Interview with Jan Bowman, artist and author

Jan Bowman, artist, author and founding member of Artists for Brexit discusses her decision to vote leave and the importance of respecting democracy.

Jan is the author of This is Birmingham and has recently finished her second book. Her superb artwork is featured on the Artists for Brexit website.

You have a background in architecture. What led you to diverge and become a creator of fine art and illustration?

I originally switched from studying art to architecture because fine art seemed too self-indulgent, and the architecture school’s Friday afternoon lectures were more interesting than my art course across the road. But I realise now that I only ever wanted to get the brief to the point where I could draw a picture of it.

Then I spent years doing architecture/graphic-related jobs and hardly any pictures. I did lots of things outside work and had a great time, but illustration wasn’t fashionable then and being an ‘artist’ sounded like a scam. Eventually it struck me that since I hated my job, and I had no dependents so wasn’t bothered about getting rich, I might as well be poor working for myself instead. The one thing I thought I could stand doing for the rest of my life and was quite good at was drawing, so I decided to find a way to make a living at it. It took me a long time to realise that being able to draw is a gift. I ignored it for years, which wasn’t very bright. Mind you I don’t think my pictures would be much good if I hadn’t had a life first.

I’d been making pictures again for a year when I discovered Miroslav Sasek’s THIS IS NEW YORK on a trip to Manhattan. I came back inspired to make a book about Birmingham (a city I hated when I first moved there) and the lovely hidden bits that never get into the tourist brochures, and how the city was built by immigrants. I fitted it round the story of the Birmingham Lunar Society, the 18th-century philosophers and inventors whose adventurous spirit kickstarted the Industrial Revolution. THIS IS BIRMINGHAM: A Glimpse of the City’s Hidden Treasures was so popular that I started getting invitations to show my pictures, and it opened lots of doors for me. Now I’m looking for a publisher for my second book, about an elderly friend of mine, an intrepid scout leader and bike mechanic who grew up in the shadow of WWII; and I’m planning another about John Evelyn and Deptford and the English Civil War.

What media do you use to sell your art?

I have an archival printer on which I print my own pictures. I sell them on my online shop, and show my framed prints in a café and a gallery here in Deptford. I also post my work, erratically, via Instagram, my blog, my website, my email newsletter, and various websites. I enter competitions, and put my work in exhibitions whenever I can. And I’m having my first ever Open Studio on the first weekend of December, which I’m very excited about.

How did you feel when you learned the result of the EU referendum?

I hadn’t paid it much attention since I thought Remain would win, so I was surprised and excited. I felt now something would HAVE to change. British people had defied predictions and voted for more independence, against all advice from the establishment, and I wondered how the establishment would react.

The two years since then have been an education in how fragile democracy is. Brexit has made visible huge divisions in the country that had been festering for ages. I’ve been thinking for a while that the true dividing line in politics nowadays is not left and right, but whether you believe in people or not. Brexit shone a very bright light on that question and exposed how many people have contempt for ordinary folk, let alone contempt for Brexit voters. The most unexpected individuals have turned out to care strongly about democracy, and otherwise liberal friends have revealed themselves to be astonishingly elitist. Free speech is another example. Those who want to ban opinions they dislike demonstrate contempt for the public’s ability to make up its own mind. The Remain campaign’s hypocrisy and elitism would have driven me into the arms of Brexit if I had known nothing else about it.

Were friends and colleagues aware at the time that you voted to leave the EU? How did they react?

Some old friends were shocked. They think that whilst I myself may not be "thick" and "racist", most people who voted Leave are, and that I’m misguidedly associating with them. They assume, as I used to do, that the EU is harmless, neutral, and the official voice of Europe. They also believe the doom and gloom economic forecasts. But they have nothing to say about the EU’s trashing of national sovereignty, which I think matters far more than economic forecasts.

They also think that nationalism is wrong. In the past I would have agreed with them. There have been historical examples of the horrific consequences of nationalism when taken to its extremes. However, we wouldn’t say the same about national independence movements such as those who freed themselves from Britain’s colonial rule. George Orwell made a useful distinction between what he called patriotism -- “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people” -- and “nationalism, on the other hand, [which] is inseparable from the thirst for power.”

Whatever may be the case in future, so far the largest body of people that society has ever managed to get to work democratically together is the nation. However abstractly and informally, patriotism and attachment to country still count for something.

Plus, the key thing about democracy isn’t that we necessarily get it right every time, but that it’s how we learn. It’s through participating in civic life that citizens learn how to do it, how to govern ourselves and get on with each other. To revive our democracy we need to revive the concept of active citizenship. We can’t do that while our politicians are able to hide behind the EU and avoid taking responsibility for anything.

What was it about Brexit that energised you to create political art?

I became exasperated by people constantly talking about how Brexit will mean economic doom. They’re trying to convince us that it’s more important to be rich than to be free. But the Brexit vote isn’t about economics, it’s about democracy and independence. I’d been reading about ancient Greece recently too, and admiring Greek art and allegorical sculpture. Brexit seemed just ripe for allegory.

Plus I’ve thought for ages that humanity needs to be re-inspired. Today it’s often assumed that being progressive means you should draw attention at every opportunity to how awful people can be. Many socially concerned artists think they should be emulating Otto Dix or George Grosz; but today’s zeitgeist is very different from the 1930s. Society has lost faith in itself. Humanity is underrated everywhere. And now the vote of 17.4M citizens for more autonomy is being portrayed as racist and stupid. I want to illustrate Brexit in a positive way that will cheer and encourage people,

I was actually provoked to make my first picture in response to another illustrator, who the week after the result posted a picture of Britannia committing hara-kiri. I drew Britannia’s Divorce because I was so irritated by Gina Miller’s blind elitism. And I drew the backdrop for the democracy rally in London last week. The pictures done in direct response to something are the easiest. But illustrating sovereignty is quite hard!

Have you found that being an artist but also a Brexit supporter has impacted you negatively in any way?

Yes, because I’ve been self-censoring. I’m annoyed with myself for doing it, and annoyed that I should risk losing commissions for voting Brexit. For example, someone posted on my blog that he wished he’d never bought a picture from me because I voted Leave. It’s McCarthy-like. However, I’ve had lots more debates about Brexit since the referendum, and been surprised to discover how little Remainers have thought about the implications for democracy. It’s made me more daring. I sell the democracy pictures on my shop and have had amusing conversations with people who are shocked by them. The pictures help me say in one image what it takes much longer to explain.

How do you feel about colleagues in the creative industry who feel unable to openly express that they voted to leave the EU?

Sympathetic, but lying down is no protection from being stepped on.

Do you have concerns about the arts sector post Brexit?

Not any more than any other sector. I think being an artist is a privilege and a gift.

How do you think we can help to create a great post Brexit Britain?

Defend tolerance! The same people who want to ban unpopular ideas also want to overturn the referendum result. We need to defend people’s right to say what they think, more so today than ever before. Society needs to be tough enough to accept people’s right to express themselves, through jokes, songs, criticism and speech in general. We need to be able to debate difficult issues such as immigration, if democracy is to survive. You only inspire confidence in your ideas if you’re prepared to argue against bad ideas rather than ban them. The civilised response to stupid, racist speech is more, better speech. Being a democrat means you trust the public to make up its own mind.

Artists in particular have a great opportunity to counter the slander and show Brexit as a good thing. We could completely change the atmosphere around Brexit with a barrage of beautiful, thought-provoking images. Creative people, please have a think about doing something witty and beautiful to promote Brexit, democracy and free speech. We urgently need positive images of Brexit. It’s the most important branding campaign you can work on today.

Jan Bowman’s art can be found on her website: