Jo Coles

Jo Coles by Jo Coles by Jo Coles
by Jo Coles
by Jo Coles

Jo Coles is a Brighton-based artist who works both on large scale community arts projects and tiny, meticulously constructed scenes, like mini stage sets. A love of making and an ability to work with any material, particularly found objects, links these two seemingly very different strands of her practice.


Can you explain how you have got to where you are professionally?

I started off doing a degree in 3-dimensional design at the University of Brighton in 1985. It was an artist/craftsperson’s course as it wasn’t very structured and it really suited me. When I left, I was quite unfocused and not really sure which direction I wanted to go although I knew I wanted to go on making. I then started working with Same Sky, a community artists organisation based in Brighton, and never really looked back. Since then I’ve continued doing community arts projects, running various workshops as well as doing some of my own studio work. It’s worked really well up till now as I have managed to fit in having children and doing my own work as well as working on short-term projects.

What type of projects do you work on when you are wearing your community arts hat?

A whole variety of things. Recent projects have included a giant figure of Icarus, who we dressed in an orange jumper and braces (with wings attached), and which ended up being ceremoniously burnt. Another was a huge female figure of Pride, commissioned as one of the seven deadly sins. And I am always involved in Brighton’s annual Burning of the Clocks winter solstice event, which involves making a large-scale installation on the beach – these are also always burnt.

Are any of your community arts pieces permanent?

About 90% of them are temporary. They’re made out of materials like willow, wood, paper and cardboard. But I still spend quite a long time on them, trying to get the effects right even though lots are burnt at the end of the particular event. For example, Icarus’s braces were made out of cardboard, but I spent ages trying to make them look like real leather, and I really tried hard to show that Pride had had a facelift by creating the effects of the pegs on her skin. The work’s quite theatrical really – it’s all about show and effect. The pieces have to be big and easy to read from a distance.

Your studio work is very different to these community art projects. Can you explain how they developed?

When my children got a bit older I had more time on my hands and found that the community art projects were no longer enough to satisfy my creative need. I felt quite lost. I had got used to making things very quickly on a big scale and felt I needed to find a new creative language. I spent about a year playing and experimenting and gradually my mini installations evolved. I have always been a collector and spend a lot of time picking up bits and pieces – acorns, twigs, lumps of moss – that I find on both rural and urban walks and I gradually started making things with all my treasures.

The mini installations have a strong element of fantasy to them – is this an important aspect of your studio work?

I live in a city and yet I’ve always been interested in imagining another way of life – living in the country. I’m fascinated with the idea of tree houses, dens, sheds and shacks and when I was a child I loved staying in my grandparents’ caravan, which was parked in a wood. I’ve always wanted a tree house, where I could sit and dream for days and days. These places represent a kind of dream habitat where I can escape to but where I will never really live and they provide the setting for some of my installations.

How did your commission, Polska Pani (Polish Lady), made for the Making’s World Party in the Park, evolve?

Recently I wanted to make something large scale, but different to my community arts projects. I wanted to make something a bit more substantial and more studio-based, preferably out of wood, rather than just newspaper and paint. The commission was ideal for me as it married the two aspects of my practice – the large-scale processional figures and the mini installations – as I created a giant doll with cupboards in her skirt that opened up to show a series of mini installations.

Where did the inspiration for the figure come from?

I have always been interested in wood carving and have recently been experimenting with it a bit more and wanted to carry on with that process. I love working with wood, it’s quite a challenge, but it’s a battle I enjoy. And I love the combination of old wood and newer colourful materials so I wanted to use these materials to create my Polish lady (who is made mostly from reclaimed wood).

I was also interested in making a figure with a metal spring in it and wanted to explore that idea a bit more. And I liked the idea of making a torso from a chest and turning the door handles into nipples. I wanted her to have a strong folk, particularly Polish, look as I’ve always been interested in folk art. I’ve recently been on a 6-month trip to Poland and wanted to reference that. I’ve always been interested in Poland as my great grandparents were Polish and as a child I used to play with wooden folk toys that my grandmother (who came from Berlin) had kept.

Why did you decide to incorporate the mini installations into the figure’s skirts?

While I was in Poland I was struck by the way that every family had a story to tell. Poland has such an extraordinary past and some of the stories are really horrific. They started making me look at old Polish ladies in a different way as they have been through so much – the cupboards/installations in my Polish lady’s skirt represent some of their untold stories. For example, several of them reference woods because during the war many people hid in the woods. And the countryside in general is an important part of Polish culture, something that several of the installations refer to. One is an empty room papered with photographs of mushrooms and is all about the way many Polish people still collect mushrooms and wood every autumn, to prepare themselves for the winter – they react to the seasons much more than we do.

Some of the mini installations seem to be quite eerie – is this faintly uncanny effect planned?

No, not really. I don’t think it matters what I think the pieces are about and what is planned or what isn’t planned as other people can read what they want into each scene. It’s important that I have an idea about what they are about as it gives them a bit more substance, but I like the fact the viewer can bring their own imagination and emotions to the pieces to create their own meanings for each piece. They are all about letting your imagination wonder, like following an imaginary path in a forest and seeing where it leads you.

What are your plans for the future?

At the moment I am working on a massive float for commissioned by American Express for the Gay Pride procession in Brighton later on in the summer. It’s very different to what I have been doing as it’s based on a giant alien holding a baby (the theme is Out Of This World), and it’s hard work, but good fun. Long term, I would like to do more commissions like my Polish Lady, making more substantial, large scale sculptural pieces which incorporate an element of my studio work.

See also:

Photo-documentation of Polska Pani in the making (pdf)

Interview by Diana Woolf