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Jo Howell: A 10th Year retrospective of a photographic artist

Early portrait of me by Sophie Helas

The year is 2020 and it’s now the beginning of my 10th year as a professional artist. I have some great times, and I’ve had some crap times. I have grown a healthy degree of cynicism, and learned many things the hard way. I have also enjoyed pretty much every working day of my life, bar a few ropey areas where I compromised when I should have stood my ground. I have grown a thick skin and a resilient ego. This is my first decade and also my first chance at a retrospective. I’ve lived long enough to have a friggin 10 year retrospective! 

In front of my studio, Polaroid, 2018

I’m going to take you through my first 10 years in pictures. Remember, that throughout my time of finishing education and entering into the scary world of the freelance, that technology has been running ahead at pace. I am the generation straddling the rise of digital. Still holding on to desperate nostalgia. Still lustful for analogue. I want to know the mechanics of how things work. The digital world is ultimately a lot more complex than the analogue world I was born into. It’s all about pattern recognition, algorithms, logarithms, software, apps, data science. It’s complex navigating these new waters, but I’m getting there.

Is that a spider? Self portrait, 2012

So, the digital world has become my platform, my gallery, my sketchbook, my soapbox, and my megaphone. Without these parts of the digital revolution, I’m not sure that as a working class lass from the North, that I would have ever have had the chance to find an audience for my work. The analogue world though easier to understand, was a fortress of galleries and cultural hubs guarded by elite gatekeepers. By the very nature of the internet being a democratised and world connecting piece of tech, open and accessible to all, I have kicked down a wall to make my own gate. A small niche of the virtual world where I have a voice and an input that is just mine. Sod the gatekeepers.

The best fake street, 2012 by Jo Howell

Any who, that’s the contextual gist of where my work comes from and how it is evolving parallel to the advancement of our technologies. I could actually go right back to the final years of school, back to the millennium. I still have work from then, but obviously it was cack, and really serves no purpose in my retrospective, other than to say I was clarting about with making things and art since being a bairn. 

Self portrait, 2011

Here we go then:

2009 – 2010

Monoprints of Marilyn, 2011

I helped organise our final show fundraiser with a new organisation called Empty Shop, and made my first sales as an artist. I left university and was working crappy jobs as bar staff. My mam gained me my first regular commission illustrating a magazine about fuel poverty created by children in the North East.

Creative Cohesion, Sunderland.

I also gained a scholarship studio with Creative Cohesion, a grassroots artists studio and gallery. In exchange for helping to renovate the space we were given a year of rent free use, and £2000 towards professional development. I got my first decent camera and a Mac computer, again funded by the bank of mam and dad.

2010 – 2011

Front cover, NEA fuel poverty magazine, 2010

I worked to develop my business. Entered and was shortlisted for two new business awards. I continued doing the NEA magazines project and enjoyed a few photography commissions, and sold pieces through ongoing exhibitions in Creative Cohesion. I started working with learning disabled adults through Arcadea Disability arts.

My first studio at Creative Cohesion, 2010

I still worked crappy jobs. I met my fella Phil and became intrigued by the world of the glass makers. We did winter markets and festivals. My gorgeous niece was born.

2011 – 2012

I had a small commission from Arcadea Disability Arts to work with the BIHR (British institute of human rights) as a disabled artist. I exhibited in several exhibitions including the Centre for Life, Newcastle; Creative Cohesion, Sunderland, and Studio Q Sunderland.

The small big picture

I developed my first participatory project with fellow artists Criss Chaney and Liz Shaw. We worked together to gain funding, deliver workshops, and create public art. The first incarnation of The Big Picture was actually fairly small considering it’s title. We each worked in our respective materials getting the public to decorate tiles that we would bring together to form a larger piece. This small run gave us the confidence to pitch for funding involved with the celebration of the Olympics that were coming to London in 2012. We exhibited in Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. I started working with pinhole photography and polaroid.

I did small photography jobs. Invested in studio equipment and started working with artists to photograph their work.

Helma Rud, Venetian mask, 2011 photography by Jo Howell

2012 – 2013

We gained another round of funding to create The Big Picture: The art of sport, for the Olympic celebrations in the City. We worked with more than 500 people directly making the tiles through workshops, and at the olympic torch passing ceremony. During which, Sunderland attempted a hula hoop world record but unfortunately we didn’t get enough hoopers. 

Phil Vickery, Vortex Pod, 2011 photography by Jo Howell

We organised the Nile Street Summer Solstice event for the art studios in the street. Turn out was great. I had a solo show in Infinite Arts and sold some work through Studio Q’s Sumer salon. The final piece of The Big Picture project was installed in the Sunderland Aquatic Centre where I believe it is still on show today. 

Oscar with gold leaf

We worked with the Washington DC school of glass, and I was funded to do a screen printing onto glass course with my mentor Theresa Easton. I continued with the NEA magazine, Arcadea Disability Arts, and crappy bar jobs. We got a kitten and Phil proposed. I said yes, but we’re still no closer to it! I did two filmmaking projects with the National Glass Centre. I started working with The Art Studio Sunderland.

2013 – 2014

Working as a workshop leader takes off. End up working up to 6 days a week, and also doing various small photography jobs. Creative production takes a small hit due to less time available. I’m doing mostly filmmaking and animation with Arcadea Disability Arts, and photography with The Art Studio in Sunderland, an arts and mental health charity. I continue working on the NEA children’s magazines.

Phil Vickery in our Riverside studio.

I have one exhibition which I’m paid for, but which was a ball ache from start to finish. Phil, Liz, Steve and I get a new studio on the riverside, moving out of Creative Cohesion.

In front of our new studio, pinhole photograph

Painted Sunderland, a series combining paint and photographs is created. Brief thoughts on doing another Big Picture evaporate as we all start to move in different directions. We do a final exhibition and finish the NEA schools magazine project.

Painted Sunderland
Painted Sunderland

2014 – 2015

Work continues in a similar fashion and pace. Commercial photography and filmmaking starts to take up more of my time. I create the Look & Inspire pinhole photography project and seek funding through the Art Studio to create the project alongside my first self published book. I continue working with Arcadea and The Art Studio. I start to feel unwell. A lot. This was probably the start of the symptoms of my pain condition.

Look and Inspire pinhole photographs on aluminium

2015 – 2016 

I helped with the No Stigma Attached workshops and exhibition. I start doing web design and social media management. Things start to get ropey. The pain condition gets worse and one of my jobs starts taking an extreme emotional toll. People I worked with were getting worse as well. Government policy started making people even more unwell. 

With the Art Studio Sunderland I developed my pinhole project further, gaining funding from The Cultural Spring as well. The first exhibition of Look and Inspire was in the Sunderland Museum and Winter gardens in November 2015. Using The Art Studio as the lead group we had connected and worked with more than 200 people teaching pinhole photography and collecting the images.

2016 – 2017

Look and Inspire exhibition pinhole photograph

I stop blogging. Work still goes on but I guess that this was when I was starting to get really unwell, so all of my energy was just about getting through each day. I continued my Look and Inspire project, and took it to Hartlepool and their mental health art studio, The Artrium. I showed the work in several exhibitions including The Customs House and the Bridges shopping centre.

Rebecca Ball photographing my pinhole images next to an Alice in Wonderland painting that I took the source image for.

Commercial photography jobs were still ticking over, and I work mainly with glass artists in the studio. I do a few really crap photo shoots, due to being in pain, and lose a couple of good clients. I realise I need help. I start the process of fighting for a diagnosis of some kind.

Dr Ayako Tani portrait with work in a publication.

2017 – 2018

This was the year my cheese fell of my cracker. The illness got too much. I was a wreck. I still worked when I could but I was making gaffs all over the place. I felt like a paper cut out. I started medicating. It was a shit year. We started and stopped IVF, on some bizarre advice from doctors that having a baby could sort out my mysterious pain condition. Made many many mistakes. Nearly didn’t get through it.

Phil in front of our 3rd studio 2018

2018 – 2019

The medication starts to work. I see a commission advertised by The Cultural Spring and the NEPN. It’s perfect for me. I put all my heart and soul into developing #wearexperimenting. My biggest commission. I combine chemical photography with discussions about science. I get to work with 1200 people directly, and the project is a great success. I start to get some confidence back. The pain is still there, but I’m not going down without a fight. I manage my biggest accomplishment to date. 

Sticker bombs, #wearexperimenting 2018

2019 – 2020 

Things are pretty quite in the beginning. There’s no magical opportunity that speaks out to me. A relatively small, but amazingly interesting commission comes up with the Bowes Museum. I get through the selection process and create Me and Mary Eleanor. A biographical project about Mary Eleanor Bowes inspired by the botany cabinet in the museum’s collection. I seek out match funding from Sunderland Culture, so I can do real research by going to gardens and places she would have been. The work was in-situ for 6 months, and was really well received. I am inspired, and I  want to continue seeking out hidden narratives.

Cyanotype installation, Me and Mary Eleanor, 2019

2020 we’re just at the beginning of the 10th year. Things always start slow, but hopefully the next big opportunity is just around the corner.

Print experiment 2020 by Jo Howell
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