‘After I’d made the decision there was a huge sense of relief. I immersed myself in art, and didn’t look back’
Henry Jabbour was a research scientist when he swapped stability and status to become an artist. His new exhibition shows the gamble paid off, writes Susan Mansfield
It was a crossroads moment, a point in life when one must make a choice, and any decision will have lifelong consequences. On the one hand, Henry Jabbour had been offered a chair in reproductive health at the Medical School at Edinburgh University, a prestigious appointment which was, in many ways, the fulfilment of his ambitions as a scientist. But on the other, he could not ignore his growing passion for art.
One path offered career success and a measure of security. The other offered only an uncertain future in a highly competitive field. Nonetheless, in 2010, having just turned 50, Henry walked away from his career as a senior research scientist and enrolled in a fulltime course at Leith School of Art.
“It took me a long time to make that decision,” he remembers, sitting in Edinburgh’s Union Gallery, which will host a major exhibition of his work during this year’s Edinburgh Festival. “It was an incredibly tough decision, because being a scientist and getting a chair at a medical school – in the premier department in the premier school in Europe – as an academic that’s what you dream of, really.
“But I also thought, if I don’t do it [art] now, I’ll never do it. I almost felt compelled. Taking the decision was tough, but after I’d made the decision there was a huge sense of relief. I immersed myself in art, and didn’t look back.”
Nine years later, having achieved an MFA from a top New York art school, Henry is finding his paintings are winning prizes and catching the eye of art collectors. This summer alone, he has had a painting accepted for the prestigious Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Prize Exhibition in London (for which only 120 paintings are selected, from a submission of 1,400), and won two prizes at the Royal Society of British Artists. Tomorrow, his most high profile solo exhibition to date, A Life More Human, will open at the Union Gallery during Edinburgh Art Festival.
Alison Auldjo, owner of the gallery and an artist herself, believes the art lovers thronging the city during the festival will fall in love with Henry’s work. She says: “His work is astonishing. It’s an enormous privilege to play a small part in bringing this work to a wider public. I met him many years ago as a regular visitor to the gallery, a successful scientist with a huge passion for art. I was curious when he began to embark on his own artistic adventure. Now, I look at his work in astonishment. How can someone who came to art relatively late in life be this good? I think he’s destined for great things.”
Looking at the paintings which will make up A Life More Human is a moving experience. Almost all feature figures – a woman sitting at a table with a pot of coffee, a man tending a vase of roses, a couple sitting on a park bench. In expressive brush strokes and bright colours, Henry seems to capture moments, feelings, memories rather than precise likenesses, yet the gesture – the lift of an arm, the tilt of a head – is always exactly right, testament to his rigorous training. For this exhibition, he has also made several sculptures which seem to translate the same expressiveness into ceramic and bronze, and a series of etchings, many of which feature dancers.
He speaks about how an individual painting can be “a battle”, with some canvases scraped back and painted over and others thrown away altogether, about how he uses colour instinctively and rarely uses the same combination twice, but he prefers not to say too much about the people in the paintings.
“They are based on people I know, but I want my paintings to be more like poetry, which is open to interpretation, I want the viewer to interpret them with their own emotions. If they give a painting a new interpretation that connects with their own emotional world, that’s so much richer for me. If someone says to me, ‘That’s my father’, or ‘This painting is me’, that’s wonderful for me, because the painting has transcended my vision for it, it is going on a new journey with someone else.”
Henry grew up in Lebanon and, looking back, he says, the interest in art was always there, though he was encouraged to work towards a career in science because “it was seen as a career with a structure”. However, even while studying to become a scientist, first at the American University in Beirut, then for a PHD in Sydney, he was looking for opportunities to visit art galleries and museums.
Working for the Medical Research Council at Edinburgh University Medical School as a specialist in reproductive health, he decided to take an evening class in painting at Leith School of Art. “There, my passion was somehow ignited quite strongly as a practitioner. I did more workshops and classes and, bit by bit, I was feeling frustrated because I didn’t feel I had enough time to do it because of the demands of the job.
“Leith School of Art was really important to me. It’s incredibly nourishing and nurturing. It emphasises the artist in each and every one of
“All the qualities I had that made me do well in science – being determined, hardworking, focused, not giving up easily – I still have them, I just need to adapt them to this new discipline”
us. There were a lot of people from similar walks of life, people who were professional but felt there was something lacking that we wanted to do. It gave me a place to do it and that is quite unique.
I feel very indebted to their encouragement and support.”
It was his tutors at Leith who encouraged him to put a portfolio together and apply for the New York Academy of Art, known for its rigorous traditional training in the disciplines of drawing and painting, one of the few art schools in the world to continue to teach in this way. Henry says: “There was a full time-table of subjects like anatomy, drawing, art history, but also you still had to do your own studio practice, so I would be there until midnight most days. It was incredibly intense, but also incredibly creative.
“I don’t work in a representational way now, but it doesn’t feel like throwing away what I learned. I think that having that knowledge behind you is quite important, it gives you the confidence to work more intuitively. I think if I didn’t have it, I would probably feel insecure going down that path.”
He says some of the skills he had as a scientist have also translated to the world of art. “I remember waking up one day and saying, I have no idea what the path as an artist is going to be like or how well I will do at it, but all the qualities I had that made me do well in science – being determined, hardworking, focused, not giving up easily – I still have them, I just need to adapt them to this new discipline. Also, I know how to handle rejection, because, as a scientist, you write grant applications and the success rate is 10 per cent. You get disappointment, and then you stand up again and keep going.
“The more I work as an artist, the more I am convinced that the ingredients for being creative in art and in science are the same. People say to me, ‘Do you go to your studio when you feel inspired?’ It’s nonsense. You go day in and day out. It’s a slog. You have to put in the work. There are these fleeting moments of inspiration, but they come through all the hours and hours of just doing. You should not be dissuaded if it’s really what you want to do.”
● Henry Jabbour: A Life More Human, tomorrow-9 September at the Union Gallery, 4 Drumsheugh Place, Edinburgh, www. uniongallery.co.uk
Henry Jabbour first trained at Leith School of Art before attending New York Academy of Art