Spotlight on… Cheltenham artist PJ Crook

PJ Crook with 'Owl in the City'

PJ Crook with 'Owl in the City' - Credit: Archant

Artist PJ Crook was born in Cheltenham, where she still lives. But her paintings are shown in countries as culturally diverse as Japan, the US, Canada and Estonia, thanks to her reputation as a painter of international standing. You can see her work locally, including in The Wilson: Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum and the City Museum and Art Gallery, Gloucester. She is also exhibiting at the Alpha Gallery in London until December 16.

• PJ, you’re well known for your fabulously distinctive style, which often involves crowd scenes. If you could be part of a crowd in any of your paintings, which would it be?

My first response was to become part of the crowded newspaper office in Deadline,

hanging in the Morohashi Museum of Modern Art in Japan, as I am always working against the clock - but I realised I wouldn’t understand the language! So I’d opt for being amongst the masses at the Sermon on the Mount, a painting commissioned by Rachel Blundell, the Stroud poet.

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• You’ve spent time travelling to other countries and cultures. What have you learned about other peoples? And how has that informed your work?

I have worked or exhibited in France, Belgium, USA, Canada, Italy, Estonia, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, the latter two being the most culturally different. Japan’s ancient capital is Nara, where sacred deer roamed the city between temples and trees - a spiritual place of Shinto and Buddhism. Kyoto’s traditional bamboo-and-paper houses felt like sets in a kabuki theatre, and the geisha characters on the stage began to inhabit the paintings in my studio. Saudi Arabia, a country of poetry and story-telling, felt little changed in parts from Lawrence’s time. We had a few scary moments but loved the warmth and hospitality we were shown when bartering with the Bedouin, where the satisfactory deal is rewarded with a gift; sharing a bowl of warm camel milk or sitting crossed legged in my abaya on beautiful rugs amongst the camel bags, trying to remember not to show the soles of my sandals, made it an adventure. I returned with a collection of old Bedouin jewellery and costumes; these, the architecture, and Arabic patterning have infiltrated my work.

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• Which of your paintings has it been most difficult to part with?

Perhaps those that almost formed a journal of my children’s journeys from infancy into adulthood, one of which, Portrait of the Artist Watching her Children Grow, is in the collection of The Wilson: Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum.

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• If you were to have your own portrait painted by any artist, living or from the past, whom would you choose?

Having recently been in Panicale in Italy, I’ll go for Pietro Perugino (b 1450, Perugia): the warmth of the Umbrian sun and mellow colours would make for a more relaxed sitter, whilst I observed his method of working and mixing pigments against the landscape around Lake Trasimeno, for which he was famous.

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• Many of us traditionalists are confused by Turner Prize winners. Are the more bizarre nominees examples of style over substance? (And what would Turner think?)

He’d be baffled by the conceptual, having had the power to move the soul and express whatever he wanted to just with paint. Perhaps the current scene is similar to the designer-label method of buying, where cool is cash. What’s more worrying is the dilemma of the art student in a continual quest to rock and shock, now that talent can’t be measured in the usual way.

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• So don a cat-burglar suit, get out your wire-cutters and lurk at dead of night outside art galleries. Which piece of artwork would you steal and why?

Whilst in Italy I’ll pop up to Florence. Hmm… Michelangelo’s handsome David in the Accademia is the best-known male nude in the world but, at 18ft high, too heavy for a very small artist. Having come over the Ponte Vecchio I’ll head for the nearby Uffizi and steal Artemisia Gentileschi’s astounding Judith Beheading Holophernes, not for blood-lust but because, as an historic women artist, she’s a heroine and it would fit nicely into my collection of women’s art.

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• Where can we currently see your work?

At my exhibition at the Alpha Gallery, 23 Cork St, London W1S 3NJ. (Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm; Sat, 11am-4pm, until December 16.

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• And planned for next year? A show with Panter and Hall, 11 & 12 Pall Mall, London, March 14-April 4; and

Galerie Alain Blondel in Paris later in the year.

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www.pjcrook.com