Best known as the superbly versatile drummer with Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Gilson Lavis is launching a second career as an artist.
His characterful portraits of fellow musicians go on show this month in a new exhibition, Portraits: Gilson Lavis in Black and White, at the Hatch Gallery in Christchurch.
Over the past 40 years Gilson has played with everyone from Cher to Amy Winehouse, Bryan Ferry to Smokey Robinson, Eric Clapton to Robert Plant.
His first taste of fame was backing the likes of Chuck Berry in the 1970s before he joined Squeeze, who hired him and fired him twice as he enthusiastically availed himself of rock ’n’ roll’s many distractions. But by his own admission he was an “obnoxious drunk” and has long since cleaned-up his act and forged a career in Jools’ band.
Art school to rock ‘n’ roll star is a well-travelled path, less so the other way – how did you start painting?
I did show some aptitude for art whilst at school, but the prospect of being a professional musician was far more enticing. I think the prospect of impressing the opposite sex was the real driving force behind that decision.
Any thought I had of painting was filed away in the back pages of my mind.
It was boredom and pain that managed to get me sketching again. About four years ago I was staying in a pretty run down apartment in Budapest. I was in Hungary for dental treatment and this particular visit was about 10 days in length and evolved some uncomfortable mouth surgery.
The only entertainment was provided by a TV that received one channel and that consisted of a procession of Hungarian speaking talking heads who seemed to be very worried about something, though I’ve no idea what!
There was a Biro and some paper so purely out of desperation I sketched a picture and I enjoyed it. I sketched pictures of my wife and the Jools’s tour manager Steve Taylor and when I gave the sketches to them on my return they where delighted. It was that reaction that inspired me to continue sketching. On the next tour with Jools I sketched the entire orchestra and their wives. I couldn’t stop. I moved on to painting about three years back and I find a peace and serenity in art that I have never known before.
Why did you choose Christchurch to launch your exhibition?
We as a family have strong ties to Bournemouth and the surrounding area. My wife Nicky grew up in Swanage and went to school in Bournemouth. And we still have a lot of family living there.
Also the BIC has been a regular show for us for many years and I greatly enjoy being in that part of the world. A good friend of mine, Jeremy Miles recommended the Hatch Gallery. It, I believe, suits my work admirably – intimate and personal. My work I hope, communicates the close working relationship I have with many of the subjects I paint.
Are the works done from memory, or photos? Have you had anyone sit for you?
I paint from memory and photos. I have an idea of what I want the finished painting should look like but it very rarely end up that way. They are a journey. I start with a photo (one I have taken myself is ideal) I use that for accuracy.
To try and remember the character lines and personality of the subject without a reference would result in a painting that is more of a caricature than I would like. I then work on the lighting and shadows to create the drama and style. Sometimes I will paint out most of the face or clothes to get the emotion I am looking for.
I have never painted from a live model. I think I would be too concerned with their comfort and their busy diaries. I work best in an unflustered and unpressured environment.
I’m not sure that the subjects I paint would have the time to sit for several days whilst I create.
Which do you consider your most successful paintings and are they necessarily the same as your favourite subjects?
It takes a while for me to digest the finished piece. Having quite often painted out a significant amount of detail to see the painting with fresh eyes takes time.
I have recently painted a set of four paintings featuring the Rolling Stones and I’m very pleased with the result. The mix of drama, realism and graphic styles have worked just the way I hoped. To my eyes they are a very good representation of my style.
Though I have done various sketches of my wife and son I haven’t as yet painted them. My relationship with them covers such a wide range of emotions and memories I find it hard to focus on an image which reflects this truthfully.
What do the subjects make of your portraits, what makes a good subject and could you paint someone you didn’t much care for?
I don’t think there is a ‘bad’ subject. I think I am more than capable of producing a bad piece though. I sometimes try to get too much information in the work. This can water down the impact that I am trying to create.
My work I believe is at its most effective when seen individually. The black and white approach I use does not lend itself to a wall full of paintings. It can dilute the impact of each piece, but in an exhibition environment this is unavoidable of course.
There are so many people I’ve been fortunate to work with and many that I would enjoy painting. Tommy Cooper and Chuck Berry would make great subjects.
What have you learned from playing with so many great artists and musicians?
I have been very lucky to have worked with so many artists but the thing I believe that I have learned is that the music is the key. It is very easy to get caught up in your own ego, desperate to impress and be the centre of attention. But I believe that the real key to a memorable show is not how good I am but how good the show is.
What was Chuck like? Are the rumours true?
Chuck is one of a kind. I remember at one show he left the stage without an encore, got straight into his car and was off. The audience cheers turned eventually turned to boos and we had to be escorted off the stage and out of the building by security protecting us from a rioting audience.
Ever been starstruck?
Eric Clapton has and still does fill me with awe. Not only his imperious guitar playing but his life has been an inspiration.
Does the word ‘chequered’ do your career justice?
I would describe my own career as a mixture of determination and incredible luck. I have been ready for the scrap heap more than once and have tasted the fruits of success more times than I have a right too.
It’s well over 15 years since you told an interviewer you were ‘starting to wear my jowls with pride’, how are they hanging now?
I’m starting to get a bit creaky in the mornings, but I still look forward to the day and my art has opened up new horizons for me. All in all, I don’t even think about my jowls.
Art for art’s sake, or money for God’s sake?
It’s not about money, but it is about sharing my work to an appreciative audience. Money is a good metaphor for appreciation. It’s the professional entertainer in me I suppose.