Wednesday, June 11, 2014

11 June 2014, Jo Smith - "Hidden in Plain Sight"

When I asked Ulrike who would be our guest speaker at the June branch meeting the name, Jo Smith, at first did not ring a bell. When Ulrike went on to say that Jo was one of only two artists to be chosen as an Embroiderers' Guild Scholar for 2012 and that she was one of many demonstrators at The Big Stitch in December 2012, I knew exactly who she was referring to: Jo and I had been neighbours on the first floor balcony at the Ashmolean for The Big Stitch. While taking a short break from demonstrating I had wandered over to look at Jo’s display and, if I am totally honest, I didn’t 'get it'. The thing I recall most was the 'strange' bunny. As Jo was busy I didn’t get an opportunity to speak with her; if I had I would have come away with a very different perspective.

For her talk Jo had brought with her many photographs of her work; some in various stages of progress and others showing particular details. The slide show began with some pictures of her early pieces done while working towards a degree in Fine and Applied Art at the Grimsby Institute (now University Centre Grimsby). It was during this degree course that Jo developed two themes that run through much of her work. The first she describes as 'locating her work in the domestic' meaning that her work is closely tied to the home environment. To emphasise this link Jo looks to charity shops and the like for materials and particularly likes to use lace dollies or linen chair covers as her ground fabric. Alternatively, Jo may turn her art into a quilt, a cushion, or some other household textile.

The second theme that runs through Jo’s work is one of hidden images. In the first quilt we looked at, the image on each panel appeared to be a large daisy. On closer inspection the ‘petals’ were images of prisoners from the Belsen concentration camp. The images were screen printed onto individual panels made from shirts obtained in charity shops. At the time of making, Jo had just read the book "The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas". Jo says that her art has to move her is some way and have meaning; in turn she hopes that it moves the viewer and provokes an emotional response. Following on from this, Jo did a series of work based on domestic violence and then street violence.

Next we looked at a body of work 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 two toddler sized rabbit/human hybrid sculptures (enter the 'strange' bunny), memento moiré animal portraits and kittens in beds. The whole series was triggered by a dead mouse brought home by their pet cat.

Mouse Portrait
© Jo Smith

The themes explored at UGC continue through this series with, for example, screen printed images of dead mice arranged to look like lace doilies. The two brothers were pet rabbits that had died young of a mysterious wasting disease. Although the heads are of rabbits, their bodies are the average size and dimensions of a two and three year old child (the ages of the rabbits when they died). The sculptures appear emaciated: Jo wants the viewer empathise with them; to want to pick them up and cuddle them. The three sisters were three kittens that were destined to become family pets. Sadly, they died before they were able to bring them home.

Twitch Sculpture
© Jo Smith

The slide show continued with some pictures of a collaborative work called "Woodland Boudoir" that featured in the Spring Knitting and Stitching Show at Olympia, a series of portraits entitled "Some Unfortunate Birds" and some family portraits.

Woodland Boudoir
© Jo Smith

Finally, Jo showed us pictures of work by some talented teenagers she has been teaching as part of the National Saturday Club in Grimsby. The theme for their machine embroidered art was "fear". Jo says that she has found this work very rewarding.

I think that it is fair to say that Jo is not accustomed to public speaking and would have preferred to let her pictures do the talking but she was forth coming with more information when prompted. There are many depths to Jo’s work that are not immediately apparent; I was fascinated to see the hidden images and meaning through Jo’s eyes. Hopefully, with experience, Jo will become more confident talking about herself and her work.

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