18 February 2020
National Life Stories Goodison Fellowship 2020-2021: Suzanne Joinson
"Cycling every day, about three and a half miles along the front to Grand Parade where the art school was, and I used to, if I was late, I used to hitch on to the back of a lorry, sounds terribly dangerous … I used to somehow hang on to the back and get right along the front in about five minutes."
-- Juliet Pannett on attending art school in Brighton in 1928
It is possible to tell so much from a voice: the tone, accent and emphasis. The artist Juliet Pannett’s recording from 1991 is both nostalgic and immediate. The tonal quality of her speech evokes another era, and her laughter is full of life. As we listen to her recalling details – like hitching on lorries along Brighton seafront – we connect to her memory and see her classroom or art studio vividly in our mind for an instant. Listening in is a privilege; it’s like being trusted with a secret or engaging in a magical form of time-travel.
As the National Life Stories Goodison Fellow 2020-21, I will explore the audio archives of three creative women connected to Sussex: Juliet Pannett, archived under Artists’ Lives and Ann Sutton and Barbara Mullins from Crafts Lives. Not household names by any means, but they all achieved significant professional success and I believe that in quiet, unsung ways, they have each left an impressive, potentially subversive artistic legacy that resonates today.
Graffham, West Sussex. Copyright David Spicer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.
On the surface, weaver Barbara Mullins lived a quiet life in the village of Graffham, West Sussex. With Gwen Mullins, her mother, she offered spinning, weaving, pottery and classes in dyeing using Sussex plants. In her interview she discusses their trip to Santa Fe, running out of money, and returning home to deliver workshops. Their cottage industry developed into the Gwen Mullins Trust, offering an apprentice scheme and financial support for craft makers. This paved the way for a government-funded body, the Crafts Council, which eventually replaced the Trust.
Listening, a number of strands become clear: the importance of international travel to Barbara and Gwen to these women who lived a seemingly very ‘English’ and provincial life; the collaborative, creative and possibly co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter; the endless navigation between creativity and money that necessarily exists in an artist’s life; and the importance of legacy.
Because the National Life Stories oral history methodology covers a life-span where possible, the interviews provide a birds’ eye view of how the local and domestic situation of a subject’s existence is intrinsically connected with the professional ‘output’ of their life. This, I believe, is pertinent to appreciating female artists, especially those living and working outside of metropolitan areas.
I will explore the archives to look at big questions: How does their work relate to geographical locations? What is the overlap between place, art, money, family, reputation and legacy? How did domestic and family situations contribute to their professional work? How does their self-narrative reflect their position within a cultural map of the south of England? And beyond, how are they now situated within national and global contexts?
Internationally acclaimed artist Ann Sutton talks with wry matter-of-factness about the reality of forging a career in the sixties. We follow her training, teaching jobs and commissions. It is moving to listen to her talk about the choices she made around birth control, opting not to have children and how her marriage intersected with her vocation. In this clip she talks about the potter Bernard Leach and her desire to challenge the status quo he represented:
From her studio in Arundel she conducted an impressive career and ran the Ann Sutton Foundation. Through this she supported talented graduates and pioneered a way of helping young artists transition to the commercial world. This approach that would later be taken up by art colleges directly.
My aim with this Fellowship is to delve deep into the National Life Stories archive to celebrate the unique contributions of these impressive artists. I want to map how their individual stories and works link to a bigger cultural picture and I hope to showcase how the National Life Stories project is a tremendously impressive, unique resource.
At some point in their oral history interviews all three women say ‘It’s been a good life’ or ‘It was a marvellous life’. I want to honour those marvellous lives, their work ethic and professionalism, and use my time as a Fellow to share with a wider audience the continuing creative and artistic legacies of Juliet Pannett, Barbara Mullins and Ann Sutton.
Suzanne Joinson is an award-winning writer and academic. Her novels A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and The Photographer's Wife are published internationally by Bloomsbury. She lectures in creative writing at the University of Chichester and writes regularly for a range of publications including the New York Times, Guardian and others. She has a strong interest in oral history and the stories found in landscapes and places.