Jayne Stokes Coasting Along

Jayne Stokes, painter

Jayne Stokes is a painter whose current work focuses on journeys and our relationship with landscape. She’s been working as an artist for 20 years, and during that time her career has included working on community arts projects, as an artist in education and a lecturer in art and design. I spoke to Jayne to find out how she’s developed her creative practice, and what advice she might have for emerging artists.

Tell me a bit about your creative work, and your journey so far. Have you always wanted to be an artist?

I didn’t always want to be an artist, but I did always want to work in the creative arts. I started off with a foundation course and then studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art. In my final year at art school I started to explore the theme of the natural environment; at this stage, I was working in a range of media including drawing, painting and installation. Straight after I graduated I was awarded a residency which led to my first solo show, and the sale of work from that meant I was able to continue working as an artist for the next few months.

I then moved to Barcelona and completed a Masters in Fine Art, which again was a fully funded opportunity. At the time, I felt the Masters didn’t really move my work forward, but it was years later that I really realised the benefit that working abroad had had on my practice. I began to be braver in the scale of my projects. At the end of the MA I produced a large scale installation piece in the form of a mobile museum, and that piece was selected by Keith Tyson and Susan Hillier for inclusion in New Contemporaries99 in London and Liverpool, which gave me great exposure for my work.

After Barcelona, I made the move to London to explore the art scene there. It felt like quite a brave move: I had no job and no studio and for several months I was sleeping on my sister’s floor. I realised I needed to find some work to support my practice and eventually I got a job as a classroom assistant in a local school. After a few months of working part time at the school and making artwork on a kitchen table, I got involved in a few local shows with artists I knew, and this led to a great opportunity to work in a funded art studio on the platform of Peckham Rye Train Station. I worked in that studio for three years, and started to work on local community art projects. That experience in public and community art was very valuable for me – from there, I was employed as artist in education for the Chisenhale Gallery, and then as a lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College.

Before the birth I had had ridiculous notions of painting with a baby strapped to my back…

Then in 2006 I had my first child and moved back to Scotland. That really did change my life – but I was determined to continue working. It did come as a shock how much of your time needed to be devoted to this tiny person. Before the birth I had had ridiculous notions of painting with a baby strapped to my back. Of course in reality this never happened … but I did continue to make very small pieces of work, on the trusty kitchen table late at night. Where I found the energy I don’t know – but I suppose I’ve always been a night owl, and that ability to work late into the night is still something that sustains my practice.

I’m now living in North Berwick, where I have a studio space. I’m continuing to explore the theme of our relationship with a changing environment that emerged in my work almost twenty years ago, and I still collect objects and ephemera, as I did when I was a student – the objects sit in my studio and are strong influence on my work.

Can you describe your daily routine in the studio?

At the moment I work in the studio three days a week. I drop the children at school, have a coffee, tidy the house and then I head to the studio at 10am. I turn on the radio and listen to 6 Music – I like the background noise; painting can be a solitary experience. I then work pretty solidly until 3pm when I go and pick up the children. I like to continue to work in the evening but recently I’ve been doing this at home, as my studio is a 10 minute drive to a rural location. I’ll often draw until 11pm.

What are some of the things that have been essential to you? What kind of support have you had along the way?

Winning prizes is important in giving me motivation, and that incentive to carry on. Because when you’re painting in the studio you don’t have anyone else there – when you’re at art school you have a tutor to inspire you, or not as the case may be! – or if you share a space with somebody quite closely, and you have a relationship with them, they’ll give you feedback – but because I haven’t had that really for quite a few years, I suppose you rely on entering competitions and things to keep you motivated and to confirm that what you’re doing has some worth. It’s expensive to enter these competitions, you have to pay a submission fee, and you don’t always get anywhere, but I keep going with it. It’s important really, to have that validation.

Last year, and in 2011, I got longlisted for the John Moore painting prize, so when that happened I thought well, that’s the biggest painting prize in Britain, there must be something about my work… I always feel the ideas are there but I’m not quite there yet, technically – because the technical element gets scrutinised in these  competitions, and they really look so closely at things, and I think I’ve got to get that. An element of that is because I’m always aware I’ve got the children to think about and I have a very short period of time during the day.

Residencies have also been great – in 2013 I was awarded the Crinan residency by the Royal Glasgow Institute, and that allowed me to focus on creating a new body of work.  And when I graduated from Edinburgh, I went straight to Grizedale Arts, which gave me a month of concentrated working in a brand new environment. It also gave me financial support, and the opportunity to meet and learn from artists who had already established a career. When I look back, that was really valuable – I would say that award gave me the encouragement and motivation I needed as a graduate fresh out of art school. It really focuses you, and you’re away from everything else and I think I need things like that. Time away helps you to make leaps in your work, to move it forward. So residencies have been key to inspiring new ideas, and developments in technique.

And also living with somebody who encourages what I do – because you don’t always have that do you? If my husband said you’ve got to go and get a proper job…  Because there have been times when I’ve thought, what am I doing, actually? When you see people with proper 9-5 jobs. But he’s never said that, in fact he’s always said the opposite.

Were there any particularly difficult times for you? Have you ever thought about giving up?

I have; yes, I have. And it’s been my husband, credit to him, who’s always said: it’s important for you to carry on. Because I’d probably be very unhappy, I think. I did teach full-time in London and didn’t really paint for a bit, and I was quite unhappy. But I am missing the teaching a bit; I’ve given it up completely now, and I might start that again, just one class a week. It was partly a time thing, because with the kids and my own work there’s not much time left for anything else – but I get a lot back from it. It energises me I suppose – and because making work can be a selfish thing in a way, so with teaching you feel like you are giving something back a bit to people, and passing on your skills. And I enjoy seeing people get a lot from making work – a lot of them recently who I’ve taught are complete beginners, people who are retired or whatever. It’s important to people’s mental health sometimes. It’s not valued enough, music and writing and those creative things, they’re so important, especially with older people, or people who are on their own. So that’s what I get back from teaching. I don’t have to do it, there’s no need for me to do it financially now, but I am missing that a bit.

I do think it’s harder to be taken seriously as a female. I think things have moved on a bit, but quite often still gallery owners are men, dealers are men, and you still see there’s a real difference between the prices male and female artists command. And the percentages of work by female artists in museums, they’re just so tiny. And if you’ve taken time out to have a family, or you say to somebody that you’ve got kids, it’s almost like you’re a hobbyist then.

Another thing I come across quite a lot is that that some of the prizes now, and open submission programmes for things, you’ve got to be under 35 – and that’s fair enough, they do like to encourage people who’re just graduating, but it makes it harder as a mid-career artist.

What were your turning points, or what achievements are you most proud of?

A recent turning point was winning the award from the RGI, and getting the Crinan residency. That’s where I started drawing again, and that residency is what led to my recent show. Because there’s been a long time, when the kids were younger particularly, when I did things in dribs and drabs, and I’ve not actually, properly, made a body of work for some time. And that’s what’s been good about this show; the RGI have been very supportive.

As you get older you start to think, actually, I’d rather just do what I’m interested in…

And more broadly, I used to worry more when I was younger about other people, about being current, and contemporary, and making installations – it’s the same at art school, you do things to fit in – but as you get older you start to think, actually, I’d rather just do what I’m interested in. If people like it they do, and if they don’t they don’t, and you have to be true to yourself. You grow in confidence as you get older.

Do you earn a living from your creative work, directly or indirectly? If not, how do you get by? How do you balance earning money with focusing on creative work?

Yes, I am making a living. I have to do a tax return, I sit down with my husband who’s very good at that sort of thing – and 2014 has been my best year financially. Also because I’m not paying for childcare now, I am actually making an alright living. Not huge amounts, but enough to justify it, I suppose. I feel I have to justify it somehow. If I was sitting in a studio surrounded by work and never selling any of it I don’t know how I’d feel. Funnily enough, since having the children I’ve probably had more success with my work. I don’t know if it’s just having that small amount of time, if knowing that just focuses your mind in a funny way. I always carried on even when they were little; I’ve always thought if you stop, then you stop, and it’s very difficult to get back to it.

What would creative success mean to you?

My husband often says to me, you’re successful cos you’re making a living from it, and you should be content with that. But there’s something about me, my personality, I suppose I’m quite stubborn, and I’m never completely satisfied – I’m always looking for the next thing, I suppose.  Which is not great sometimes, I should just be content with making a living. But recognition – a bit of recognition – is important to me. So I suppose it’s getting in there with these big competitions; that’s a goal that I would like to achieve. And maybe working abroad, having a show abroad, and having a decent catalogue.

In fact I’ve probably had more success in Glasgow, even though I’ve not been back here for long, but people here have been a bit more approachable, and more supportive. So that’s pushed me to make this new series of artworks for my recent show – but I’d like to have a larger body of work that I can then do something with, try and get a solo show I suppose, and approach more galleries. Rather than sending my work down south all the time, which is expensive with shipping costs, I’d like to get some more Scottish galleries to sell my work. At the moment I’m making a book to showcase my work, so we’ll see what happens with that. I think you’ve got to invest in your work, and hope that something comes back.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I didn’t get much of that at art school! I didn’t have a bad experience at Edinburgh, I enjoyed it, but it didn’t prepare me for the reality of being an artist… I’d say, don’t be too precious about what you do – and be open to things. I think you’ve got to be very versatile now. Like last year I did this Wild in Art, this big horse – and I got paid for it, and I probably would in the past have been a bit reluctant to do that sort of thing, but I’m not now.

I don’t think talent is the half of it sometimes. It’s perseverance.

And you’ve got to think a little bit commercially, that’s the other thing I’d probably say. Because I suppose when you’re at art school you can try everything really, and work in certain ways, but then you realise the reality, you’ve got a mortgage to pay, you’ve got to try and make some sort of living, and – I don’t mean you have to sell out, but to find a balance between what you’re interested in as an artist and what you know is likely to sell. I wish I’d known – I wish somebody had said, it’s important to keep going. I’m a great believer in, if you keep plugging away at it… I know you’ve got to have something there, some talent or something, but I don’t think talent is the half of it sometimes. It’s perseverance. I wish somebody had said don’t give up at the slightest rejection! You’re going to be rejected, probably over and over again, but then within that you’ll have some successes. But that was never said.

But despite the fact that it was never said, you did keep going…

Yeah, that’s just my personality! Stubborn. I’m quite competitive really; I don’t like rejection either. I’ve got used to that a bit more now, but I’ve never handled criticism very well, though it’s important you have criticism about your work. But nobody says these things. There was a gap – if somebody had also sat down and said, this is how you do your accounts – that’s the stuff I’ve had to learn. How do you do a tax return? All the practical things, it’s all missing, really, from art education. Maybe it’s changed now, I don’t know.

Tell me what you’re working on now / what’s coming up next

Sometimes you just have a complete blank for a long time, and then suddenly you’ll see something. I’m at the stage where I need to do lots of walks, and go out now, and not jump straight back into the studio. But I’ve made a lot of small works now, and my dad’s just given me a massive canvas, and I haven’t painted that large for a long long time, so I think I’m going to give it a shot. I haven’t got any idea what I’m going to paint yet! I do feel slightly scared, I know I’ll struggle more on a large scale. It’s quite daunting – but it’s important to push yourself sometimes, and do things that are different, and not stay in your comfort zone.

See Jayne’s work at jaynestokes.com

About This Is How We Make ItViccy Adams interview / Iain Laurie interview

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