He is a familiar and beloved figure on the Bristol music scene, a wild-haired, heavily bearded fan who can be spotted down the front at most gigs in the city rocking out to the upbeat numbers and swaying to the slower ones.
But another side of Jeff Johns, aka Big Jeff, is being showcased at one of the cities most prestigious venues, the Bristol Beacon, formerly Colston Hall.
On Wednesday an exhibition of his vibrant, dramatic paintings, which reflect both his love of live music and his struggles with anxiety, were unveiled.
Called Big Jeff Johns – Welcome to My World, the show includes paintings of some of the artists who have inspired him, including Gaelynn Lea Tressler, the folk singer, violinist and disability advocate and the Bristol-based trumpeter Pete Judge.
Others give a glimpse into his moods. Fear of Social Expectations, for example, features a large, alarmed eye, while Outcast includes a melancholy-looking character shoved to the edge of the painting.
Within hours of the exhibition going live, his work was being snapped up. BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Mary Anne Hobbs bought one called Build. “Such a powerful message as we look at the new futures we want to create for the planet,” she tweeted.
@BigJeffJohns i love* your paintings Jeff.. i’ve just bought ‘BUILD’ from the gallery.. such a powerful message as we look at the new futures we want to create for the planet..
— maryanne hobbs (@maryannehobbs)
The exhibition is intended to instigate conversations about mental health and inspire people in similar situations to make art themselves.
Johns, 38, said: “I use drawing and painting as a form of self-reflection. A lot of my work echoes my struggles around feeling like I don’t fit into this world. Art for me has been about expressing emotions I can’t explain another way.”
T-minus approximately 12 hours until I start (art) World Domination! You know I’m going to get all Jeff Wayne on your arses.
— Jeffrey Johns (@BigJeffJohns)
His career as a creator began after his grandmother, a tapestry artist, gave him some paints. “When I went to stay with her, I would sit in the early morning as she was working on her loom. I began painting as a way of dealing with lots of difficult emotions and struggling with the world around me. It came as a natural and cathartic release.”
Johns’ first portrait – Raggs – was a study of the musician Rachel Aggs. Johns sourced the canvas from a charity shop and painted it from a blurry photo he had taken of Aggs at a Bristol gig. He had to paint on the kitchen floor of his flat – and the vestiges of a footprint when he forgot it was there can be spotted on the painting.
Raggs features in a collection of 14 paintings that have been hung in Bristol Beacon’s Glass Room and can be viewed online. Over the next few months 20 more Big Jeff paintings will be shown.
In the late spring the paintings will be showcased as part of the Super Cool Drawing Machine exhibition, a celebration of the visual art created by a host of touring musicians, running from 20 to 23 May at Bristol Beacon.
Exhibition curator Lee Dodds said: “We have been working with Jeff for a couple of years now, after discovering his brilliant talent after he posted a photo of Raggs on Facebook. His paintings are uplifting and will definitely be popular with music fans and art collectors in Bristol and beyond.”
Johns is missing live music but is getting on with painting. “It has been difficult to be away from live music,” he said. “It’s not just the music you miss but the faces. It will be great to get back.”