Focus

By: 
John Devlin

Part II: John Devlin On the Idea of a "Cosmic University"

First exhibited in Halifax from September 2015 to January 2016, and now on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s Yarmouth location, Spring in Cambridge: the Visionary Drawings of John Devlin features works by the Nova Scotian artist from an outsider perspective charting the physical, emotional, and spiritual world

Devlin recently wrote about his experience of bringing his vision to life (see Part I here) - read Part II & see new works by the artist below.
 
Born in Halifax, Devlin began his studies in environmental design at Dalhousie University at TUNS faculty of architecture. He went on to study theology at Cambridge University in England in the fall of 1979; however, by spring of 1980 he had his first encounter with mental illness so his studies were cut short and he left a world of architectural antiquity for his hometown to receive specialized care.
 
Devlin began a creative journey after numerous years in and out of hospitals, discovering that using simple artist tools he could create a different kind of place. So began his construction of a utopian city, inspired by his memories of England, imaginatively re-invented, based on hidden codes, symbols and mathematical ratios, of an imaginary island in Minas Basin, Nova Scotia. This would be his new Cambridge, or Nova Cantabrigiensis.
 
John Devlin, fan-vault design for chapel with staggered buttresses no. 1120, 21 July 2016, digital image, collection the artist
John Devlin, fan-vault design for chapel with staggered buttresses no. 1120, 21 July 2016, digital image, collection the artist
 

Heavenly Bodies: Genesis of a Cosmic University
 
The  fertile  period 1984-88  during  which  I  produced  several hundred  drawings and collages  came  to  a  grinding  halt  in 1989 when I was hospitalized for depression and anxiety. My brain needed a rest, especially from March 1988 which was a time of furious activity. When I took up my pen again it was to begin a long march through a hostile land. In time I began to produce  many  arid,  sterile  studies  of  a  rectilinear  King's chapel  in Cambridge,  trying  to  pick  up  where  I  left  off  just before I fell ill in '89. 
 
Fast  forward  to  2016:  I  am  producing  more  studies  of  the chapel,  but  it  turns  into  an  annulus  -  the  east  end  bending back  on  itself  and  meeting  the  west  to  produce  a  circular church,  like  the  mythical  serpent  eating  its  tail.  Kekulé’s Dream.  There  are  other  changes:  I  alter  my  media  from simple  child's  crayons  and  markers  on  cheap  paper  to  India ink,  Photoshop  and  giclée  printing.  I  borrow  ideas  from analogue  photography,  and  experience  a  keen  revival  of interest  in  my  teenage  astronomical  explorations  of  the heavens. And I start to post on social media. 

John Devlin, naked-eye astronomy no. 1127, 1 August 2016, mixed media on paper, 21.59 x 27.94 cm., collection the artist
John Devlin, naked-eye astronomy no. 1127, 1 August 2016, mixed media on paper, 21.59 x 27.94 cm., collection the artist.
 
The  unconscious,  naïve  manner  of  '84-'88  is  reluctantly jettisoned as interest in my work grows in a few galleries and the  art  brut  community  -  mainly  in  Europe.  With consciousness  comes  some  inevitable  corruption,  and  with that  the unexpected silver lining  of  growth  as  a  serious  adult contemporary artist with an outsider background. There’s no going back. 
 
As I post images on social media I discover that there is more interest  in  the  works  which  are  inverted  with  colours  on  a black  background.  So  I  start  to  draw  'negatives'  on  white paper as if I were once again processing photos of the stars  and  planets  in  a  tank,  and  printing  the  negatives:  this time  using  not  photographic  paper  and  enlarger,  but Photoshop and digital prints. I experiment with colour: how it appears  when  inverted  and  how  to  draw  negatives  to  create the desired effect. It is always exciting to click ‘invert’: I never know exactly what will appear, or how it will look. The result is a quantum leap from the Earthly King's chapel in the Minas Basin city, to what I call the Cosmic King’s: blobs of colour floating above  deep sky  objects  -  the  spiral  nebulæ  I  used  to  observe through a refractor telescope in my parents' backyard. 

John Devlin, naked-eye astronomy no. 1128, 1 August 2016, digital image, collection the artist
John Devlin, naked-eye astronomy no. 1128, 1 August 2016, digital image, collection the artist
 
This for me is an inspired return to my roots pre-illness: when I  observed  the  stars,  and  then  photographed  them - developing  the  film,  and  producing  prints in  trays  of chemicals in an improvised darkroom in our house. 
 
The  early  drawings  of  a  utopian  Cambridge  in  spring  have now  evolved  into  celestial  views  of  a  cosmic  universal  Body translated to the stars, after the manner of the myths in Ovid's Metamorphoses,  which  I  loved  before  I  loved  the  Bible,  and which I studied during four years of Latin in high school.
 
- John Devlin, August 10, 2016
 
 
Spring in Cambridge: the Visionary Drawings of John Devlin is on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's Yarmouth location until November 13, 2016.
 
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Image Credit: 

Photo: Ingrid Bulmer