By Polly Bates
As a child, James Earley recognised art to be the one gift that he was given. Painting and drawing helped Earley escape from a world that felt foreign to him. As he grew older, Earley rebelled against the label “Child Artist” and studied law, turning his back on art.
After 20 years of working in a career that he knew was not his true calling and spending every night knowing that he had wasted another day not following his heart, enough was enough. Earley experienced what he describes to be a mental breakdown which encouraged him to pursue the arts, and no longer force himself into a career in which he did not find the fulfilment he dreamed of. Now, working as a painter who collaborates with international charities, he has not looked back and has “never been happier”.
© James Earley ‘Kaud Banq’, oil on canvas.
POLLY: It was great to meet you at The Other Art Fair in London and to see your work up close. The details of your portraits are breathtaking and they really capture the stories of your subjects.
You mentioned that to create the portraits you work closely with charities across the world. Could you tell us how this collaboration started, and what impact the works have on the charities involved?
JAMES: I was approached by someone from the Social Purpose Organisation, Friendship, at an exhibition who asked if I would be interested in creating a series of portraits. The portraits were to show the impact of climate change in some of the poorest areas of the world, and how these communities are working with Friendship to tackle this problem.
The immediate impact I hope to have when visiting different communities is to help show that they are not forgotten. The long-term impact is to help raise awareness that climate change is having a devastating impact now. All the proceeds from the sales of the paintings go to the charities.
POLLY: How do you choose the subject of your paintings? Is it important to build a relationship with them first?
JAMES: It is difficult to describe the process of how I choose a subject because there is no formula. I just see a person and know that I have to paint them. It is really important for me to build a relationship with these people because I need to know them personally in order for the emotion to jump out of the portrait.
POLLY: Do you paint with live models or from an image?
JAMES: I sketch from live models and take photos to help me with details, such as clothing, but the sketches help me get to know the face of the person. They also help me to build a relationship with that person.
© James Earley ‘Tajmira’, oil on canvas.
POLLY: What urges you to use your artistic platform to discuss communities or people who are suffering?
JAMES: I ache with the injustices of the world. I get so angry when I see people suffering who are not being helped in any way by their government. The only way I can release this anger is to paint on a canvas, and hopefully, this allows my art to scream.
POLLY: Your hyper-realism aesthetic oozes innocence, vulnerability, and honesty, which contrasts the more nightmarish stories told. There seems to be a recurring relationship between violence and endurance throughout your work, how do you find these qualities relate?
JAMES: The violence that Europe imposed on Africa for centuries, and still does now, in an economic sense helped fertilise and cultivate a field of resilience, and this field of resilience is now a forest. Resilience and hope are emotions and power that not even the rich elite can extinguish, and I know that these emotions will help conquer injustices in the end.
© James Earley ‘The Scramble For Africa’ 2021. Oil on canvas, 100cm x 70cm.
POLLY: Your paintings typically comment on poverty and conflicts. What are your personal experiences with these challenges and what draws you to such topics?
JAMES: I have seen people who have had such a traumatic childhood fight to escape this emotional trauma. This trauma manifests into mental health issues. I have witnessed the lack of support given to people who suffer this trauma and these people naturally want to escape, even if momentarily, from this nightmare. Many do so by using alcohol and drugs, which I can completely understand. This spiral soon leads them to be thrown out of a society that now only seems to value those who have “succeeded”, and has lost the emotions of empathy because it has no financial value. They then end up on the cold, hard streets where society allows them to be forgotten. My heart aches at this injustice, it really hurts.
POLLY: Your paintings reveal themes of grief, trauma, and mental health in such raw and honest stories. These uncomfortable truths and experiences are what many people live through each day. It is incredibly important to share these stories, do you find art to be a successful platform for this?
JAMES: I often think to myself; if an alien came down to earth today and saw that the richest one percent of people in the United States have more wealth than fifty percent of the population in the US, how would we justify this?
This economic system encourages continued growth, it is so fast and aggressive. Emotions that cannot be monetised, such as kindness and empathy, are deemed irrelevant. This aggressive society leaves a trail of destruction in its wake, such as poverty and mental health. I am compelled to tell these stories and the only way that I can share them is through art.
The response that I get is really encouraging. My paintings ask the viewer to answer a simple question “Is this right?”. Hopefully, the answer is a foundation for the viewer to help build a society that says enough is enough.
© James Earley ‘Mother’, oil on canvas.
POLLY: Could you tell us how the ‘Homeless Series’ began, and what person was your favourite subject from the series?
JAMES: So often the homeless feel invisible, and if I can use my art to help give them visibility, I am proud and privileged. I would often visit the National Portrait Gallery and see paintings of the rich and famous. I would then wander where the paintings of the poor and less privileged were. I always wanted to paint the homeless and began by painting Jim.
Jim was a homeless man living in Bristol whom I had met twice, and I was struck by his honesty, resilience, and hope. He had so many things to fear, yet I never saw him without a smile on his face.
POLLY: ‘Haiti’s Revolution’ features a portrait of a young boy with revealing and alarming statistics flooding the background. Could you tell us who the boy is and what the work brings light to?
JAMES: I think that I know the boy’s name, but I am not one hundred percent sure, so I best not say. Haiti was the first country to have a successful slave uprising, and unfortunately, it has been punished by the West ever since.
In the seventeenth century, France crippled Haiti financially by demanding reparations for its freedom from enslavement, forcing Haiti to pay one hundred and fifty million francs to secure their independence. The US exhausted Haiti by taking its resources and forcing its people into slave labour within the many US factories in Haiti at the time. ‘Haiti’s Revolution’ speaks to this uprising.
© James Earley ‘Yasmin Ali’, oil on canvas.
POLLY: I was also able to see your painting ‘Yasin’ at The Other Art Fair, a portrait of a man who was suffering from cataracts and was unable to seek medical care for his condition. What did you learn about his experiences, and have you found that many of your subjects are unable to seek necessary medical attention?
JAMES: I met Yasin after he had had an operation on his cataracts on a hospital ship provided by the charity Friendship. If it wasn’t for this hospital ship provided by the charity, Yasin and many others would not be able to receive basic medical care, which can be life-changing. This is an example of how the poor and underprivileged are forgotten and ignored, relying on support from charities. This is the same situation for many homeless people that I have met, who receive no health care at all.
POLLY: Although at a first glance some of your portraits do not immediately scream political artworks, their powerful and emotive contexts are loud and clear. How was your passion for politics, the environment and social issues ignited?
JAMES: I have always had a passion for politics and travelling the world. Seeing extreme poverty continuously saddens and stuns me, as such poverty is a political choice. Poverty can be eradicated by the powers that be, but it seems their greed fuelled policy of making the rich richer and the poor poorer is relentless.
POLLY: What are you currently working on and what can we expect to see from you in the coming years?
JAMES: I am currently working on a series of paintings which reflects on Bangladesh and climate change. I am going to the Congo soon to do a series of portraits focusing on child poverty. Later in the year, I am hoping to do a series of portraits on death row exonerees in the US, with the aim to raise awareness of the injustices within the US criminal justice system.
POLLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your practice and passion for raising awareness of homelessness, mental health, and war. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?
JAMES: You must never dilute your artwork, never compromise. In my opinion real art has to be a direct line from your heart to the canvas.