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  • Writer's pictureBeth Wardell

Collaborating, Countryside and Connection.

This is a guest post written by Joanne Coates. Jo is a visual artist, photographer, and storyteller based in the Northern Dales of England. Her work looks at hidden histories, class and the rural. She was The Maltings, CRE and Newcastle university artist in residence in 2020, exhibiting the work made at the Gymnasium gallery in March-April 2022, and Vane gallery in August - September 2022. Jo works predominantly across the North of England. Her practice revolves around process, participation, and working with communities. She is interested in questioning stories around power, identity, wealth, and poverty through photography, sound and installations.

Collaborating, Countryside and Connection.

Way back in March 2020, the snow had come and gone on the fells at home. I was finishing packing, ready to move the 100 odd miles up to Cornhill-on-Tweed and to start my artist residency with The Maltings (formerly Berwick Visual arts).

Let me take you back to the start.

It all began in 2019 with an application for artist in residence at Berwick Visual arts and Newcastle University. The topic…Women in Agriculture. The reason I felt compelled to apply was I had already begun making work around women in farming in 2017.

On a personal level I was connected to the work. Graduated as a working class woman who lives in a rural area and trying to make it work as a full time artist is tough. I started milking cows to get by, my partner is also a farmer and I grew up in a rural area. I was already deeply connected through my own personal history. Long story short. I applied and got the residency. For me (cheesy, I know) it has been life changing.

What did a residency mean for me and my practice?

It’s a story many artists know well. Juggling jobs to make a living, trying to squeeze in more time for your practice, grabbing hours here and there. Working late, working early, persevering, not giving up.

This residency offered me the opportunity to focus on my practice, to collaborate with a sound artist and multi-instrumentalist, most importantly the freedom to work with women across Northumberland and the Scottish Borders who are farmers, and workers.

Time and space to work, a place to work for many may seem a simple thing but to me it was a gift. Unravelling it meant my practice grew. That was the value for me, that I could grow.

Like a plant needing care, arts practice has vital needs to flourish.

After the residency I was offered a show at The Gymnasium gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I applied for Arts council funding on my own for the first time. I always felt it wasn’t for me, it’s not something I saw people like me applying for, I didn’t know people / have connections, etc. BUT I applied and it made all the difference. It meant I could show the work and have the vision it needed. It meant the work could tour.

What were the challenges?

When I first envisioned the work, I wanted to look at the hidden domestic sphere. It was challenging working through a time when we were out of lockdown but it still wasn’t clear what was safe and what wasn’t. I didn’t want to take any risks so I brought flexibility to my approach. It was such a big opportunity that this was the only real option. To be open, adaptive and considered.

I ended up meeting with over 40 different women from across the area. I would bring quizzes, conversations, and chats. It meant working outside, this became a key part of the work. The connection and draw to the land was always going to be an important element, but working outside in different seasons began to shape the work itself. In past projects I’ve worked with groups or communities on boats, youth clubs, care homes, hostels, schools, farms, libraries, markets, anywhere that is usually a collective space. This again was a little different.

One of the challenges was definitely accepting different ideas around the countryside. The definition of a rural place is a population of less than 10,000. For me personally, who lives in a hamlet and has always lived in very sparse areas, a place with a train station, a supermarket, a gallery, a theater, taxis, takeaways was a big change. Berwick is often talked about as rural because of the location, and the lack of proximity to urban centers. Again for me it was the perfect mix, a short train to Edinburgh or Newcastle.

Whereas the challenges for me to get to a train station at home, especially in bad weather, were a different reality. When coming for the interview for the residency I walked around. There’s a real arts community feel, something I really miss being isolated in the Northern Dales. The connection of the town to the idea of ‘rurality’ and identity and place, how we define ourselves, what rural means to different people I found really interesting.

The farmers themselves often lived closer to the Cheviots, the borders, or the coast. Northumberland has coast, it has valleys, fells, rivers and sea. It has such a variety of landscapes and seeing how this informed people in different ways. Berwick being a key town meant the exhibition could be staged there and many of the farmers came along to see the work. The opening was full of artists, farmers, and community.

What can an arts residency bring?

Before undertaking the residency I knew many women worked off farm. I didn’t know the statistics around succession were so low. Arts have the ability to share, to communicate complicated stories. They sometimes can make the invisible visible, tell stories of those who are traditionally less visible. If no one tells these stories then these people are not represented.

The same stereotypes around who is a farmer remain. For women to see themselves as farmers or leaders, they need to literally see themselves as farmers and leaders. To make space and create space for this. That’s not as simple as it sounds. Part of telling the story and making it visible for me is sharing beyond the gallery wall. This project was on BBC Look North, Woman's hour, British Journal of Photography, People’s Friend, North East living and BBC in pictures. An extension of my practice is making sure the story gets heard and has an impact.

What’s next?

The work made through the residency is going to tour to Leeds as part of Photo North. It was also shown at an additional venue in North Yorkshire, Tennants, Garden rooms. I’m carrying on making work with female farmers in the area I live and want to revisit the women I met and worked with, to see what new challenges or opportunities they are facing.

The Daughters of the Soil work has created a natural progression to my next body of work around working class erasure in rural spaces from a gendered perspective. It is a commission that is as a part of the Jerwood / Photoworks award. The work is called The Lie of the Land and is currently on show at The Jerwood space in London until December 10th. It will tour across the UK in 2023. That time and space became my air and water.

As an artist I have been able to flourish because I was given an opportunity. The importance of this to a working class is one not given and not taken for granted.

Photo credit: Joanne Coates

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