Beverley Art Gallery

Peripheral Vision:
Straw People

by Julian Swift

The Artist Who Saw the Invisible

Julian Swift studied at the Manchester College of Art in the 1960s. The young student was encouraged by winning a competition there and receiving his prize from L.S. Lowry. After graduating, Julian spent over 30 years as a graphic designer in advertising, working on a range of subjects from corporate logos to TV commercials. At the age of 23, he became the youngest full member of the Society of Industrial Art and Design, a privilege he shared with Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the bouncing bomb.

Until the 1990s, Julian ran his own private design practice, before devoting himself fully to fine art. Julian's work is varied, with great attention to realistic detail, dominated by sensitive use of vivid colours. Close observations of nature prompted the artist to create a series of landscape paintings, capturing the changes of weather in images such as a stormy seascape at night, or the gentle morning sunshine caught on tree branches. Julian also experimented with cubism, adding colour and dynamics to geometrical compositions verging on abstraction.

His most accomplished cycle of works, however, is the Straw People series. Here both the theme and the technique come together to convey a surreal and intense sensation of mystery and fantasy unfolding just on the doorstep of our everyday world.

Alongside his art, Julian has published two books. An autobiography 'Flying Bricks and Grizzly Bears' captures, in the author's words, "the memories of being brought up in one of the dirtiest back streets in Manchester, and perversely enjoying every minute of it". Julian's other book 'Merlin and his Teapot Eagles' is aimed at small children. He is currently working on a book of fiction linked to the theme of the Straw People.

Julian Swift - Self Portrait

Julian Swift - The Centaur

Who Are Straw People

The idea for Straw People was born when Julian came across two boiler suits stuffed with straw, looking like they were arguing about football in the middle of a field. This gave rise to whole imaginary sub-strata of mystical creatures watching the human world from hedgerows and hillsides.

"In my imagination," Julian says, "they watch, bemused, when we pass through their world in our high-tech transport." Spreading the wings of his fantasy, Julian dreamed up an imaginary social structure for his Straw People, including religion, free time activities and a distinctive life-style. Straw creatures thus indulge in imitating the human world and its hierarchies, politics and pastimes. They scavenge bits of waste from city dwellings and utilise it in their own peculiar ways. Sometimes they try to infiltrate into human society, such as the straw lady who found a winning lottery ticket, or a straw mother taking her straw baby to a surgery.

There is a pagan feel to some of the images, with animal heads suggesting a legacy of ancient gods. In one drawing, a group of youngsters is being observed by mythological creatures, while another shows a straw politician choosing between selections of animal heads, depending on his target voters. Julian's world is darkly humorous and unforgiving in the manner it mocks our human ways. Although fictional, some features of the straw society are all too real.

Gallery

The Horse Whisperer
The Horse Whisperer
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
This tender drawing explores the relationship between straw people and animals. The empathy and connection between the straw man and the horse is obvious and touching. Notice the other figure, emerging from the mist in the background: it is Herne the Hunter, a ghost-like creature associated with Windsor Forest and Great Park in Berkshire. Herne the Hunter appeared in William Shakespeare's 1597 play The Merry Wives of Windsor as a pre-Christian character, embodying the tradition of pagan gods and ancient archetypes.
The Generals' Picnic
The Generals' Picnic
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70cm
Two self-elected straw generals plan their battle strategy at a field table over their afternoon tea. Their pretend uniforms are made of 'Complete Dog Food' sacks, bits of packaging and some old pans. Their posture is, nonetheless, pretentiously proud and powerful.
Friends
Friends
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 70 x 90 cm
A straw 'scarecrow' and his dog return home after a day's work to find their friends waiting for them. Old branches and sticks in the field all come alive in the straw people's world, turning into friendly creatures. The dark skies and fluttering straws give this image a stormy feel, just as surreal as the scene it portrays.
The Sick Child
The Sick Child
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70cm
A straw woman risks taking her child to a human clinic because part of its leg has fallen off. Sitting in a GP's reception, the human mothers in the background are perhaps wondering about this weird patient with wild looking hair and peculiar build. The straw mother herself is disfigured with fear for her child - has she even noticed her left eye is missing?
Good Hare Day
Good Hare Day
Oil on canvas. 50 x 40cm
A look at a wealthy straw man who has a choice of 3 animal heads to wear. High ranking straw people have several heads to choose from, depending on their mood, purpose of their meetings or what day it is. Like real people, some powerful straw individuals have more than one face.
The Candidate
The Candidate
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
A party activist creating different hats/heads for their candidate. A cryptic look at 'behind the scenes' of straw people's politics. Like in the Good Hare Day, here too the candidate can choose from an array of possible personalities before addressing their audiences. Who are they going to be today? A sheep, a pigeon or perhaps a wolf?
The Birdfeeders
The Birdfeeders
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70cm
A simple idea that scarecrows might enjoy the company of birds. While they are meant to scare the birds away, many straw scarecrows actually like crows and find it fun to have them around. Notice the ambivalence of this image - what looks like scarecrows 'dancing' joyfully on their sticks, could at the same time look like a straw version of a crucifixion. Such fine lines between Christian and pagan, human and straw, funny and terrifying, is typical of Julian's work.
Bonfire Night
Bonfire Night
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
This is one of the most unsettling works in the whole series. A sinister scenario acknowledging the problems of divided societies. The hooded gang are somewhat reminiscent of the KKK. Sadly, it looks like the straw community is as violently divided as the human world can be.
The Awakening
The Awakening
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
A human business traveler decides to sleep on a bed of straw and wakes up as a straw man. Notice the office-style shoes in the corner of the drawing, and the business suit in the background - now belonging to a past life, all gone in that one night. Perhaps life in the straw world will offer a respite from the frantic 'hamster-wheel' of modern life.
The Lottery Winner
The Lottery Winner
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
A straw woman is trying to make herself look human enough to claim her prize. Blinded by the wealth awaiting her, she is doing her best to fake her identity and look presentable. Who knows whether money could make a straw person feel more human?
A Morning Walk
A Morning Walk
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 70 x 90 cm
A man enjoying his morning stroll with his dog. Only the dog can see the straw angel and its canine companion, made from sticks and plastic bags, but the man remains oblivious to both. Animals are again seen as the connectors between the human world and the world of the unseen. Have you ever wondered why is your dog barking, when there's nothing to bark at? Well, you might want to think again.
A Day at the Seaside
A Day at the Seaside
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 70 x 90 cm
Strawmen on the beach making 'sand men' - creating impressions of what they would like to be rather than of what they really are. Accepting one's own strangeness is among the hardest things, for humans and strawmen alike.
Unseen Dangers
Unseen Dangers
Oil on board. 46 x 56cm
A cryptic cartoon about urban British teenagers who abuse the countryside at their peril. While the youngsters litter the landscape with beer bottles and McDonald's wrappers, they are being watched by mysterious pagan animal deities. The youth might not know it yet, but they might not be able to get away with it as easily as they thought.
Self Portrait
Self Portrait
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 40 x 30 cm
Created in 1997, this work captures Julian as a straw man. After having spent so much time working on the straw people drawings and on the book of fiction, Julian became increasingly merged with his imaginary folk. Note the little mouse and bird in Julian's straw hair, keeping company to the artist's ever inquisitive mind.
The New Addition
The New Addition
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
The same straw woman from 'The Sick Child' appears in this version of a straw nativity. The viewer is left to decide the role of the figures standing around her, reminiscent of the classical Nativity scenes known from Christianity. Dressed in discarded sacks and old packaging, the characters bring about a bittersweet mixture of awkwardness, contrasting with their intended dignity and grandeur.
The Suicide
The Suicide
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
A straw man has committed suicide, liberating only poppies from the wound.
Cereal Scientist
Cereal Scientist
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
Straw people having fun creating the corn circle mystery. So this is how the circles are made! Who knew...?!
2 CV Picnic
2 CV Picnic
Oil crayon and colour wash on handmade paper
A human visitor to the countryside uses the back seat from his 'Deux Cheveau' as a picnic bench, unaware of the straw people audience frolicking behind his back.
A walk on a Beach with Black Foxes
A walk on a Beach with Black Foxes
Oil crayon on gouache on hand made paper. 90 x 70 cm
A macabre image of mystical pagan creatures and symbolic animals enjoying the simple pleasures of a beach walk.
Hopeful Competitors in Tour De Yorkshire
Hopeful Competitors in Tour De Yorkshire
Oil crayon on gouache on hand made paper. 90 x 70 cm
An old discarded bicycle is being done up for the famous race by several hopeful straw cyclists. This rusty old cycle might need a lot of paint to look anything like a competition bike. But the straw hopefuls are determined!
The Escape of The Green Man
The Escape of The Green Man
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 90 x 70 cm
The legendary 'Green Man' of pagan religions is escaping from his heretic cell with the help of animals and birds. The Green Man is a symbol of rebirth and renewal, appearing in art and decorative architecture since Antiquity. Usually depicted as a face made of leaves and branches, Julian's Green Man is most originally shown as a straw hand. To get out of his shackles, this straw prisoner is being taken out of the cell straw by straw by his little animal helpers.
The Dragon
The Dragon
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 62 x 80 cm
Illustration to the 'Straw People' novel: The Dragon loves children and tells funny jokes to everyone who listens. He is the darling of millions of children all around the world. He had to be told to stop terrifying passengers while flying at the same altitude as jumbo jets.
The Centaur
The Centaur
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 80 x 62 cm
Illustration to the 'Straw People' novel: The Centaur is a friend to the sculptor who made it, but a vision of terror for enemies of the same man. The sculptor who created it is the first person to realise that straw creatures are actually alive.
The Raptor
The Raptor
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 62 x 80 cm.
Illustration to the 'Straw People' novel: The Raptor circles on a ten meter wing span two miles above everyone. He is gentle with children, but less so with enemies of the sculptor and his family.
Straw Hunting Dogs
Straw Hunting Dogs
Oil crayon on gouache on handmade paper. 80 x 62 cm.
In the evening serenity of the fields, straw hunting dogs are looking for their next target. Invisible to the human world, only animals can sense their presence.

Artist's Statement:
Julian Swift on His People and Creatures of Straw

Straw people and animals are invisible in the countryside but not if they come into a city. The very thing they are made of is alien to city dwellers. Sadly, Cities are full of people who think that milk automatically arrives in plastic containers or that meat, somehow, just appears on supermarket shelves. At best they don't think or don't care how it gets there. As part of this food production chain, straw is well below their radar. The majority of people will only know it as a substance that has nothing to do with their lives. A minority are knowledgeable on just about every topic but it would be wishful to think that vast swathes of urban humanity are not obsessed with trivia and technology; how it can amuse them and what it can do for them.

It is this very human condition which allows me as an artist to play with the idea of creating a sub - strata of mystical creatures and people of straw who watch us from hedgerows or hillsides. In my imagination they watch, bemused, when we pass through their world in our high tech transport.

Once I had created them I couldn't resist giving them a hierarchy, a society of their own where some straw people are 'more equal than others'. The man/dog centaur is a law unto himself as is the 'angel' in 'a morning walk'. The freewheeling bogus generals in 'The Picnic' are beyond authority but others may fall under it. The creativity of straw men building 'sand men' in 'a day at the seaside' is facilitated by the figures kicking a ball around. These background people belong to a lower echelon but are somehow in control. There is a disquieting element in this painting which echoes human history where diligent but possibly less intelligent bureaucrats monitor creative people very closely. In most societies law abiding, productive citizens are familiar with the control systems set up by administrative automatons whose primary means of measuring human behaviour is based on the 'common denominator'. In this way the lower strata is the more powerful or the 'more equal'. It seems imperative to include this social anomaly in the world of straw people too. It is a theme capable of development.

Once down this road I wondered why straw people couldn't have a religion. A painting not yet done but planned is 'The Nativity'. Here straw people gather around the 'Magi' wearing or carrying replica animal heads. These are either fashion accessories or badges of identity... or are they an attempt to emulate the human myth of the nativity in the stable? The woman holding the child already appears in 'Mother and child'. A potentially terrifying experience for a straw woman with one eye missing who bravely enters the human world of medical clinics because her child's leg has come off. The real 'sink estate' women in shell suits appear not to notice her difference to them. One look at the child would alarm them though.

What interests me about straw people is how little contact they need with humans. Everything they want is out there. They utilise what we throw away. If they find a bicycle with no tyres but the pedals still turn the back wheel, they'll use it to get around on or to carry their meagre possessions. They like to emulate us so if they find a box of matches and a packet of cigarettes left on a park bench they will attempt to smoke the cigarettes. Carelessly discarded tea bags by human picnickers are highly valued. They like tea. The generals in 'The picnic' are enjoying both. The old teapot must have come in handy as did some matches or a lighter with which to light a fire to boil a kettle. Obviously they have to be careful not to get too close to fire. At what point I imbued them with the desire or need to eat and drink, I'm not sure. In theory they have no physiology to cope with food or liquid but if I can give them a religion, why not everything else? I can only speculate where they found the Battenberg cake? Is it a left-over from a human picnic or do they venture into out of town shopping areas at night and raid supermarket bins for food beyond its 'best before date'? Which of the two generals will get the last piece?

Asking these questions about straw creatures from my imagination is ridiculous. They only become a reality on paper. In the first place because I saw two scarecrows in a farmer's field looking as though they were having a conversation. A slight breeze can do amazing things with a boiler suit filled with straw. One question I can't answer is why there are two types of dog. One type is fully formed as in the 'Straw hunting dogs' whereas others are made of sticks tied together to give them a very stiff - legged gait. Their heads are made of plastic bags tied at the neck. There may be an analogy with dogs in human society. Some are 'just there' as working dogs whereas others have become symbiotic human companions and are cosseted and admired for their form and speed. On the other hand I could simply be having fun with a pencil. The dogs, however, form an important catalyst between the world of straw people and humans. In 'The morning walk' the very powerful real dog can see what its master can't see. The straw angel is even making friendly overtures to it.

It has been suggested that the straw people might be jealous of or aspire to our consumer driven lifestyle. That they stand outside cities gazing in amazement at bright lights and tall buildings. I can see a series of paintings where they have ventured into cities and merge with the very poor. Would anyone notice them in the context? In a sense the 'Mother and child' painting could be the forerunner of such a series. The 'Lottery winner' where a woman is trying to make herself look human so she can claim her winnings might be another. How could she spend her winnings and on what? Investment and bank accounts would be no more alien to her than they are to the 3 million humans in Britain who don't possess such things but could she write a cheque?...Could she use an ATM?...Is she literate enough to pass a driving test so she can view big houses in the comfort of her own car?... Could she control a powerful machine like a car? ...What language does she speak? Is there really a hidden pathos in the painting to suggest that she has found a ticket which isn’t worth anything? These are all daft questions.

Questions I am sometimes asked are:- (and this assumes the questioner suspends disbelief and ignores the fact that straw people are just a figment of my imagination)
"Where do they come from?"
"Are they made or are they born?"
"Are they strong?"
"Where do they get their clothes from?"
"Do they have sinister intentions towards us?"

The great thing about a fantasy world is that anything is possible. Straw people and animals could be made by humans, given life and set free to wander or they could happen spontaneously as in 'The awakening'. Their very ambiguity is the most appealing thing about them. They have been given socio - political significance by some... Do they echo the plight of all the poor underprivileged people in the world? I always have in mind film footage of African boys making amazing toys from things and materials which we in the 1st world would dismiss as rubbish or Indian children dismantling our old, worn out, computers in Mumbai. It would be easy for me to jump on this 'bandwagon' of social conscience and take credit for something I never envisaged. If the concept draws people's attention to the struggling poor of this planet then I would be pleased but this was never the purpose of the straw people. They are quite content with who they are and what they have.

Future paintings or drawings in this genre will highlight our 'throw away' society. Straw people are parallel with those humans who live on the touchline of an affluent society who are not as mentally bankrupt as some would have us believe. They simply value what happens next in a soap opera or the next new bit of technology more than life itself. Funnily enough they are the very sector who gave rise to the idea of straw people. The two are so far apart outside the circle of human existence and endeavour they are almost standing next to one another.

Essentially People and creatures of straw are no more than a cryptic doodle destined to reflect our own fears and ambitions. They should be humorous. I reflect on my own origins and the veritable explosion of technology which has happened in my lifetime. Like most people of my age, I come from another planet where people had to 'make do and mend'. Working class people didn't have bank accounts or credit cards. They couldn't borrow on their future expected earnings to buy new things. All they had was their wages in cash which they brought home on a Thursday night. It had to last until the following Thursday or they went hungry. They were practical and inventive with food and other things they needed. I have a memory of my father building a cart so he could push his decorating ladders and tools to the next job. He found two big wheels and an axle off an old pram and fixed them to a wooden cart. Today a man would get a powerful hand drill from his extensive range of tools and drill the right sized hole through the wood but not then, not in that society. My father heated a piece of round metal in the fire and burnt a hole where he wanted it.

Today that man wouldn't even use something as 'low tech' as a handcart, he would simply put his tools in a van and drive to where he needs to use them. I suppose the world I grew up in was simpler and slower and harder. People in that world had no concept of mobile phones or the internet or cars boasting more technology than that which took a man to the moon. I wonder what my parents, would think of satellite navigation in a car or the e-mails I send to the other side of the world in seconds.

The world we know today, with all its technology is more fragile than we realise. The recent banking crisis was predicated on assumptions about the future. Similarly the infrastructure of technology is predicated on assumptions about the availability of electrical power. Is it possible that one day we could all return to a world where we have to burn a hole through a piece of wood? Will we have to re-learn skills from the poor or the disenfranchised like the straw people?

I sometimes wonder if I am my own 'Straw Man'

Julian Swift. 12th, December, 2009

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