During their work experience placement at Metal Southend, local year 10 students Maisie and Saffron came up with 11 questions for artist-in-residence Joanna Sperryn Jones.
Here is a transcript of their conversation, held in the Attic Studio of Chalkwell Hall.
- WHO ARE YOU & WHAT DO YOU DO?
I’m Jo Sperryn Jones and I trained as a sculptor. I did a degree, a masters and a PhD in sculpture. I also teach sculpture at York St Johns which gives me a base salary, so I don’t have to worry about having a roof over my head and feeding myself with money made from my artwork!
- WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I grew up in Surrey, quite close to London. My first jobs were in London and I lived in Wimbledon for quite a long time. I had an art studio in South Wimbledon for ages, almost ten years. It was really good, with a really nice artist community. There were about thirty of us in the studio and I’ve still got friends from there. We used to go and see each other’s shows a lot.
- WHY DID YOU BECOME AN ARTIST / TEACHER?
I really like making people enthusiastic about sculpture, because I love it! It’s what I did at school. While everyone else was painting, I thought “No! I want to make things!”. I taught windsurfing as one of my first jobs. Before I was an instructor, I worked at a greengrocer and a florist to pay for my windsurfing lessons. The second I turned 18, I started teaching.
I really like being involved in teaching and bringing out the best in people, making them enthusiastic about new subjects. I decided it would be a nice balance to both make and teach sculpture. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
- WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE MEDIUM TO USE?
That’s really hard! I think my favourite longstanding medium is carving stone because it’s what I did for my degree. All the way through school, teachers introduced me to woodworking equipment and alternative materials to use. I would see stone carvings in art galleries and think ‘That’s what I want to do’. I carved really big sculptures, ones that you’d have to move around on forklift trucks as they weighed several tons. I actually learnt how to drive a 7.5 ton truck, so I could pick up artworks and move them to sculpture gardens.
I find stone carving really therapeutic. It was pre-mobile phones when I did my degree, so I’d set an alarm clock reminding me to stop for lunch or meet somebody. I needed an alarm because I could carve for hours at a time and completely lose myself. At the time (in the late 90s), there were a few women doing big sculptures, but it wasn’t common for carvings of that size. I used an air chisel and the same tools used to cut up pavements, the ones with bright orange saws. I also learnt to weld so I could support the inside of my sculptures, which was a cool thing to be able to do.
- WHO INSPIRES YOU?
There’s a lot of sculptors whose work inspires me but there’s also the people you meet in real life. I’d say the first sculptor to inspire me was Eve Hesse, whose work includes lots of different materials. Phyllida Barlow represented the UK at the Venice Biennale and she makes absolutely enormous sculptures virtually bursting out of the building. Her sculptures are massive. She gets polystyrene and skims it with concrete. If you gave her a warehouse, she would literally just fill it up! I once had some tutorials with her, and she was really perspective. She said things about my work in a way that nobody had before.
- FAVOURITE PIECE YOU’VE MADE?
That’s hard. I think that there are pieces which are really significant to me, but not necessarily one piece. At the end of my degree I did a carving made from thousands of blocks, which we put together in three sections. I had spent three years stone carving, but that was when everything came together. Another work I look back fondly on is my 8ft tall champagne glasses. I put thirty of them across a gallery, so people had to work out how to get through them in order to get to the bar. I performed by putting up the sculptures and balancing them. I don’t know if it was my favourite piece, but it was nice to do something that felt fun. Like a glow in the dark piece, or something for a festival.
- WHAT’S YOUR GOAL?
To make artwork. To make sculpture. That’s it!
It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be anything, but it’s good to just keep working.
- WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE AN ARTIST?
I think it just happened. There was a time when I thought I wanted to be a vet and work in animal welfare centres and things like that but I just kept making art. That’s what I was best at. Then after I did a degree in sculpture, there wasn’t any going back! It was exactly what I wanted to do.
- WHEN WERE YOU MOST SATISFIED IN YOUR JOB?
When I worked in London, I worked with City Lit and ran a sculpture department. I didn’t know it at the time but when I took the department over City Lit were planning to close it in a years’ time. It needed a lot of improvements. We managed to make it the fastest growing department! All the staff were really lovely, and we all pulled together to do that.
- WHAT DOES YOUR WORK AIM TO SAY?
It has changed over time. When I first started working, I was interested in how your emotions and your thoughts don’t always add up, but then I broke some bones in a mountain biking accident. I realised in my studio that I liked broken things but I wasn’t quite sure why. I became really interested in people’s attitudes towards breaking or preserving things. When you work with emotions and breaking things, it’s a bit like when you download apps and start playing. It mixes things up, which is what my work intends to do. When I first made work about breaking, a lot of women said ‘That was great! I want to go and break more things!’ Breaking stuff can be gender-based, as men are more likely to do it. I really like breaking stuff and play it being ingrained in gender.
- WHAT BRINGS YOU TO METAL?
I applied for an open call for NetPark, a digital project based in the park. I had been working on a piece at Dalby forest and it seemed to fit, as I’d already been using Tilt Brush, a VR program. I liked the combination of exploring a new area using Augmented Reality, combined with the real-life park. I only look for commissions if it sits really closely with what I’m interested in. I think both Metal and I are interested in the wellbeing aspect of this sort of work too.