Jo Smith interview: Kids, cats and mayhem
Having originally studied fashion design and winning a coveted award upon graduating from Epsom School of Art, which saw her collection become the finale of a Red or Dead show at London Fashion week, Jo Smith more recently turned her attention to embroidery and textile art. We were intrigued by her captivating work at the Knitting and Stitching show and wanted to know more about the inspiration behind her darkly humorous style.
The tactile nature of materials
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Jo Smith: The endless possibilities and the total lack of boundaries, for me, make textile art so incredibly exciting. The tactile nature of materials and the ability within textiles to work almost seamlessly with so many differing media and disciplines never cease to be inspiring.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
My mother used to make clothes for us as children on an old Singer machine that had been converted from treadle to electric; I thought it was a thing of beauty. I loved the sound it made and the smell of it, but mostly I loved how you could take something flat and make it 3-dimensional, like breathing new life into it. I guess this is where it all started and over the years the love of cloth, stitch and anticipation has just grown.
From fashion to embroidery and textile art and beyond
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I began with fashion design. As far back as I can remember it’s all I ever wanted to do. I used to get thrown out of many a lesson at secondary school for doing fashion drawings instead of schoolwork. As a teenager I made clothes out of whatever fabric I could get my hands on and could often be found knocking together an outfit for friends.
After leaving school I embarked on a YTS at the Textile Arts Centre, which interestingly, was comprised of two terraced houses joined via the garden with a two storey weaving workshop in the back yard. It was bliss; art and design everyday, aimed at building up a portfolio for college applications. It was akin to an art foundation but in a homely relaxed environment. Following this I went to Loughborough College of Art & Design and then from there onto Epsom School of Art to study fashion design and enjoyed every second.
I won the 1992 Grolsch Award, which was judged by Wayne Hemmingway of Red Or Dead and John Galliano amongst others. How fantastic to not only win the competition but to also meet such inspirational designers! As a result of the award I got the opportunity to design a capsule collection which became the finale of a Red Or Dead show at London Fashion Week.
It was much later that I began to specialise in textiles. After starting a family I went back into education, beginning with a multitude of City & Guilds courses in everything from hand and machine embroidery to feltmaking and glasswork. Finally undertaking a degree at the Grimsby Institute (now University Centre Grimsby) in Fine & Applied Art, from which I graduated last year.
I was lucky enough to be chosen as an Embroiderers Guild Scholar 2012/13. With this came the chance to exhibit my work at the Knitting & Stitching shows and in turn take my work to a wider audience. I had my first solo show at the 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in Scunthorpe and have recently been collaborating with a diverse group of talented textile artists in the creation of the ‘Woodland Boudoir’ which was featured in the Spring Knitting & Stitching at Olympia.
Located firmly in the domestic
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I always tend to locate my work firmly in the domestic, in that I don’t feel you need to have a ‘big idea’. I like to keep things simple and for my work to have an element of the human about it, and as a result my work is closely tied to the home environment.; sometimes sorrowful and full of sadness. Firstly, it has to move me in some way and have meaning as I in turn hope it moves the viewer and creates a connection. My most recent body of work has been regarding the animals buried at the bottom of the garden and the manner in which they passed away. ‘Two Brothers, Three Sisters & a Mouse’ includes toddler sized rabbit/human hybrid sculptures, memento moiré animal portraits and kittens in beds. I am currently working on a series of portraits entitled ‘Some Unfortunate Birds’ which is pretty much self explanatory, poor things.
The term ‘contemporary art’ covers such a diverse range that I am sure there is a nook or cranny where my work fits just right; I consider myself to be a ‘maker’ although if I had to classify my work I would describe it as fine art which requires a gallery setting.
Tell us a bit about your processes and what environment you like to work in?
I work with both hand and machine embroidery for the most part but am not adverse to throwing in other disciplines and techniques. I have dabbled with screen printing, sculpture and animation within my stitched pieces and would like to continue to investigate the potential of these processes. There are so many directions I would like to explore as my practice evolves that there may not be enough hours in the day. I don’t always use a sketch book but I do scribble ideas down on anything to hand, just to have a record of it somewhere. Occasionally I carry a notebook with me.
Unfortunately I am one of those people who tend to work better under pressure when I can totally focus on the task at hand, which can at times drive my family insane. I tend to be rather messy and need plenty of space to spread out. Ideally a studio space would be wonderful but for the time being I work where I can, generally around kids, cats and mayhem.
Provoking an emotional response
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
I find so many things inspiring, from tiny occurrences like the cat bringing in a mouse to a word overheard in conversation or a report on the news. It could be absolutely anything that can trigger ideas for a piece. I tend to be drawn towards bleak topics such as tragedy, misery, suffering, loss and injustice for the most part. I find these to be compelling and I prefer to work with subjects that provoke an emotional response.
As for artists I admire there are just so many. Whilst at university I discovered Christian Boltanski and since have never ceased to be moved by his work, Tim Hawkinson for his variety and inventiveness, Kiki Smith for her beautiful prints, Gregory Crewdson, Doris Salcedo, Kathe Kollwitz, Louise Bourgeious, Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry, the list is endless.
In terms of embroidery and textile art it becomes even harder to boil it down. I am a huge fan of Rozanne Hawksley’s heartfelt work dealing with the human condition and all its complexities, Sue Stone for the wonderful memories and histories she portrays, Chiharu Shiota for the installation I adored at the ‘Lost in Lace’ exhibition, Paddy Hartley’s moving ‘Project Facade’ work, Tabitha Moses, Karen Nicol, Jan Dowson, Erin Endicott and Mister Finch.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
A portrait of my Dad, taken from the last photograph I took of him at the hospital on his 67th birthday, a few short weeks before he passed away from cancer. He was so happy that evening, surrounded by his family, we had a bit of a gathering in an outdoor garden area complete with birthday cake and candles.
A few years ago I produced three portraits of my Dad, as a young man, as a father and this piece ‘Dad – Last Birthday’. There is just something in his eyes in this piece; the look of a man who knows in no uncertain terms what his future holds. It’s too sad to look at often although I’d never part with it. He was always so very supportive of all my creative endeavours so it’s almost quite fitting that he should become included in it. He’s even been shown in a couple of exhibitions.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
If anything I seem to be thinking bigger, which could cause all manner of storage problems in the future. I have a multitude of ideas for installation pieces, community and large scale works, but am still looking into the logistics of such projects before they become reality.
I have become increasingly interested in found and discarded objects, their history and the meaning that they once held, items connected to the home that were once invested with time, energy and love. I adore charity shops, car boot sales and junk shops; half finished hand embroidered table cloths, battered old dolls, doilies and the like are treasure to me.
I would love a residency; the prospect of responding to another environment is incredibly interesting and I am intrigued by the uniqueness of the creative experience involved. There are also other areas I would like investigate further such as community art and teaching.
When I consider how my work has evolved over the years, I can honestly say that taking time to learn new skills at all levels has been of benefit in the long term, from pattern cutting to felt making and fine art, it all aids development.
Do you give talks or run workshops or classes? If so where can readers find information about these?
I have recently been teaching textiles to talented teenagers as part of the National Saturday Club in Grimsby, which I have found very rewarding. Their work will be on display in Somerset House later on this year. I have talks booked at various embroidery groups in the coming months and have worked within adult education, schools and children’s centres.
I am available for talks, workshops and classes. All enquiries are welcome and I can be contacted via email; firstname.lastname@example.org. I am at present in the process of redesigning my website; keep a look out as it should be up and running soon.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
So far I have been lucky in that I have been given the opportunity to exhibit and events have tended to just happen. Winning the scholarship meant that I could show at Knitting and Stitching, the value of which, as a graduate trying to get out there and get known, cannot be understated.
I was offered my solo exhibition after they were initially interested in my entries for their Open Exhibition and they asked to see more of my work. I am just so pleased as it’s a wonderful gallery and to have a solo show so soon after graduating is great.
The ‘Woodland Boudoir’ is the creative vision of amazing feltmaker Yulia Badian, who I first met at Alexandra Palace. She is a force of nature who aside from producing beautiful felt, organized the boudoir and all involved, so a chance meeting you might say.
Where can readers see your work this year?
The talented youngsters I’ve been working with at the Saturday club will be exhibiting at the Embankment Galleries, Somerset House in London on Friday 24th May and then from 26th May-5th June.
For more information visit: JoSmithTextiles.com
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