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Jo Evans

As part of our series of interviews, taking a closer look at the work of some of the artists in The Letchworth Open, curator Kris Day talked to Jo Evans who creates abstract art and functional homewares with textiles.

Tell us a bit about how you got started as an artist.

Well, I’ve always been a fan of art and did plan to get a decent education but at 17, I got a job I loved (at HMV), started making money and never went back to do A Levels, let alone a degree. So even calling myself an artist makes me cringe a little! I’ve always sewn and followed art and design so it just evolved quite naturally. My real world job was made redundant last year as a result of the pandemic and that’s afforded me the gift of time to really focus and hone my style.

You’re largely self-taught but we can see a lot of influence from art history, particularly modernism, in your work. Where does that come from? The library? Visiting galleries and museums maybe?

I do go to a lot of shows but I’ve always been a consumer of art, particularly twentieth century. I used to work for an architect, which definitely solidified my interest in architecture and modernism but again, the ‘20s through to say, the 60s, are where it’s at for me. Whether it’s the wit and wisdom of Dorothy Parker or the simple lines and shapes of Ben Nicholson, that period is abundant with treasure.

Your practice is textile based, what led you down this path?

That stuff that I was sewing was all over the place, very, let’s say “free”. I’d always think I could make something then inevitably it would start to fall apart or not work out quite right so I started looking into quilting, to get some structural tips more than anything. Then two things happened that really flicked a switch – First, I discovered the Quilters of Gee’s Bend. I was sitting in Pret A Manger on my lunch break and I found a short video of them, and I just balled! Through poverty, racism and political turmoil, these women made incredible quilts from what little fabric they had… and then a hero came along and called it art. I also discovered a fairly young artist named Abigail Booth (of Forest + Found) who was marrying the minimal design aesthetic I loved (see Agnes Martin) with quilting and stretching large naturally dyed works on frames. I hadn’t really paid much attention to textile art before, this changed everything.

You make functional wares alongside your ‘fine art’ works. Do you see a clear separation between the two or does one side ‘feed’ the other?

For me, there is a clear separation when I’m embarking on a piece. I either set out to make something for the wall or for use as a functional object. But if you look at what the Gee’s Bend women were creating in the thirties, with no outside influences, no Bauhaus posters on their walls, you can’t argue that their quilts, which they were also using, are art. It’s that age old Art versus Craft debate though isn’t it? I have no real interest in labels to be honest. After all, I am a woman of a certain age who’s really only just starting out.

The arts have been a great help to people throughout the last year but have faced terrible difficulties, galleries, theatres, music venues under threat, filming unable to happen, musicians can’t gig. We’d like to highlight this by asking you how the arts…TV, film, books, music, podcasts…have helped you get through this challenging time. 

I listen to internet radio stations NTS or Worldwide FM most days but at the beginning of lockdown, it was apparent with NTS in particular, that they were really struggling to keep it going. I joined their band of supporters as I just love that station so much. It is probably the one outlet that has kept me feeling connected to the outside world and to arts communities I really care about sustaining. My Broadway Mixtape playlist is typical of what I’ve been listening to over the last year.

I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts - Reply All and This American Life are forever faves, but their coverage of the past year have been exceptional.

In the space between lockdowns, I crammed in as many gallery visits as I could – Ben Nicholson at Piano Nobile, We Will Walk at Turner Contemporary and Kara Walker at Tate Modern will stay with me. Kara’s Fons Americanus…. Gulp. 

How would you like to see your career progress? What are your ambitions?

I’ve never been ambitious, it’s a problem! But I’d love to see my work on more walls. I really believe that art born of textiles has as much to give as a painting and can truly enhance our daily lives – you can feel its depth, its softness. Fabric has been on a journey and feels full of soul long before it has even gotten near to fulfilling it’s potential. 

Anything in the pipeline that you’d like to share with us?

I’m super excited to see my “show” at Small House Gallery. It’s a former dolls house run by Eldi Dundee, who takes it wonderfully seriously! It’s a surprisingly perfect way to view an exhibition as you can view everything at once and see the relationship between all the individual pieces. It also weirdly reminds me of seeing Jeff Koons’ balloon sculptures on the roof of the Met in New York, with real life looking miniscule as the backdrop. I’ve become a little bit obsessed with micro galleries… God bless Instagram.