Jeni Caruana by Peter Wilson
There's no hesitation when Jeni Caruana is asked how much her emotions and moods influence her work. "Totally," she says. "That's sometimes the problem. If I don't feel like painting, I can't paint. Emotion is the reason I paint." It is hardly surprising then that Jeni does not take commissions.
Those emotions reached a new level with her 'Remembering Mother Earth' exhibition at the National Museum of Archaeology in 2003, one of the island's most successful in recent times. Inspired by the prehistoric temples of Malta, which included Jeni being one of the few people allowed to paint inside the Hypogeum, and the women they depicted, some visitors left the exhibition in tears such was its emotional grasp.
She doesn't consider herself a feminist painter, but one who likes to find the right balance between male and female. "We are not the same," she says, "so let's celebrate the differences." The exhibition's influence crossed the borders of Malta and led to Jeni being invited to Norway to address a conference for creative women.
Born in England in 1954, Jeni Caruana studied art at Uxbridge Technical College and at Hull and Harrow Art Colleges, before moving to Malta in the 1970s.
Her greatest influence was the artist Joy Farndell Micallef from whom she learned to paint watercolours, although her earliest memories are as a seven year old sitting drawing pictures of cows pasturing in the fields of her native Middlesex.
She works in watercolours, acrylics and mixed media, painting subjects ranging from landscapes to musicians, nudes to the aforementioned prehistoric temples. She also writes poetry. "There is the challenge of doing different things," says Jeni. Watercolour, though, remains her favourite and she is constantly surprised by it. "It is such an eccentric medium," she says. "It's so organic that you never know what it's going to do."
She says that living in Malta brought colour to her work: purple, because of the shadows cast by the constant sunshine, and ochre, the colour of the earth, are the two she most associates with her adopted country. But looking at her paintings, the colour of England, particularly the green of grass and fields, is also prominent.
Her works are featured in many public and private collections both in Malta and abroad. Jeni has also been the subject of television broadcasts for TVM and the BBC and she tutors watercolour-painting holidays for Malta Art. As a teacher she has strong opinions on art education in Malta, or the lack of it. She despairs at the absence of the full-time art courses available.
Jeni is about to embark on a new fact-finding mission about her own work following the building of a new studio. Her former studio had no natural light; the new one, at the top of her atmospheric house in the hills of the Pwales valley, is bathed in daylight for hours on end. "I can see my work getting more abstract and colourful," says Jeni. We await the results with much anticipation.
This interview appears in 10 Watercolourists (Grimand Company Ltd), a book that looks at the works of 10 of Malta's leading watercolour artists, including Jeni Caruana. The book was launched at a recent exhibition of the works that coincided with the head of governments meeting in Malta.
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