Why would you live here? Artists reflect on Northern life

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Letty McHugh interviews fellow multi-disciplinary artist Jess Kidd about their separate experiences growing up in the same small town in West Yorkshire and how this influenced their arts practice.

a painting of rolling hills with heavy clouds overhead

View from Yorkshire Bumps

Letty met artist Jess Kidd for the reason you meet people when you live in the same relatively small town, her brother went to school with Jess’ sister. They got on straight away because they had a lot in common, art and chronic illness, struggling to find their feet in the same town in the North of England, and then struggling to find their place outside of it as well. She wanted to chat to Jess about all of that and more, ahead of a joint exhibition they have opening at Keighley Creative Gallery later this month.

Letty started by asking Jess to introduce herself:

Jess Kidd (JK): “I’m a multi-disciplinary artist with a current focus on mixed media painting, exploring landscape in relation to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. I’m really interested in the idea that negative thoughts and emotions can have such a big impact on our lives, not just how we perceive something, but how we behave, which affects our reality. In my work I’m trying to challenge negative preconceptions and put some positivity into the world.”

Letty McHugh (LMc): Tell me more about how growing up in Keighley shaped you as an artist.

a painting of a row of properties along a grass ridge with a misty hill behind them

Bingo

JK: I always feel like I can’t say that I’m from here, because I wasn’t born in Keighley, I was born in Harrogate and I didn’t move to Keighley until I was 7.

LMc: By which stage your personality was fully formed?

JK: No of course not, but at school and stuff, I never really felt like I could say I was from Keighley. People could tell I had a slightly different Yorkshire accent.

LMc: My family has lived on the same street in Keighley for five generations, so I feel like I can give you permission to say you are from here, but then someone whose family has lived up Fell Lane for six generations might be along in a minute to tell me I’m wrong. But let’s get back to you, did Keighley shape you as an artist?

JK: Absolutely. One of the things that’s really lovely about Keighley is how it’s quite urban, but we are so close to huge open spaces. We’ve got the moors close by and beautiful parks like Cliffe Castle. In the town, there was always something interesting happening, I think that made me a curious person. We have such open views, such a beautiful horizon, and that’s so freeing, it’s good for your mind I think. I didn’t really appreciate it until I moved away.

LMc: Were you interested in making art as a child?

JK: I was always making things. Painting, drawing. But also just like random things like making robots out of vegetables or gardens for woodlice. I loved stuff like that.

LMc: And when did you start making works that relates to what you are doing now? Becoming more of an artist?

JK: Well, I did a foundation course at Leeds College of Art, and it was actually a really good experience. Towards the end of the year I worked on this project Face Your Inhibitions where I tried to actively challenge some of my anxieties. I’ve always been quite shy, and I started to kind of study this in the name of art. I focused on the aspects that I found difficult, like talking to people, but then also the things I did in reaction to these things, such as my body language, how I stood, what I did with my hands and habitual noises I’d make. I hated these things and felt stuck, but I had no idea how to handle it. I thought if I made art capturing how I felt, it might help in some way.

LMc: And did it help? What changed after you worked on Face Your Inhibitions?

a photograph showing a person in the foreground wearing a female mask. This person is in focus whereas other people in the background are all out of focus

Face your inhibitions

JK: Physically this resulted in a collection of work, exploring many forms, including film installation and performance. Emotionally, it resulted in my ability to say, ‘What the hell’. I created masks of my face that I walked in, around the city centre of Leeds. People stared and pointed, talking about me. I had taken my biggest fears and made them a reality. The fact that I went through with this made me feel liberated, both with the mask on, as I couldn’t believe I was doing it, and then also once I’d taken it off, the weight lifted, I could breathe and I realised just how much that feeling had been in my head. I think maybe because I was doing this for my art, it gave me a little kick of bravery or permission to do it. Looking back on that project I’m still really proud of it, I think it’s where I started being an artist.

LMc: And then, after that, you moved to London with a thirst for knowledge?

JK: Yes, but don’t say it.

LMc: To ‘Study sculpture at St Martins College’?

JK: Well, to study 4D Fine Art. I’ve fallen back in love with painting recently, but I was exploring a variety of art forms.”

LMc: Was St Martins everything Jarvis Cocker promised us it would be? By which I mean, was it a glamorous but disorienting experience?

JK: It was a huge culture shock. Obviously, there’s a lot of great things about being in London, it’s a brilliant city with so much going on. So much culture, it was amazing to be a tube ride away from anything you wanted to do, you know? Except I’d avoid the tube at all costs and rather walk-through quiet backstreets, finding shortcuts. It feels so connected whereas Keighley can feel isolated sometimes.  But I did feel a bit out of place on my course. It felt like everyone else knew what they were doing, but I never felt confident, especially with the theory side of things.  It’s weird looking back as well, because painting is such a huge part of my practice now, but I hardly did any painting at St Martins.

LMc: So you stayed in London, and then you starting having problems with your health?

JK: There’s this energy in London that’s sort of addictive, it feels like the centre of the world, you never want to leave. I was working two jobs, and trying to keep up a social life, and I was just feeling worse and worse, it felt like London was draining the life out of me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had undiagnosed TB.

LMc: How did the TB affect you?

JK: When I had Tuberculosis, I was physically and emotionally drained and overwhelmed with pain. It was incredibly difficult to do anything, even my mind was exhausted. It was hard to talk about what I was going through, to know what to say. I couldn’t have an everyday conversation. One thing that came out of the illness was I went back to my body language. If I couldn’t put things into words, maybe my body could say something. The day before I finally got diagnosed, I pretty much spent the day on the floor by the phone, unable to move, struggling to breathe, scared and alone. I didn’t know who to call, or what to say. Once I eventually had my diagnosis and had the support I needed I tried to capture the image of myself stuck on that floor. Eventually, that was the inspiration behind my piece ‘a bit stuck’

a penciled outline of a female form with a blank square over the face

A Bit Stuck

Having previously worked in two full-on jobs with a busy social life, I’d been optimistic about my future. Now I felt completely stripped of any identity and hope. Unable to do much, physically or mentally, the TB had become my life. I couldn’t express myself, I couldn’t escape it.

LMc: When I moved back to Keighley a lot of people questioned why I would come back, like something must have gone very wrong, like coming home was automatically a failure. Was it similar for you?

JK: Kind of, yeah. Most of my friends were going off living their exciting independent adult lives. There was a bit of a feeling amongst friends of, why would you move back to Keighley? And I only moved back because I was poorly, but I realised things I’d missed or taken for granted growing up and started to see the place in a new light. I could see all the good things. The landscape, the buildings, the people. I also really noticed how the town can be down on itself, people have a lot of negative things to say.

LMc: Talk to me about the inspiration behind your current collection of paintings?

JK: I was originally inspired by the landscape. Moving home a second time in 2018 it really grabbed my attention. Surrounded by dramatic Pennine hills, which frame changeable weather, nestling industrial (often derelict) buildings, and row upon row of terraced houses all moving with the contours of the hillside, Keighley is full of inspiration!

LMc: So you have all these beautiful landscapes, but there’s more to the collection than that, could you tell me about the motivation behind the painting?

JK: What really pushed me was Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It started as a tool, to help me face up to negative thoughts whilst exploring materials and techniques. I’d never painted landscapes before, where would I ever start?

CBT looks at how thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and people’s reactions are all interlinked. So if I felt like my work was rubbish, it was up to me to change my thought patterns around what art meant to me.

LMc: How did you make the connection between Keighley and CBT?

JK: I had been homesick when living away from Keighley, but now I was back I realised how much people put it down. I started to get to know people in my community again and it really stood out to me, all the negativeness. So I’ve been thinking about how CBT could also link in with the subject matter, Keighley.

If a town is constantly told it’s rubbish, how will that affect its people’s state of mind, their thoughts, feelings, behavior and people’s reactions to this and the town. If I start to find beauty on my doorstep, and show it in my work, I wonder if people will stop dreaming of leaving, or, at least, see more clearly what is here in front of our eyes – all around us?

a painting of a small town with a bridge over a canal in the foreground

A Morning in Keighley

I wanted to capture the landscape, but a lot of people who paint this area will stick to the ‘Bronte Landscape’ around Haworth and miss Keighley off entirely. I wanted to paint the landscape including and celebrating the town, and hopefully inspire other people to celebrate it as well.

LMc: What are your hopes for the future of Keighley?

JK: For the town to increase in opportunities for all. And for others to view it with warmth, a place to visit not just to work. For its people to be happy and kind to each other and themselves.

LMc: You’ve got an exhibition opening soon, exploring value and connection with another exciting talented artist (me), is there anything you’d like to tell the people about the show?

JK: I’m hoping the exhibition will feel accessible and welcoming to everyone. It’s in an old department store building in the centre of town that people walk past every day. So hopefully this will help people feel familiar and comfortable having a nosey. I think it’s got a good mix of being visually striking but also with elements to it that will get people talking and addressing issues relating to living in Keighley and our downtrodden attitudes.

I’ve realised that issues such as mental health, whether that relates to my inner shyness or the anxiety that comes from trauma from being ill, are things you learn how to live with. It will never stop being a part of your life. Doing the exhibition in itself feels like an act of performance art for me, going back to the work I did for my foundation piece and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Doing it has taught me so much, I’ve met some amazing people and once again I’ve overcome some of the fears I had that were stopping me from being myself and putting myself out there.


Jess Kidd & Letty McHugh explore questions of value and celebrate stories connected to the Worth Valley in Worth featuring painting, text and installation. The exhibition runs at Keighley Creative from 11am 4pm . Keighley Creative is an accessible exhibition space and just a short distance from Keighley bus station. (map).