What’s A Cornishman To Do?

An interview with UK artist Danny Fox.

Light / Dark

Wherever in the World There Is a Hole in the Ground, You’ll Find a Cornishman at the Bottom of It is a painting by British artist Danny Fox: an ode to the mines, slag heaps, and pit workings of a Cornwall that vanished in the late nineteenth century when the tin-mining industry collapsed. Today, the county is defined as much by poverty as it is tourists and second-home owners: “How they natter at my feet, these fellows!” wrote the prominent Cornish artist Peter Lanyon of his ancestors, long buried underfoot.

Fox, too, revels in the subterranean world, from dark London boroughs to the harsh streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row to a remote hillside in far west Cornwall where he is currently holed up in isolation. On large canvases layered thick with acrylic color, bold portraiture, and a dialectic of charged symbols and icons, Fox explores the depths of figurations. The characters and their histories he develops are complex, flawed, and celebratory. A self-taught artist, his paintings have been described as “abrasive” and “confrontational.” The pictures, however, have empathy in their roughened, raw, often childlike manner; his Cornish upbringing comes through in the work.

Born in the Cornish harbor town of St Ives, Fox grew up surfing the local beaches of Porthmeor and Zennor. His childhood home was opposite that of fisherman-turned-artist Alfred Wallis, whose naïve-style paintings brought him great fame through the 1930s, but never money; he died impoverished in 1942. Nonetheless, St Ives, it can be argued, is as significant to the story of modern British art as London. 

Fox left Cornwall in his teens for the capital, where his work garnered major recognition. In 2015 he became the youngest artist ever to hold a solo show at the iconic Redfern Gallery, and in 2017, the influential Saatchi Gallery exhibited his work in a group show called Iconoclasts: Art Out of the Mainstream

Despite this critical success and his mounting numerous solo shows around the globe, Fox maintains a separateness from the art world, one embodied by the Cornish landscape itself. English archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes wrote, “Cornwall is England’s horn, its point thrust out into the sea.” A tapering sliver of land not 80 miles long, Cornwall is a quirk of geomorphology and tectonics, with the sea on three sides and the river Tamar, which divides Cornwall from England, on the fourth. But its particularity runs deeper. It is less folksy and more physical, something of the soil itself.

After five years in California, in the tradition of local artists before him, Fox has returned home to paint the land. He has retained his “Cornishness” and connections, including a brotherly bond with fellow St Ives denizen and big-wave surfer Tom Lowe, with whom he grew up surfing. He still surfs today, often when you’d least expect it.

CAMBORNE, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 18 × 24 inches. Image courtesy of V1 Gallery and Danny Fox.

JN How is it to be home?

DF It’s good to be back. I came back to defend the post when the world started shutting down. I was in LA when someone said to me, “You should get out of here, because you’re either going to get stuck here or there for a long time.” It didn’t seem believable at the time, but the next day I landed in England, and the pilot announced it was his last flight.

JN How has the place changed for you after a good stint away?

DF It’s changed a lot. There are blocks of flats where green fields used to be, there are gift shops where butchers and bakers used to be, and every house in town is a holiday rental with a booking website carved into a piece of slate on the wall outside.

JN LA was obviously a great influence on your work. How important is place to your art?

DF Physical surroundings can be drawn from, but they can also be ignored if necessary. It’s funny, even if you are painting the place you are in, you almost have to see it in your head first anyway. I have been making some “Cornish” paintings, using the landscape. But when you take, there is always so much that you leave. I’ve always wanted to paint this place I’m from. I’m trying to.

JN What was it like to grow up in St Ives? 

DF St Ives was a very different place back then. We grew up in the narrow cobbled streets around Porthmeor Beach. The little cottages were full of local families. We played in the lanes together until it got dark, skateboarded in the rain, kicked footballs against doors, threw water bombs at tourists, got chased through graveyards, hung around in the arcades. Mostly, we surfed. 

JN Tom [Lowe] tells me you grew up together, and that you were surfing before he started. Is that right? 

DF Maybe I did start surfing before Tom, but he was a couple of years older than me and a natural athlete. He was a cricket champion, a skillful footballer, a martial arts expert with a hard reputation as a fighter. He is, as the world now knows, fearless. I started surfing because my old man surfed. Tom’s old man was from Liverpool and didn’t surf. He wanted Tom to play cricket professionally, so maybe that’s why he started later. Tom could have played any competitive sport he wanted to at a high level, but instead he chose to surf big waves. What you’ve got to remember about Tom is that the waves we grew up in were 2-foot mushy slop on good days, and he was riding waterlogged, dinged-to-hell, yellow, hand-me-down shed doors well into his twenties. 

JN Do you surf much when you’re in California?

DF I don’t like to surf anywhere else but home these days. And even at home I avoid the “good days.” I really can’t explain it.

Fox, along the strand line with his dog, Pepsi. Film still by Jack Whitefield.

JN St Ives is a town steeped in art history. Was there a moment when you became aware of it?

DF I was always aware of it. We were taught about it in school. I grew up on a little street called Bunkers Hill that was literally in the shadow of the big gasworks overlooking Porthmeor Beach. In 1995, they tore it down and put a giant Tate gallery there in order to immortalize the great colonizing modernists. I suppose that was the moment it went from “the past” to “art history”—if that makes sense.

JN Do you feel proud to be Cornish? 

DF I never identified as anything until I was asked to. In the early days I wouldn’t tell people I was from Cornwall. Not that I was ashamed—it was just that everybody in England has a story or a memory about Cornwall. Usually they’d spent a rain-soaked half-term there as a child, or had an uncle go mad and move there, or just that they’d heard it was beautiful. The oversimplification of it made me feel misrepresented. Also, I think I thought all the serious artists were from London or New York, and I thought people would think I wasn’t serious. The first thing you notice when you move away from Cornwall is that kids your own age have had more of an education. Also, you have this accent that I always thought made me sound thick. Through that insecurity, you lose your accent. As for Cornish pride, I don’t think about it. You can’t be a Cornishman in Cornwall, as you can’t be an Englishman in England. It’s only once you’ve left and you’re flying some flag to the rest of the world that you ask yourself, “Would Cornwall be proud of me?” 

JN What does Cornishness mean to you?

DF It’s almost like our culture is to have no culture. There’s some witchy pagan stuff that has all but died out, the mines are gone—the fish, pretty much. Cornish culture to me was to work and burn in the kitchens all summer to avoid starvation in the winter. But as I got older, and through having to think and explain myself, I started to reconnect with that identity. I realized that a resilient mentality—to work—if applied to art could push me out beyond all the others that were just talking a good game in the pub. 

I don’t like to surf anywhere else but home these days. And even at home I avoid the “good days.” I really can’t explain it.

JN What does a working day look like for you right now? Disciplined, laborsome, flexible, playful?

DF Recently, I haven’t been working that hard in comparison to the last eight or nine years, but I still have to do something every day or I find myself getting in trouble. I’ve been doing other things: making ceramics, writing bits, cutting grass, walking the dog, taking pictures and recording things. Going outside more.  

JN Has this period of isolation been productive at all?

DF I came back to the hill. Most of the boys had been laid off. The pubs were shut. Morale was low in the company. We cleared out the garage and made a bar. Kingsley [Ifill] and I had worked on a book together in LA called Eye for a Sty, Tooth for the Roof that focuses on nudes and could be described as still lifes from the Hollywood Hills, inspired by the nineteenth-century Parisian studio photography that I’ve used so much as painting reference. We wanted to make something that balanced that out, so we made a book of 90-odd Polaroids documenting the social-isolation period at the bar.

JN Your titles are very poetic. Can you describe your process? Do the titles come before or after the painting? 

DF The titles always come after, and that probably says more about my process than anything. I never really know what I’m going to end up with, which is intentional. The process is to start and then to keep going until I hit this zone that is totally unknown, but also very familiar.

JN There is quite a contrast between the Hollywood Hills and the hills of West Cornwall. Where are you finding inspiration these days?

DF My own land. My own people and culture. Painting from the inside out. Taking without any need for permission. Going fishing on a small boat that catches fire.

JN You said you’ve started to paint the landscape around you, but up until recently your work has been largely figurative. Is there a reason the land and sea have not appeared before?

DF I just meant that I’m enjoying painting backgrounds. In the past I’ve spent long periods trying to make paintings as simple as I can, and part of that was to eradicate background scenes into areas of block color or just one or two colors. I’ve also been painting landscapes without figures, just because…there’s no one I’ve felt like painting.

 Pictured outside his childhood home, a traditional fisherman’s cottage made of Cornish stone. Much like the artist himself, it remains as authentic as a slice of rough bread. Photograph by Jack Whitefield.

JN Has success brought added pressure or a greater freedom to make your work?

DF There’s no pressure. Not from anyone but myself, anyway. 

JN I know you had a show postponed, and you’re currently part of an online-only exhibition together with a great many notable artists, including Damien Hirst, Lucien Freud, and Keith Haring, among others. Is showing your work important to you? Do you care much to be part of the established art world?

DF I just want to be part of the established world, never mind the established art world. But now it seems the established world is fading, folding in on itself, dissolving into cyberspace. If it’s the end of all that, fine, art will always be there.

JN You mentioned growing up surfing. Was there a moment, a day, or period of time that was particularly memorable for you?

DF When we were 16 or so, we did a trip down to France. It was late in the season, it was starting to get cold, and we were camping in the forest. I remember Tom [Lowe] was the only person who had a pillow, because he stole one from the ferry on the crossing. After a few rainy days, Tom came down with the mumps. His head, neck, and ball bag swelled up like balloons. The surf was huge and onshore. I don’t know how big, but no one else on the whole coast was surfing. Anyway, Tom paddled out. I clearly remember watching his black, insect-like silhouette take off on this huge, ugly, formless monster of a wave. I don’t know why that stands out in my memory. It wasn’t a beautiful or happy moment. It wasn’t even a good ride. But there was something important about it.

Feature image by Kingsley Ifill for The Surfer’s Journal.