‘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

The Scotsman - - FEATURES -

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

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