All lovers of Celtic Art know the work of world-famous artist, Jen Delyth. As a Celtic artist myself, I have drawn inspiration from Jen’s work. Her sense of ancient mysticism is truly moving, and I am sure we have all experienced something spiritual when looking at her creations.
I wanted to have a sit-down with Jen and explore her world. I was so very happy when she said yes.
Q. So, Jen. You grew up in Wales. It’s easy for fans to romanticize thoughts of you strolling ancient hills and dales for inspiration, but I would love to know what was it about your native land that has inspired you the most? Was it one particular thing? Was is early life experience? Tell us about the steps that led you to becoming a Celtic Artist.
Thanks, Erin. Yes, I did grow up in South Wales, with her salty estuaries and soft brackened hills, coal mines and steel works, poets and pubs. It was more real than romantic though! I didn’t exactly dance barefoot amongst the sheep and faeries… although my mother took us to old places, and loved the old Welsh songs and tales. That did inspire me later when I had more appreciation, when I didn’t take that all for granted as we do back home sometimes!
But I may not have become a Celtic Artist if I hadn’t left Wales and come to San Francisco following a jazz musician as a young traveler! After a while being here, I experienced “hiraeth”, which is a heart longing. Bill Moyer and Joseph Campbell were on public television talking about mythic cultures and how they speak to us today. And I noticed that our own western traditions were not mentioned very much. I had studied Carl Jung, and I was very interested in his exploring of archetypes and symbols as an innate language for humans, both ancient and now. So, I started creating symbolic designs that communicated the mythic stories using the language of my own culture… and so it began. From those early designs I felt my place and role was working within a living tradition, with its value being to honor the past and yet to continue the creative thread of innovation in my time.
Q. Did you always want to focus on Celtic art, or did you experiment with other styles of art? Did you have any formal art training, or did you self-study as so many other studying Celtic art?
Yes, I am a self-taught artist. I was constantly drawn to creativity as a child, but it was more through language, poetry and writing. There were no artists in my family or community that I met, and I didn’t realize that I would be so drawn to visual art as I am now. I did fall in love with photography when I lived in Yugoslavia for a while, before coming to the northwest of this country, and my partner at the time had an old Russian camera that he gave to me to play with.
We put together a basic funky dark room in a cow shed, where I developed black and white film and photos. Photography was compelling for me for years, and I even had a dark room in the closet of the Victorian flat I lived in San Francisco. I think developing black and white prints may have led to my stylized black and white early Celtic designs somehow.
Q. Your art is so vivid. What medium do you use? How do you achieve all those amazing colors?
Well thanks. I feel that I’m drawn to earthy organic colors more than vivid colors, but I think over time think that may have changed after I made an animation DVD collaging my artwork with photography and video. It was a little psychedelic – or as the music magazine Dirty Linen reviewed it “Druid’s on Acid” – which would have made a better selling title than “Beyond the Ninth Wave” my more poetic mythic title!
I use many different mediums, as I like to play and see what happens with different tools, and they help create the style of the pieces. I used to paint with oil paints, and I have some large paintings on my walls still that I am proud of. But I was allergic to the solvents. I asked some fine art painters I met, and they suggested egg tempera as an underbase. Well I loved the egg tempera, mixing real pigments with egg yolks so much, that I abandoned my lovely set of oil paints, and only paint with egg now.
But I also like using digital tools. Probably because I loved my camera, I was immediately attracted to the potential of the computer in the early days. I had one of the first graphic computers, the Mac SE in 1987. I remember the feeling when I first “drew” a knot work pattern on that tiny screen, that I was connecting the ancient with the future. The Celts loved new tools and technologies, and it seemed like I was continuing that legacy. It was a brilliant feeling! And one of my secret vanities, that I was probably one of the very first Celts to do so! The computer also is a great tool for textile design and publishing. But I love egg tempera more.
Q. How do you go about creating a piece? Do you study Celtic mythology first, or research a subject before you begin to paint? Does inspiration strike when you’re least expecting it, or do you begin a piece with a plan in mind? Do you ‘see’ a piece in your imagination, or does it evolve as you’re working on it? Or a little bit of both?
All the above, and all different with each piece. Sometimes there is a figure or archetype that I am pulled towards. Perhaps from poetry, or story, or nature. Then I may sketch as I research the theme, and find the essential symbolic elements to weave it together to communicate. Sometimes I have had a fully formed image when I’m relaxing, and then the inspiration comes from there. But not necessarily. Either way, a piece starts as pretty rough sketches, and then I ‘feel’ my way through the puzzle until it comes together. Then I refine it.
Q. We all know your famous “Tree of Life”. It is so simple, and yet so profound. What was your inspiration for that piece in particular?
Thanks. I have to say, I had no idea when I first sketched out that little design that it would grow to have a life of its own out into the world! A blessing and a curse for an artist – as this design has brought many copyright issues, but also I’m proud that maybe this design has inspired a whole forest of “Celtic Tree of Life” images!
At the time, it was a very simple clear idea, to create a circular symbol depicting the “Tree of Life”, with the interweaving branches and roots. It was actually made for one very small part of my large “Keltic Mandala” piece that I made back in 1989/90, where I challenged myself to do a really intricate layered complex seasonal mandala piece. And I thought a tiny circular Celtic-style Tree of Life would work well in that. In my studies, I’d also noticed that there were no Celtic “tree of life” images that were abstracted into the shape of an actual tree. The vine pattern and the “pot of life”, which represent the “tree of life”, are part of the Celtic patterning language from ancient times. It really was a very simple – and somehow obvious to me at the time – design. It didn’t take very long!
Q. What are some of your favorite pieces from your collection? Are there any that spark a special memory? Are there pieces with hidden meanings that you might wish to share?
My favorite pieces are special to me because of how I felt and where I was when I made them. My egg tempera paintings “Manawyddan ap Llyr” and “Brighid’s Mantle” are particularly close to me because I painted them at my favorite getaway in Point Reyes, which reminds me of the estuary lands near where I grew up. They created themselves, and I don’t feel I was really there except to channel them out into being. One of my special favorites is the “Wilde Geese”, a tiny painting that I made for my niece, Bethan who loved pink things, when I was visiting home one time. I made a painting of “Melangell” – a welsh goddess and saint who is the Protector of the Hare – for my mother’s 70th birthday. She had inspired me with the story of Melangell, as she loves the old Welsh stories. I took it carefully wrapped up on the plane with me, and visited the valley of Melangell where the old welsh Celtic church sits inside a circle of old Bronze Age mounds. It was blessed on the altar there, and then I gave it to my mother, Mair. That was very special for both of us.
Q. What are some of your upcoming pieces? Are you staying with your Celtic work, or have you found inspiration from other genres?
I haven’t got an upcoming piece in process right now, but I have some inspirations… but for some reason am in a “waiting time”. I want to depict “Olwen” – inspired by the poetry of Hughes who wrote, “God is in the flowers sprung at the feet of Olwen”. I see a stark lifeless path, with the vibrant life springing up from her step, up through her body. But I haven’t started it for some reason.
I’ve mostly been drawn to music and poetry and writing songs this last year. It’s been a hard time for all of us, and for me I am surprised that I’m not painting more, but I’m not. I’m working hard to stay sane, and make a living whilst events are not happening, and its taking a lot of my creative energy. I’ve heard this from a few creatives that are in my community. We’re very distracted, and I’m sad about what is happening. But a break is good so!
Q. What advice do you have for new artists?
Everyone is different, so I find it hard to give advice. Follow your own instincts, perhaps.
Q. What would you like to say to your fans? Any pearls of wisdom for us? Any jokes?
I would say thank you – all of you, for your support and appreciation all these years. I would not have had the opportunity to grow and develop this path if I had some other career. We are all in this together, a loop of inspiration being received and given. I love that about doing the Celtic events, the natural Celtic humor that is so part of our culture. But I never can remember a joke if asked to produce one.
Diolch yn fawr – Jen
Jen has a wonderful selection of art prints, textiles and gifts at…
The Mystic Art of Jen Delyth
Ravensdaughter is the art name for Erin Rado, editor of Celtic Nations Magazine. When in her creative space, Ravensdaughter – an homage to the warrior goddess, Morrigan, expresses Erin’s true soul.