Interview with Jessica Palmer

Interview with Jessica Palmer

May 19, 2020

Creativity and wellbeing are at the heart of the work of multi-disciplinary artist Jessica Palmer. 

Jessica is a UK-based artist and illustrator whose work spans collage, paper sculpture, paper cutting, digital drawing and painting. She has worked with Forest of Imagination since it began 8 years ago. Forest of Imagination is a pop-up art, play and creativity event that’s gone digital in the wake of COVID-19. 

The Big Draw and House of Imagination, the creative charity behind the Forest of Imagination are working in partnership with Grant Associates and a whole host of creative partners. We all share many of the same goals including championing wellbeing through creativity and nature. An exciting partnership is developing between the Forest of Imagination and the Big Draw and we’ve got lots of create content and projects planned. Watch this space! 

Today, we’re here to shine a light on Jess’s work for creativity and wellbeing week. Her practice and approach to her work perfectly aligns with our 2020 Big “Green” Draw Festival theme, A Climate of Change and highlights the inherent connections between nature and drawing as a way of seeing. 

Interview: Devon Turner in conversation with Jessica Palmer.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Jess. Your engaging work with Forest of Imagination has really sparked an interest in us to know more about what fuels your passion for creating...Can you tell us a bit about how art fits into your life? Why do you create? When you do create? 

It’s more about fitting life around artwork.  There is always so much I want to do.  Lockdown days are very familiar to me.  I work in a studio in my home and I have a super structured routine, starting every day at 10 am.  I work until I get hungry and then I’m back in the studio, sometimes working on 2 or 3 projects simultaneously.

I began my adult life wanting to be an artist but chose a career in journalism. I built a career in television as a writer/producer and eventually joined the BBC. Much of the work was fascinating and enjoyable though repetitive and I didn’t feel personally creative. My four-year old daughter rose every morning at 6 am and presented me with a drawing. She ignited a spark. I watched her drawing and I felt envious of the bubble of flow activity she was immersed in.  As a working parent dashing between professional and private commitments, I had forgotten what a uniquely satisfying experience it is to take that deep dive into something creative.  Watching her helped me rediscover the sense of completeness that comes from focus on a creative activity.  The clock stops.  Distractions vanish.  Everything else fades.

To mix metaphors, making art for me was something fragile and precious like a balloon, an idea which could burst at any time, which had floated up, up and away and seemed out of my grasp. I thought – at 49 - it was too late for me.  But somehow, encouraged and supported by my kids, step-kids and husband, I managed to convince myself it was still a possibility.  I grabbed hold of the string just in time before that balloon disappeared into the blue.

I did one day a week at Putney Art School and managed to make enough work for a modest portfolio.  I took it to Kingston University’s Head of Illustration and, fourteen years ago, persuaded him to let me join the MA in Illustration.  I did the course over 2 years, working whenever my kids were at school or asleep.  It was a mountainous learning curve but an incredible launch pad for becoming an artist.

[Artwork by Jessica Palmer, "Monochromes 1"']

To go a bit further, who do you create for? 

I guess the obvious answer for any artist is that you work for yourself first and foremost because making art in any medium is a vocation and a passion. You need to find a way to keep doing it, by hook or by crook. I love working with clients who have a specific brief to fulfill. For example, I did a project just before lockdown for the National Trust.  I was asked for an artistic response to a series of objects on display in Stourhead House in Wiltshire.  But these responses had to take the form of 3D paper cuts and they had to fit under glass domes.  I enjoy the challenge of this sort of constraint which requires ingenuity and knowhow with materials. I like the collaborative nature of working with a client.  The work I've done for English Heritage, creating Henry Vlll, a milkmaid in Georgian costume, Charles Darwin pre-enormous beard and so on - proved to be exacting work where the requirements are detailed. I also see this type of historical work as a partnership when an individual client says to me that they would like me to make an artwork to celebrate a person’s life.  I need to make sure the medium works for the client but also that I can come up with something that is beautiful, memorable and speaks to the recipient. It’s an amazing feeling when someone trusts you to create an artwork which they then love to own.

[Artwork by Jessica Palmer for English Heritage, "Henry VIII"']

You’re a very versatile artist, working in lots of different materials and on different scales! What is your favourite medium to work in? 

It’s true that I work in various media and on different scales.  The linking principle is storytelling.  My work - whether it is collage, paper cutting, digital drawing, sculpture or painting - starts with an idea I want to illustrate.  I used to worry about being a ‘Jack of all trades’ but now I see it as a strength.  I have stopped apologising for turning my hand to digital artwork, or cutting, or construction, or delicate painting.  Instead, I look at it as good fortune that I can choose the medium that matches my message.  I can see, in my mind’s eye, whether a commission should take the form of a 3D piece or a knife drawing or a hand-painted paper collage, or something else.  I visualise it then set out to try to make it.   

My favourite materials are paper and cardboard, which is really just paper’s cousin with its thicker, craggier, more resilient form.  I love to paint paper for cutting out.  I collect papers of all patterns and types and pick up orphaned cardboard off the streets.  I am in the midst of making a cardboard sculpture of an Urban Forest for a large-scale installation as part of Forest of Imagination.  I mix plain and coloured cardboards.  I try to work with the material’s innate substance or resistance to shape it or contour or cut it. The texture of paper is infinitely varied and so malleable.  Each one reacts differently to paint, layering or cutting out.  I have just made a large collage to celebrate Bath City Farm’s 20th year. For this, I make all the pieces, chickens, pigs, Shetland ponies, more chickens, bees, goats and some more chickens (!) first.  Then I paint a watercolour background and compose the piece.  This artwork is to fundraise for the farm which operates in a socially deprived area.  We hope to raffle it so that anyone can have the chance to own the artwork. Wherever there is an opportunity, I look at ways to engage with the community in art making, whether through installations which encourage artistic interactions, via workshops which open minds to new ways of making art, or by opening my studio to the public and sharing my working practices.

Bath City Spa Collage

[Artwork by Jessica Palmer for Bath City Farm]

The work of House of Imagination is varied and engages different strands of the local and national community. How does the work that you’ve done with Forest of Imagination support families and communities who do not have easy access to cultural places and spaces? 

The wonderful thing about Forest of Imagination is that it is a free, local, community event for all ages and pops up every year to re-imagine a different part of Bath.  It is welcoming and accessible and inspired by each unique locality.  It is inclusive and participatory, involving education, business, voluntary organisations, individuals and local groups. In 2020 our plans were for a travelling Forest of Imagination across Bath, particularly reaching some of the most deprived areas.  My own project – an Urban Forest installation – was to have popped up at Bath City Farm which happens to be located in one of the most socially deprived areas of the south west of England. 

If I can see an opportunity, often site-specific, I will try to work large! At the Forest of Imagination in Bath in 2018, I made a Paper Maze (actually cardboard) which was modelled on a series of huge circles (the outer one 9 metres in diameter) and had to be large enough to allow wheelchairs to move around inside it, as well as strong enough to stay upright for 5 days. I designed it as a big drawing surface.  Children and adults were invited to lie or sit in it and draw all over it.  At the end of the 5 days, every surface was coated with sketches, poems, pictures and cartoons.  I did something similar a few years ago in Hampton Court Palace where I built a Paper Palace, 1/20th the size of the actual Palace, to coincide with The Big Draw week, and a Paper Garden in London’s Garden Museum by Lambeth Palace.  Last year, at the Holburne Museum in Bath, I created a giant drawing of a Future Forest on vinyl covering a large window - 3 metres x 3 metres - which children could embellish and draw over with their own illustrations of bugs and leaves and trees.

["Paper Maze" by Jessica Palmer for Forest of Imagination, 2018]

Conservation and nature are dominant themes in your work. Can you tell us about some of the projects that you’ve worked on in relation to this topic?

I love to test the qualities of paper and working with it in 3 dimensions.  There is a technique called Chinese Paper Relief art and I will be using this to make a triptych of 3D paper artworks on the theme of the Woodland Understory I am hugely inspired, like many artists, by nature, the environment and the secret worlds that exist all around us, under trees, in hedgerows, in meadows.  I think, and have thought for many years, that taking care of our environment is simply the most important work of human beings.  I am a passionate supporter of Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion.  I try to work in a conscious way, using materials which will not do harm to the environment.  And I seek out these themes in work for exhibitions.  One example was a 7-metre long paper collage called Imperilled in the Wild for the Blanc de Blanc show in Jamestown, USA which depicted hundreds of white silhouettes of the wild-flower species which are endangered in the US.

["Imperilled in the Wild" by Jessica Palmer]

How has the lockdown in UK affected your work and practice? How has being creative helped you during this difficult time? 

In terms of the everyday, as I’ve mentioned, I live a very quarantined kind of existence, making art in my studio alone.  Having said that, like everyone else, being deprived of family, friends, culture and free movement can affect your psyche.  I have tried to say calm and focused on whatever is in front of me on that day.  Luckily, I had one or two commissions which kept me going through the early part of the lockdown.  That allowed me some time to adjust and to come to terms with losing all my hoped-for income for the foreseeable future as projects got cancelled and postponed. Like others, I have had the privilege of making artwork for NHS heroes a collage and two paintings - all meant to bring a little joy and distraction for those among us with the hardest tasks. And I am continuing with an ongoing installation piece in the optimistic belief that I will eventually find a home for it!  

What advice can you give to people to keep busy and creative at home? What are some of your favourite ways to improve wellbeing through art? 

I think the key is experimentation.  Keep trying things out until you find a medium or a process which feels right in your hands and works with your imagination.  I adore working with a hot glue gun or sharp snippy scissors, or lush acrylic inks or velvety paper.  There is a lot about artwork that is tactile for me.  Your sense of touch as an artist is hugely important and sometimes underplayed, particularly with children who are often given thin paper, bad paint and dried up glue sticks.  I like to think about every mark or cut or fold I make, as much as the application of colour and scale, and I try to work with good materials.  It’s like cooking with good quality ingredients.

It also only takes a little ingenuity to find art materials in your own home.  For printing or painting, try a feather, a ball of thread, a slice of cardboard dipped in ink, scrunched paper, cut up an old sponge, see what marks a silicon pastry brush makes.  Make dry papier mache using paper towels taped onto a wire model, or a shape moulded from tin foil, then wrapped tightly with self-adhesive brown paper tape or masking tape. Try tie dye with homemade dye from black beans for blue, red cabbage for purple, beetroot for pink, avocado skins and stones for peachy pink, yellow onion skins for yellow-orange, ground turmeric for golden yellow, spinach for green.  Make strong instant coffee or tea into ink.  Use paper straws to blow ink across paper.  Use old spray bottles filled with ink or dye to scatter colour as a surface for drawing. Lay objects – keys, leaf skeletons, old lace, paper doilies - onto paper and spray the colour around the objects for a multilayer effect.

Take a chance, create, and make something new. 

Thank you Jessica!

Interview: Devon Turner in conversation with Jessica Palmer.

If you were inspired by this interview with Jessica and would like to find out more about her work, head to her website here.

Registrations are now open for The Big Draw Festival 2020: A Climate of Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.