Over the last six months, I have been researching and making work in response to collections at Leeds Art Gallery and The British Library as the artist in residence of the Collections in Dialogue project. My work will soon be exhibited at Leeds Art Gallery, opening 25 March.
In my first blog last November, I had begun looking at both collections with a focus on residents of the Leeds region.
I viewed around fifty works on paper and paintings from the Leeds Art Gallery’s collection and listened to a similar amount of recordings from the British Library’s sound archive, with connections to the area of Leeds. The collections gave unique personal glimpses into everyday life in the area from a range of perspectives. Being able to hear interviews and songs or see artworks by people who were living or had once lived in the city was a very immediate way to connect with unique lived experiences captured in the collections. Stories relating to domestic and industrial labour were punctuated by joyful, extraordinary moments of singing, dancing and laughter. I wanted to bring these ordinary and extraordinary moments together in my exhibition.
There were particular images inspired by both collections including factory chimneys, windows, cooking pots and working or dancing figures, that I experimented with in drawings to begin with. The images I chose symbolised wider concerns that stood out; for example, windows as the boundary between public and private life, as well as a point of observation.
Other ideas developed into other prints and sculptures in the exhibition. When making a sketch of a photograph by Peter Mitchell entitled Mrs Clayton and Mrs Collins, 1974, I was interested in how the white overalls of the two fish and chip shop workers appear to fuse together. From this and the repeated use of the collective pronoun ‘we’ to talk about community in the British Library sound archive, I made a sketch of a collective body, which I developed into experimental monoprints and a small sculpture.
Alongside sketching and sculpture making, I filmed footage around Leeds for a video. This included filming back-to-back terraces described in recordings from the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture and the Shrogs woodland near Temple Newsam house in Leeds, where there was once an opencast mine. I also filmed footage of myself working on prints and sculptures in the studio, as well as trying out some dancing. In my dance, I took inspiration from the working postures of the figures in a drawing called Mining, 1921 by Jacob Kramer and the dancing figure in The Dancing Stevedores, c.1900 a drawing by Jack B. Yeats. I have paired the footage with selected historic photographs from Leeds Libraries’ Leodis Archive and a soundtrack of recordings from the British Library’s sound archive. The earliest recording used in the exhibition is from 1963, however some recall experiences of growing up in the 1910s. Together with the contemporary visuals, I wanted to create a patchwork snapshot of Leeds and its rich multiplicity over the last century. Artist Claye Bowler and the Yorkshire Trans Choir contributed newly commissioned versions of two traditional folk songs that have been performed in the region The Cruise of the Calabar and The Derby Ram.
It has been extremely exciting to work on bringing to life the ideas from the residency. This new body of work will be presented in my exhibition Desire Lines, at Leeds Art Gallery from 25 March 2022 to 16 October 2022. My sculpture, video, prints and paintings will be shown alongside works from Leeds Art Gallery’s collection that influenced me. A playlist of songs selected from the British Library’s world & traditional music and accents & dialects collections will create an immersive atmosphere in the gallery space.
There will be an online element of the exhibition, which similarly will allow the collections and my new body of work to be further explored. In addition to presenting digital versions of elements of the physical exhibition, there will also be a digital sketchbook to browse and audio recordings to listen to of me discussing ideas behind my work in more detail.
By Jill McKnight, Artist-in-Residence at Leeds Art Gallery