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Antony Hegarty: I am an artist

He was turned down by the Royal College of Art, but now the award-winning lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons has his own exhibition. By Charlotte Cripps

The Mercury Prize-winning musician Antony Hegarty is the latest big name in music to have a solo art show, in the same week as his band, Antony and the Johnsons, release their hotly anticipated third album, The Crying Light. Both Hegarty's art and the new album tackle environmental issues and the singer's relationship with nature.

"You could paste each of those pictures over my eyeballs and that would be the lens through which I see the world," says Hegarty, 37, who has spent years mulling over his blown-up images of nature and is naturally apprehensive about his arrival on the art scene. Better known for his otherworldly and soaring vocals on the 2005 Mercury Prize-winning album, I Am a Bird Now, than he is for making visual art, he says: "I know that people are more interested because I have a platform as a singer. The whole thing makes me a little nervous. My drawings are a relatively humble little offering."

Over the last few years, Hegarty has been putting more energy into visual projects, aiming to create a personal account of what had been on his mind. He never considered exhibiting the work. "It was only when I realised that I'd created this group of pictures that seemed to have a life of their own, that I decided, with great reservation, to throw them out there."

The previously unseen body of work, The Creek, consists of a series of large photographs of his delicate drawings and collages of nature, crafted on reclaimed, scrunched-up, stained paper or drawn on pages torn out of magazines, as well as some photographic portraits.

Cut Away The Bad 2 is an image of a polar bear that has been shot dead – taken from Life magazine – which Hegarty has drawn over. "I cut away the evidence of the hunters. I wanted to honour the polar bear and to bring its spirit into focus. I have tried to find the lines of its spirit. I wanted to see it differently." In Mountains and the Sea, Hegarty has superimposed a simple drawing of mountains over an image of the Arctic Circle, while in the vintage photographic print, The Creek, he has included the location's apparent "unseen energetic vibrations" in pen.

Other photographic works include a self-portrait, Ghost, with an image of his late great-grandmother, who died of consumption, projected on to his face and Julia's Hand, featuring Dr Julia Yasuda, an intersex person [someone who is classified as neither male or female] and Hegarty's mentor, who used to open Antony and the Johnsons' early live shows, performing a welcome in Morse code. "This is my favourite photographic work," he says. "It's almost like a trust-your-mother pose."

Until now, this side of Hegarty's life has remained a secret. But behind the closed doors of his Manhattan home, far from the public's gaze, he has spent several years poring over his work. "There is no set gestation period – but there are a few different trains of thought I was pursuing when I was making them," says Hegarty.

"It is a process of scratching away at something – just following my nose – as I was connecting to the imagery. A lot of the time it was about drawing the things that you can't see – some energetic aspect."

In some works, Hegarty's scrawling black ink blots have a menacing feel – as in The Ice Ship, an image from the Life archives of a US troop-carrying submarine battling its way through thick ice. In another, Black Sigh Derby, a photograph of a row of cars by the ocean, Hegarty has added so much black ink that it is almost eating the page. "This looming black stuff is what the landscape might look like in the future; a very different picture to the pastoral Fifties vision of cars."

Hegarty is drawn to the images he uses in his work intuitively. "It's like finding rocks on a beach, they call me," he says. "It's the same with my songwriting. As I've got older it has become more like a collage process. Sometimes creativity will burst forward and strike me in a lightning-bolt moment. But more often than not, it's about bringing smaller components into one."

"Environmental issues have been in my heart and mind the last few years. When I'm sitting and dreaming, it's the relationship with the world and the environment, the sense of the future and the past that comes up for me," he says.

"I feel very lucky that I have creativity as a tool to help me work through this process of growing and becoming more aware. There is an alchemy to that and creativity is a lens through which I can start to think of things that I don't necessarily understand."

Ever since he was old enough to hold a pen, Hegarty has wanted to be an artist. "I loved drawing long before I got into music. I was obsessed by drawing." Born in Sussex, he didn't get into London's Royal College of Art and enrolled instead on an experimental theatre course at New York University. He released his debut album Antony and the Johnsons in 2000. He finally took the plunge into the art world this summer, when he was included in a group show, It's Not Only Rock 'N' Roll, Baby! – a series of visual works by musicians including Patti Smith, Yoko Ono and Brian Eno – at the Bozar in Brussels. "That was first time I'd exhibited anything in my entire life. I got really excited about it."

Then the owner of London's Isis Gallery, John Marchant, an old friend of Hegarty's who had originally given David Tibet of Current 93 Hegarty's demo, which led to it being released on Tibet's Durtro label – convinced Hegarty to take it a step further. "There is a part of me that is shy about showing my artwork – but I'm pushing through this. Drawing for me is very personal. That's why I had never thought of showing these works before. But this work parallels the themes in my music right now so it seemed the right time to do it."

Antony Hegarty's exhibition is at the Isis Gallery, London W1 ( www.isisgallery.org ), from 17 January to 28 February