As I enter the home of East Cambridge-based artist, Jill Eastland, I am greeted by the wonderfully warm, spicy aromas of a curry. Jill is in the kitchen studying her mobile, which holds the recipe for prawn dhansak. This is the first time she has made this particular curry – and it smells very promising. This is also the first time I have recorded an interview and am nervous. Jill suggests a traditional icebreaker. So, happy to stick with the food theme I ask:
So, Jill, what did you have breakfast?
I had scrambled egg – a bit of a treat for weekday.
Ice broken, we plunge in.
What are you planning for the Romsey Art Festival?
Well… There’s food involved. My friend Sam Dyer is doing a food demo – she does a lot around sustainable food work – including salvaged ‘waste’ food. She cooks brilliant vegan food. I’ll be there with some of the kids I teach creating food artwork based on what Sam’s cooking. We’re going to be making ‘foraged food’ – you know berries, nuts, fungi – out of papier mâché to provide a visual element and for people to join in with, if they don’t want to cook. We’ll make some ahead of the event, but there will also be the workshop.
What’s important to you about participating in a community arts event?
I love being part of the community and I think it’s important to share things and work together. I love collaborative work and I like supporting other people, and feeling I can be supported by them in return. I’m part of a Cambridge-based group – Rebel Arts – we are activist as well. We do art work around protest, campaigns. So for example we are doing art work around housing issues, which includes a tent embroidered with words of protest.
And where is the tent?
Where is the tent.. The tent travels. We are going to leave some ‘things’ around town as well, but it’s still a bit secret, so I can’t really any more than that at the minute…
You mention activist work. What role can art play in activism? Can art really help communities to resist power, to influence change?
I think it can do a lot, actually. In fact I’ve been writing a piece recently in relation a new festival Pivotal. It’s about climate change and is being held to coincide with the Paris climate change conference, in December. It’s a very exciting little festival – theatre, film, poetry, individual art work – so I’ve been writing a piece around that.
I was really inspired what Michelle Golder, main woman behind it, said about ‘envisaging what the world could become and the world that we wanted to see’ and I think artists are really important in giving those creative visions expression. If you want to realise something different, if you want to change things then you have to be able to imagine them, and you have to be able to dream as well. I’ve always felt that artists, dreamers, are important as pragmatists, the practical people, the doing people. You know, it’s been put down for a long time – ‘oh you’re just a dreamer’ you know. But I think that is part of the value of art in terms of resistance. A lot of my work, well, it is resistance. But it’s not necessarily angry. It’s about joy, and I think joy has huge power really. To change things and to overcome power and authority.
There is joy in your work, even where there is pain – for example the images of your father in hospital.
When my father was dying, when I went to see him in hospital, he was hooked up to these machines. And he asked me ‘what can you see’ – he wanted me to explain in detail what I could see, so I would say, ‘well there is tube coming out from you arm’ ‘what colour is it’, ‘how many’ – and I think it was his way of saying it’s ok to observe and to do artwork.
Did you feel the need to express this experience through your work?
Yeah, and he made the process easier for me. Even when he was dying he …well he was a very intelligent man, a very kind man who was still thinking about us (Jill and her brother, also an artist) instead of himself, still thinking about what would help us. And he knew that art would help us. My brother did some work too, which was really beautiful.
Other work of yours that has really struck me are the Dale Farm pieces – there is pain, but also a beauty in those images. How did they come into being?
So I was involved during the eviction at Dale Farm, supporting people there. And it was devastating – it was really hard to witness. People there, even people who were there legally, who were allowed to be there –even their lives were in turmoil. And it was like WW1, there were trenches, dug around to stop people getting into their homes, even if they were legally allowed to be there. People with disabled children who really found it difficult to get back into their own home – or out of it. And the emergency services couldn’t get there, there were rats , there were cases of dysentery, so it had a huge emotional impact on me , it was quite a shocking thing, in fact for a lot of the activists. It was so difficult and I felt I had to do something, so I worked there and afterwards, from photographs I’d taken there, to try to tell the story.
You work with a wide variety of materials. Do you start from sense of what you want to create or does an interesting material make you think ‘ooo, where’s this going’?
I tend to start with an idea, with something that is that is concerning me or is interesting me, usually something to do with social or environmental issues. And I am quite research based, so I will go and find out lots of information and write about it before I actually make the work. I think this is something that is quite common in a lot of female artists – and something that has been criticised. Those women would work from the emotional issue that was interesting them, and then use different media dependant on where that led them.
This was criticised?
Yes, because, you had to be… there is still that idea around – men are still predominant in the arts – that to be an artist you’re this male genius. You know yourself, you work in your own media and you just do the same thing over and over again. And if you are working in lots of different media, on different ideas, then it was criticised as ‘you’re not doing well enough in one direction’. Whereas I think it is the opposite, I think it is really good to let the subject matter lead you and to think carefully about the materials you are using each time, how they set the situation, the context. I’m going to be doing some work with Cambridge Cyrenians in the next few weeks and they have an allotment called ‘Roots N’ Shoots’ so the materials there will be what matters to them.
So, Jill, as a fellow Londoner, what do you make of Cambridge?
Mmmm, well, there are bits of it I love. I love the fact that you can walk down the street and have interesting conversation about something philosophical or random with a stranger. But I find it difficult that there are people who seem detached from reality. It can be very rich and very privileged.
But not everywhere.
No there’s a huge contrast, which is why its great that Romsey Art Festival embraces different areas, and people that might not have access to the arts in the same way.
And talking about Romsey Art Festival – have you got any pearls of wisdom for us?
What came to mind, it’s a funny one really. You were talking about my dad and I think he was about 30 when I asked him what it was like to get old!! And he said “oh, its part of the adventure, it’s not that bad, just part of life’s great adventure.” So I’ve been waiting to be able to use that with my step children…and recently one of them asked me “what is like to grow old?” and I was really chuffed, ‘cos I was able to say “oh, you know, it’s part of life’s great adventure.”
Jill Eastland will be at ‘Rubbish Cooking’ on Wednesday 7 October, 4.30 -7.30pm, Barnwell Baptist Church.
Words from Rebecca Bazeley.
Image by My Linh Le.