Rachel Jones – A Place of Joy

Luke Gooden
Yana McKillop
Anastasia Lander

In a rare interview, Artist Rachel Jones shares the joys of painting, opera, designing a Brit award trophy, and joining Maggie Smith at a Loewe photoshoot.

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When one says the name Rachel Jones, large colourful abstractions with teeth-derived names pop to mind. The Tate Britain-featured artist creates her paintings with oil pastels and oil sticks and presents them unframed. As we chat over Zoom, Rachel is spontaneous and full of smiles, just as her canvases: “I am very process-led and my lived experience is a foundation for how colour can express different emotional states or convey the concept of an interior landscape.” Such an approach emphasises the importance of distinct mark-making and the development of a unique visual language.
Rachel’s preference for large-scale works is rooted in her expressive nature. Like many of her fellow artists, she notes how physically demanding a large canvas is, and how the process involves the whole body, not just the hands of the artist. “I enjoy large-scale work because it visually expresses the joy I experience while painting. There’s also space to release a lot of emotion, which is different when making smaller works,” says Rachel, admitting that smaller canvases have recently captured her interest. Requiring careful planning, the small format results in layered textures and altered perceptions of colour and space: “My smaller paintings are unexpectedly impactful, they challenge traditional views of scale. This has been a rewarding journey, enhancing my artistic growth and enjoyment of both large and small-scale works.”
Our conversation turns to mouths and teeth gaping from the canvases. Rachel began painting mouths while studying at the Royal Academy in 2018, inspired by years of life drawing where she focused on specific body parts. She brought these elements from the life room into the studio, emphasising forms and shapes of the body in her work, developing a keen interest in their emotional and psychological symbolism.

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Exploring the idea that both intake and expression, like speech and voice, originate from the mouth, she delved into its significance, representing the sublime within the body in her work. Her focus on mouths reflects an interior landscape. “They’re rich in symbolism,” she says. There’s history, emotion, society – all wrapped up in this one part of the body.” The artworks’ titles – A Sliced Tooth (2020), lick your teeth, they so clutch (2021), SMI- IILLLLEEEE (2021) – vary from ironic to instructional, layering the narrative.
In September 2023 Rachel’s artistic journey took a fascinating turn. Commissioned by the non-profit Roberts Institute of Art and collaborating with poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley, composer Joseph Howard, and fashion designer Roksanda Ilinčić, Ra- chel created a 35-minute opera, Hey, Maudie, focusing on ordinary life and the concept of quietness. The work was based on Gwendolyn Brooks’ 1953 novel, Maud Martha, which was only published in Britain in 2022. In a third-person interior monologue, it renders the experiences of a young Black woman in America during the 1940s-50s.
Centering her opera around the quiet restful life of an ordinary person, Rachel strived to dismantle the ivory tower of high-brow art. She compares op-era to karaoke. “While they may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, they share a fundamental similarity in the importance of emotion and storytelling,” she says. In both, the voice is used to evoke emotions and bring feelings to the surface. “This is what I aim to achieve in my paintings, but experiencing it through music was incredibly powerful. Music has a very accessible quality and is more democratic than art; not everyone feels qualified to discuss art, often feeling intimidated. In contrast, music breaks down these barriers, making it a compelling medium for me to work in.”

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Creating the work, Rachel aimed to integrate traditionally Black music, such as jazz, gospel, and blues, with opera. She explored oral traditions, various musical forms, and their significance in storytelling and Black history. Rachel’s work became an artistic exploration and a reflection on the extraordinary moments in life and the legacy of community and individual identities. Hey, Maudie was performed twice in the 17-century St James’s Church in Piccadilly on 21 September 2023, with Rachel delivering a spoken word part.
From opera, we move to pop culture, and I ask Rachel where one starts when asked to create a trophy for the BRIT Awards, which she’s done for the 2024 edition. Her face lights up. “Working on the opera gave me a lot of confidence. I realised that, although I’m known for my paintings, I haven’t fully explored my other interests.” Revisiting her sculptural practice at the Royal Academy of Arts, Rachel worked on adapting her distinct painting style to a three-dimensional surface. The project challenged the artist to translate her signature colourful style and choice of abstract form into a new, object-based shape. She loved it. “I am really proud of the fact that I’ve made something that looks like me and has a lot of joy!”
An invitation from Loewe to join the likes of Greta Lee, Maggie Smith, and Dakota Fanning for the Spring Summer 2024 pre-collection campaign was another joyful surprise. “People associate Maggie with Harry Potter, but my mum remembers her as Mrs. Brodie, in a film from her youth. Being on the same set as her felt like stepping into a legacy, joining people deeply invested in their craft. Contributing to this campaign was a dream come true, something I never imagined I’d do,” Rachel recalls. She isn’t planning to segue into a modelling career, though, but admires Jonathan Anderson’s artistic approach to design. “He uses shape and colour to reflect life’s everyday nuances in silly, playful and sometimes exaggerated ways. I admire the beauty of the clothing design and the narratives behind it: how the clothes fit, reveal, obscure, or decorate.”

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I note the word “silly” and Rachel eagerly confirms, “I’m a really silly, playful person. There’s so much pleasure to be taken in small things, something we embrace as children, but often lose as we grow up. So, I’m committed to maintaining a level of silliness and to creating my work from a place of joy.”
Playfulness is Rachel’s secret tool for leaving her mark on the art world. She emphasises the use of scale in her work to foster an open, inquisitive engagement, often displaying small paintings on entire walls to shift the tone and create something unexpected. Rachel encourages viewers to approach her art with curiosity and a desire to learn. She disrupts conventional values attributed to paintings, inviting the viewers to think what it means if an artwork hasn’t got a gilded frame, is non-square, or even becomes a sticker.
So who is Rachel’s ideal collector then? Someone open to letting go of preconceived ideas, she believes. She finds it rewarding when people engage in conversations about her work, regardless of whether they like it or are confused by it. “I have great discussions with people where they share perspectives on my work that I might never have imagined. Also, there’s a distinct difference between creating something and observing what you’ve created. One of the wonderful aspects of being an artist is sharing your creations with the world, which opens up opportunities for conversation.” I ask if it’s difficult to let go of the artworks. “No, I’m very happy for things to go out into the world. That’s where they should be,” smiles Rachel.

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Photographer: Luke Gooden
Stylist: Yana McKillop
Talent: Rachel Jones
Makeup: Brooke Simons
Photography assistant: Chester Lewis
Stylist assistant: Sofie Chetrar