Whimsical, melancholy and heartfelt, the intricate works of Rob Ryan can be found in households across the UK in prints on the wall, books on the shelves and on mugs in the kitchen.
Now Yorkshire Sculpture Park is to exhibit the first retrospective of Ryan’s work. Hand-drawn and either screen-printed or cut from thick paper, these intricate works depict scenes rooted in real life but also the otherworldly, woven with leaves, flowers, skylines and kissing couples.
The succinct poetic phrases and sentences often incorporated into Ryan’s pieces – be they expressions of love or mere pensive observations on life – have earned his work something of a sentimental reputation, though he disputes his pieces are simply “lovey-dovey decoration”.
“I guess it does irritate me a little that people see the works as lovey-dovey because I feel like it doesn’t totally represent everything that I do – but I don’t lose any sleep over it,” he said. “For every person that is cynical about it there’s a lot of really genuine people who tell me ‘that piece saved my marriage’ or ‘my mum was dying and I read that to her on her deathbed’.”
He added: “It isn’t very edgy most of the time, but I’m not that kind of artist.”
The show is his second at the indoor gallery of YSP and is his first retrospective, offering the prolific artist a rare opportunity to look back and take stock.
He said piecing together the exhibition had proved more revealing than he had expected. “It’s funny because being here and walking round looking at my works, some for the first time since I made them, I can now see themes that have emerged in the last three or four years that I never knew were there,” he said.
His childhood and a growing awareness of his own mortality had become increasingly present in his pieces, he observed. “My mum died quite young so I’m now around the age that she died and it does make you think about your own mortality. It’s obviously been in my head but it’s been a surprise for me because I was not aware until now that I had come out in the work.”
One work in the show that grapples with his childhood is a piece from 2013 titled My Tree Never Had Any Roots. Ryan, whose father was in the RAF, moved to a different primary school each year and had what he described as a “very rootless childhood”, a memory he portrays in the shape of a man clutching a tree untethered to the ground.
As with many of Ryan’s works, it features a depiction of his wife, Lorna, whom he met aged 18, and who for the most part doesn’t have any objections about cropping up in Ryan’s paper cuttings and screen prints.
“She never minds being in the works,” he said. “Though I think when I give her a Valentine’s card and then a few years later it turns up as a piece of work she gets a little annoyed.”
While some of his pieces does deal with darker themes, from death and loss to anxiety around parenthood, Ryan said he purposefully kept most pieces upbeat and used the art as a “leveller” for his own darker side.
“It’s like therapy really,” he said. “I try and keep my work quite positive because I am quite an anxious person, a bit of a mess, and my work steadies me. And I don’t make it for anybody else, I make it for me.”
The popularity of Ryan’s designs has been helped by collaborations with retailers such as John Lewis, where his work can be purchased printed on crockery and tea towels.
He admitted it was not an easy decision to franchise his designs, which first began out of necessity after several other illustrators began copying his style. Despite successfully litigating against them, Ryan decided it would be easier to license his designs and make sure they were everywhere, recognisable under his name.
Ryan said he had made his peace with the commercial side of his work now. “I always wanted to make art that people could afford, that they could live with and own a piece of,” he said.
Having completed the final book in a fictional trilogy centred the royal family this week, Ryan said the exhibition marked a turning point in his career, and he had begun rediscovering painting and even photography as a medium.
“I’m trying to move away from paper cutting,” Ryan said. “It’s weird because everybody knows the paper cut work, that’s what I’m known for, but in my head that’s not what I do. I’ve been painting recently, doing watercolours with no words in, which I am really enjoying, and I have had this inclination recently to get out of my studio and do street photography once a week.”
“I wouldn’t see paper cutting as the beginning and end of my work,” he added, “And I wouldn’t want other people to see I that way either.”
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