Jo Kenny: The former teacher turned artist who is inspired by Whitby's rock pools
When Jo Kenny decided to give up her teaching job to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time artist, she couldn’t have anticipated that the Covid-19 pandemic would swiftly intervene and upend her plans.
But with the studio she used in Oxford where she was living closed due to lockdown, moving back to Yorkshire during a difficult time ended up sparking what the glass-blower has found to be the most exciting and fulfilling project of her career – inspired by delving into Whitby’s rock pools.
It has resulted in a new creative partnership with Scottish glass-cutter and polisher Gordon Taylor, with the work have won Arts Council funding and now due to be exhibited in York's Pyramid Gallery early next year under the title What Lies Beneath.
Kenny, who studied Glass and Ceramics at Sunderland University in the 1980s and whose work took her to glass studios in London and Holland, qualified as a teacher in 1991 and since that point had split her time between education and making.
After saving funds to go full-time as an artist, her plans were initially upended by the pandemic.
“I was building up to make my own little business alongside doing my glass teaching in Oxford,” she says. “I had put in my notice at the school I was working at but it ended up being really bad timing because at that point we went into Covid lockdown.
“I ended up losing 80 per cent of my income for the year and got no financial support from the Government. I had to make some decisions pretty fast.
“Myself and my husband had bought a house in Whitby for our retirement and it became pretty obvious that I had to get in sooner rather than later and do work on the house to save money on builders and keep my brain active.”
As well as taking a series of jobs to bring in money, Kenny’s time in Whitby gave her the perspective that inspired the new project.
“Whitby was just amazing, it was like having a great big hug,” she adds. “I had come and started working on the house after the first lockdown and my husband followed the Christmas after. It was a frantic time of making decisions on the hoof.
“The project was all about being in Whitby. For years I had been making my own things and going off on all sorts of tangents as you do as a creative. But suddenly I found myself in Whitby and you could breathe after being in lockdown.
“I just spent so long walking on the beach and around the countryside, making full use of Whitby while it was quiet. Just the idea of glass-making kept bubbling up. I threw myself into rock pools, quite literally!”
She says that once she started making the pieces she had planned in her head, she swiftly realised that she needed help to get them to the required standard. After putting out a call for help on the internet, she was contacted by Perthshire-based Gordon Taylor.
Kenny adds: “As soon as the studio opened up again in Oxford, I was busting to have a go at these pieces. Making the glass came very easily because I knew exactly where I was going with them.
“But when it came to doing the cutting and polishing, my skills were a bit lacking and I put out feelers to see if I could find someone who would do what I wanted to do and Gordon popped up. I was starting to lose heart about finding the right person just before then.
“I had so much confidence in the idea I thought I would run it past the Arts Council and see what they thought about it.
“I put in an application not expecting to get anything out of it but, lo and behold, an award popped up. It was lovely validation that the idea is a good one and they were willing to put their money where their mouth was.
“The grant allows me to fully concentrate on this and do it full-time. Prior to that, I was juggling all sorts of work – teaching, cleaning holiday cottages, doing personal care for elderly people – and trying to fit the glass around it. Right now, I’m 100 per cent doing this and nothing else and that’s a big difference.
“The other thing is it has given me a boost of confidence that other people more important than me have decided I’m worthy. That is really lovely after all these years. I’ve always had confidence in my glass-making but getting it out there is another matter.”
Taylor says the project is one he is finding deeply fulfilling, too. “It is quite exciting because I restore antique glass. This is a different ball game altogether. It was exciting and you have to think a different way.
“I have fallen in love with this stuff. I love the feel of them, they are very tactile. Jo gives me good direction – in just one example, she wanted the piece not to be too accurate, for want of a better word, and wanted it to flow. That goes against my grain because I’m normally working to being told, ‘Get it right, get it straight’. I just love working on the colours.”
Kenny adds: “Gordon is quite an amazing craftsman and my pieces have been taken to a different level because of what Gordon can add to them.”
The pair have finished 13 pieces so far, with Kenny giving Taylor a further five to work on initially.
She says the What Lies Beneath name for the work means a lot to her. “It is really close to my heart. It is little bit to do with the frustration of the modern age of people just looking at the surface of everything and not being able to see or trying to see what gives everything its structure and purpose.
“Once you are looking deeply into something, you find more. With these pieces, you don’t get the full story unless you peer inside them and you won’t get the full enjoyment unless you touch them and really look into them. You get better payback from looking more deeply and that is a truth in everything.
“I felt that when I came to Whitby and was poking around in rock pools. I have not done that since I was a little wee thing. Having that complete abandonment and joy of sticking your fingers in and finding what is under the rocks was just blissful.
“That’s where it came from and I wanted to impart some of that joy to other people. I don’t want anything in the pieces to look too obviously like one thing or another.
“Gordon said in one piece he saw fish and jellyfish and that’s great but they are not actually fish and jellyfish, they are abstract objects that people can project onto whatever they want to see.”
A full exhibition of the work is planned at the Pyramid Gallery in York in early 2024 and Kenny says the pieces will all be available to buy.
“If you sell them, you can make some more. I’m rapidly running out of space in my house and have a loft full of glass that has accumulated over the years. If somebody wants to buy it, they can have their own purpose for it. If someone wants it on a pedestal or used a soap dish, both are fine with me.”
She adds: “This is the most exciting project of my career and I’ve had a few very exciting moments and incredible opportunities. But this feels like it is pulling all sorts of threads together and is so personal. It is really exciting.”