JOANNE LEE

 

not a cv

This page isn’t a CV - though I hope it will fulfill a similar role. I hate CV’s: there’s something terribly deadening about their earnest attempt to convince the reader of one’s distinction. As soon as I start to set down a list of my ‘accomplishments’ in this way, for job or project applications, there is a sense in which it looks simultaneously smug and inadequate. Smug, because it seems to try so hard to look pleased with itself - so that you, the reader, and perhaps my potential employer or commissioner, will hand over the cash or opportunity for which I am applying; and inadequate, because, out in public a harsh light shines upon its feeble listings whose contents I have (probably) attempted to talk up into something more significant or appealing than they ever actually were. Maybe I’m just a little defensive about the topic? Yes, for sure. But I’ve realised that in fact there’s something about the format, however full of interesting information and however well designed, that fails to maintain my attention and ultimately sends me to sleep. Perhaps I’ve simply spent too much time peering at other people’s CV’s as part of various selection panels... Anyway, as this is my own website (as opposed to ‘my’ University webpages, which require I conform to a template and adopt the institution’s preferred language) I wanted to do something different. So, here it is. Not a CV but more of a story

BEGINNING

I was born in Darlington, Co. Durham and spent my childhood roaming about in the ‘wilderness’ of the North Pennines where I had countless relatives (mainly farmers), where my father built dry stone walls (he still does - in his 80s) and where I found an early passion for horses, and for drawing pictures and writing stories. Much as I loved the Pennines, I began to feel frustrated with its isolation. I craved for access to culture that simply didn’t exist locally and knew I needed to move to the city.

ART SCHOOL

I went south to study Fine Art at Sheffield City Polytechnic. I spent much of my time being very uncertain as to what was actually required on the course and essentially spent three years developing a terrible habit of auto-didacticism.  I attended mystifying performances, watched films that seemed to last all day and thought a lot about the nature of confusion, boredom and desire. I was awarded The Harmstone Bequest, a travel bursary, to spend some time in Iceland, which proved a powerful experience. I wrote constantly, made a lot of rather embarrassing work and did, ultimately, learn a lot about art.

CRAP JOB

Throughout college and for two years afterwards, I did almost every job possible within Tescos - from checkout to cash office, canteen to cigarette kiosk, frozen food to fruit and veg - till I finally managed to escape the pink uniform by being offered a few hours teaching. I was very relieved to quit, though I missed my access to all that out of date stock offered to staff at hugely reduced prices. (I’m thinking now about mountains of gorgonzola that was delicious-but-too-squishy-for-sale-to-the-public...)

STARTING TO TEACH

Initially, I was quite scared by teaching - especially as I was delivering technical photographic stuff and at that point I had more than a few hang ups about my own tech-y abilities. But I discovered that under the fear, I loved teaching - and I mean REALLY loved it. I’d never thought for one minute about this being my career, unlike my sister who at the age of 5 sat all her toys down and ‘taught’ them. (She stuck at it;  these days she’s head teacher of a primary school.) In truth, I don’t think I ever had any clue about what my ‘career’ was to be, and in a way I still don’t. I just want to do things I’m interested in doing, and working with students has always continued to be interesting. So job-wise, after escaping the supermarket, I taught on various courses (BA & MA Fine Art, Graphic Design, Film Studies, Media Studies...) at various institutions (Sheffield Hallam University, Bretton Hall, Nottingham Trent University...)

SITE GALLERY

For a while I worked as education officer at Site Gallery in Sheffield where the most memorable moment was probably co-curating Rebound, an exhibition of artists’ books, with Tony Kemplen. We obtained around 100 copies of Michel Crick’s biography of Jeffrey Archer (‘Stranger Than Fiction’) and distributed them to artists who responded to our call for participation - for them to do with as they wanted. The resulting show was described in The Guardian as ‘inspired vandalism’. I went on to be a Board Member at Site for around 8 years, advising on education and contemporary art.

RESEARCHING

I then became a researcher at University of Northumbria on a project I named Cultivating Practice. I was initially promised the earth (well - a studio at least) but found myself wandering the corridors, quite homeless until rescued by John Kippin who let me share his office.  Eventually I was offered a small windowless room as a base and unsurprisingly found myself going a bit crazy in there: it was the size of a cupboard and smelt of stale smoke. I spent as much time as possible high up in the library tower getting some air. I found myself becoming terribly bored by my research project and much more excited by the teaching I was increasingly being offered.

A PROPER JOB

After working as a visiting lecturer at Nottingham Trent University in 1997 I was invited to apply for a tenured position and was appointed as Lecturer in Fine Art. There followed several years in which I really learnt my trade and gained confidence in what I could do. Eventually I ended up as a Senior Lecturer and as a Programme Leader for the BA, which role I shared with a colleague, Duncan Higgins. The University had never had a Joint Programme leadership before. I think I’m quite proud that we wanted to do it that way - and what’s more, I consider that it worked really well as we brought together quite different approaches. I enjoy collaborating with people such a lot - it breaks up those over familiar patterns to which one conforms and it nearly always creates new possibilities. Duncan left to take up a NESTA fellowship and I continued alone for a while until April 2006.

SHEFFIELD

During this time I lived in Sheffield. I was there for 18 years altogether. It’s a quirky place, not quite like other cities. I love it for all the unexpected green spaces found within its boundaries - ancient beech woods and meadows, elongated parks through which you can walk from the city centre to the Peak District; for the political activism that marked its history, from Chartism to the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ and beyond; for its radical attempts at planning and architecture (the Hole in the Road, its Streets in the Sky) for its unassuming friendliness and general lack of interest in fashion. It goes its own sweet way and mistrusts Leeds or Manchester, which Sheffielders always believe seem far too full of themselves. (That it also drove me nuts at times with its frequent pessimism, believing that nowt good would come of anything it tried, goes almost without saying.) The glory days of 80’s pop ebbed away with Pulp, and even Warp Records left the city for London, which seemed telling. As ever though, the creative energy simmered away behind the scenes, and mainly far away from the so-called Cultural Industries Quarter supposedly designed to nurture such activity. I wrote a little about this in North Circular.

EARLY PRACTICE

As well as teaching, I was also making my own work. In the 1990’s my practice involved the development of temporary photographic works for specific non-gallery sites away across the UK, Europe and Russia. Often this was concerned with those who collect, whether historical artefacts or ‘mere’ souvenirs, and the stories and meanings that resonated through such objects and images. I mainly worked with ‘found’ material, as was then the fashion. Project locations included a working hotel, a library, a former school, a sports centre, a disaffected synagogue, a variety of museums and a psychoanalytical training institution.

MOVING FORWARD

Something came to feel increasingly ‘wrong’ about this work. I had the growing sense that these projects could only ever reflect a relatively superficial engagement with the sites they occupied. I felt little more than a tourist and this made me uncomfortable. I also realised that making this work no longer challenged me - it had become too easy. Like a magician producing a rabbit out of a hat, I knew the trick, so I did it successfully for a while but gradually my interest waned and my practice ground to a halt. Thankfully, the teaching I was doing at the time ultimately re-invigorated me. In particular I was working closely with a group of third year film and media students - as well as theoretical and formal crit sessions, we spent a lot of time in the studio/darkroom looking at the work as they produced it - and suddenly I found myself assembling lists of things to make and photograph, excited all over again by creative possibilities. I can’t say just how grateful I am to that bunch of people for recharging my batteries with their gorgeous images and diverse but infectious enthusiasms!

SUSTAINING THINGS

Despite my excitement, it took me a while to get down to work again. Partly, it was a lack of confidence about working in what was an entirely new way for me, but it was also a need to feel my way, to ‘learn’ (to teach myself) this new way of doing things. I realised that my interest had come to lie very much in my immediate surroundings, in what was close at hand.  By this point I was also reclaiming a derelict allotment with my former partner, and was increasingly interested in issues of sustainability. I found myself taking a course in timber-framed self-building at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales where I learned not to be frightened of a circular saw.

MADE UP

Eventually I was fortunate to receive a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board (as it was then called) for a project I entitled Made up: resourcefulness as a creative strategy. This project was explicitly interested in what was close at hand, through a sustained engagement with the places I lived and worked, and I accumulated the first of many photographs devoted to this approach. Whilst other people used their research grants to travel the world to far flung places, I found myself staying home in drizzly, autumnal Sheffield!? During this period, the rented house I’d called home for the past ten years was suddenly put up for auction by its owners, who’d realised that Sheffield’s property market was particularly buoyant, and I found myself conducting an entirely different type of research alongside the AHRB project, as I sought somewhere new to live.

TIME FOR CHANGE

Looking back, this period was a sort of hinge, where many things started to change in my life and work. There was a time of living at a friend’s house with most of my possessions in storage whilst the house I’d bought with my then partner had joists replaced and floors laid (most of which we did ourselves.) Upon retrieving stuff from the storage depot after several months, I found myself looking at it with disdain, and took most of it straight to Oxfam. It was a time of beginning to think and feel differently. Living on the other side of Sheffield, as we now were, seemingly offered new perspectives, new views. And from being rather obsessed with creating and recreating my home, as I had been in my previous place, I found that I now didn’t really care about such things - my sights turned to outside interests and I rediscovered my passion for music.

SAMARITANS

I’m not quite sure what initially prompted me to do so, but during this time I also decided to train as a Samaritans volunteer. Perhaps my more outward looking attitude was some part of it. Or maybe I was increasingly alert to the suffering and difficulties I witnessed in some of the students with whom I worked: as one of only a small number of female lecturers on the programme, I tended to get approached by those in search of a listening ear. But whatever the reason, I’m glad I made the decision to embark upon the training. I found myself able to listen much better, and rather than jumping in, attempting to offer a quick solution (as is so often the temptation), I was able to find ways that might prompt people to find solutions themselves. The skills I learnt have helped me in my life and work and I found myself enjoying my volunteer role a great deal. It remains a significant part of my life.

WRITING

I was working at Nottingham Trent University full-time by now. And I was slowly accruing visual work (its very slowness has seemed a crucial part of the process - I relish the patient ‘getting to know’ a place - it makes me think how Tom Wood was shortlisted for Becks Futures as an upcoming artist after having made photographs in Liverpool for more than twenty years!?) I’d also been writing more and more, as well as organising or speaking at a variety of conferences about topics that appear rather diverse on the face of it, but that were linked in my mind through their relationship to the teaching of fine art or an attention to everyday aesthetics. I wrote and spoke about boredom; about blur in photographs and shine in sculpture; about creative and imaginative resourcefulness; about art students’ fear of failure; about curiosity, enchantment and wonder; about art’s relationship to the ‘real’ world; about engaging encounters with art and about the need for more accessible or compelling languages with which to speak about art. I was also awarded a Fellowship at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds to research ideas of ‘Critical Enchantment’.

BREAKING UP AND OUT

Working full time in Nottingham entailed a rather soul destroying daily commute from Sheffield via the M1 or by rail. University work was also going through a period of significant change as the Fine Art course was re-written, the building redeveloped and as several staff left/joined. After a full day, I’d find myself lying on the floor, brain-dead, exhausted and capable only of staring at the ceiling... But feeling increasingly unhappy in my relationship, being at work for such long days was also an escape. Eventually, inevitably, the break came when I met someone else and fell in love. After a difficult, messy ten months which included a lot of emotional trauma, an endless variety of DIY and a battle with inept solicitors, the house was finally sold and I moved south to begin a new life in Brighton. During this period I decided the moment had come for me to take some time out from the University so I negotiated a year’s leave and determined to pay much needed attention to my personal projects.

AND

In my sabbatical year, I wrote regularly, got quite stuck very often and tried to fathom what it was I thought I was trying to do. At first I’d decided I was trying to write a ‘proper’ book - a work of cultural studies - alongside which there would be accompanying creative practice, but eventually I realised that the creative and critical couldn’t be separated in this way and began to focus upon a series of essayistic pieces using word and image. I also decided to return to teaching as a 0.6fte Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University. The time out had allowed me to reflect upon what I enjoy about academia, and to see how it was possible to avoid the aspects for which I have little patience: I love working with students, but I really can’t be doing with academic management or the tedious repetitions of certain forms of research. I also realised just how distinctive is the Fine Art programme I’d helped to create and, having looked around at other universities and courses, I’ve finally learnt to appreciate it properly.

NOW

So, since 2006 I’ve been working on a series of pamphlets, which explore the aesthetics of the everyday, as well as writing for various publications and projects which often arise out of the creative and critical friendships I cultivate; much of this work is visible on my site. Alongside my role at Nottingham Trent University, I currently teach on Graphic Design at Sheffield Hallam University and have been a visiting lecturer at Winchester School of Art, Camberwell College of Arts, Manchester Metropolitan University and elsewhere, as well as acting as External Examiner for Print and Time-based Media at Wimbledon College of Art. I grow all sorts of fruit and vegetables on an allotment that overlooks the sea and enjoy cooking as I gaze out of my 24th floor flat. Many things have changed, though I’ve also recognised the things that endure, which, I suppose, brings me right back to the notion of a CV itself. Etymologically speaking, it comes from the Latin curriculum ("course"), derived from currere ("to race"), + vitae, the genitive of vita ("life") so it refers in fact to the ‘course of life’. I remain curious as to where life takes me next...