Julie Hoedts interviews Primary resident artist Jo Wheeler about her practice, engagement and projects.

“I’ve spent 25 years growing a career in participatory arts as an artist, producer, evaluator and photographer – supporting people’s well-being, sense of place and agency through creative engagement. Working as a freelancer I’ve taken on different challenges and opportunities. Wearing a number of different hats has extended my thinking and experience in areas that are distinct yet inform each other. As an example, this year’s work [2018-2019] includes collaborating with young people on creative projects, co-commissioning new work with communities, mentoring a young man in care, photographing artworks with their makers, evaluating place-based creative programmes, as well as assessing for Arts Council England.

In my work as artist and producer I have developed an approach to social engagement with a particular emphasis on landscape and place making. The work seeks to enable people to define and shape their own cultural programming. I’m interested in exploring the dynamics of power, ownership and ethics within this context. An integral element to this is planning creatively and collaboratively with colleagues, artists, partners and participants to devise projects together, learning from and with each other. Inclusive, multi-learning relationships are crucial to ensure projects are relevant, engaging, challenging and sustainable.

My work is informed by these experiences. Developing a practice has come through dedicating my energies and time to learning through doing. Contexts for this work have been varied and many including galleries, museums, rural villages, inner-city schools, care homes for both young people and older people, drug and alcohol rehabilitation organisations, festivals, environmental projects and youth clubs. I’m now studying on a part-time MA to make time and space to develop a theoretical framework to my practice.

I am interested in ways of working with people to explore landscape, place and our relationship to it. Through working on a series of projects about place with young people over the past 8 years, and inspired by working with Becky [Rebecca Beinart – Engagement curator at Primary] on Making Place, my current approach is informed by a series of questions:
- What do we inherit from living in this place?
How can we learn to read the streets / the landscape – what social and natural histories can we discover to help us know and understand this place better? Celebrating and commemorating its history and the people that shaped it to understand better how it grew and why what is here now.

- How do we intervene in this place in the present?
What’s my relationship to this place as a child or young person living here? How do we shape this place and this place shape us? What do we want to say about this place and how do we share this with others? How can we interrupt this familiar space and change it with our actions?

- How do we invest in the future of this place? Does understanding a place better
mean that we then want to invest in it more? What does a positive future for this place look like? How can I help shape that?

At the moment I have different projects going on, some of which include:
MFA – Oxford Brookes University: 2018-2020 (2 years part-time)
The realization that I am half way through my career has led me to reflect on how I direct and shape what happens next. I feel very fortunate that the prospect of another 25 years of learning and exploring arts and social engagement feels exciting and full of possibility! I want to continue to explore my socially engaged practice but also my photographic work and the place where the two meet. Through the course I hope to contribute to critical discussion around arts and social change, begin working and thinking in new ways with new people and potentially find pathways to further study. As part of the course I’m currently planning a project with my community of neighbours in New Basford to experiment with collaborative ways of researching, recording and sharing our connections to where we live.

Bassetlaw Mayflower 400 – Journeys Project, Co-Artistic Director: 2018 – 2020
A community co-commissioning project. Working with young people to help select and host a major arts commission to commemorate Bassetlaw’s Mayflower story.
Four hundred years ago, a group of English Separatists – men, women and children – left their homes, families and jobs in the Bassetlaw area and set sail on a boat – the Mayflower – with hopes of building a new community and a better life in Massachusetts.
With curator Kate Stoddart and a group of young people from Worksop and Retford we are commissioning a new artwork that seeks to respond to this history in 2020; that responds to themes of journeys and migration and puts the Nottinghamshire roots of this story on the map within the national and international Mayflower 400 programme. Together we explored both the Mayflower history and how contemporary artists work with people to help us select an artist who could make something extraordinary for and with Bassetlaw. Together we chose Hetain Patel and we’ll be hearing back about the funding to take the commission forward in the Autumn 2019.

Youth Landscapers, Artist: 2016 onwards
For the past 3 years I’ve been working with the Youth Landscapers and The National Forest in a region defined as The Heart of the Forest, near Swadlincote, Derbyshire. It’s an area of ex-heavy industry –mining, clay and pipe works– transformed through a landscape partnership encouraging regeneration through re-greening. I’ve been working collaboratively with them to research and share this area’s extraordinary landscape change in different creative ways. Last year we worked with sound artist Rebecca Lee to make an interactive sound walk, You Are Here, for the National Forest’s Timber Festival. This year we’re continuing that partnership and making a series of podcasts together. We’ll be presenting and making work at this year’s Timber Festival, 6th – 8th July.

The Place, Evaluator: 2019-20
I’m working as an external evaluator on The Place project in St Anns and Sneinton for The Renewal Trust. A project that seeks to contribute to a sense of Place through increasing opportunities to shape and engage in high quality arts activity in the area.

More generally, having a studio space at Primary supports me to think, read, edit, plan projects and store resources. Practical making usually happens elsewhere with communities in their spaces, but occasionally I’ll need to prep or finish off some making. A space here has helped to establish my practice more fully in the place where I live, be more informed about current initiatives and thinking, with more opportunities to engage in discussion and collaborative work.

I enjoy and appreciate the programme of events, talks and activity Primary offers in bringing people and ideas together. Since moving in I’ve expanded my relationship with it, gaining a deeper sense of and appreciation for the support Primary offers. From just bumping into someone in the kitchen to focused discussion at the Social Practice Socials – I’ve experienced the value of being in an environment with other creatives and the work and social opportunities that grow from both formal and informal connections. It’s clear that Primary really values and invests in developing this community, and that’s something I appreciate and am keen to contribute to.”


Jo Wheeler’s Primary profile

Jo Wheeler’s website

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