Suffolk artist Jelly Green loves nature – over the years his meticulously observed landscapes have evolved from ancient wild hedgerows, found in and around Saxmundham and Framlingham, to the rugged North Country wilderness. Wales, then to the rainforests of Borneo and the Amazon.
As a result, his canvases grew in size, from modest squares the size of a doily to expansive, wall-filled panoramas that deposit the viewer in the heart of an exotic location. Over the past 10 years his work has evolved from highly detailed and distinctive portraits of cattle belonging to his grandfather to energetic and immersive paintings of exotic jungle landscapes.
As his work with mentor Maggi Hambling progressed, his paintings became increasingly expressionistic. Its oils have the ability to transport you to a new world, a place so evocative that you could easily imagine yourself surrounded by the sounds and smells of an ancient forest growing on the other side of the world.
One of his pre-lockdown exhibitions was at Jason Gathorne-Hardy’s Alde Valley Spring Festival, where his huge, almost 3D paintings filled the walls of the large barn and refused to be overwhelmed by the powerful works of the sculptor Laurence Edwards dotted around the barn on plinths.
However, just before the lockdown, Jelly became increasingly concerned about climate change and the dangers of deforestation. Gradually, the lush greens and wholesome browns contained in the rainforest glades were replaced by fiery reds and oranges as a hell leapt from canvas to canvas.
As 29-year-old Jelly shows me around her latest series of paintings, titled Burn, she points out where she had painted a firestorm on one of her vibrant forest paintings – a finished, unseen work that has been completely transformed by its portrayal of a beautiful but violent destructive force.
Looking at these new paintings, you can see that Jelly has taken over Maggi Hambling’s technique to bring a still image to life. As Maggi’s waves crash onto the beach in her paintings of the North Sea, the flames of Jelly’s new forest fire paintings leap and smash their way through her large-scale canvases.
“My last show in London at The Oxo Tower in 2019 was pretty much all the rainforests but there were a few paintings that played with the introduction of fire but immediately after that show with the news of what was happening to those forests humid tropics, I realized that my work had to follow this path, I could not avoid talking about the burning and destruction of this wonderful habitat.
There is so much movement in Jelly’s paintings that you find yourself as mesmerized as you would be gazing into the heart of a campfire.
“My work over the past eight years has been a tribute to these ancient and amazing spaces. I went to live for a long time in the forest in Brazil when I was 22 and was amazed by the beauty and the magnificence of this marvelous space.
“Then you read about what is happening in these life-giving forests and you can’t help but feel it and you have to do something to draw people’s attention to this devastation”
Jelly said a trip to Borneo in 2018 underscored just how perilous the state of the world’s rainforests were. “We would get up at 5am and just go up the river and sleep and paint in the rainforest as we moved around, we saw so many wildlife.
“I was blown away because the wildlife was everywhere and so close. We saw orangutans, loads of different species of monkeys and even saw a large python choke a monkey and eat it. We were amazed by what we were seeing. I remember thinking it was just the most amazing place in the world, but I found out that these animals aren’t supposed to be at the water’s edge and the only reason they’re there is that their habitat is being destroyed further into the rainforest, and they are being squeezed into a smaller and smaller space.
She said forests are being watered down to make way for commercial palm plantations that supply palm oil to Western manufacturers. “You drive around Borneo for hours and hours and there are only palm plantations and that’s when you realize it was once a rainforest.”
It was this deliberate destruction of this fragile ecosystem that informed the shift in his artwork and the dramatic shift in his color palette from lush greens and various healthy shades of brown to fiery reds and incandescent shades of orange. .
“I came back and looked at some of my recently finished or half-finished paintings and realized that was not how I saw this world anymore. So, I started painting over it. If you look at some of my Burn paintings, you will see the remnants of previous “lush” green forest paintings below. My painted firestorm literally consumed my old forest – just like what happens in the real world. C It’s harsh and terrifying, but the flames also have an eerie, haunting beauty.
This work began before the confinement in 2019 and was completed after an interruption of more than a year.
But the confinement brought with it a surprising but happy event. “I found myself pregnant with my son, Oberon, who is now seven months old. I tried to work from home but it was very difficult because my partner was also at home all day and we have a roommate and it was really difficult to do any work because I used to work 8 to 12 hours a day alone in my studio.
“Trying to paint in my living room, trying to work with other people and you quickly realize it just doesn’t work.”
“At the end of the day I was just sitting at home doing a lot of embroidery. I also took a lot of walks and it really makes you appreciate the countryside and Suffolk is really beautiful. It also made you realize how how resilient the earth is. Without the cars roaring and planes filling the sky, the air quality immediately improved, and you could see the earth healing itself and hopefully we all learned from that Something.
Jelly said with more people continuing to work from home or having a split week, it should reduce the number of commutes people make.
Jelly said Oberon’s arrival also necessitated a move from Darsham to Dennington and the house renovations that any move entails. “Moving while preparing for a London exhibition of my Burn paintings and caring for a seven month old baby – I must be crazy!”
But, Jelly seems to be taking it all in her stride, thanks to her parents Ros and Doug, who have provided childcare support and canvas storage for new paints that can no longer fit in Jelly’s studio at Old Jet on the former Bentwaters Air Force Base.
She said her son’s arrival took many of her friends by surprise as hardly anyone saw her during the pregnancy due to Covid restrictions. “Nobody knew I was pregnant, so it was very strange. I was at home or at my parents’ house with my big belly and I didn’t see anyone else. My friends are amazed that such a thing that changed their lives happened, and they couldn’t see it because of the lockdown.
But, Oberon is a happy guy and now that the confinement is over, he likes to accompany his mother to the studio, to watch her work. Her presence in the studio has also encouraged Jelly to change the chemicals she uses in her work.
“There’s no more white spirit or anything like that in my studio because it’s not good for him to breathe it but I miss it. Every time I enter Maggi’s studio, I see a whiff of white spirit and a host of emotions and memories come back to me. It is a very evocative smell.
So what about the future? Jelly says she wants to explore what else she can do with large scale paintings. “I love working at this size. I love working on compositions that fill a large space. I still do small jobs but right now my attention is really focused on a larger scale. I just need to find people with walls big enough to hang this artwork,” she laughs.
But, looking around Jelly’s studio, a strange contradiction jumps out at you. Seeing his smaller A3 size work laid out on a table and you realize that the views contained within the frames are quite expansive while the vast five foot high painting leaning against the wall is a much more in depth study. The scene captured on these giant canvases would represent only a fraction of the composition of the smaller works.
It’s an observation that takes Jelly by surprise. “I didn’t realize it before but now you say…looking at the paintings you’re right. Wow, that’s really weird. I wonder what that says about me or my work? »
But close-up views of a single tree or a small clearing consumed by fire look alive. You can almost see the flames moving. They are active paintings eager to strike up a conversation with the viewer.
“I love working on this scale, it’s what I love doing and I’m excited to see where it’s going.”
With a new baby in her life, a move and house renovations, painting trips to the Amazon or the Far East are going to be rare in the years to come, but Jelly is happy to explore her own county again. “Lockdown has given me a new appreciation for Suffolk. I love walking country roads and following paths along fields and in the middle of nowhere – and I love the coast too.
“Being brought up here you tend to take your home country for granted, but the lockdown has forced me to open my eyes to what I have around me and I feel very lucky to live here.”