Life and Art

A connection

Life’s experiences determine the nature of art. So I wish to explain how my life and art have intertwined.

Too many schools?

My parents’ desire to move house every year or so affected my education. By the age of 17 I had lived in 13 homes and attended 7 schools.

My first and only art teacher at school was Carl Frampton. He taught at Bromley Technical High School. He was the father of the musician Peter Frampton. Peter was two years ahead of me. David Bowie went to the same school. Mr Frampton’s class was the only one I enjoyed, something which Bowie also claimed in later life. I recall being very proud to get the highest mark for art in my class. To complicate matters– and this is not to boast but to explain – I also came top in Maths and Physics.

In 1965, at the age of 13, I left Bromley Tech. As a result I never took another art class until I went to art school in 1980.

Rocket Science

I spent two years and attended two more schools in South Australia. In 1968 I returned to England and attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School for Boys. To cut a very long story short, I studied the Sciences – Maths, Physics and Chemistry. Rocket science seemed to offer a way forward. So I went to university and studied Aeronautical Engineering. But the prospect of working in the so-called defence industry offered no attraction.

John McSweeney The City University London, Aircraft Structures Lab, 1973
The City University London, Aircraft Structures Lab, 1973

Life meets art

So with a degree and no idea what to do with my life, I drifted. I worked in West Theatres as a stage-hand. Colleagues included film makers, poets, writers, graphic artists, sculptors, and painters. I made theatrical props, and built stage sets, including those for Kate Bush‘s first tour in 1978. So life happened upon art, and ideas involved in the making of it.

A transition to art school followed in 1980. I spent 5 years studying painting and print-making at Camberwell Art College. It was a fantastic experience, and it set me on the road to becoming a professional artist. More about this here.

But being an artist requires more than learning how to paint. Art school cannot teach what one needs to keep going. Only time can do that. I recall several tutors saying that a majority of students would stop painting within 5 years.

Installation of paintings by John McSweeney, Camberwell School of Art, 1983
Installation of paintings, Camberwell School of Art, 1983

A working life

I have now spent more than 40 years working as an artist. During that time I have taught art, and Computer Science. I have also worked as a carpenter, and as a painter and decorator. In the early 90s I designed and built window displays for stores such as Harrods and Selfridges. I began using computers to design for these jobs where mannequins and products vied for limited space.

Selfridges, Oxford Street, London,window display 1994
Selfridges, Oxford Street, London,window display 1994

Developments with figuration

In 2013, I began making a series of figurative paintings. There was a sense of narrative. My characters populated a shallow stage. My work experiences were informing these pictures. It all made sense and I continued making more. A good example being The State We’re In, painted in 2019.

The State We're In
The State We’re In – 2019, 122 cm x 137 cm, Oil on MDF

Identity and self-expression

Making art helps one find a sense of identity through self-expression. I am responsible for every aspect of the finished work. There is no delegation to assistants. One day that may change. But while I am capable I will maintain that independence.

I use art to explore personal, social, political, and historical themes. My work is a response to my environment. Not only am I drawn to how the world looks, but I also wish to express how it feels.


My life and art have combined in a way that now makes more sense to me. It has taken many years and considerable effort to understand this process. Life informs art. But art also informs life. And one hopes for a mutually beneficial outcome. The two are, or should be, intertwined.

John McSweeney painting 'A Very English Summer'
Painting ‘A Very English Summer’ 2019