Published  18/09/2016

Clare Jarrett: ‘It’s almost as though the work is already there somewhere and just wants to come out’

Clare Jarrett: ‘It’s almost as though the work is already there somewhere and just wants to come out’

The Norwich-based artist talks about her recent residency at the Barbershop in Norwich, and her practice


Artist and writer Clare Jarrett moved from London in the 1980s to initiate the BA illustration course at Norwich School of Art. She studied at Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where she later taught illustration. Jarrett has exhibited internationally, and her works are in various museums and collections. She has written and illustrated five children’s books, and more recently undertook an MA in creative writing at UEA (University of East Anglia). Jarrett was awarded a Hawthornden writing fellowship, and this year her work was included in the Marmite Prize for Painting, and she was invited to undertake a residency at the Barbershop in Norwich.

MK Palomar: Thank you so much for allowing Studio International to visit your workplace in Norwich. Can we start, please, by looking at the work you made during your recent residency at the Barbershop in Norwich. Can you talk about the inspiration for the pieces you made, and explain why you use fabric in your work.

Clare Jarrett: The inspiration was the place, really. I was already using fabric, but the energy came out of having a much bigger space to work in. It was in a completely different part of town [for me], with a different outlook, and it was a shop. I’m very private and I don’t like people coming into my workspace at all, and working in the Barbershop – which has a window on to the road, so people are walking by all the time, looking in – this was something I had to get over. People could come in and talk to me, though not many did. It’s a great space, good light, so it was lovely to be given the chance to work there, but it sort of changed me. I was already working with fabrics before I went there, with clothes and family stuff, but here I could make bigger work.

MKP: Can you talk about the large wall-hanging piece that looked, perhaps, like a sort of double jacket?

CJ: This is two of my garments joined; it looks like a pushmi-pullyu – arms at either end. I’ve had them for 20 to 30 years, but not worn them for a long time. I couldn’t throw them away because they are nice things in themselves. This keeping things is quite interesting, really – special garments and fabrics, I keep folded up. If I like something, I can’t throw it away. I don’t want to throw it away. I keep it because I know there’s something I must do with it, but don’t know quite what. Yet. The pushmi-pullyu piece is stuffed. I like stuffing things, and there’s a piece I made of T-shirts called Drip – they are all stuffed, too.

MKP: Is that because you are in some way putting something back into the forms?

CJ: Yes, bringing it out, destroying its original form, and making it into something – giving it a life, actually – a new, different life, that’s an interesting way of putting it. Giving it a presence – not what it was before – so it’s transformation- like reordering. This [Jarrett shows a notebook full of drawings and writing] is a notebook that I made at the residency in the Barbershop.

MKP: Did you make those drawings before or after you made the work?

CJ: Before and during, sometimes after, to work out what I’m making. What happens is, I’ve got something I value, that I can’t throw away, so I know it holds something for me, and that I’ve got to do something with it. Then I draw, fiddle about with ideas. I’d had the garments hanging about and then, at the Barbershop, it sort of decided what it was going to be. I wanted it to look upholstered, like a stuffed chair. I had to learn how to make cover buttons and how to do upholstery.

MKP: Looking at your biography online, you describe yourself as an artist and writer. These are two very different creative disciplines. Can you talk about how your use of different disciplines and materials weave together in your practice?

CJ: I think they inform each other, but I’m not sure they really weave together. On the other hand, when I was bringing up my children, I didn’t have enough time or space to go to the studio or think about my visual work, so I thought writing would be a smaller way of making the same kind of work. I thought I could take people into a world through my writing; one I hoped was like my visual world. But, actually, it’s not the same; it’s another place. They are different worlds, but they are connected. And going into writing happened through making books for my children. I made drawings and wrote stories, and they were published by Walker Books, five altogether. That led me to try writing fiction for adults. So I did a part-time MA (in creative writing) at the University of East Anglia in 2005-07. I write a lot and make notes. I wrote most of a novel. I left it for a while, but in the past year I’ve gone back to it and I’m working on it again. I might be able to finish it off: I don’t know, I can’t promise. So that’s the writing. And I’m always reading. I’m reading some Italo Calvino essays at the moment (Six Memos for the Next Millennium) and short stories. I’ve got a pile of books by my bed. Then I’ll go and look at work. I rushed to London the other day to see the Mary Heilmann show at the Whitechapel: very interesting work. She started off doing English literature, then ceramics and sculpture, and then moved into painting. I liked the way the chairs were part of the paintings. I read interviews with her, to hear her voice. Yesterday, I was reading The Writer on Her Work by Janet Sternburg (1980) about women talking about their practice. In 2012, I had a Hawthornden Castle writing fellowship – four weeks just outside Edinburgh in a castle – which was fantastic. It was a strange time because I was doing lots of writing, but I gradually understood that I needed the visual world, too. The writing, even though I absolutely love it and it’s very, very important to me, wasn’t the only thing I needed to do. So I found myself a studio in St Etheldreda’s church in Norwich. And the first fabric piece I made was in that studio. It was for an International Women’s Day celebration, and part of the Chelsea Flower Show Fringe, commissioned in January (2014) by Words and Women (Norwich), which I’m part of, and installed in the Plantation Garden [in Norwich], in May 2014.

MKP: How did that come about?

CJ: Words and Women have an annual short story competition and anthology. On International Women’s Day, there’s a celebration and people read extracts from their work: I’ve read several times. In January 2014, Lynne Bryan, who leads the group with Bel Greenwood, commissioned me to make work for a Chelsea Flower Show Fringe event in the Plantation Garden. It is a small Victorian garden with wonderful Italianate steps at one end. They gave me money for materials and left me to do whatever I liked, in however much of the garden I wanted. I had ideas about hanging things from one side to the other, but the garden had to be usable, so I needed to make something that didn’t get in the way of visitors. The design had a lot to do with how to get the structure to work so people could move around. I used sari lengths – very bright patches of colour you could see from 50 to 100 yards away. Colour is always important. I tend to use found colour, but it’s important how it works with everything else. The Plantation Garden piece was about 18 metres (60 feet) in drop, in sections, like making a very big painting outside. This was the first time I used clothing in my work, although I was already thinking about it. The fact that the saris were women’s clothes and these bright colours, and it was an installation made specifically for that place and that occasion [International Women’s Day], these ideas were there when I was making the work.

After that, I kept working in the church and making paintings. It was an open space, so people could walk through and see what I was doing. In this studio (Dove Street Studios) where I am now, I can close the door and nobody can see in, so I’m completely private. I can bring all my stuff here and be warm enough and sit on the floor and make whatever I want. It absolutely doesn’t matter what I do. This is my private space, so I can fiddle about – play – have fun. I make jokes – I amuse myself and the work often has an oblique humour. The piece I had in the Marmite Prize for Painting show (2016) is quite a joke. As well as being totally serious, it’s a laugh. It’s sort of: “Can I do this? Yes, I can.” I wasn’t sure if it was a painting, and when I spoke to Marcus Cope, one of the selectors, he said, I’d submitted it so, as far as they were concerned, it was a painting, I’m interested in this idea of expanded painting, what makes a painting a painting.

MKP: Can you talk a bit more about your use of clothes in your work?

CJ: It’s something to do with clearing up – about the domestic, motherhood, the family, and children leaving home, disintegration of the home – well, disbanding – and me trying to claw back my life, my space, my work, and, in a way, not wanting to relinquish these fragments of their lives and my life. And how my life is intermingled with theirs, obviously, and how sometimes you can’t tell where one person starts and another finishes in a family. Their clothes and little objects are very valuable to me; they hold so much time. Clothes hold time, and they hold our lives in a way. I was trying to hang on to that. So I’ve got a piece of work in my cupboard (in my studio), which is entirely made of T-shirts, Drip (2016). It was made at the Barbershop during my residency, when I was beginning to understand something about what I was making. Then this piece here [Jarrett indicates a sculpture] is made of my pyjamas. It’s called – well, I thought for today maybe it’s The Cat’s Pyjamas.

[Jarrett leads the way into a cupboard full of works of all shapes and sizes, made from various materials]. This [she points to a construction hanging from the ceiling, Everyone is Here, 2015], with bobbles and scarves, is made from pyjamas, a maternity dress and a hat and my children’s T-shirts and my T-shirts. It’s a means of letting go – letting people go, but actually making something out of it. It feels like a document, readable, like a series of records in a library.

It’s a form of relinquishment and construction at the same time. So the thing exists, the work, and I can tell the story of each T-shirt and what each scarf is. One of the scarves was given to me by my son, for Christmas, and even though it was a lovely colour, it was a bit acrylic, and I said: “Do you mind if I put it in a sculpture?”

MKP: What did he say?

CJ: He was all right about it. He quite understood. This is how I think [Jarrett points to many different, smaller pieces of work hanging along the wall]. They are like small drawings. I tried very hard not to think: it’s really important not to think too much, and they are what happens when I’m not thinking. They’ve been made over the past year and a half, and when we had a one-year show here at Dove Street Studios, I opened this cupboard to the public and showed these works. I called it my thought cupboard. People could walk in and shut the door.

This open space that I walk through to get to my studio is a communal area, and the staircase over there goes up to the big project space. It’s fantastic – you book it for particular projects. That’s how it was possible for me to make the dress for Cley 16 [a show open to artists working in Norwich]. When I was selected for the show, I went to a meeting with the other selected artists and the curator, Hugh Pilkington, who offered me a plinth. I’d never done anything on a plinth, but I thought I’d really like to make a massive dress. I told the curator, it’s implausible, I don’t know how I’m going to do it – and he said, go for it. He gave me permission to have a go at something. I just used the space in the church. I saw it there in my mind’s eye and thought that’s what I want to do, that’s what I want to make for this show. It was challenging – the massive size – there are 12 metres in the skirt and a six-metre arm span and a four-metre drop for the skirt. How do you do a waistband that is three metres in diameter? It’s good fun. I got myself a little secondhand sewing machine. What’s interesting is that the sewing is important and it’s very domestic. I’m trying to escape the domestic in a way – make something of it, or recognise something about it – that’s what I’m trying to do. I am quite a feminist really. More than quite.

[Jarrett shows me more of her fabric and mixed-material constructions. There is a queen bee cell from a beehive – Jarrett keeps bees and has won prizes for her honey – and two life-sized fabric, full-term babies, one a pale calico and the other blue and made from her partner’s old socks. And there are a right and a left breast and a pregnant belly – all made from canvas and stuffed.] This is something I’m thinking about [Jarrett points to a wall piece]. It’s a vaginal shape and, I have to say, this reminds me of periods, really. It’s made of a collection of materials: string bags, sticky tape and some tailor’s stiffening for a waistband. It has got layers and it’s something I’m thinking about now. It’s in progress. And this [Jarrett brings out a rolling pin covered in nails] is back to the domestic and some other kind of comment, a very useful implement. I used it as a rolling pin before I put the nails in. I bought it from a secondhand shop when I was on holiday in northern England at least 25 years ago, possibly before we had children, actually. It’s an old thing that lots of other women have used in the past. The nice thing is that it has a handle at one end but not the other, so if you’re rolling pastry over a pie or something, the end doesn’t get in the way. It’s really useful, but I’ve used it as this now so it can’t be a rolling pin.

These little things here [Jarrett points to a series of small constructions made of pins, on the wall], I’m going to show at a small gallery in Norwich this coming October. These are a different kind of drawing. They are made of wire and bent pins that I’ve collected and they’re hanging off either bits of thread or bits of wire. They are pins I’ve used that have got bent and I haven’t thrown away. You could say a lot of this is about recycling, except it’s not a word I really think of. I don’t really think of this in terms of recycling. I use pins for sticking things up on the wall. These are more ongoing pieces [she points to another series of small wall-hanging pieces]. I keep going, and at some point they’ll be finished, but at the moment they’re not. You can see on the floor, there’s heaps and heaps of materials and stuff – stuff I’ve collected, that I don’t want to let go.

MKP: Almost organic forms?

CJ: Yes, probably organic, but you know they’re organic forms but they’re not made of anything much organic. Well, there’s fabric, the odd bit of stone or stick, lots of string – but found stuff, odds and ends. I make stuff out of found or collected things, things I’ve sort of brought together. I pick up things that I like – I’m a bit like a magpie, really – all sorts of things, bits of old this and bits of old that, and I bring them in here. I don’t know what I’m going to make out of them. I don’t have a plan, basically. No long-term plan. Often it’s the space that dictates the work. It certainly was when I did that big dress piece.

MKP: Can you talk a little about what it means for you to be a female creator and how motherhood influences your practice?

CJ: Well, it’s interesting. I feel as though I’ve been through so much – and then to suddenly start up again. I’ve got this whole new fantastic amount of energy to make work. That’s all I want to do. I just want to come here and make stuff. I’d like a much bigger studio and I would like to use some paint. There are lots of things I want to do. This studio doesn’t exactly dictate the work but, on the other hand, working in fabric and constructing things like these small pieces is very right for this space. I think I do respond to the space, and it’s right for me now because I’m processing this whole thing of motherhood and family life and children leaving and becoming their own people. They’ve always been their own people, but they are actually going away from me to do it now. And that’s fine and I’m pleased, but … Not “but”. Actually, I’m absolutely delighted they’re away doing their own thing, and so it’s time for me to get on with who I am again and not feel that I’ve got to think about other people. Of course, I have got people to look after, but it’s a huge relief just to come in and make my work – absolutely fantastic and I’m very committed to it and that’s all I want to do. I suppose the work is a part of this process of moving into a different phase of my life. I’m not sure – saying that sounds as though it’s something I’ll do and get past to somewhere else, but I’m not sure whether that’s the case, whether I’ll always be doing this. I don’t know, and if I think ahead it’s scary and worrying, so I’m not thinking ahead. I’m just making the work and allowing it to come out and be what it is. A lot of it is about allowing the work its own shape rather than thinking: “I’m going to make this.” So it’s a funny thing – it’s almost as though the work is already there somewhere and just wants to come out. 

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