Craft Alumni Jo Tyler celebrates colour and collaboration in Lighthaus
Alumni Jo Tyler has been preparing to launch her new exhibition, ‘Lighthaus’, in London’s SPACE Ilford, running from 11 October 2022 to 18 January 2023. A celebration of light and colour, the exhibition features large-scale light design with translucent layers of colour, print and glass, co-created with local residents.
An award-winning fine art printmaker and installation artist specialising in print and glass, Jo graduated from Arts University Plymouth (AUP) in 2018 with a First Class honours in Contemporary Craft, now known as BA (Hons) Craft & Material Practices.
Jo in the printmaking studio at the Ministry of Making
Jo has a lifelong passion for issues-based and socially-engaged arts, with over 30 years of experience working in participatory arts as a creative agent in schools and the community, alongside developing her own practice in fine art print and textiles. Over the course of her career, Jo has devised and performed with Rational Theatre Company at Hull Truck, The Place London, Battersea Arts Centre, Cardiff Arts Lab, The Arnolfini Bristol, and worked on socially engaged residencies alongside Birmingham Royal Ballet, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Eden Project Cornwall, Education Action Zone Plymouth, The Photographers Gallery London, and as part of Tate Exchange with Arts University Plymouth.
We caught up with Jo to chat about ‘Lighthaus’, the importance of creative communities, and how her time at AUP has led her to uplift and provide opportunities for our latest graduates.
Hi Jo, congratulations on opening your first solo show in London, can you tell us how the opportunity came about?
I've been chipping away at making applications for paid residencies for a long time. Applications are a lot of work and aren’t always successful and I've been getting some very flattering refusals, accompanied by personal notes for quite a few years! It can be disheartening, but my own approach is to never give up. So I was over the moon to hear that I had been unanimously selected, not only by SPACE Gallery programmers, but by potential participants too, for a 3-month residency and exhibition.
I have since spent 15 sessions over the Summer working with those participants (all over 55 years old), mainly on print and light installation practices. Our connections have been memorable and significant, and I can genuinely say that I will never forget them.
The show that we have created together offers an immersive light installation, visitors experience the work initially as observers but can cross-role by becoming active performers, sculptors, dancers, and designers. Its been developed as a creative bridge between disciplines and to challenge the perceived ways that an audience can inhabit the gallery space. There's been a big focus on the link between creativity and agency. Participants also have their own silk screen print work framed and on display. There are two large-scale installations, made from very fine paper and handmade rope, which will continue to grow throughout the life of the exhibition. There's a whole new body of my own large-scale print work developed in August in our studios in France, using large glass tables and extended layers of ink. These prints describe the ways in which we overlay each other's lives, often imperceptibly, but with lasting impacts. I have also produced lithographs, using stone and metal, working with master lithography technicians in France.
That sounds like a fantastic experience, what else have you been up to since graduating from AUP?
Since graduating I've been spending lots of time in our studios in France. I've also spent time researching indigo techniques, which is one of my passions, travelling and visiting studios in Laos, Bali and Northern Thailand to work directly with indigenous people who grow, gather and process indigo for weaving and textiles.
We travel on a shoestring, volunteering with local projects as we go, and often living in wooden shacks with cold water. It's a lifestyle choice, and we travel in winter rather than paying heating bills in the Auvergne in France, as it can reach minus 9 there in winter. We reason it's better to spend money travelling and learning new skills, and volunteering for bed and board, rather than on electricity and gas.
We heard you set up the Ministry of Making, can you tell us a bit more about that?
I really loved my two-year foundation course, where we could play and experiment with lots of new forms and processes. We realised that increasingly people want access to a place where they take some time out from their everyday lives to experiment with creative ideas, maybe before signing up for a foundation or degree course.
My husband had a very small pot of money from a pension, and we decided to invest it into buying an old school in France and forming an "association" (like a CIC in the UK). It's a bit of a miracle story because we had heard about an old school from the association that owned it. They were closing down and the building had been empty for 10 years. We went to see the local Mayor and told him about our project, and the board members were fully supportive of what we were planning. In the end, the association reduced the price to £25,000 because they loved our project, and they wanted an arts venue in their area. We are restoring it all ourselves, learning how to make lime paint, how to do plumbing (from Youtube), and have now created a really affordable comfy place where artists can access time and space to develop their practice, particularly after their degree ends.
As recognition of how much I had benefitted from studying at AUP, we decided to give final show studio award prizes to AUP students, and we've been working with some of the tutors to streamline that offer. In the slipstream of Brexit, it's an opportunity for creative people to experience the rich cultural life in Europe, without too much expense, and that's what we intended. We presently offer four students a chance to stay with us for up to four weeks, to extend their practice. We are working to expand on that offer in future.
It sounds like a journey that has come full circle, what skills did you learn at AUP that helped you on your creative journey post-graduation?
One of the things I love about AUP is the way that it lifts the artificial barriers between artistic disciplines. I felt that there is open access, good communication and cross-fertilisation between departments. It was easy to drop into other departments, observe what they were researching and investigating and talk to technicians. I was interested to look at how to create new form by combining practice and disciplines. Coming from a previous background in performing arts, I was then able to develop installations using print and glass, thanks to expert guidance from technicians and tutors.
What would your advice be for students who will soon be graduating?
Stay optimistic, and even if you have to do bread-and-butter work sometimes (many of us do) always respect your practice, and find ways to keep it alive and kicking. Look for opportunity, say yes when things are offered, and claim your place in the world. For me, collaboration and partnership have been the key, and I always look at how I can offer mutual benefit to organisations that might want to feature my work or promote our organisation.
Jo working in our Glass Studios
What has been one of your proudest achievements?
Driving Mr Lee ...I cannot explain how thrilled I was to be invited to offer artist support to Kang-hyo Lee during his ceramics residency at Arts University Plymouth’s Making Futures conference in 2017. We didn't speak much of each other's language, but we managed to articulate and become friends through spending time working in a profound, alert silence. Watching him create a giant Onggi jar, paint it and then destroy it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. When I drove him to the station as he left for the airport, I had learnt one Korean word "Chingu" which made him smile with his whole being. Chingu means "brother". He had asked the receptionist at his hotel to write a note of thanks in English to me. We still need to take him up on his invitation to visit his home and studio in South Korea. Watch this space…
You came to AUP as a mature student, what was that experience like?
I felt that having spent most of my working life as an arts educator, my own practice was alive but a bit poorly, so I felt I owed it to myself to jump into an environment where experimentation was going to be encouraged. AUP offered so many options, and we were all creatives, with an understanding of what hard graft meant. It felt that there was a real baseline understanding, between students and staff, and a creative community to belong to. Coming to study in later life meant that I really knew the value of the facilities on offer. On my days at college, the caretaker would very kindly come in and warn me at 8.30 pm that the print room, and in fact the whole college, was closing for the night. It became quite a joke between us. I knew once I left those fantastic facilities, that they would not be quite so easy to find again.
Jo with Kang-hyo Lee following his performance at AUP's Making Futures conference in 2017
You also studied part-time, can you tell us why you made that decision and how it perhaps changed your learning experience?
I was 50 when I started the course, and still working and supporting my own children through their studies. I guess seeing them enjoy it so much encouraged me to apply. I was able to keep walking a financial knife edge for 6 years. I stopped shopping for clothes, which is quite easy and attractive when you are a maker. In fact, the whole realm of "making more with less resource" is now reflected in the work I make. I'm fascinated by the aesthetics of frugality (not to be confused with state of poverty which is very different), frugality points a sharp arrowhead towards the privilege of having choices. At 50, I made very conscious decisions about where my life was going to be heading.
I initially found the contextual studies part of the course really difficult, but we had a great teacher, who pushed us to think outside of the box in terms of where we positioned our practice. I have ended up with a passionate concern about revealing the political contexts in which we work as artists. Understanding that for many of us, we occupy these platforms of advantage and that we can actively expand the currencies of generosity and trade, beyond the purely fiscal (hence the development of the Ministry of Making). As an older artist, I'm aware that we need a supportive community of other creatives to rest in and respond to.
Jo's work on display in the Lighthaus exhibition at SPACE gallery.
Why do you think the world needs creatives?
We need to support the sense of a creative collective imagination, where new futures can not only be imagined but practically tested and applied. Creatives are obsessed with problem-finding, often so that they can use their skills to invent solutions. We really need to expand the sense that imaginative, innovative solutions are going to be prioritised in future planning. At the moment, I'm really encouraged by people like Hilary Powell, whom I recently met in London when I bought some Litho ink from her on Facebook marketplace. Look her up. She's a prime example of how art can change the fabric of the world and enable us to continually reclaim our power.