Colour bursts forth onto the easel of John Lowrie Morrison , Jolomo, with the painting of ‘Wet Winter Croftscape South Uist.’ The deep, iridescent, blue sky of a wet, Scottish day at dusk, merging into an orange sunset. But there is much more to this story.
As Mr Morrison explained: “In January 2005 a young family drowned in a storm that was the worst in living memory on the Islands of Benbecula & South Uist. The storm had built up a few days before as a shallow depression off America’s Easter seaboard. However it developed into a monster.
“A young family were stuck in their croft house for many hours but decided to flee. They left in two cars but as they crossed a single track road causeway the sea swallowed them up.
“A BBC Director, Neil Campbell, was reporting on the storm, not knowing his father, his wife and three children had drowned on the Benbecula – South Uist Causeway.
“I know this place well, I had to paint this tragedy at Lochdar South Uist that shocked Scotland on that stormy night – a memorial of that lovely family.”
Mr Morrison, who uses the pen name ‘Jolomo’, expresses feeling through colour. He doesn’t make photographic paintings of the West Coast of Scotland with her often drab, overcast skies and dark rainclouds. He has a catalogue of photographs and sketches that inspire him and then he paints his interpretation of the scenes – therein lies his magic.
Expressionism for Jolomo
When asked about expressionism, he said: “Impressionism is more realistic, you paint an impression of the snow or the trees. For an expressionist, you can have a red or yellow tree or snow.
“I paint my world, rather than the world the way it is. Picasso creates his own universe. I guess I do the same, really strong colour. I do try to get things looking like the place, it draws people in, not the colours. ‘Archie the Jura’ has gold and purple on the road, purple and gold in the sky, cerise green, colour brings out feelings and a sense of place.
“I hate grey paintings,” he said, “to me paintings should be about colour. First marks by cavemen who mixed red earth, spit water and spray around their horse. They always used strong colour. Their colour is still there, and it’s quite wonderful.”
Jolomo conveys mood and the beauty of Scotland in all its glorious technicolour inspired from a very young age by Soutine, Marc Chagall, Oskar Kokoschka and Andrew Wyeth.
Jolomo’s High Key Colour
As a young man, he was inspired by oil paintings in L’Abri, a theological centre in Switzerland, with high key colour and sharp, clean air. He said: “The keys got higher and brighter. High key colour got better and better. I layer colours. I’m still learning even although I’m in my 70s. Even today I found out new techniques that I will use again.”
Jolomo’s trademark is high key colour which means you paint at the lighter end of a value scale which is a continuum from pure white to pure black. He paints the scene lighter than it is and his dark colours (blue and orange for example in the South Uist storm) become more vibrant because most colours reach a peak saturation around the mid-tone range. The skill is to compress the colour range and ensure the values on the scale still relate the same way to each other.
Impressionists used high key colour to great effect but it’s what Morrison does with the mid-range and darker colours like his blue that sets him apart.
He carries this control over colour into his more recent work and introduces ever higher keys, a taste of heaven perhaps. The deep, dark colours of his early days and the associated heaviness have to some extent receded. They have been replaced by lighter blues, purples and lavender, suggesting that he has found his peace with the world.
Jolomo and Faith
Asked to explain why he paints, Mr Morrison said: “Painting is breathing, that’s it, it’s there inside me, it’s the gift that God has given to me.”
“For me, as a Christian, I believe we create because God created. God’s spirit is with me. I don’t always find painting easy.
“I invite the Holy Spirit to help me, every time I paint. You have to tune in. The Holy Spirit is always around us but you have to connect with it or it won’t connect with you.
Jolomo was converted while at Glasgow School of Art when he was 21, after seeing the ‘Life of Christ’ enacted. He said: “I gave my life to God. That’s when the bright colour came in: a spiritual expression.”
He painted ‘A meeting with Christ’ which was inspired by a photograph a friend sent him a few years ago. The photo was of very large and gnarled olive trees, the trees were well over 2000 years old and in the Garden of Gethsemane.
He said: “My immediate thought when seeing the photos was that my Lord must have walked under these trees or sat below them or even prayed there. I quickly made sketches and executed a painting later.
“The images I painted are of Christ meeting a woman. She could be anyone – you or I. We could meet Christ anywhere but although He is always looking for us, we need to be looking for Him.”
The result: An array of colour and the landscape resplendent with light, hope and joy.
For 25 years, Mr Morrison taught art regionally in Argyll and became the art adviser to the Scottish Office. Now he dedicates himself almost entirely to his painting from his two studios in Tayvallich and Ardnamurchan.
In the 1980s he became a lay preacher after deputising for the local minister. He enjoys travelling the length and breadth of the Western Isles, speaking of God’s love as a supply minister for the Church of Scotland.
Jolomo said art is very therapeutic, it gives people confidence – kids struggling with maths or French would come to art class and gain confidence to tackle the subjects they found difficult.
He is inspired by Phineas Taylor Barnham who said: “The greatest thing you can do is make people happy.” Jolomo said: “I try to lift people’s spirits. I give loads of prints to hospitals.
“There was a man sitting in a waiting room. Twenty years ago he moved to the Cairngorms from Tayvallich, to work with huskies. I knew him. His Dad was dying.
“He sent me a lovely email saying, ‘I saw you in the Coop: it made me think of your paintings. The prints really lifted my spirits, then I was in hospital with my Dad and I saw one of your prints, I felt an inner peace.’ That’s worth more than money.”
His legacy might be the Jolomo Awards and Foundation created to highlight the painting of the Scottish Landscape in the 1990s when he felt conceptual art was taking over. He feels the award has reversed this trend and there is now a “massive” number of landscape painters in Scotland.
Mr Morrison’s earnings are significant because he is prolific and he wants his art to be accessible – you can buy one of his canvases for between £2000 and £2500 and his prints for much less. He paints to bring joy.
His high key colour opens people’s eyes to Scotland at her magnificent best. Few would question the fact that John Lowrie Morrison has become a national treasure.
You can see Jolomo exhibiting throughout July and August in a retrospective exhibition at the MacLaurin Gallery & Museum in Ayr. You can also find him at the Archway Gallery in Lochgilphead on 14 August, the Torrance Gallery in Edinburgh on 25 September and he will exhibit at the Glasgow Gallery on 13 November.
This article was first published in the November edition of Scottish Field magazine 2021.