Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Where Are We Now? interview with Jean McEwan

Where Are We Now?

Jean McEwan

I work variously with video, sound, photography, collage text and language to present and interrogate narrative strategies.
My source materials are made, found, appropriated and skewered into elliptical, associative, disjointed narratives through which I aim to explore ideas of authorship, truth/untruth and fact/fiction.

My outputs have included video installation, experimental film, documentary, performance to camera, audio visual performance, artist books and zines.

Collaborative, cross-disciplinary work and artist-led activity play an ongoing and key part of my practice. Past collaborations include projects with a wide range of cultural practitioners, including musicians, performers, writers and visual artists.
I have been practising as a curator since 2005. I was one half of 'popup', (2005-9) an artist collaboration run with Nigel Russell, which produced and curated projects and events to showcase moving image, sound, performance and multi-media work by artists and filmmakers.

I was a member of the curatorial team producing “Hatch” an experimental arts showcase event at Bradford Playhouse (2008-09) and curated my first solo project, 'P.S. I Love you' at Bradford Playhouse in 2010. I am a member of the management group for New Work Yorkshire.


What's new?
I've recently made the decision to stop doing so many workshops/teaching and community arts projects to concentrate on developing my own practice more. It has been a very good decision. Although I am poorer, I have much more time and headspace to for my work. Now that I am doing less I feel much fulfilled, calmer and happier. I have time to make work and reflect meaningfully on my art practice, and so my creative life feels much richer. I also have time to enjoy daily pleasures like walking the dog and hanging out with my husband, having a laugh.

Where are we now?
I can only speak from my own personal experience. I am hugely encouraged to regularly meet and work with many younger women artists who are confident and unapologetic in their practice. This is a very positive development. It contrasts with my own experience, which causes me to reflect on the cultural conditions which I was brought up in, and brings up issues not only of gender but also of class. Of all the women artists I meet, the majority are from middle class backgrounds, in which there is likely to be much greater support opportunities and resources available to them, at home and at school to pursue art education and progress into art as a career. I meet much fewer women artists from working class backgrounds, although I can see that slowly changing.

I come from a working class background and grew up in the 70s and 80s in a small Catholic community in Perth, Scotland. Although I was really encouraged at home to be creative, at school I met with complete apathy and there was zero encouragement, or discussion with the art teachers about art college as an option. In addition, the experience of a Catholic education (which someone once described to me as 'psychological terrorism') wasn't exactly conducive to creative self expression in a young woman. It took me another 10 years after leaving school to rediscover my creativity and to have confidence in myself to pursue art as a viable occupation. It is now at 40 that I finally feel confident in my creativity and art practice, and I just wish it hadn't taken so long. I envy younger female artists who haven't have to deal with the class/religion crap I did, but I guess what doesn't break you will make you...

What's to be done?
I feel there needs to be more work done in schools and communities to encourage and nurture working class girls to believe that being an artist is an option open to them. It's a self esteem thing. I can see it changing, but more needs to happen more quickly. There needs to be more working class women artists working in schools and communities mentoring and encouraging the next generation.

Who's next?
I take my inspiration from women who I know and have worked with. Someone I admire a lot is Jenny Wilson, a Bradford based arts professional, producer, consultant and performing artist, who works both nationally and locally. I met Jenny in 2008 when she was temporary Creative Director at Bradford Playhouse, I worked with her and another colleague, Alissa Juvan, to curate and run a regular series of experimental arts showcase nights, called "Hatch" at the venue between 2008-9, when it was going through a period of crisis and change. I found Jenny's approach and her combination of knowledge, clarity, confidence, commitment, humour and approachability hugely inspiring. She is a woman who gets things done. She has shown a lot of support for my work by coming to and also performing at events and exhibitions I have curated. One of the highlights of my year last year was seeing her perform as drag artist Mysti Valentine at P.S I Love You, a Beatles themed programme I curated at Bradford Playhouse, and delivering the best, most raucous cover version of Helter Skelter I have ever heard.

The late Jo Spence's pioneering work on phototherapy, family and illness, and her fearless feminism and socialism is completely inspirational to me. Although unfortunately she is no longer with us, her work is work that I go back to again and again, and has continued relevance for me.  As an emerging artist 10 years ago, engaging with her work and writing gave me a new class and gender consciousness.  I'm reading her and looking at her work again now.

What are you looking forward to?
I am showing some installation and book work at 'Home From Home', a Leeds exhibition which is part of the 11th International Contemporary Artists' Book Fair.

I'm also showing a photographic collaborative project I did with my mother at Malaga Fotomanias Festival at the end of March. Collaborating together was a hugely rich experience for us both and we are both going to be there for the Festival, which is going to be really special.


  1. i am delighted to 'meet' jean, it is inspiring to hear a little of the work she does and i find it particlarly helpful to note that 'doing less' of one thing can enrich another aspect of our creative life!
    i'll look forward to jean's response to 'where are we now?' at some point in the future
    best wishes

  2. hi
    how was the festival? are you in scotland at all in the next few months?
    hope all's well