San Francisco Celtic artist, Jen Delyth, is known worldwide for the original and iconic mixture of old and new in her beautiful work. Delyth's paintings, illustrations and design marry new technique and composition concepts with deeply rooted cultural and mythological themes.
About her art, Jen has written, "I am intrigued by the marriage of old and new, ancient and future. This work is a personal journey into the language of Celtic myth and symbol, the beauty of nature, a simple interpretation of Celtic spirituality expressing the Mystery of the inter-connectedness and balance of all things."
AmeriCymru: You were born in south Wales. Can you tell us a little about your background?
Jen: I was actually born in the Welsh borderlands of the Wye valley, not far from Tintern Abbey. Offa's dyke ran behind our garden - an 8th century earthwork built by the Anglo Saxon king to keep the Welsh out of Mercia. When I was a few years old, we moved back to South Wales, to my mother's family in the Port Talbot area. My Great Grandfather came as a boy from Cornwall, at the turn of the century, when the tin mines ran dry, to find work in the local steel industries, which were fueled by the coal from the Valleys. My parents were young teachers, and later we lived in the small village of Penllergaer, on the edge of the Gower Peninsula, which is known for its natural beauty, ancient history, and lovely beaches. They live there now in the village of Llangennith - the Church of the Celtic Saint Kenneth/Cenydd - who was said to have been raised by seagulls and fed by the milk of a doe, and later established a monastery there in the 6th century.
Jen: I did not realize for a long time that I would one day become a visual artist. I have not studied art in school, and am completely self taught. I chose philosophy as my main subject at University, and then taught myself photography, doing some freelance work in London for a while before I came to the States.
I don't remember being particularly exposed to the visual arts as a child, but there was music, poetry and drama, which I enjoyed and participated in. I was an active member of the Urdd - the youth Eisteddfod - singing and reading Welsh texts on behalf of my school.
I remember being given a book of Greek mythology when I was young, and it really caught my attention. It was my interest in myths and legends that first inspired me to create iconographic symbols and archetypes using the language of the folk art of my own culture.
In the beginning, creating Celtic patterning was an intuitive playful process. I quickly became compelled and intrigued by the rhythms and intricate balance, the push and pull and inherent mystical content of this art form, that 20 years later developed into this body of work that I am now proud to have created.
As a self taught artist, I learned by doing, experimenting, and from personal studies. I felt it was important to create authentic new original Celtic artwork, to contribute to the living tradition, rather than simply coping the old existing designs which seemed to be more usual. I think it was also a response to missing my home - Hiraeth - when I moved to northern California after meeting my husband Scott - a Jazz musician - whilst traveling. I became more aware of who I was, and where I had come from in having left, and it drew my attention to the intensely creative wealth of folk lore and imagery that I perhaps took for granted back in Wales.
I was encouraged very much by my family and friends when I started working as a Celtic artist. My mother has always been active in Welsh folk culture, and it seemed quite natural for me to follow the threads forward in my own way, with my own style, and to be doing so in the States where so many others had come before as immigrants - although I had not particularly planned on this!
AmeriCymru: It would appear that you possess a fair amount of knowledge about the Celts. When did this information become of real interest to you? Do you have any favorite Welsh or Celtic myths?
Jen: I started a personal interest in Celtic studies at the same time as I began creating images that drew from themes in Welsh myth and folk lore. I remember my mother telling me about the Mabinogion that she read as a child, and I was already interested in the ideas of contemporary philosophers such as Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, who drew insight and wisdom from the mysticism of the ancient mythologies of the world, which was very inspiring to me.
My favourite Welsh Myths are the story of Taliesin - the mythic Poet, and Blodeuwedd who transforms into the Owl. Also I love the legend of the early Welsh Saint Melangell- Protector of the Hare. These are characters that connect our spirituality with nature, through representing archetypes in our psyche that continue to resonate within us today.
AmeriCymru: Okay, we have to ask about your Celtic Tree of Life design. When and how did the inspiration for this work happen? And when did you begin to realize that this design was taking on a huge life of its own? When you think about it, it seems that this iconic image has reached past the Celtic world and has spoken to many people across this planet. How does that strike you?
Jen: The inspiration for my Celtic Tree of Life (in 1989) was a very simple and natural idea to portray this universal symbol as an iconographic Celtic symbol. There are no actual images of trees in depicted in Celtic antiquity, such as in any of the old illuminated manuscripts, or ancient stone or metal works, only as abstracted vine patterns and so on. I appreciate trees and forests very much (in fact my first art business was called Dryad Graphics - Dryads are the spirits of the trees. The basic image took only a few hours, and then some more to refine it. I was pleased with it, but had no idea of its future impact- or the complications that this image would create for us!
We began to realize it was taking a life of its own, when we started seeing the design chosen as body art - tattoos, and receiving many requests to use the image for personal logos. We also found it was being used quite a bit on the internet, and realized many people were perceiving it as an ancient design, and not a contemporary work, which is a great compliment, but also makes it difficult to protect the copyright. A friend once described it as having become like a "folk song" out in the world. Which is lovely. However, we do have to work diligently to control use of the design in the commercial arena, and to educate the public on copyright and appropriate credit whenever possible.
I'm very proud of having contributed a symbol that does seem to resonate to many people, including both Christians and Pagans, ecologists, healers and scientists, those of Celtic heritage, and anyone who appreciates Trees!
AmeriCymru: The original Celtic Tree of Life -- what media did you use to create it? What media do you enjoy working with the most?
Jen: The original design was simply sketched on paper, which I like to do at first, working out and refining the design. Then, since I wanted to adapt the image to different mediums for my crafts business at the time, I often used a digital vector-drawing tools (Adobe Illustrator) - which was very new back in 1989 - to refine it. The graphic arts computer (a Mac SE) was only recently available back then, and I was very excited at the time about using such modern technology, to work with creating ancient symbols. The Celts were known to excel at adapting new tools and processes such as the compass for example, or metal making techniques, and I remember thinking how appropriate it was, to be a 20th century Celtic artist, using this most modern tool (the computer), as part of my the authentic process, rather than simply emulating the methods and styles of history.
To balance out this technical medium, I also enjoy - depending on what mood I'm in - using pencils, pens, oil, acrylic or watercolor - and my favorite - egg tempera painting. Egg tempera was being used by the ancient Egyptians, and a slightly different version on the illuminated manuscripts created by the Celtic Scribes - using natural ground pigments and precious stones, and creating a medium with egg yolk (or egg white) to make the paint. This on top of hand made gesso on birch boards. I love this medium the most, as its organic, luminous, and aesthetically lovely to work with.
AmeriCymru: Many of your images evoke a very dream-like essence (The Garden comes to mind). Do your images come to you in dreams? You also must receive a lot of email and letters from those who appreciate your efforts. Do you ever get ideas from them that find their way into your artwork? Have you ever been commissioned to do work? If so, how does that work?
Jen: My images are usually formed through abstracting and weaving together particular mythic or symbolic content, more than from dreams. But its true that sometimes when resting, or perhaps when walking along the beach, when I am not particularly thinking about my work, that an image does pop up. I remember in particular with "The Garden" that you mention, that I was just coming out of an afternoon nap, when I envisioned the motif of the dragonfly integrated into the fore-head and nose of the main figure, which then intuitively and visually translated into a deeper "shamanic" connection between the Dragonfly and the anthropomorphic image of the Green Man/Woman as nature deity. Which was a gift from the muse for sure! The best inspirations do seem to come from being open and relaxed and channeling through yourself as an artist, rather than forcing the design.
I do get a fair amount of positive correspondence - which is what keeps me going I think at times! There have not been a lot of art collaborations exactly, but yes, sometimes a request for an image does inspire new work. I don't take commissions very often, as my work is time consuming, and it would be expensive really. I prefer to focus without the pressure of translating for someone else, and don't really have so much time to do that well. But working closely with my publisher to pull projects together has a collaborative synergy sometimes that I enjoy very much.
AmeriCymru: Your work has inspired reviewers, art critics, and the public at large. When did you realize that you might actually be able to make a living doing what you love?
Jen: It was very humble beginnings to be honest. I had no idea when I started that there would be so much interest or a market for my work. I made a few simple textile designs and prints for a local crafts fair, just for fun really, back in 1990, and the response was so overwhelmingly positive, I realized I could maybe make a humble living doing this full time. I quickly began to understand that many Americans were hungry for connection with their heritage, and that Welsh, Irish and Scottish immigrants - of course - were a large group in this country, who very much valued their roots. It was not why I began, or the focus of my work, however the support of this community did help my journey as an artist.
Apart from creating a business though, something in me was always compelled to push the originality and authenticity of my style. I wanted to express something meaningful in my work, and to learn and grow as an artist, as a visual mythologist really - using my culture and the language of Celtic art as the vocabulary - to talk about spirituality, nature, and how we connect with that on a deep level.
AmeriCymru: Given the massive size of the body or art you have created, one wonders if you work alone or if you have a legion of artistic employees. Can you tell us something about the business side of your work? What is a typical day like for you?
Jen: I think that for many years, I was extremely motivated and my creative period didn't stop even when maybe it would have been good to have some time off! There were so many designs that called to me to be fleshed out, to tell the story of Celtic spirituality and mysticism, that I was just simply obsessed I suppose! I work alone, in my home garden studio, although my husband and partner Scott has always been there to support and provide honest feedback. I have received requests to teach or to take on apprentice help, but I work intensely, and prefer to be alone in my process.
On the business side, I started the fledgling Dryad Graphics in 1988, which grew into a international art and gift company Keltic Designs Inc. when my husband Scott left his teaching career to join me. Along with the art and design, I continue to do the more technical web work and product development, and my partner Scott manages the business. I also enjoy working closely with my publishers Amber Lotus, who encourage and give me total creative control, and I respect their positive vision and collaborative spirit very much.
AmeriCymru: What projects are you currently involved with? What can we see from Jen Delyth in the near future?
Jen: Ah.. this is the question! After finishing my book "Celtic Folk Soul - art, myth and symbol" last year, I have been on my first sabbatical, since I started working over 20 years ago. This book felt like I had completed the body of work - and I'm not sure quite what to do next in a way!
In "Celtic Folk Soul" I learned to write - encouraged by my publishers who insisted I provided the text for the book - and enjoyed that very much. I would say I would like to continue writing and perhaps illustrate another book - but that also took a lot of time, energy, and resources. But it was very exciting and satisfying to pull all my designs and paintings together, with poetry and mythology, history and folklore. Maybe I'd like to teach and share what I have learned, pass it on to others. Maybe just walk along the beach with my dog Tân, cook dinners for my friends, and pull some weeds a little while longer. We'll have to see.
AmeriCymru: Do you have any message for your admirers and friends at AmeriCymru?
Jen: I appreciate very much the often hard journey that so many made to come to this country from Wales, and the roots that have been planted here. I am mysteriously part of this movement westward, bringing my culture with me, as so many have done before. I hope that we will not forget where we came from, the beautiful green and brackened land of poets and farmers, dragons and saints, chapels and ancient stone circles, and my favorite - Great Aunt Bronwen's welsh cakes on the griddle! Ysbryd tragwyddol y keltiad - the spirit of the Celts is eternal! Diolch, Jen Delyth
Interview by Brian y Tarw Llwyd