It began with a book. Rather than sitting snug among the others on the shelf, it was lying open on top. It was early morning, sunlight leaking through the window, casting a sweeping shadow of pages on the wall. The artist Jess Allen felt compelled to paint it, and several bookish studies in light and dark followed. Before long, she began to wonder whether she might like to try painting other shadows – those of figures, perhaps. Which is how she and her husband, the sculptor Simon Allen, became her subjects. “We’re here,” she says, smiling with her eyes, “it’s convenient.”
We’re talking over cups of tea in Jess’s studio, a short drive from Penzance in Cornwall. She and Simon, who both studied art in Falmouth, moved here in 2006 and since their daughters left home they have gradually done up the house. Jess’s studio is reached by some outdoor steps; the sun is shining when I visit, and there’s a cat splayed across the entrance. Inside, the white wood-panelled walls are hung with paintings, more of which are stacked on shelves and tucked away in a chest of drawers. A trolley ferries squeezy tubes of paint, its top converted into a palette. There are two chairs, and as Jess settles into one, I notice a lozenge of light by her plimsolls beaming in from a window above, which could have been lifted straight from one of her canvases.
“I’ve always been interested in art,” she tells me, “and in drawing and painting from life.” For the first four years that they lived here she didn’t have a studio, and the girls were young, so she took a break. She got going again by doing a painting a day. Small still lifes of things around the house: a jug, an aubergine, an apple attached to its branch. “After that I spent a bit of time working abstractly, but I didn’t know why I was doing it, apart from pushing colours around.”
In 2017, Jess was diagnosed with breast cancer, and during treatment she made memento mori paintings of paper bags. “They became symbols to me of our obsession with shopping,” she says. “People put so much energy into material things, but there are more important things in life.” Among the brown and black bags is a ghostly white one from the pharmacy. The more she painted them, the more she realised they were also “just good objects to paint”. It was the same with the boxes that followed. “I was enjoying the spaces and arrangements, and the simplifying and simplifying.”
It’s tempting to make connections between Jess’s hazy, muted paintings and her rural surroundings. Where she and Simon live, there’s no sound other than birdsong. The sea is a 20-minute walk away. The Cornish light has famously inspired artists over the years, but in truth, she could make her paintings anywhere. “I’m a Londoner who got stuck in Cornwall,” she says, reminding me that before Falmouth she studied art in Camberwell, “and I’ve never been influenced by anything Cornish.” There is something about the peace and tranquillity, though, that could be hard to come by in the city. “I’ve got a very quiet life here,” she admits.
Since painting shadows, Jess has begun to stage her compositions and work from photographs. “It’s hard to catch a shadow worth painting, and it isn’t just a case of having one on a wall,” she adds, explaining how still life elements add depth. It’s this balance, I believe, that makes her work so alluring: it’s both solid and slippery, familiar and strange. Bookshelves and sofa cushions provide a point of contact, which is made murky and mysterious by shadows.
I ask Jess what she looks for in a subject – a mood or an aesthetic – and she tells me mood is everything now. Her intimate paintings of shadow figures capture both a single moment suspended in time, and the hint of a before and an after. A book left behind on an armchair makes us wonder about its reader, a shadow on a sofa introduces the half-presence of an owner. Titles add intrigue: Shall We Talk About It? (2023) shows two shadows in a bedroom, pillows in the foreground, rumpled from laid heads; Decision to Leave (2023) captures the shadow of a man in a window, and that of a woman walking away. Each artwork considers not just what’s painted, but what’s beyond the picture frame, tantalisingly out of reach.
For Jess, art is about communicating with the viewer. “It’s about what people bring to it and how they experience it,” she says. Her work asks questions but doesn’t provide answers. Instead, it offers room to breathe. Vacant spaces and seats in which to sit and think. Blank books, empty boxes and anonymous shadow figures open to interpretation and ideas. She takes cues from the everyday – ordinary objects and occurrences – and uses them as a springboard for further contemplation. “I'm making use of the mundane, and the mundane becomes exciting to me because I make art about it.”
Interview by Chloë Ashby, an author and arts critic. Her first novel, Wet Paint, was published in April 2022, and her second novel, Second Self, was published in July 2023.
Photographs by James Bannister.