With Jo Lamb in the South of England

Jo Lamb Story Image_2.png

Quirky narratives, charming visions and occasional bogeymen inhabit Jo Lamb’s unique pictorial world. Recurring themes include toys, the circus, the fairground, childhood memories and beloved places such as Kenya, the Outer Hebrides and Hampstead. “I have a black sense of humour. Humour has always been my escape method in life. My work is not about lovely fluffy stuff…”
—Sarah O'Kane

JO LAMB trained in painting at Byam Shaw School; in painting and textile design at Camberwell College (London Institute); and as an art teacher at Goldsmiths College, London. She lives and works in Lewes, England.

Lewes is where my brother David settled with his wife Vicky, and I have been visiting for over 35 years. Jo is one of the artists working in Lewes that I came to know and I spoke to her via video conference earlier this month.

It seems as if I’ve known you forever, but tell me, Jo, do you remember how we met? Because I don’t.
We met through Vicky after—no, before David died.

So when did you meet Vicky, do you remember?
Probably around here. I got to know Vicky, really, before David died. David was very nice to me, very kind. He was a really lovely man. Vicky and I became good friends and she got to know all my family, I got to know all her family. That’s kind of how we met, really. You know we’re ladies of a certain age and status :) in this small town.

I’ve always meant to ask you: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in North London—Hampstead. And then I moved to South London to go to college. And I never went back to North London. That was it. And then I moved to Swizterland and then to Africa because my partner was working for the U.N. And that’s where I connected to a lot of African artists. I got to know them and their work which I really admired. And a friend of mine was quite involved with the Kenyan art scene and in fact she helped to set up Kenya’s modern art museum which I think has become an even bigger thing now. But at the time, African art wasn’t that big in Kenya. It’s become more and more mainstream now.

You graduated with honors from Camberwell in painting but also studied textile design. Can you tell me how you came to design and how the Feral Housewife label evolved?
The Feral Housewife label came about because I’ve always done commissioned artwork along side my painting practice. And in fact, as we speak, I’m involved in doing two books for children plus I’m probably going to have a show of work with text in the winter. Recently my work has kind of married the design and painting. But really, it came about because that’s how I was trained. I was trained as a painter and as a designer. And it’s always—I’ve never known quite what I am.

Was the design training through the textile design?
I got into Camberwell on a special clause for gifted students because I didn’t have the right amount of academic qualifications. So they took me in. And it’s a very good art school and I got a bachelor of arts degree. It was funded by a grant—and they said—it was very sexist really—that you’ll be more likely to get  a grant if you have something you can do as a trade. They offered me pottery or textiles and I chose textiles because I was slightly allergic to clay. And the thing about textiles—they said, all right, you can spend as much time as you want in the painting department. So, at Camberwell, I was trained by all the painters there. And quite a few well known painters. Graham Nickson was one of my teachers and he’s now Dean of the New York Studio School. I was very well trained. And the whole idea at Camberwell was that your drawing practice would feed into your design practice. I realize now in my own teaching that doesn’t mean anything anymore. Because the language of teaching people to draw and drawing properly has sort of gone from art schools in general because it’s all done by computer or photographs or whatever. But in my day you started training and it took years and years and years to get it right. They were very very stringent about drawing at Camberwell and I sometimes feel that training is a bit unnecessary now. I don’t know quite how I rate it as an idea. But at the time, that was on board and that’s what you did. So you did lots of life drawing, lots of academic drawing and then you took it from there. When I left, my work was shown at the White Chapel Gallery as a promising young artist. And that was that. And then I got married and moved to Africa. And I showed in Africa and that was how things changed.

To understand—did you move to Africa right after art school?
Oh, after Camberwell I went to Goldsmiths and did a teaching course which I thought would be like an insurance policy. And it was amazing because it was a teaching course for artists who wanted to continue their own studio practice. My qualification rested on an art project that I’d done. My partner Robert was a writer and he’d written this play. I did the stage design for the play. I mean it was mad. But the funny thing about doing the teaching was that when Robert died, having that little bit of paper sort of saved my life because I got a job working in the prison. Because I needed the money, basically.

What does the feral housewife name mean?
Before Robert died, we lived in Newhaven which is down the road from here by the sea and it’s a sort of desolate place. But there were a group of quite well known artists living there. There was a woman down the road who was having an open house and I walked in, and the whole house was painted pink inside and I thought that’s amazing, so marvelous. And I showed there for a while. Then when Robert died, I couldn’t concentrate and so I started hand painting cards. I think I painted sixty and I put them in an open house for the Brighton Festival. They sold out and I painted some more and I made handmade cards for about, I don’t know, maybe ten years. They’re a very good way of thinking and working out ideas. And I called myself the Feral Housewife, because, I mean I was no longer in any shape or form in that kind of marital sort of thing where, sounds old fashion, but you were doing the cooking and everything else. So the Feral Housewife is a sign that you’re no longer there, really. For a long time I drew this bunny called Fluffy. And Fluffy was a piss take because Robert loved Joseph Beuys and there’s that thing about explaining art to a dead hare and some considered Beuys a shaman and Fluffy was a piss take, really. And I sat at this long table on my own in this creaky old house which I couldn’t wait to get out of and just sent Fluffy everywhere, you know. I sent him to Bamako and everywhere else—it was all part of my past really. And Timbuktu and New Guinea. And I named loads of paintings really weird titles. I thought, that’s really interesting to give your paintings very odd titles. I did an abstract painting and I was on the 38 bus thinking of it and my son told me that the 38 bus in London is called the Love Bus. It goes from Victoria to Hackney Marshes which at the time was a down at heel London area where a load of students lived. And I thought oh that’s a great title. The Love Bus.  And that still stays. The titles of my work you know give the work quite a different meaning really.

As a lover of design, and especially of book design, I’m always happy to find a fellow painter who has also worked with books. Can you say something more about that?
I’ve had two meetings this week with a writer who wants me to do a book with her and “The Singalong Band” who I’ve done a book with and they want another. When you come round to asking me about my work in the prison—I’ve sent my little character Fluffy into prison because I thought that would be quite a good place for him :)—So I’ve just done this stuff with Fluffy because a friend of mine, some time ago, just after my partner died said I’m going to do a series of paintings in a fetish parlor and he did it, and he showed them. And five or six years later he said why don’t we have a show and you can show Fluffy goes to prison and I can show the fetish parlor paintings. And I thought immediately, I’ll just get sacked. I can’t afford to do that. But the idea has stayed with me. So I’ve done one Fluffy goes to prison book and thought, you know what would be really good would be to tackle the issue of Fluffy goes to prison because he’s lost his temper and he’s knifed somebody and—it sounds quite dark, but I thought it might be good, you know—a gentle cautionary tale. I’ve always wanted gentle cautionary tales. You know when you’ve done something for a while, it just gets better. You just look at it more. And you work out ways of doing it better.

You also studied to be a teacher. Can you talk about your experience as an educator and your current work in the prison?
Well you know I did a teaching diploma and then a lot of my life, much like a lot of artists’ lives have been, oh my god I need some money. And people gave me teaching jobs that nobody else would do and I worked a long time in special needs. And then you kind of get good at what you’re doing and finally, after Robert died, I got a job in a prison through a friend who had seen a show of my work and she said why don’t you come and work in the prison—and I thought I can’t do this, I just can’t do this. It would be so scary, so horrid. And then I was up ‘til three o’clock in the morning and blow me, I was at the prison gates at half past seven in the morning. And I’ve been in the prison now for fourteen years. It’s a long time. And through it, you get a prison craft, you get to know how it works so you can assess a situation quite quickly if something’s going wrong. But one of the things I enjoy is that we have a really good art room in the prison. And it’s not just me. There’s five of us. And we get along really well and we’re really strict about it and we’re really proud of it. There’s an organization called The Koestler Trust which is a charity for prisoners who do artwork. Every year they have a show in London at the South Bank Center and it’s up for about three months. The work’s for sale and it’s curated every year by different people. One year Anthony Gormley curated it. He came to our prison to talk with the prisoners. Grayson Perry’s been involved with it. Koestler really gives people who are in prison, if they’re good, a chance to show their work and maybe go further. We’ve got the odd person into art college. It’s a very good organization and it’s for writers and for artists. At the moment, Koestler’s busy and we’re putting work in shows by people all over the prison. I was there yesterday and one guy came up with these amazing things he’d made in his cell. And I said when might you be leaving and he said “never”. They’re absolutely amazing and he said should I ask thirty quid for this? And I said why don’t we try a hundred. So I love that. And I love the atmosphere in the art room. We have about twenty guys who actually get really competitive and I’m really tough with them and quite often, because I did art history when I did my degree, give them talks on painters. And I absolutely love it when I can be bothered to do it because you get such interesting feedback. My famous one is on a Titian painting called Bacchus and Ariadne and I liken it to Love Island [a British TV reality show]. And it’s hilarious. And I love that.

As it says in the introduction your “Recurring themes include toys, the circus, the fairground, childhood memories and beloved places such as Kenya, the Outer Hebrides and Hampstead.” The work that is currently on the HarryLou shop you consider sketches but I see them as completely realized drawings. They were pulled from one of your sketch pads when I visited several years ago when the shop existed only in my imagination. They speak to another aspect of who you are as a painter—no toys, no dark humor—and as a lover of landscape I was particularly drawn to the two landscape works. Can you say something about how place, landscape, locale enters your work?
The drawings that you have are taken directly from nature. It’s reality and it goes back to my love of color and shape and the drawing ability and when you do it, probably a bit like you, I realize the importance of other artists’ work—like Wayne Thiebaud and Alex Katz. I tend to look at a lot of American artists. A lot of the landscapes that I’ve done have been when I’ve gone right up onto the downs or onto the beach in Newhaven with a friend of mine and we just sketch. But I often take the sketches right back to the studio and rework them. When I sketch outside it’s normally been up on the downs, on a lovely day and the sun is out and there’s something really nice—like the colors or the butterflies or the sheep or whatever, and I’ve taken my box of pastels up there. So it’s been like a great, fun thing

So you sketch in nature but do the painting in the studio?
Yes. I don’t paint outside because with the paintings I can do them over a period of time. You know you could have a painting in the studio for six months and think oh, I could make it better if I put a bit of red over there. And landscape is always a good thing to do, you know. At the moment I’m working on some paintings about the moon. In the summer here there are a lot of shows about the moon. And I was recently in Dubai where my son is working in the theatre and just amazed by the skyscrapers. And I didn’t do any drawing in Dubai at all. I took my sketch book and I don’t know why, I just couldn’t do any. It was such a different kind of landscape. But I took lots of photos. And, I thought, that’s interesting, I’ll see how this feels. I’ll work just from these photos.

Jo, I know you have a lot going on now and I wish you the best with your upcoming exhibitions and book projects. We’ll stay in touch and I’ll continue to encourage you to come to New York. I look forward to having additional works on the shop before too long. Thank you so much for doing this—it’s been fun.

Keep up do date with Jo’s upcoming exhibitions and book projects at jolamb-art.com

Specifically—as a companion for this interview and for more on Jo’s process and subjects visit The Fluffy Tapes for an interview by Fluffy with the artist and for images of Fluffy click here.

Photo of Jo: Benetta Adamson

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Cicely Cottingham