John Rochester: Battled brain tumour, lives on a boat, and creates art
At 55, artist and photographer John Rochester is the unlikely poster boy for the millennials. He espouses the trending virtues of minimalism and sustainability - residing on a boat and generating electricity for personal consumption - and, lives a nomadic life, taking off to numerous countries – the United States, the Bahamas, Europe, at whim. In a fervent attempt to describe him, many a term can be thrown at Rochester - eccentric, maverick, outlier. However, the same cannot be said about his art.
To define his art – paintings and photography – would be to fail it. They exist in the abstract; a place that is ungoverned by rules and decree. The subjects and elements in his paintings, mostly done in oil, unlike its real-life inspirations, don’t understand boundaries. They flow freely into one another, imparting a blurred, almost dreamlike and melancholic quality. It is as if someone is viewing the painting through a wet window pane on a rainy day.
His photographs, though eliciting the same emotions, vary slightly in that they are sharper, almost always in black and white and sombre. They shy away from the quintessential happy elements; focusing on the more moody, unstructured and un-posed aspects of everyday life and surroundings.
Rochester’s passion for art is almost as old as the man himself – he started taking pictures when he was ten! However, his infatuation with blurred displays and monochromatic moodiness stems from a dark place. In 2013, Rochester was diagnosed with Acoustic Neuroma (benign brain tumour), leaving him hearing impaired in one ear, and drastically altering his perspective on art and life.
Post-treatment, the Hertford (United Kingdom) born and raised artist decided to free himself from the trappings of commercial art and daily rigours of socially acceptable life. He shut shop – his two successful art galleries, packed his bags with bare necessities, and now lives on a sailboat where he generates electricity for his own consumption using six solar panels.
TAL caught up with the multi-talented artist to learn more about his nomadic lifestyle, his brush with a massive health scare, how being hearing impaired fuelled his introverted behaviour, and what he wants to convey through his art.
Growing up were you always interested in painting and photography? Are you a self-taught artist and photographer?
Absolutely! My father was a painter, and I would like to believe I inherited this skill from him. I started painting in my early teens but began doing it professionally only in my late 30’s after establishing a successful computing career.
As for photography, I have been taking pictures of subjects that interest me since I was 10! I had several photos published in well-known publications by the time I was sixteen.
In 2013, after being diagnosed with Acoustic Neuroma, how did you overcome the resulting health challenges?
Before the diagnosis, I was consistently losing hearing in one of my ears and my balance quite frequently. On thorough inspection, my General Practioner (GP) suggested an MRI, which showed Acoustic Neuroma (benign brain tumour). I was not surprised at the result because I’d done my research and knew what to expect.
Moreover, I didn’t have the time to be shocked and scared; there was a lot to be done. Almost six months after the diagnosis, I underwent a nine-hour long operation to remove a three-centimetre tumour. The surgery left me hearing impaired in one ear – Single Sided Deafness (SSD) – making it difficult for me to be in noisy environments or distinguish between different sounds and the direction from which it is coming or its strength.
As is the case with several medical conditions, a considerable percentage of the general population is oblivious to SSD, not knowing that those with the condition find it difficult to follow conversations, making social interactions exhausting and frustrating.
However, my balance has improved over time; the brain adjusts and starts to relearn. I am quite amazed to be able to do the activities I used to enjoy before my treatment like riding a bike or solo sailing.
Patience and perseverance have helped keep my spirits up. My wonderful sister also supported me through the ordeal by caring for me after the operation.
After ten weeks of recovery, I slowly went back to work. However, I knew something inside me had changed, and I didn’t enjoy work the way I did before.
Do you think the diagnosis influenced the way you look at art and photography?
I am not consciously aware of how my medical condition and subsequent treatment influenced my work. However, I do feel that my artworks have, over the last few years, become more abstract and less realist.
Your paintings have a dreamlike quality to them. Is that the effect you hope to get from your viewers? What is the usual thought process behind your artworks?
I don’t want the message or thinking that goes into my paintings to be obvious to the viewer. I wish that every time someone looks at my art they feel something new and different.
When I start a painting, I do have an idea of what the finished product would look like, but I am not married to the initial thought. I let the process of a particular artwork dictate the result. More often than not, the outcome is entirely different from the one I had initially imagined.
Your photographs, on the other hand, are sharp and almost always in black and white. What’s your thought process behind photographing something? What type of subjects of elements attracts the photographer in you?
I work mostly in black and white film, very rarely using digital. Film forces you to open your mind more and think intensely about the image you want rather than clicking away mindlessly in the hope of finding a good photo.
Moreover, I find the process of shooting with film more creative and develop my own film to have more control of the final image.
Being an introvert myself, I use my photos and art to communicate with the world. Through my pictures, I want to capture and highlight the beauty and mystery that surrounds us and show it to my audience.
Our never-ending worries keep us preoccupied, blinding us to the wonders of our present surroundings. I want my photos to remind my viewers of what they are missing when they are not focusing on the Now.
You have travelled to the United States, the Bahamas, and Europe, among other countries; which place has inspired the artist in you the most?
Venice! The city’s canals, bright light bouncing off its clear waters, and stunning architecture make it my favourite place to go to for inspiration!
Which artist's (or photographer's) works have influenced you the most and why?
John Singer Sargent has been my biggest inspiration! I love his watercolour artworks – so impulsive and full of the moment.
You are the poster boy for sustainable living! You generate your own electricity and promote extreme minimalism by living on a boat with a few necessities. How did such a lifestyle change come about?
My tryst with Acoustica Neuroma massively altered my approach towards life. Being surrounded by meaningless material things exhausted me, and I yearned for a simpler yet more enriched life. So I chose to go the sustainable route. I left my four-bedroom home and moved into my sailboat with as little as possible.
I generate power with six solar panels and a wind generator. While sailing in the Caribbean for several rainy months, I managed to collect and store all the fresh water I needed.
I am more connected to nature, with the weather and tides controlling my life. I am almost always living outside, and I get to witness and experience things that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I have taken photos that I couldn’t possibly get had I lived inside, separated from everything.
What kind of challenges did you face when you opted for such a lifestyle?
A lot of groundwork and research had to be undertaken before I could completely move out of my home. The boat needed ample repairs to ensure it could sustain staying off the grid and be strong enough for long term solo sailing.
The move also meant doing away with unnecessary items. Discarding meaningless things was quite liberating as it made me realise how little we require to live a fulfilled life.
The weather dominates my life now, and some things like grocery shopping take longer - you can’t just pop into the corner shop! Life is slower and calmer. I originally planned on living like this for a year, but I am still at it five years later!
What has the reception been like to your works?
Almost all the paintings I produce sell, so I guess people must like them enough.
What are your plans for the future like?
I try to live in the present as much as possible and try not to worry about the future. Often, we are so anxious about the past or concerned about the future, that we forget to experience and enjoy the present. I don’t want to make that mistake. This summer I may sail to France or Spain for a while and see what that journey has in store for me.
Buy prints or contact the artist here.
Follow Rochester on Instagram.