Q&A with British illustrator and artist Ken Lowe, his subjects reflect his own interests sporting greats, music, film, politics

"I think if you believe the above to be true and we are, whether we realise it or not, living at a critical moment in history; and we each take our small role in it seriously, then it’s beholden on us to at least try to plant  the seeds of some kind of conscious awakening."

Ken Lowe: Keeping the British Satirical Draughtsmanship Alive

 British illustrator and artist Ken Lowe, born in 1972, began drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil and has never stopped. These days, however, he works mostly with brush and ink. After years spent working in various occupations, he recently returned to art full time. Continuing in the long tradition of British satirical draughtsmanship, he is becoming known for a distinctive style and unerring ability to capture not only a likeness but the character of the subject with great economy in just a few graceful, dynamic lines. Meticulous and a perfectionist, Ken will often rework an image many times over until he is satisfied.

Johnny Cash / Artworks © by Ken Lowe

Ken’s subjects reflect his own interests sporting greats, music, film, politics. He has an innate ability to draw out and emphasise qualities which are not always flattering, but which crystallise the floating impression of a personality in clean, bold designs. He lives and works in Devon, England.

Interview by Michael Limnios            Artworks © by Ken Lowe / All rights reserved

How has the Rock n Roll Counterculture influenced your views of the world?

The main one I think is that it colours your memories of particular times and events.

I remember one night in December 1980, I was in my usual position - lying on the sitting room carpet, half drawing in my sketchbook, half watching TV; when the news anchor announced the death of John Lennon overlaid by images of people gathered outside the Dakota building. Being born in 72, up until then I’d only been dimly aware of the Beatles and their music. I asked my parents in an offhand way why they were making such a fuss about this man.

A few moments passed in silence and when there was no answer I turned around and was stunned to see they both had tears in their eyes and very sombre expressions – just like the people on the screen in Central Park. I was shocked! My god – I’d never seen them react in that way to anything. How could this news illicit the same reactions in people in different continents? Within no time at all it seemed, his songs were all you heard, and are inseparable from my childhood memories of that Christmas. ‘Starting Over’, ‘Happy Xmas’ ‘Woman’ and ‘Imagine’ were all in the top ten I think. The videos that went with them fascinated me and the complex character of the man was the subject of endless documentaries and archive footage on TV. Before long I had built a mental picture of not just the music but also, and, although I didn’t understand it; the idealism and political activism that was integral to the music.

Around this time, I had a teacher at school – Mr Martin; one of those youngish, but about to enter middle age and settle down kind of teachers - reddish beard, always wore corduroy. This was back when teachers still had some say in what they taught. One morning, after the usual tedious routine of learning, he announced that he wanted us all to be very quiet and listen to something carefully; Then he pressed play on an old cassette player and turned the volume right up. It was ‘If I fell’. We were all looking at each other with astonishment. We were also smiling. He stopped the music every few bars and asked us to see if we could tell what the singer was saying, to write down the lyrics if we could and figure out the intended meaning - although he didn’t tell us who it was we were listening to. I think looking back he was feeling us out to see what our reaction would be. We were so happy. Even at that young age we had become accustomed to tedious predictability at school; and for a teacher to go ‘off-piste’ was thrilling. To us, music at school meant Victorian hymns in morning assembly. This was a revelation. It instantly became a weekly event – Beatles hour. One song each week. Very soon we knew ‘A Hard Days Night’ ‘Ticket to Ride’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Hello Goodbye ‘off by heart. I eagerly started collecting all the Beatles music I could get hold of and had a Walkman permanent glued to my ears. I soaked it all up like a sponge. So for me the sixties began in 1981. I felt cheated that I’d been born too late to live through this golden era.

Growing up in the industrial heartland of the English Midlands during the early eighties, optimism was in short supply. The glory days were long gone; heavy industry had been exported to the far east and you had a strong sense of living at the end of an era. Unemployment was high and the adults seemed to lack purpose or confidence - the future was something to be feared. This sense that you were entering a long, dark winter was reflected in the music of the time. A local band called The Specials were at the forefront of a movement known as two-tone. The sound of their most enduring single - ‘Ghost Town’ summed a that particular feeling and intensified it.

This tendency is particularly acute when you’re young, but never really ends,

Not long ago my dad was dying and at the same time I was going through a mini Pink Floyd phase. Listening to dark side of the moon on the 3-hour journey up and down the motorway was quite a strange experience – and now the two things; the death of my father and the sound of Pink Floyd are forever linked in my mind.

But it’s not just at a personal level. Popular music can be the outward expression of currents in what Jung calls the collective unconscious, the spirit of an age. Even in Plato’s time the ruling classes understood that and sought to harness the power of music to help shape people’s emotions, thoughts and behaviour for reasons of control.

Late Beatles / Artworks © by Ken Lowe

What characterize your artwork's philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

I don’t know that I have a philosophy. It’s just something that I’ve always done since I was old enough to hold a pencil. I’m grateful for it, I’m never bored. It used to perplex me when I’d hear people complain of being bored. For me. if I have a pencil and a piece of paper there’s no reason to be bored. I see it as a kind of therapy.

I suppose I work in what many would regard as an old fashioned way – with a pencil, brush and ink. Inking is what I enjoy the most. Drawing a perfect line is very satisfying, but I also like the unexpected marks that you get with a brush, which registers every minute change in movement and even the speed of your hands movements. I sketch over and over until I see the drawing that is closest to what I imagined in my head. If I’m lucky I can nail it with one sketch, but that’s rare - usually, it takes up to 10 or 15 attempts (or even more).

Humour has always been integral to my art. I see it as a kind of weapon – my revenge on the world. To authority, all humour is subversive – a threat. In terms of satire especially, the nearer humour approaches seriousness the funnier it is; as John Glashan, (one of my favourite satirical illustrators), said “Humour is seriousness in disguise”.

I had an Indian friend, a very deep thinker, who once asked me, “Kenny –what is creativity really?” I had to admit I’d never really thought about it. “Creativity is just excess energy!”  Makes sense I suppose. Also, it’s quite useful, I found, to think of it in those terms because when you feel creatively blocked and stagnant so to speak, you have a potential remedy if you are able to identify activity and habits that sap your energy.

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started?

When I drew as a kid, it was a kind of automatic obeying of an inner impulse, like scratching an itch. I always felt calm and detached whilst drawing because it seemed effortless. I drew anything that came to mind and didn’t distinguish between beautiful and ugly; tasteful and tasteless. In fact, the so-called ‘ugly’ things fascinated me more than the idea of making ‘pretty pictures’; which bored me to tears. It was an escape from normality and I formed my identity around it. I had such self-belief that I became pretty much indifferent to praise and criticism.

As I got older things became harder and I gradually noticed that the clarity and naturalness I had enjoyed as a child seemed to have deserted me. When you create a beautiful drawing aged 9, you are showered with praise – at 19, not so much! Creating felt like an effort. The old compulsion to draw was largely gone and self-consciousness crept in. Art school wasn’t everything I’d hoped and I laboured half-heartedly and with little urgency, purpose or direction. I didn’t blame anyone else – I understood enough to know that this was a purely personal battle.            George Orwell / Artworks © by Ken Lowe

Most of my adult life has been a slow process of trying to re-capture the child-hood state of productivity and overcome that youth state of paralysing self doubt. I realise now that you can’t rely on inspiration and ‘passion’ alone. There is work to be done through dogged commitment to a sense of purpose and any significant successes; however you choose to measure them, are hard-won. It is a solitary pursuit.

The famous Japanese artist Hokusai is an inspiration as I get older. In his late sixties he entered the most creatively fertile period of his life. Despite the death of his second wife and suffering a stroke, together with financial problems; he had an explosion of creative energy and imagination and produced, I think, his best work in ‘The Great Picture Book of Everything’. I like to think he got up one morning and just said to himself ‘F**k it! From now on I’m going to do whatever the hell I want and nothing else’, releasing himself from obligations to produce work to a brief. To explore his own dreams and not the dreams of others – to find expression of his inner life. The important thing is that he achieved this – very rare. He said himself, in his eighties, that everything he did before the age of 70 should be disregarded as not worthy.

Why do you think that the Beatles and Queen music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I haven’t ‘actively’ listened to the Beatles in quite a while now, but the other day I heard ‘Things we said today’ for the first time in many years and was struck again by the melodic purity and simple brilliance of it - just as I was the first time. This is a two and a half minute, half forgotten filler for an album, which very few remember, or would cite as even being amongst their best work. Yet it’s so good. The variation and invention in their music is unmatched. That’s why it endures.

Also, back then recording and production methods were much less forgiving, and it wasn’t uncommon for a band to lay down an entire song in say, three takes – done and let’s move on! So there was a pressure for the band to be much ‘tighter’ and efficient in the studio. The overproduction of today covers a multitude of sins - and lack of pure talent. You can hear it as well – that slight roughness and reverb, the bleeding of one instrument into another or into the vocals; in music of that era, compared to a lot of modern recordings., which to me sound sterile by comparison.

With Queen, although they produced some great songs, I think it all ultimately comes down to the incredible voice and stage presence of Freddie Mercury.

If you had a question you would like to ask George Orwell and Muddy Waters what would it be?

I would like to know what Orwell knew of the identity and belief system of the groups and individuals who run the planet. Orwell was, like Aldous Huxley, an insider who knew the direction that politicians and those who control them sought to take the world.

I may be wrong but I imagine Muddy Waters could be quite an intimidating presence. I would hedge my bets and just sidle up to him in a bar or at some unguarded moment, just say “How’s it goin?” and hope that he was in a talkative mood.

Williams Shakespeare & Muddy Waters / Artworks © by Ken Lowe

What touched you from William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde? Picasso or Duchamp?

At school I hated Shakespeare. Couldn’t relate to it or get anything of value from it. Mostly, the language went straight over my head. As I got older though, my attitude slowly changed and now I can appreciate the brilliance of his work. Hamlet is fascinating to me. I particularly like the prose speech – ‘I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth...’ and the soliloquy in Act 1 Scene 2 which contains the line ‘Oh god! God! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.’ I think we can all relate to that at times. I am full of admiration for anyone who can express complex thoughts and emotions with that kind of penetrating eloquence What an intellect he must have had!

I read a biography of Wilde as a teenager and was impressed by the aphorisms and witticisms attributed to him. He must’ve been great company – imagine getting drunk with him.

I admired Picasso’s work ethic and dedication to self expression almost as a way of life. He described his work as a kind of visual diary and I can relate to that. But I am less favourably predisposed toward Picasso than I was as a youth. I think I bought into the myth of the man – the supremely talented, prolific and inventive man of genius. His reputation rests, I think now, largely on a cult of personality which was contrived around him for partly political, partly financial reasons. In the picture I did of them both I depict Picasso as a Spanish bull and Duchamp as a chess piece. They were opposites in many ways.

Duchamp was a playful intellectual. An enigmatic character with a kind of ‘otherness’ about him. His big thing was a commitment to never repeat himself in his work and to not be shackled to any preconceptions of ‘taste’ - be It good or bad.

My favourite Duchamp anecdote is the story of when he was asked by a friend – an art tutor - if he wouldn’t mind visiting his students at the university and to talk about his work. As he made the rounds of the studios in the afternoon, Duchamp came across one student who seemed to be fighting a losing battle with a large abstract painting. Duchamp studied the painting in silence for a few moments before asking the artist “And what are you trying to achieve here?” The young man was stunned to be not only in the presence of the great man, but to be asked such a direct question. Flustered and embarrassed, he answered, “to be perfectly honest Mr Duchamp, I have absolutely no idea”

“Good, good – keep it up” replied a smiling Duchamp, and walked off.

Picasso v Duchamp Final Flat / Artworks © by Ken Lowe

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Wow there’s so many, but two come to mind:

I recently got interested in revisionist theories of ancient history, which seem to be gaining traction. Particularly the idea that a highly cultured and technically advanced civilisation pre-existed those we are taught about in the accepted version of human history. I consider myself pretty un-schooled in such things, but the possibility has certainly captured my imagination lately. I would recommend the works of Graham Hancock and David Alan Ritchie, sadly passed away; who wrote a book called ‘We - the Skythians’. I’m slowly working my way through it at the moment, although it’s incredibly hard to both grasp and to get hold of. So for that reason I would love to go back to about 11,000 BC shortly before a catastrophic global event, possibly a massive meteor storm, theoretically devastated this civilisation and changed the course of history. I would go to where I live now, in South West England, to see if there’s any truth in it.

Secondly, and I suspect many others share this one – I would go back to Sun Studios, Memphis in July 1954. Imagine you are just hangin around the studio for no particular reason one day, and in walks this young guy with a cheap guitar to do some recording. He’s already been in a couple of times without any notable result, but this time he starts singing with a new energy and freedom. Sam Phillips notices and asks you what you think and lets you stay to witness the whole session as a casual bystander for the birth of a cultural phenomenon!

How do you want the art to affect people?

I think if you believe the above to be true and we are, whether we realise it or not, living at a critical moment in history; and we each take our small role in it seriously, then it’s beholden on us to at least try to plant  the seeds of some kind of conscious awakening. This starts with making a distinction between causes and symptoms - the danger being that if you focus your attention and concern solely on socio-economic problems; you will be forever playing catch-up and tinkering around the edges of the issue; however, if you can identify and draw attention to the real causes, you are closer to the heart of the problem and a possible solution.

Oscar Wilde / Artworks © by Ken Lowe

What is the impact of art on the socio-cultural implications?

For some time, I’ve felt torn between the necessity to promote myself through an online presence and the opposite impulse which is to withdraw and reduce my online exposure for reasons of self-preservation. Why?

Because for the last few years, it has become more and more apparent that there is no future for these big online social media platforms. I am talking about the likes of Facebook, Instagram, You Tube, Twitter and all the rest. It was always intended, from the start, that such platforms should gradually morph into tools for social control and perception manipulation. Look at the intense censorship we are seeing and consider all the subjects which are not allowed to be discussed anymore; opinions which are deemed ‘unacceptable’. It should be clear by now that going forward, they have no interest in true freedom of speech and independence of opinion.

The world is rapidly going hell in a hand basket. Everyone with any sensitivity is feeling this. We have to ask ourselves why this state of disintegration and chaos is prevalent everywhere.

When people attempt to explain what is happening in the world, whether in society, politics or economics, there are, roughly speaking two opposing theories of contemporary history:

The first hardly qualifies as a ‘theory’ proper, but it insists that no one is to blame for the way history unfolds, things just happen. Likewise, the actions of politicians and policy makers, are simply the product of poor implementation, mistaken ideas, misunderstandings or lack of sufficient information.

We are encouraged, indirectly, through the education system and the mass media, to accept the false notion that all this mess and suffering is a result of happenstance.

In an unguarded moment, President Roosevelt made a simple statement of the rival theory when he said: “Whatever happens in politics, you may be sure there is someone who wanted it to happen and made it happen”.

Personally, I subscribe to the second theory.

The real reason is that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, is that there are people in this world who are intentionally taking it there; and there are many others who are unwittingly, unintentionally, helping them. They are egotistical, narcissistic, power crazed individuals who genuinely have a deep seated malevolence within them. They believe themselves to be innately superior to the mass of humanity.

A long time ago these same people; who just happen to also be the richest and most powerful people on the planet, decided that all this – all the natural wealth and resources of the world – belonged to them by rights and that they no longer needed us – that is to say that there were far too many of us; the little people, for their future plans.

How do they achieve their control? Well, there are many, but one of the key ways is through controlling and creating culture.          Orson Welles /Artworks © by Ken Lowe

Beginning in the late 60’s and accelerating into the 70’s, for example, there was a noticeable shift away from the traditional love song type lyrics in popular music hits, where the familiar masculine/feminine pronouns ‘She loves you’, ‘I’m in love with her’ etc. where gradually phased out and replaced with non-gender specific lyrics instead. This slow process planted seeds which are bearing bitter fruit now. For this to have happened at all requires a far-sighted, controlling force behind and above, orchestrating everything which reaches the public as ‘popular culture’.

I heard a story a while ago, told by the man in question in an interview, about himself, a working class English comedian/writer/producer who was enjoying some significant early success. He’d had a few TV appearances and was making a name for himself as a comedy writer. He seemed to be on the verge of the big time when he was asked to produce a pilot for a possible series on the BBC. Then one day he got a call from his agent who asked if he would like to meet a man who was interested in financing an upcoming project.

This man lived near to him in Amsterdam, and would he be available to go for a chat with him today? – it was only a short walk away in fact. Of course he said yes. Shortly, he arrived at a very grand address in a smart area of the city. He was welcomed into the house by a man who spoke perfect English and ushered into a reception room which was decorated and furnished by a highly cultured personality of exquisite taste and obvious wealth, with no expense spared.

The mysterious man cut to the chase immediately. He had heard good things about the work he’d been doing and had a proposal to put to the aspiring comedian/writer. Firstly, though, he felt it necessary to give some context to the conversation. He proceeded to explain that he, the Dutchman, was fortunate to occupy a powerful role in the arena of ‘culture creation’. In short, he was in a position to ensure that, should he agree to the proposal, he would enjoy success in all his professional endeavours from that moment forward, every door he pushed on would be wide open for him; every show he produced would be met with nothing but fawning praise in the media, and lucrative offers would land on his plate regularly as if falling from the sky. He went on to explain that there were others like him around the world – in fact there were, he said, at any one time, between 112 and 116 people similarly assigned in various locations and within various specialities.

Then came the pay-off. There was of course, a catch. The man gestured towards a door on the other side of the room to where they were seated. All he had to do was to walk through that door – simple.

What was on the other side he wouldn’t say, but the demeanour of the rich man suddenly took on a sinister aspect. This was clearly a life changing decision - the proverbial fork in the road.

After a few moments careful thought, the young comedian respectfully declined the offer. The rich man was clearly taken aback by the decision, as though this were a very rare, if not unheard of, response to his overtures, but reluctantly accepted his decision, and they politely said goodbye, never to meet again. Within days he received news that the proposed BBC project had been shelved and his agent would no longer be working with him. Soon all the other avenues of work he had previously relied upon were, one by one, closed to him. He now makes a living in the alternative media.

I have no idea if this story is true or partially true – but I’m prepared to believe it and to potentially be viewed as a crank for believing it.

Going back to your earlier question, I believe that we need to be careful to distinguish between aspects of the culture which are furthering their agenda, and those which are truly ‘counter-cultural’ i.e. resisting or raising awareness of the real problem. How much of the culture is created for us? My personal opinion is that it is weaponised and created for us to a far greater degree than most of us would think possible.

Ken Lowe Illustration - Home

Elvis Presley / Artworks © by Ken Lowe

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