what I really wanted to say. The ideas always precede putting pen to paper, and their formulation in my mind takes much longer now, but when they come together it brings both great relief and great excitement. The compositions for new pieces usually emerge when I’m nowhere in particular - on a train journey, at work or sitting in a cafe. I jot them down and some just feel right. But I want to do justice to all that hidden labour that has been underway in my head, and for this reason these doodles have no choice but to become murals. I wouldn’t be satisfied with my work if it was only focussing on one instance instead of trying to depict the entire human landscape under capitalism in the 21st century. How long does a piece usually take? It’s hard to see from some of the images you’ve submitted, but some of them are quite large. Aside from the sketchbook ideas, once I actually have a sheet of paper pinned up on the wall they usually take a few months at a time. I always feel a pressure to be reeling them off quicker than this, but it simply isn’t possible. Sometimes the whole world seems to be chained to a Facebook newsfeed, an expectation for the artist to perform continuously, never letting their front drop, always with new arty things to show. Each work I make is like a big annual event in my life. They have to be large scale because that seems important to me, and they have to take some time to make. What tools do you use regularly and which could you not live without? Biro pens and paper. They’re whatI make sure I have on me when I’m out and about, and they’re what I need when I’m stood making the work. I feel impotent if I forget to take these two things with me. How has your art developed over the years? My art was initially fuelled by ecological concerns and personal issues. When I began to look into what I would argue has largely caused these ecological and personal problems, my work then began to gravitate towards socio-political issues. My landscape drawings allowed me to bring all these concerns together to reveal how they are inter-related. Drawing now obviously forms the main trunk of the way I work, but it used to be painting and collage. Although I still now sometimes use paint and collage, I didn’t feel that I could always truly say what I wanted to say with it. Once I got hold of large sheets of paper and realised I could work on a drawing facing it like it was a canvas, this felt so right and was a breakthrough point for me. I had a lot of friends who used expensive fine line pens, and it took me a while to allow myself to see that the bogstandard biro could be a worthy artistic tool, but eventually it began to feel like the most appropriate tool I could use. Some of your work is quite overtly political. What themes and messages do you find yourself returning to in your work, and is art an outlet for your concerns about the world? It’s certainly an outlet for concerns about the world. All confidence I have today comes from the belief in myself I got from art. Yet behind this I’m still a shy and unconfident person. For this reason I’m still not so great with dealing with issues in the world in other ways. Although I end up engaged in them, I find political arguments psychologically draining, as if someone’s been playing football with my internal organs. Obviously the welfare of others really bothers me, but I just find it very hard to become a member of groups. Yet, I’ll do what I feel I can towards trying to make the world a better place, and won’t simply say “I do my art - that’s my voice”, because I know that’s a way of ignoring responsibility. Themes that I return to? The psychological impact on a society that has been told that the future is dead; that there’s no alternative to a system that is seemingly dragging us into environmental and social destruction; the link between mental illness, depression, insanity, violence and this infliction on society. I also return to the crazy yet dominant assertion that continuous growth is the solution to our problems on a planet of finite resources. What do you dislike in art? The pressure in society to be a ‘CV artist’, to be constantly looking out for new art opportunities to better your ‘professional practice’ (awful term). It places unnecessary pressure on an artist. I have a day job that pays so I can do my art when I have time, but there’s a social pressure that tells me this isn’t good enough. Yet again, it’s this pressure to perform as an artist 24/7. I have long spells when I’m artistically barren, but surely this is healthy regarding my style of work. I’m not a performing monkey. Some artists work in a way that’s much more beneficial for workshops, commissions or residencies, and that’s great. Many of my friends take workshops and do commissions, and I value what they do, but I don’t think every artist should feel pressured to fit a model. To use a timely term, it’s a very Thatcherite annexation of the artist, making them perform ‘what they do’ in the same way that everyone is expected to become a professional and perform 24/7. This anxiety drives our society and is based on an unrealistic ideal. Which other artists or art forms inspire you to create? This has always been a tricky one, as I often struggle to locate what individual things inspire me to do what I do - an endless broth of art, music, literature, architecture, global and local happenings and nonhappenings. I suppose I’m inspired by everything at the same time as being inspired by nothing, as my landscapes are often the result of a feeling of dejection with everything. Good advice you wish you’d been told earlier? Ha, I’m not sure, because I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have listened at the time anyway! [imagebrowser id=32] )

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