A home on the dark side

Jo Wilson, in her garden.
Jo Wilson, in her garden.
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The quite ordinary looking door of Jo Wilson’s semi opens on to an entirely different world full of the weird and the wonderful. The walls are black, blood red and forest green and the interior seems to have been inspired by a Victorian gothic novel.

The decor is dark but the atmosphere is surprisingly light thanks to Jo’s jolly personality and a few comic touches, like her favourite bust of Shakespeare whose head rests halfway up the stairs and always sports a silly hat. “It’s seasonal,” says Jo, “I’m about to make him an Easter bonnet.”

Making things is one Jo’s many talents. She is a mixed-media artist who creates everything from pictures and sculptures to reworked and altered books using everything from old textiles and jewellery to a fantastical variety of found objects.

Set dressing is another of her skills and her training in stage management at the Mount View Theatre School has clearly influenced her home in York. She has lived there for 21 years with her three children Alice, 21, Corrin, 16, and Maisie, 14, after buying the property from her father-in-law

One of the first jobs was to paint over the white walls and woodwork with strong colours and reinstate the real fires. She also transformed the old coal hole into a downstairs loo and created a “Number 10” door to the sitting room by installing a pediment. Furniture includes bespoke bookshelves and a very clever reworking of Ikea storage boxes in the music room cum office. Jo stained the blond wooden boxes and files holders with her favourite mix of Indian rose and dark oak and attached old brass knobs.

The rest of the furniture was collected from antique shops and fairs and the car boot sale staged on the Knavesmire each month. The “Charles Dickens” desk came from the car boot sale as did the dentist chair next to it. “I couldn’t resist,” says Jo, whose real passion is ephemera. There are lots and lots of it and more to come.

“As you can see, I don’t like the less is more look. I love looking at interesting things that might inspire or even feature in my work.”

The convincingly real fake skull is one such item. It inspired a Sherlock Holmes theme. Busts are a favourite including the Shakespeare and a Queen Victoria. So is religious art featuring pious Victorian girls. “I love the colours,” says Jo.

The top hat with a steampunk twist is strapped with a pair of binoculars and will be a perfect fit for the Whitby Goth Weekend that Jo and her family attend each year. “I love that Goth look and I love looking at the costumes. We always dress up and have a great time there,” says Jo, who usually finds something to bring home and add to her collection.

One of her greatest passions is period advertising signs, which fill one wall of her kitchen. The kitchen has just been treated to a makeover with new units and a porch leading out into one of the most magical gardens you’ll set eyes on.

The garden has been one of Jo’s main projects, though plants and flowers aren’t the focus. Instead she has concentrated on creating a series of “rooms”, each furnished with trees, foliage, fires, lanterns, buildings and decorated with more of her finds. Its Narnia meets Harry Potter with a hint of Alice in Wonderland.

“It was just a lawn and borders before but my idea was to create hidden spaces. It’s wonderful at night and it’s a great place for parties,” she says.

The path winds down to a little gate and into the “room” that houses her studio. Her children call it “the rabbit hole” though in truth it is a timber chalet bought from B&Q crammed with fabulous finds. One room is fitted out with old kitchen units, which provide useful storage for the equipment gathered over years of crafting.

Jo is often in the studio from 4am and works till 6am just before her day job begins. She is a child minder and you can bet that none of her charges will forget their time with her. They’ll remember the colours, the stuff. Oh and the coffin on the side of her house.

“We have open gardens in July and at Hallowe’en so we go to town for that with costumes and all sorts. Maisie dresses up and emerges from the coffin,” says Jo.

“Children love the house and they like seeing the interesting things. I get them down if they want to hold them or take them to school for a project.

“I take the view that if it breaks, it breaks. It’s not a big deal. I can always find something to take its place.”

Jo Wilson is taking part in the York Open Studios and her home on St Swithin’s Walk and her studio will be open to visitors on the weekends of March 23, 24 and 25 and March 31 and April 1.

About 60 artists and makers are taking part in the event. For more details visit www.yorkopenstudios.co.uk