A Matter of Identity: Nine Minutes with John Byrne

An interview of John Byrne in After Nyne magazine
September 5, 2017
A Matter of Identity: Nine Minutes with John Byrne

Acclaimed Scottish artist and playwright has a new exhibition at the Fine Art Society (12-29 September). Entitled Lullaby of Broadway, the exhibition will feature a selection of Byrne’s new paintings which draw on themes he has developed over the last fifty years.

John Byrne, 77, is considered by many to be one of Scotland’s most venerable artistic voices. Byrne wrote some of the seminal Scottish works of the 1970s such The Slab Boys Trilogy, which made it onto Broadway in the 1980s, and the six-time BAFTA winning television series Tutti Frutti. A colourful and diverse character, Byrne is also known for his past relationship with actress Tilda Swinton, designing album covers for bands such as the Beatles, his postmodern poetry and, most recently, being one of three artists commissioned to paint public murals of Billy Connolly in Glasgow for the actor’s birthday.

Byrne’s new show, his fifth at the Fine Art Society, furthers his exploration of Scotland’s national identity as well as his own. Charged with wit and imagination, these paintings consider Scotland’s relationship to the slave trade of the American South but also Byrne’s own relationship with America. Byrne transports his narrative to the streets of New York City in the 1980’s, when ‘The Slab Boys’ appeared on Broadway, capturing American glamour and drama whilst returning to the Teddy Boys of Paisley that have been a constant source of inspiration – in a homage to and celebration of black culture.


John, what is the central ethos of this, your fifth at the Fine Art Society?

I am totally intuitive – i.e. I have drawn since ever I can remember – it was only in the last ten/fifteen years that I came up with with the ‘mantra’ – I am the labourer to my unconscious. That serves me very well as a central ethos


You raise questions about identity – Scotland’s and your own – what sparked this enquiry?

As the child of parents who were born in Scotland of Irish parents, I identify with both Scotland and Ireland, although it took me a very long time to arrive at that resolution – it was only when I/we went to and fro to the Republic in the past seven or eight years that I took on board the Irish part of my DNA.


And were you surprised what you discovered on the journey?

I was surprised at this turn of events as I had had an unvoiced ‘antipathy’ to my Irish roots for a long time.

Tell us a little about your practice and routine while you’re working.

As to my practice & routine – I work every day, seven days a week, more often than not, from I get up till I go to bed(!). I met up with John Berger many years ago in Paris and he said to me “if you really want to be a painter you must paint every day” – and, ever since, I have done so.

Sound advice!

When I’m writing a play, I do the same – work every day.  Not on a computer but an Olympia typewriter –

I am a one-finger typist – I type as fast as I can think. I have always taken Moss Hart, the great Broadway playwright’s advice, ‘There is no such thing as writing – only REwriting’


Which pieces in the exhibition are you particularly fond of?

Regarding some of my ‘favourite’ works – paintings & plays – if I say they are like my ‘children’ then I can’t pick out ‘favourites’ – sorry,

Art as a journey to the centre of the self – have you always used art (in all mediums) in this way?

If you’re doing it seriously (and there’s no other way) then, yes, it most certainly is! The older you get, the more important that is – you are only in this world once so it’s up to you to leave your mark.


What can people expect from this exhibition?

I hope that the people who go to the London show do get enjoyment from the works – if they get a fraction of the pleasure I got from doing the paintings then I will be delighted!


What’s next for you?

No idea quite what I’m doing next other than I’ll be working every day – if it be a play or a painting, I’ll be totally lost in its ‘doing of’

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