By Pascale Loftus for Squarely Magazine.
Photography courtesy of Ania Shrimpton.
Jeff Johns, affectionately known as Big Jeff, is an icon in Bristol. You may not know the name, though if you’ve ever attended a gig in Bristol, you’ve probably seen the man. A familiar amongst Bristol gig-goers, Jeff is usually found posted at the front barrier of the Exchange, the Louisiana, or a plethora of other staple venues. Truly part of the furniture in Bristol’s music scene, Big Jeff’s regular sightings throughout music venues everywhere ignited a kind of cult following behind him. As such, it only seemed right that Jeff Johns be our inaugural Squarely Bristol Hero.
What do you love most about the Bristol creative scene?
I like the diverse creativity we have across the city in all forms. Bristol has a lot to offer and has a worldwide reputation for our culture. Through creativity we can help each other tackle many subjects.
You’ve been open about your struggles with mental health – at what point in your life did you turn to art as a way of coping with difficult emotions?
I think it happened after an art group that I attended lost its funding. I had time on my hands when I could no longer attend so it made me think about how I could still create as it made me feel positive. So, I started painting in my kitchen. Whenever I’ve been in a sticky emotional phase it became an expressive way of dealing with difficult emotions.
How have you found your rise to fame in the Bristol creative scene? We’ve seen the overwhelming support you receive but does it ever get too much?
Oh yeah! Sometimes it does get overwhelming. I usually need a day or two to lock myself away when I feel it becomes too much. I’m not very good at responding to messages or communicating in those moments so usually 24 hours of solitary confinement does the trick! If people give me compliments I always say thank you!
Your paintings of the artists who inspire you are particularly touching. Are there any inspiring Bristol creatives who you’d like to paint in the future?
Yes, there definitely are but it’s hard to name them! I am currently working on a painting of my band “The Outlines”, we just played at Greenman Festival for the first time, it was an incredible experience. I went through a phase of painting musicians at gigs which was fun. I think I might like to paint “Grove” and “Kid Carpet” and probably lots more too.
Have you got any advice for young creatives starting out in Bristol?
Don’t listen to the naysayers. Do something you believe in and give yourself space to find your creative voice.
We were all deeply saddened to hear of the house fire that occurred last year. How have you been doing since?
I’m doing ok. It’s quite amazing that it’s only been just over a year ago since the accident and I’m making some good progress. I’m still struggling with some physical limitations but I’m trying to get out and enjoy life!
You have said you’ve been teaching yourself to paint with your right hand since your left was badly injured. How have you found this process?
Actually, I am now painting with my left hand again. When I was in hospital and my hand was bandaged I had to use the other hand when I did the window paintings. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to ever use my left hand again but when I left the hospital I thought “Come on, I’m ready!”
Your paintings are such raw representations of your emotions – how have you found your relationship with creating art since the fire?
Tricky one. I’ve had to reassess my energy. I don’t have the prolonged sessions and I need to deal with the reconstruction of my life. It does have an impact and my style has slightly changed.
Who would you say your biggest artistic inspirations are?
My Gran on my dads side. She was an amazing artist and had a big influence on me consciously and unconsciously. I like Picasso and Banksy – all artists have an impact on me.
You’re quite possibly the most iconic ‘gigger’ in Bristol – can you tell us about your favourite venue in Bristol and why?
I absolutely love the Louisanna and The Exchange – they feel like home to me.
You’ve also performed under the name Manic F – will he be returning to our stages any time soon, ketchup bottle in hand?
(laughs) I used this alter ego to process difficult emotions. It could well happen…
What’s next for Big Jeff?
There is a new collection of works in the pipeline for an exhibition later in the year, which I’m really excited about! Please follow @bigjeffjohnsart to keep up to date!