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Rising Up Outta Lockdown With JESWRI

Since we last caught up with JESWRI, Melbourne went into intense lockdown, which saw mural projects paused and galleries shut. The pandemic halted all of his usual weekday activities and pushed his mental health to the edge.

With that dark energy, he painted through his feelings, revisited his roots and produced epic work that would become his Knowhere exhibition.

To discuss this and many other things, JESWRI joined us on Street Art Unearthed.

Finding Himself Knowhere

I had this one, which was called Knowhere. Basically, I found myself in an extremely dark place in my head. Everything I thought that I had a remedy for wasn’t working because I was in lockdown.

I tried painting through my normal style, and just the finessing and the consistent line work that I’ve got, the bold lines, it wasn’t working. I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere. So I basically left everything I knew as a practising artist at home. And I just decided to go like Jackson Pollock concept paintings. And then just not really have a care and just express myself with my brushes and stuff.

I would flick paint at it. I would close my eyes and see what would happen. I’d play music really loudly because there was no one here. I just found myself fighting with my head and fighting with my canvases and just kind of seeing what came out. And what came out was a really cool transition from really uncontrolled, untamed artworks.

Twenty canvases later, they found themselves on this nice structural journey back into this really weird style. I kind of took that style into what I’m doing now, which is cool.

It was almost like I revisited my graffiti routes of just buffing things and just using very tribal tools and application as opposed to trying to force really non-expressive line work. It felt really cool.

It was a good response, too. I had a lot of people talking about mental health in general. I was very open to this fact that the show was about mental health. I called it Knowhere with a K because I wanted to say I’m nowhere, but I know I’m here and now here, and I don’t know. It was just a nice little play on words.

It was really internally gratifying. I had a lot of people come and ask me if I was okay and tell me about their stories as well. It was a very rewarding show.

I’m incredibly vigilant, and I always need to be doing something. I think it was really nice because there was only so much I could do. I could drink away my sorrows, which I did. And I was like, oh cool, I’ve got no sorrows left. Six bottles of wine later, I’m vomiting in the toilet…

I could exercise as much as I possibly could, but then I kind of wasn’t even getting that. I couldn’t get any sunlight. I couldn’t do anything. So I was like, “All right, I’m just going to go listen to music, whatever I’m feeling at the moment and just stop trying to control my emotions and really just let my emotions talk to me.”

At the start, the paintings were kind of suggesting themes of being trapped, and they were suggesting things of really being angry and alone.

The first artwork I painted was a killer whale inside a fishbowl, just cramped up and stuck. Then the final painting finished on this red and orange eagle just getting ready to take off. It was a nice transformation. It was a nice journey.

Once again, it was really gratifying because I could let go of these emotions, and I could tell a story internally. If people asked, I told them what things were about. It was a nice chapter, a nice little side project. I didn’t care if they sold. I didn’t care if I moved anything. I just want people to talk about this stuff because it’s important.

My favourite painting from the show was this grim reaper that I had that had a Mickey Mouse hat on. That was the first one that sold. I was really stoked with that. Melbourne was realistically the only one locked down, so many of my friends around Australia were just kind of business as usual. I spoke to one person, and I got so pissed off with him, he’s like, “Oh, at least you get some time off. At least you get a holiday.” And I was like, “It’s not a fucking holiday, man.” So I painted that out of frustration. I was like, “It’s not a holiday.” And I called that painting, It’s Not a Holiday.

I’ve taken a part of the application into my mural process. The way that I finished was these nice graffiti buffing lines and applicator with a brush. The way that I’ve put them on with horizontal lines, and now I’ve incorporated it into the way that I do my portraits as well.

It’s almost like I’m taking a part of that chapter into the next thing. I look at it as though I’ve upskilled a little bit.

What’s Next For JESWRI

I’m focusing on myself. I’m spending a lot of time focusing on myself as opposed to putting something out that feels rushed. I think I’m at a nice level with my career where I can pick and choose jobs, and I can give jobs to my friends if needed and spend time with individual projects and really appreciate them.

I’m focusing on getting my health back and just doing really cool shit when needed.

Professionally, I’m working on my murals. Obviously, Honey Bones takes up a lot of my time, which is great. Because now I get to do things for the community. I get to do things for other artists. I get to bring artists on to another level.

I get to upskill them. We do things at honey bones, which are different from other galleries, as well. So we’re doing markets celebrating local or small businesses. We’re doing a clothes swap and giving 100% of the money to Elizabeth Morgan House, a refuge centre for Indigenous domestic violence victims.

I’ve started delegating things. I got myself a manager, which I think was the best thing I ever did. He manages my accounts. He handles all my incoming jobs, my schedules, everything. He has communication with clients. So I can just rock up to a job and go like, “here’s the artwork, let’s rock and roll.” There’s no hassle.

I’m a lot more stress-free. I brought on a designer to focus on the things that I don’t have time for. She did my website. I’m just focusing more on the business and focusing more on my health and the community — trying to be a bit selfish and selfless at the same time.

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