Ahead of her exhibition at Plashet Park's Applecart Arts, Manor Park's art facilitator Jo Wood has a chat with her fellow artist and co-collaborator Steve Chapman to talk about how her art and creative expression has helped form community connection...

Hi Jo, could you begin by introducing yourself, tell us what you do and what fascinates you?

Hey! I’m Jo aka jdwoof, I’m an artist based in Manor Park. I run workshops for community groups and organisations, I work 1:1 with people, I draw for event reportage along with a bunch of other creative endeavours!  I’m fascinated by human behaviour, learning things which surprise me, and opportunities to watch creatures.

How long have you been making art for?

I loved making as a child, I used to spend a lot of time alone making things. Bug Club membership packs, a library from my bedroom floor, a stall outside my house selling my belongings and lots of drawing and painting. After doing GCSE Art and not taking it for A-Levels, this stopped, except for doodling in margins. Then, through the pandemic I started a family photo competition and got into drawing. Often the drawings were to find ways to express how I was feeling. I love writing but I can get frustrated using it to describe how I feel, when the feeling is so instantaneous. By the time I’ve written it down, the words have probably annoyed me.

Whereas with a drawing, I can quickly scribble something down and surprise myself with what comes out.

Then, at the week-long art residency at Glen Dye Cabins & Cottages, North East Scotland, in May 2022, I got the opportunity to hang out in a barn in the woods with a group of lovely artists AND have access to their art materials and workshops! I painted on a slate, on bones I found, used a scroll saw and built a den. I left art in the woodland for people to find later.

Glen Dye

Artists in Residence communal studio at Glen Dye

Beaky creature art left in the woods © Jo Wood

Since then I have had all of these memories come back from my childhood about the way paint can behave and things I could do to play around with it. Since the end of last year, I’ve been taking portrait commissions, usually of people or their pets. I’ve also been doing event reportage, where I draw and write from moments on the edges of events, which help to show the mood of the event in another way other than speeches/photographs/video. I run workshops for groups, encouraging people to make together despite the fear/shame that often accompanies anything described as art.

I really really love being surprised by what comes out when I make things, which has come about since I am less attached to an idea in my head about what something will look like.

What sort of projects/exhibitions/things have you been up to recently?

I have two exciting things coming up very soon. One is a pop-up radio station, broadcast for 12 hours, to mark the summer solstice, which I am co-curating for Glen Dye and you can tune in here. The themes are joy, creativity, light, beauty and wilderness. I love talking to people about what they are fascinated by which has been a magical thing about this project.

The second is my exhibition which is marking the end of my 9-month residency at Applecart Arts in East Ham. This will be the first time that all of my work from the residency is displayed together. A project I’ve been doing, within the residency, has been conversations with people based in the local area and creatives from further afield that I’ve invited to have a chat with me. We’ve talked about our lives and stories and what’s important to us, and as we’ve chatted I’ve painted, spontaneously. I’m particularly excited to have my gallery of conversations come to life in a room, with the people who I had conversations with, actually in the room too! There will also be creative prompts to help people engage with the paintings and each other, which visitors will be welcome to take or leave.

Conversation painting with Steve Chapman © Jo Wood

Conversation painting with Ewan Sketch © Jo Wood

Conversation painting with Ben Murphie © Jo Wood

I also spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of the year on a remote island called Ocracoke, off the coast of North Carolina. I arrived knowing one person on the island, and organically met people out and about which lead to being interviewed for the newspaper, being a guest on the local radio station, being rescued from a long journey with a flat tyre, making art installations on the beach and drawing around the edges of a documentary. From this time, Art Babies was also born (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the work that you and I do together, resisting the idea of what art ‘should’ be and inviting people into that. I loved the weekend we spent at Brighton Open Studios recently, where we made that enormous mural with lots of visitors.

You run art workshops?  What are they all about and what do people who come along get up to?

I love running art workshops with community groups and in organisations simply to gently encourage people to spend a little bit of time doing something they probably don’t do very often - making things. Try some things out and express themselves, as this has helped me so very much. I read something recently which said we become the adults that we needed when we were a child. I like that idea, and I like the idea that gentle encouragement to make, play and express myself on my own and with others are what I needed, and continue to need.

One of my favourite sessions that I ran recently was with the queer community group I am part of, she.her.they.them, called “art scaredy cats to art bravey cats” during an evening at Tracks, designed for people to make new connections. I brought a bunch of art materials and had a selection of prompts on offer in a lucky dip bag (ranging from weird and abstract to very concrete/specific) which participants could take or leave. There were paintings, drawings, portraits, creative writing and people got to know each other. I was delighted with how the evening went.

What would you say to people who want to make more art?

Firstly, I imagine they do creative things all the time but they just don’t consider it to be creative. Cooking, taking photos, looking after a plant, doodling during a meeting, writing thoughts in the notes app of your phone, putting together an interesting outfit, all of these are things you’re making!

Secondly, start from wherever you are. If you’re nervous, you’re angry, you’re sad, you’re jubilant, that’s all part of what you’re making.

Don’t wait until you’re in this crystal-clear mindset with half a day free. Do something now that takes one minute.

If you are experiencing a mind blank or some panic and don’t know what to do…you don’t *have* to do anything! But you could try a creative prompt/restriction which could be your focus instead of the screaming “I don’t know I don’t know”; draw with your non-dominant hand, draw someone without taking your pen off the paper, curl up in a ball and listen to your body, paint the colours of your mood in this moment.

What are the kinds of things you find people are worried about/feel inhibited about at your workshops?

There seems to be a kind of paralysis that can come over people when they see art materials. I’ve heard SO many people say “oh I don’t do art” or “I can’t draw.” I think the art world has a lot to blame for cultivating the idea that there is a right and wrong way to make something, and I also think it seems to be a very human thing to categorise everything in good/bad right/wrong.

I like to help people get into trying something out, often by using strange prompts, and seeing that it’s not sooooo bad. Also you don’t need to do art that imitates life. We all have excellent camera phones in our pockets for that. I also think people who have the identity of ‘artist’ can feel held back by their own expectations, and I welcome that too.

You have become known for your pet and human commissions.  How did all of that start and how can people get in touch with you if they’d like one?

This started when I painted my brother-in-laws cat, Pesto, for his birthday. After that, I got another request for a cat portrait, for someone's cat that had died a few years before. Then Ben Murphie aka The Prince of Battenberg, asked me to paint his dogs in the Battenberg colours. Then the requests just kept coming in! I love looking at animals, I think they are so amazing. Humans are interesting too.

Queenie pet portrait © Jo Wood

Two cats pet portrait © Jo Wood

Phoebe & Harley portrait © Jo Wood

I do the portraits in lots of different sizes, some examples can be found here, but if you’d like something different, get in contact.

What do you like most about where you live?

I love all of the green spaces nearby. I love my garden. I like that I no longer live in a relatively homogenous neighbourhood (I grew up in a village in Surrey). I love that people here on my street weren’t visibly celebrating royal days of note. I love all of the lovely independent shops and bars. I love the restaurants. I love the Hindu temple near my house. I’ve loved how I have got to know people in the area through markets, my residency and getting involved in community events, which there are many on offer.

How can people find out more about you or buy some of your stuff?

Come to my exhibition
, running 6 - 12th July at Applecart Arts in East Ham! I have a newsletter which I send out fairly irregularly, but when I do it’s got lots of lovely invitations in it. You can sign up to that here. I have a website which has my virtual gallery of conversations, as well as my shop. Also my Instagram shares art which is available to buy which might not be in my shop.

Is there anything else you’d like to say before you go?

Let me know if there is something you’re interested in and would like to chat, I love conversations! I could run a workshop in your organisation, I could draw at your event, we could work together 1:1 or we could collaborate in making something.

You can join Jo on her Art Ramble this Sunday 25th June to get inspired by the everyday wonder of Wanstead Park. For more details check out the eventbrite page here and for further info follow @jdwoof

© Nicky Burkert