Life after London: an interview with artist Jo Oakley
London has long been a draw for artists, but following a year that has halted so many events, exhibitions, and our very ability to be together in the same space, the allure of the city may be losing its shine for many. This week, we speak to artist Jo Oakley, who has made the move from London to the Kent coast, to learn more about the impact that leaving the city has had on her life and work.
Born in South East London, Jo has been practicing as an artist for over 35 years. In 2015, she left the capital for Herne Bay, where in October 2020 she opened her own gallery, She Rose.
How and why did you become an artist?
When I was at school, I knew that I wanted to go to art college, and I did a Foundation course before starting a degree in Fine Art at North East London Polytechnic. Although I felt that I needed to express myself through my art, I found myself becoming extremely disillusioned with the politicised environment at art school. I wanted to step away from that world and do something practical, so I left to do a course in shop display carpentry. I then spent two years travelling around England with a team of workmates fitting out shops, before becoming pregnant and getting married.
For the next ten years I continued to pursue my artistic interests while raising a family. My mother is also an artist, and I began to help her in her print studio with large editions, learning the art of printmaking as I did so. Everyone in my family was self-employed, and I very much wanted to be a working artist. When my husband and I divorced I knew that I needed to support myself financially. I gave myself a year to make a go of my artistic career — and have never looked back!
What inspires you in your work?
There are two main themes in my work: interiors and seascapes. Everything that I own represents a memory, such as sitting in my grandmothers’ kitchens as a child, which felt like a refuge to me. When I depict my belongings in my paintings, I’m trying to share that experience, and feeling of stability and security. I’m so pleased that they’ve also been meaningful to viewers, and I’ve made some really deep connections with people who have bought my work — as an artist you can’t ask for anything more, really!
I grew up by the Thames and have always been drawn to water, almost spiritually so, and for a long time I had a beach hut in Whitstable in Kent. No matter what is going on in my mind or the world, when I’m on the beach I feel like that big sea can take it all, and that is also the feeling I’m trying to express in my work.
Why did you decide to leave London for Kent?
After so many years in London I was ready to escape! I also wanted to become more financially independent, and knew that if I sold my house in London and bought a home in Kent, I could become mortgage-free. Although I still need to earn a living, removing that financial pressure has allowed me to explore more in my work, and I have also felt more productive.
What effect did leaving London have on your career as an artist?
Very little! As artists we have access to so many tools and platforms now that allow us to showcase our work, and so I feel that location has almost become irrelevant. This was true even before the pandemic, but it seems to have really accelerated the trend.
You recently opened your own gallery and shop, She Rose. Had you always planned to open a gallery?
Not at all, it happened completely by chance: I was walking in Herne Bay one day in October 2019 when I saw someone working in the empty shop. We started chatting and I discovered that it would soon be put on the market. I asked to look around and after ten minutes I knew that I wanted to buy it. I rushed down the road to a local estate agent and told them I had to sell my house, quickly — within a week it was on the market, and I had found a buyer!
The building itself dates back to the 1840s and needed a lot of work. I moved into a caravan while my builders began to renovate it in January 2020. By August last year I was able to move into one room upstairs while work continued, and we opened the gallery on 1st October 2020. We’ve had to close twice since opening due to lockdowns, but I have loved living here. I also set up my printing press in the gallery, and finally have the perfect studio in which to work.
What are your plans for She Rose?
I want it to be an inclusive space that anyone in the community can feel comfortable entering, and the response that I’ve had so far has been wonderful. Owning my own gallery gives me the opportunity to not only show my own work, but also that of talented artists and makers that I love, from local soap-makers to painters — it’s just amazing!
I can’t wait to begin hosting workshops here, and we will be holding classes for all age ranges and abilities. I’ve also created an accommodation space in the courtyard, and I am looking forward to welcoming guests to it when we are able to travel safely again.
What advice would you give to artists thinking of leaving London?
Do it! Take the leap! I would never be able to grow in London as I have since leaving it. Moving away can free up so much headspace by taking away the financial pressure of paying high rents, and might also give you access to more physical space, too, which can be hugely beneficial for your work.
Before moving I was worried that it might be more difficult to become part of an artistic community in a small town, but it really hasn’t happened. If anything, I found it easier, and very comfortable to meet like-minded people here.
- Related reading: How major cities shape up for artists: London