For the second in our series of blogposts spotlighting artists and creatives working in #CreativeCitySunderland, we welcome artist, Jo Howell. Jo was born in Sunderland, and has a studio in Roker. She works predominantly in a traditional photographic process called cyanotype that creates blue images using light. In 2019, Jo was chosen as one of the #Untitled10 artists-in-residence, invited to create an artwork inspired by a piece in the Bowes Museum’s collection. She was also selected for a Creative Development Fellowship as part of the Sunderland Culture Unlock programme, undertaking research connected to the botany cabinet once owned by Mary Eleanor Bowes.
I found an affinity with Mary Eleanor Bowes through learning her story and considering her connection to the cabinet. As an object it is ostentatious: beautiful worked wood, with special adaptations to house her plant specimens. The person who owned such an object obviously had a lot of money and a very great love for plants.
I knew nothing about Mary Eleanor Bowes before the project and I chose the cabinet because of my personal interest in plants. I believe that plants and outdoor spaces are so important for our mental well being, and that we have only just begun to see what we can achieve by using plants. Medicines, fabrics, glue, rubber, food; the list is practically inexhaustible.
A little bit of research quickly led me down the rabbit hole. She was a remarkable woman who was chewed up and spat out by the suffocating patriarchal social system of the time. In the mid-1700s women didn’t usually inherit, but Mary Eleanor was the only daughter of a Newcastle coal baron. Her dad was quite enlightened and he educated her at a time when girls didn’t usually get the chance. Unfortunately, he died when she was quite young, and that left her vulnerable.
She had a lot of land and wealth, but was not from an aristocratic family, so her mother arranged a marriage with Lord Strathmore. His castle in Scotland badly needed repair, and Mary Eleanor needed the prestige of a real aristocratic connection. Wikipedia puts her life quite well, but without any of the emotional responses that I felt I had:
Referred to by some as “The Unhappy Countess”, she was a prominent heiress, who inherited a vast fortune. Her husbands included the 9th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne and Anglo-Irishman Andrew Robinson Stoney, the latter whom reportedly treated her very cruelly during their marriage. Amongst many other achievements in her life, including a significant expertise developed in the field of botany, Mary Eleanor Bowes was one of the early pioneers of women’s rights in relation to divorce.
Like me, Mary Eleanor had to be resilient in the face of adversity. I wanted to make art that reinvigorated the object, that introduced her story to new audiences, and that could draw attention to society’s ongoing struggles with domestic abuse and inequality.
As a young Wildling running around the waste grounds in Farringdon I probably didn’t stand out as the most cultured kid in the square. But, that’s not important.
What is culture anyway? Who chooses who is cultured, and who isn’t?
Luckily, I’ve always been brash and not afraid to make space where there wasn’t any before.
The more time and attention that an artist can give to a subject, the more insight that artist can achieve and share. It is very easy to think that artists simply sit around all day and occasionally rouse themselves to chuck a little paint around or to take a photograph. But, that really couldn’t be further from the truth.
Being able to access funds that could be dedicated to research and development meant that I could afford to do it thoroughly. I can’t stress how important it is to have an organisation like Sunderland Culture backing Sunderland artists to have time to develop!
This is so vital when 90% of art happens before an artist even makes anything. The last 10% of art is just figuring out how to communicate it to the rest of the world.
The funding allowed me to create a piece of artwork that was conceptually sound, well researched, visually striking, and something that I can be really proud of. I went to Kew Gardens to research plant history, I visited Mary Eleanor Bowes’ family home and gardens at Gibside, and I made a draft book of my experience. In real terms the Creative Development Fellowship funding enabled me to take up space in the Bowes Museum, a prestigious Northern venue, and to use their precious object in with the work. I could feel confident that I had really thrown myself into the work as fully as possible. The fellowship gave me a chance to shine.
I hope that opportunities to work like this will become more commonplace as it will pave the way for more Sunderland ‘Mackem’ makers to take up space in prestigious venues; and for them to feel confident that they belong there.
If you are a creative practitioner, organisation or business based in Sunderland and would be interested in having your work featured as part of #CreativeCitySunderland, please get in touch: [email protected].
Sunderland Creative Development Fellowships were supported through the Unlock strand of Sunderland Culture’s Great Place programme, supported by Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund, and funded by Coastal Communities Fund, a partnership with Sunderland City Council. For more opportunities, available throughout the year, visit Sunderland Culture’s opportunity page at sunderlandculture.org.uk.