The QT

Thursday 16 May 2024

Not the middle of nowhere…

Joanne Coates, recipient of the Vasseur Baltic Artist Award, talks to David Whetstone about her new Baltic exhibition focused on rural life
TA-RA. Photo by Joanne Coates on display at Baltic

Joanne Coates is a photographer whose star is on the rise following residencies, commissions and reams of positive coverage.

She calls herself “a working class visual artist using the medium of photography”.

Her favoured themes of class, inequality, rural life and community cohesion arise from her own experience of growing up in rural North Yorkshire without an easy route to a career in the arts.

At one point, trying to pinpoint where she lives (her nearest village is Reeth, in Swaledale), I realised I’d used the phrase “middle of nowhere”.

This is precisely the point being made in her new Baltic exhibition which is called Middle of Somewhere.

Everywhere, of course, is somewhere… it’s just that ‘nowhere’ is how sparsely populated rural places are often glibly referred to.

Joanne Coates in her ‘bus shelter’ installation

Their inhabitants are easily marginalised by policies drafted to make maximum impact which therefore prioritise the many over the few.

“We’ve been following Jo’s practice so we know how strong it was,” said Baltic curator Niomi Fairweather.

“We’ve been champing at the bit to work with her for some time.”

Jo’s work has previously been displayed in the light box which greets visitors to Baltic but now she’s the 2024 recipient of the Vasseur Baltic Artist Award.

This commemorates Isabel Vasseur, a Baltic trustee from 2004-8 and late lifelong champion of young artists.

Previously given to three artists for work to feature in a group show, the award was rejigged to benefit one.

So it is that Middle of Somewhere has the Level 2 gallery to itself, complementing — as was the plan — the Franki Raffles retrospective on the floor above.

Jo’s first move on learning of her success last summer was to visit the Raffles archive at the University of St Andrews.

She recalled an inspiring trip.

“I liked that you could see all her notes and planning; and the fact that her practice went beyond photography resonated with me.

“Yes, she was a brilliant photographer and looked at social issues but she also did posters and got involved in campaigns as well.

Joanne Coates at BALTIC

“She was doing socially engaged practice before it was really called that. For me, it was exciting to see how she worked with and for communities.

“That’s something I’m interested in and it really made me want to go forward.”

The award made it possible for Jo to compare life in rural areas of Scotland and England, in Orkney and the Yorkshire Dales.

In both places she focused on young women, talking about their lives before taking the photos that feature on the walls and also recording them.

In Orkney, which Jo had visited previously, she was introduced to Aisling, a 21-year-old who was living on the island of Hoy with her dad, a key worker responsible for its water systems.

Aisling herself was the island’s carbon neutral officer, living and working amid what will seem to many like enviable surroundings.

Photos by Joanne Coates at Baltic. Credit: Colin Davison

In one scene of stunning natural beauty, Jo indicated the place — “literally in a little dip just there” — where Aisling’s home is located, although you can’t actually see it. 

“She loves it but it’s really isolated and young people need social connection. Aisling had to move to (more populous) Stromness just to be a 21-year-old.”

Jo photographed her on the day of the move, looking resigned but also bereft against a backdrop of natural splendour.

In another photo is Roz who grew up in Wensleydale and told Joanne about the feeling of growing up in “a green prison”.

She’s at Leeds University now but spoke to Joanne at length about the challenges of a rural upbringing — particularly in an area where second homes proliferate.

“She said you don’t really feel you could come back to this place because you couldn’t afford to.

Aisling at home before having to leave. Credit:Joanne Coates

“But with Roz and Aisling it wasn’t only about the housing crisis in both places and a lack of affordable homes.

“Both of them talked about the future in terms of climate and if there was an affordable house it wouldn’t necessarily be somewhere safe or flood-proof.

“I was quite surprised because at 20 and 21 I wouldn’t have been talking about things like that. It’s become more urgent for them.”

Amid the wall-mounted photos sits a hut-like structure which mimics the bus shelters on Orkney — and around the UK in areas of low population — where you would wait in vain, or at least a very long time, for a bus.

“On islands they’re often reclaimed as a gallery space,” said Jo.

“I wanted to reclaim this structure and have it as space to see the film (there is a film) and listen to the women’s voices.

“It’s all reclaimed material and the wallpaper references the jobs that keep these places going. I did sketches and (artist) Emma Douglas interpreted them.

“I had community sessions in Hoy and Hawes with people recording their fears, hopes and dreams of rural life. Then in Orkney I left postcards for people to send me their thoughts.”

Several of the postcards are pinned on the walls, just as you imagine Franki Raffles, up above, might have done. 

Joanne Coates: Middle of Somewhere is at Baltic until November 17.


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