AmeriCymru: Hi Peter and many thanks for agreeing to talk to AmeriCymru. Many of our members and readers are fans of your original artwork for Wales Ireland Design. Can you tell us how the project got started?
Peter: Hi Ceri, thanks for having me here. The positive response to the designs in my store has been gratifying. I began Wales Ireland Design as one outlet for my design skills, apart from the commercial work I do as a living. I trained as a fine artist and work as a commercial artist, and the two are sometimes in conflict. In particular I wanted a place where I was the client, where I decided whether something was good and was worth doing. I actually run two stores, with another called Ragged Beggar Designs. This second store encompasses everything that doesn't have a Celtic element. So far I have concentrated on creating graphic designs that are suitable for printing on a variety of products. Soon I expect to begin creating more fine art drawn from celtic myth as I find ways to approach the classic tales of Wales in an abstract fashion, not literal illustration, which is, I think, a modern approach to an age-old theme.
Wales and Ireland are two parts of my family heritage, but few in my family were interested in family history. I had to spend quite some time in tracing my genealogy to get a sense of how these countries figured in my own history. How did things conspire to place me in CT in the 20th century? It's a personal search of interest to some and not to others. I was inspired by my childhood readings of Celtic myths and of stories inspired by Welsh myth, especially the books of Lloyd Alexander. His six book series for children, drawn from Welsh myth, features an Oracular Pig and a hero named Taran and another character, a bard, Fflewddur Fflamand and, of course, a princess Eilonwy. In his stories, I was thrilled to recognize variations my own name. For the first time I realized I had a history, and it was connected to Wales. The stories of the Ulster cycle and Cuchulain were also a big influence. I read works by James Campbell, particularly "The Hero With A thousand Faces" and was very struck with the universality of much myth. Also influencing me was "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves, which is an attempt to understand the mystery religion aspects of Taliesan's poetry and decode the meaning of the mysterious poem "The Battle of the Trees". It is an attempt to understand creation as an act of poetry, which I saw as a view at the heart of Celtic spirituality. After decades as an artist I am only now coming to a point where I would consider painting that poem, in an abstract fashion, and tackling other Welsh myths in a modern painterly style, not so much as an illustration of a scene.
While traditional celtic design motifs are the starting point for many of my designs, I also realize that Wales and Ireland are modern countries that have modern identities. As time goes on I hope to produce more designs leaning towards a modern perspective. I am fascinated by history though and have tried designs based on such things as Pibgorns and The Coracle Man, but perhaps the general public isn't as intrigued as I by coracles! I've tried my hand at building a pibgorn (difficult to tune) and a coracle is to come.
AmeriCymru: In particular AmeriCymru members will be familiar with your recent St David's Day card design. What inspired it? Are we talking Austin Powers here?
Peter: That card was a lot of fun. I was playing around with a humorous approach to that ubiquitous symbol of Wales and ideas that might be useful for next years Eisteddfod, and realized I needed to think in a more modern and fun direction. LA, land of fun cars, shades, and hedonism, was the obvious inspiration. I'm a fan of sports cars and had been looking for a bug eye Sprite or similar for a restoration project. (I only have 9 hobbies and clearly needed a 10th). This drawing was very different from my usual approach and I hope it will prove useful in keeping things modern and humorous. I'm a big believer in keeping the past and present firmly in touch. As Utah Phillips (and Faulkner) said, "the past didn't go anywhere, the past is right here". And in Wales, awareness of the past seems to greatly inform the present, unlike LA. I like the idea of an age-old symbol put in modern dress.
AmeriCymru: What part do the ancient Celtic myths and legends play in your creative inspiration?
Peter: There is an edition of the Tain Bo Cuailnge (the great Irish story cycle) that has illustrations by Louis le Brocquy. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Louis_le_Brocquy_T%C3%A1in_ illustrations and http://www.anne-madden.com/ LeBPages/lebrocquy.html
) I saw these drawings as a young man and they captured for me in a
visceral way the nature of the stories. The Tain is, over and over
again, the story of restrained power that explodes. Le Brocquy has also
illustrated the Goddodin, a sad poem of the battle and death of many
ancient British warriors ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Y_Gododdin and http://www.missgien.net/ celtic/gododdin/poem.html
). In all his brush drawings the ink is aching to explode. I would
like to illustrate some tales in a similar expressive way. I am looking
or ways to present Cuchulain's story and the Battle of the Trees in
woodblock prints. I don't work in a very realistic vein, but these
stories are themselves fantastical and lend themselves to an expressive
treatment. This study for the battle of Cuchulain and Ferdia is one
example of my approach.
Here is another example, the approach of the giant Bendigeidfran (Bran the Blessed) and the Ships of the Island of the Mighty as they approach the warriors of Ireland.
For now I work with landscape in a way that similarly brings it alive and exploding. Another concern is the place of landscape in the stories. In Wales especially landscape and the spirit of places plays a large role in folk tales. Landscape is my preferred subject when I'm painting, drawing or printmaking. I'm collecting material to help in a series of prints on the landscape of the Welsh mountains and valleys. In regard to Ireland I often think of the villages, but in regard to Wales I think of the land itself. To be there would be best, but working from pictures and imagination can also give good results.
The place of ancient myth in modern identity is also an issue. I was trained as post-modern artist in a school that stressed social issues. I'm accustomed to think about art in terms of the issues it addresses. Modern identities are one such issue. When I work with celtic motifs or Welsh landscape or read Welsh poetry, another great favorite, I am reaffirming my own chosen identification with Wales, and with Ireland. Being an American mutt with numerous family ties, identity is a choice among possibilities, a choice about which history and culture speaks to me inwardly. In that sense setting up Wales Ireland Design was a means to establish a connection that I wanted to encourage. Whether Wales wants me or not is another question, but the fact that these celtic myths spoke to me as a child tells me that this is a connection I should make an effort to explore and to maintain. Identity plays a large role in celtic myths, often hidden identities that must be guessed, of the Who Am I variety, and refusals to give one's identity. The development of these stories into collections with modern names such as the Mabinogion are part of the development of Welsh identity, and my illustration of them becomes part of my identity. Even phrases like "As Long As We Beat The English" play their part in the creation of a cohesive modern identity. Choosing what parts to embrace helps negotiate my own American and Celtic and Welsh identity. (My French ancestors from Montenegro or my Russian ancestors from Poland and Latvia might disagree with my choices!)
In some Welsh folktales the faerie world and the real world exist next to each other, indeed occupy the same space at the same time. There is the story of the farmer whose back door is opening onto a faerie town and is getting in their way, even though he can't see it. So the sense of place and the spirit of a place are of utmost importance. These feelings inform my approach to painting a living landscape where even the rocks live. See this example below.
AmeriCymru: Is there a large market for Welsh design motifs in the US?
Peter: In America, at least, the Irish seem to own the idea of Celticism. I've found that few people actually know much about Wales. I'd like to help reclaim that Celtic identity for the Welsh in the popular imagination, and put them on the same footing as the Irish in terms of popular appeal and knowledge. Of course I'm also proud of my Irish heritage, which was my mother's, but they haven't cornered the market on all things Celtic. The largest market, in general, is for Irish merchandise, much of it in the "Kiss Me I'm Irish" variety. I'm trying to do something a bit more sophisticated than that. I'd like people to come to understand that Irish music, dance, etc. has Welsh counterparts, and the Celtic aspects of modern Ireland are echoed in similar Welsh aspects. Irish and Welsh folktales are echoes of each other. So raising awareness of Welsh Celticism is an important part of my own marketing.
I also have to try to find what people are drawn to. And in Wales it is often rugby. With the Wales-France game about to start as I write, rugby shirts are popular. Popular events such as the West Coast Eisteddfod can help raise awareness of the sheer fun aspects of Welshness, and having fun is an important part of any marketing. It's not all hymn singing. Whiskey, poetry and fighting have their place, just as they do for the Irish. Luckily I can sell all over the world through an internet store, and the Welsh have set roots in many countries. Expanding the idea of what a welsh motif is is part of the challenge. It has to go beyond tall hats and sheep to extend it's reach to a wider audience. At my local gym I wear a Welsh shirt to exercise as there are already five guys wearing Irish shirts. Show the colors as it were.
AmeriCymru: If you could visit Wales tomorrow where would you like to go and why?
Peter: Send me to Snowden, and the Preseli hills. I would love to hike and sketch in the high country. Being a musician, I would have to check out the Cardiff music scene, both for modern rock and traditional music, wherever I find it. I've been trying (with small success) to learn some Welsh, so I'd want to spend some time in a Welsh course. Having an interest in boatbuilding I'd like to visit a folklife center and see a coracle being built, and visit Evans Boatworks in Pembrokeshire where they build wooden boats. I'd also like to tour the healing wells around the country, waterfalls (a favorite for drawing) and such historical sights as the castles, Hedd Wyn's home, and Dylan Thomas' home.
AmeriCymru: Where should people go online to find your work?
Peter: Here are URLS for my webs stores: http://www.zazzle.com/
walesirelanddesign : http://www.zazzle.com/ raggedbeggar/gifts and finally to see some of my painting and sculpture try https://picasaweb.google.com/ 106090339085071141153/ PaintingAndSculpture and https://picasaweb.google.com/ 106090339085071141153/ Photocompositions
AmeriCymru: What's next for Peter Lewis?
Peter: This summer I will be building a small studio in the backyard. I haven't had a dedicated studio for some time. This will greatly help me spend more time on the fine art aspects of my work, the printmaking and drawing and painting, as opposed to the design work which is done mostly on a computer in my office. I plan some woodcut prints of waterfalls, and also some landscape etchings, both locally and perhaps of Snowdon drawn from photographs. My own New England landscape is a great favorite for landscape paintings. But aside from landscape I want to work on images drawn from stories, such as the Children of Llyr cycle. I continually add new products to my web store. I just added a Ddraig Goch pillow and some tea towels. More to come!
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the readers and members of AmeriCymru?
Peter: My thanks for the continuing support of Americymru members. Keep supporting all the cultural elements that uniquely say Wales. And proudly wear your Wales t shirt to your local Irish festivals. We're fighting cousins after all, and can probably outdrink them (except for the Methodists who could probably outsing them). (Now I'll have to promise Mom to wear an Irish t shirt sometimes for equal time!) Seriously, raising the cultural awareness of Wales in this country can only help the musicians and poets who can come here and share their skills with us, and help extend the folk culture into modern times.