A Conversation with Nic De Jesus
Born and raised in the small South African coastal village of Warner Beach, artist Nic de Jesus soon developed a deep love and respect for the ocean. Surﬁng, ﬁshing and reading the water were all part of the daily routine. But a series of life events sent him to the UK – ﬁrst to London and then eventually to the city of Brighton & Hove where he settled as a cameraman and editor. Unsatisfied with his career and the urban life he slowly rediscovered his passion for drawing with raw materials – in particular charcoal – resulting in his ﬁrst solo exhibition, Mare Incognitum.
In 2016, a chance meeting with Nina Mastriforte, owner of the Saltmarsh Farmhouse led to a year-long artist residency, living and working along the Sussex coast. As his time at the farmhouse comes to an end, Nic sat down with friend, musician/photographer, James David Smith to discuss his work and life in the Cuckmere Valley…
J: What’s your day-to-day life like at Saltmarsh and how do you spend your time?
N: No day is the same. Depends on the walk really. I get up in the morning and go for a long walk in the valley or the woods and do some drawings – I draw every morning. I wouldn’t say it’s a ritual, it’s just what I wake up to do. Sometimes I just want to walk. I just want to be in an open space. I’ll come back to the farmhouse and sometimes have some chores to do, I’ll tend to the garden or do some maintenance on the building. And then do some more drawing – working on commissions or a piece that’s going to a gallery. If time allows I might end the day with a swim, another walk or a run.
J: Eat some Saltmarsh sausage rolls?
N. Yeah – eat! I’ll sometimes spend a few hours helping out in the kitchen. One of my goals for this year was to form a closer relationship with food and I’ve had the opportunity to do that here.
J: How do you prepare for a day of creativity?
N: Well… I don’t! I’m just in it all the time. I don’t have a door that I walk through.
J: So you don’t run into a phone box and transform into some super-artist with a Nitram cape?
N: No, no! That would be nice!
J: So it’s not like you have to switch it on and off?
N: No. It used to be like that. It used to be that I had to work myself up to get into that ﬂow state.
J: Is it through practice and discipline that you’ve honed your materials down so that it isn’t a mission to go out into the ﬁeld and do what you do? It all goes in a little bag and you’re off. It’s quick.
J: So it’s like you’ve adapted your practice to the environment?
N: Well, I’ve adapted to the way I like working here and I think that’s going to be something that I take everywhere. In being here I’ve learnt that the less preparation I have to do, the better. I don’t want to faff around with loads of stuff. By the time I’ve woken up I just want to get outside, be receptive and soak it all up like a big sponge. If drawings unfold during my walk then great. If they don’t, then I’ve had an amazing walk and the experience will visit me at a later stage. And that will result in the creation of a drawing.
J: What’s prepared and ready in your bag?
N: I just like to have sharpened charcoal and ground powder. A good sketchbook or good paper like Fabriano – an Italian milled paper, 640gsm. Good surfaces to work on – normally in the form of mylar, which is a polyester sheet ﬁlm, frosted on both sides. All gets thrown into a bag with an assortment of things, and obviously all of my Nitram stuff like the Bâton and Sharpening Bloc.
J: Can you tell me more about any of those tools and how you use them?
N: Well there’s three components to the sharpening bloc. Obviously the ﬁrst is to sharpen the charcoal but then the powder that’s left over I keep on the bloc – and you’ll notice I always keep it on hand – like it’s on my sketchbook or close by because I dip into it with my brush. And I use that powder to change value of a particular motif or anything in the landscape, whether it’s to darken the grass areas or create a hill or the curvature of a wave where it gets darker in value at the base and lighter at the top, where it starts to foam or break apart as it hits shallow water. Or in deep ocean you get those swells that move… obviously the volume of water as it rises there will be a darker area in value. I ﬁnd the brush to be a little bit looser. It’s a personal preference.
The third component is the rubbers. Once I cut the rubbers I then use the bloc to remove any ridges so they don’t create unwanted marks. Sometimes those marks are happy accidents – like light leaks in a camera! Sometimes they’re quite cool and can be used to convey a breeze or the moving of moisture or wind – if I want to be that literal. But other than that I sand them back. It also helps to clean the rubber, otherwise you’re just rubbing black into black and sometimes it smudges the values. And the whole point is to control your values… the difference between light and shadow, everything in between, all your mid-tones and everything between that… and everything between THAT! Nature has an inﬁnite amount of value but we only render a nine step scale from light to dark.
J: How has your time at Saltmarsh affected you? What have you gained? Is there anything you would do differently?
N: I’d look after my boots better! They’ve taken a beating… In all honesty, it’s probably not until after I’ve left that I’m going to be able to reﬂect on my time here. What have I gained? Time. Time in the landscape.
J: Is there an artist past or present that you would like to spend a day with? How have they inspired you?
N: I would really like to spend a day with Andrew Wyeth.
J: And how has he inspired you?
N: Well… There’s a quietness to his images that I enjoy. There’s an interesting comment in a documentary about Wyeth where he says in Christina’s World, if he was really good – and I’m paraphrasing here – he could say the same thing without Christina even being in the image. And then there’s a picture [Dodges Ridge] and it’s just a hill and a post with a ﬂag on it or ripped piece of material blowing in the wind and the grass is moving. And there’s this little path in the distance and the sky… And there’s so much in that. It gives me goosebumps. There’s a quietness and uncertainty. It would be amazing to have a day here with him and a day in Maine or in Chadds Ford.
J: When we ﬁrst met you were working as a cameraman and video editor. But increasingly there were some digital sketches or studies appearing on your desktop. Then the easel came out. Then the computer was shoved to the side! And that was the beginning of Mare Incognitum. It seemed a pretty logical progression to me. Now I’m wondering what drew you to charcoal and was there a process you went through to settle on that material?
N: It’s very simple really. It was the medium that I enjoyed the most at school and in my ﬁnal year I did charcoal drawings. There’s nothing intellectual about it. I just loved working with charcoal. Rubbing it out, additive and subtractive techniques… I just enjoyed it. And I’d worked in ink before and mono-chromatically, ﬁne line, large areas of positive and negative space, very illustrative…
I love working mono-chromatically. It’s not to say that I don’t like colour it’s just that I connect with black and white. And I knew with charcoal that I could get the value distribution that I really enjoy.
The decision to move away from photography and the digital environment is partly because I was accepted into the London College of Communication to do a Masters in documentary photography and I deferred one year in hope to raise the money, and I couldn’t. I realized that I can’t do my Masters and had sort of a month of creative meltdown and went ‘Shit. What am I going to do now?’ because I really wanted to make imagery. I started to keep a digital journal, drawing with my Wacom –
J: A what?!
N: A Wacom! It’s a drawing tablet. I started drawing digitally because I was editing as well and it was a nice way before starting work to do a sketch. But then I was really starting to feel this need to move away from the screen and away from behind the lens and take my research that I’d been gathering for my Masters – which was on the ocean and coastlines – and feed that into this draw towards working with physical materials, working with my hands…
I think I just wanted to be outside more. One has to earn a living and editing was a way for me to make a living and that involved large amounts of time in front of a computer screen. And although there are worse jobs to be had – it’s an incredibly beautiful craft – I absolutely loved stringing together beautiful sequences… Sitting in a dark room for hours just isn’t for me. The call to go out to the sea, looking, connecting and ﬁnding a whole new process of stringing together images and hanging them on a wall felt more satisfying than putting it as zeros and ones online and then… who knows? I needed to make images that were going to exist in the world.
J: Getting your hands dirty. And now you get your laptop dirty too!
N: Haha! What’s left of it! People are going to think I’m slating the digital era…
J: No! For me it’s about the ‘user experience’ too.
N: And it’s also very subjective as well.
J: Wouldn’t want anyone creating tremendous art and feeling miserable about their tools!
N: Hahaha! Just make the work you want to make with the tools that you enjoy using. In my case I love using charcoal, having dirty ﬁnger nails and hands all the time. It doesn’t bother me. It pisses everybody else off though!
J: Especially when you live somewhere with white walls…
N: Hahah! Yeah! So… if you’re happy sitting in front of a computer screen all day in a dark room, tapping away at your keyboard…
J: If you don’t want to see daylight, have really pale skin…
N: And drink copious amounts of coffee. Actually… I do that. But I’ve cut down.
J: Has teaching changed the way you work?
N: It surprised me to begin with. It surprised me in what I didn’t know I knew about my materials. It’s brought attributes out I don’t think I would have known about if I hadn’t been teaching. Also, when someone is new to drawing they bring with them a certain sort of excitement and it gets me all excited again because I’m always involved in my own process. I had one student that I was trying to get to work vertically in a subtractive technique and she couldn’t do it. She started rubbing out sideways and I was like ‘Ooo, wow! That’s actually working!’ So you can get trapped in your own little bubble of techniques and through the naive exploration of a student you actually learn a lot from them. So we’re always learning from each other.
And some of the things they say as well. There was a woman that when I asked her ‘What made you come to the workshop?’ She replied, ‘I needed to change up my routine and I really wanted to get outside.’ That inspired me tremendously.
J: Yes. And that’s part of your teaching – there’s a massive outdoor component.
J: When you’re not teaching and when the farmhouse is empty, how do you ﬁnd the solitude?
N: I hate the fact… that I love the fact… that I love being on my own. And I’m quite comfortable with it. At least I think I am… I don’t go looking for solitude but it’s just what’s required right now. I’ve needed, on a very personal front, to be on my own and the body of work in A Light in the Valley is not a light in this valley but a light in one’s valley or my valley.
It took me nine or ten months to ﬁnish Mare Incognitum – also because life exists outside of the work – but now with A Light in the Valley, Mare Incognitum Cantos III and IV and the new Cantos for Terra Incognita it’s meant that I’ve just had to go full-on into it which means it demands a lot of energy and time and I’ve been able to do that because of my situation. I don’t have any other commitments other than to make work. I’m not good at juggling huge amounts of stuff. I need to just focus on the work at hand…
I know that I can go walk and not have to draw if I don’t want to. I can just ‘sponge’. I actually draw less now than when I was working on Mare Incognitum. In fact, I’ve made less ﬁnished work here. But psychologically, internally, I understand the work without even drawing much of it because I’ve done so many studies that I know when I sit down to make the larger works I’m just going to unravel. And I think that’ll happen when I look back.
J: You grew up in South Africa, moved to London in 2007 then to Brighton and now you’ve been living here. Where is home?
N: [Sharp exhale of breath] Do you want the easy answer?!
J: Just an answer!
N: Nowhere right now… Nowhere and everywhere is sort of the cliche answer! I haven’t ﬁgured that one out yet but I have a big calling to return to South Africa. But home right now is coastlines. As long as I can be close to a coastline and continue exploring and developing the work – I guess that says a lot about where I’m at right now on many levels. I guess home right now is Cuckmere Valley. But where is Home?
J: You know what I mean.
N: Home is South Africa for me. Deﬁnitely.
All images were shot with Kodak Portra 160 by James David Smith.
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Jerzy's interest in art and painting started at a very early age and has continued to grow. After enrolling in the Academy of Art in Toronto, Canada, Jerzy's passion for charcoal was sparked.