Jackie Brooks - artist & theatre designer

Interview by Phil Simpson on 3 December 2013 | Photographs by Ben Taylor

Jackie Brooks, set designer, artist and curator of Bruton Museum Casespace, chose theatre as a profession by chance. Later on, inspired by a book, she embarked on paper cutting as a way of expressing her own voice. More recently she has brought her skills to Bruton, with Casespace and working for Hauser & Wirth Somerset. Jackie Brooks speaks to Localeyez about her love of creativity for its own sake, the need for authentic expression, and how her paper cutting ended up next to Damien Hirst’s work!

Tell us about your upbringing.
I was born in Caversham near Reading, and grew up in Maidenhead with my two brothers and a sister. We had quite an outdoor existence, coming home for food and then going out again over the fields until dark. I was a tiny, wheezy, itchy, scratchy, shy child, which my love of animals exacerbated.

I don’t really remember that much of my early childhood except that I was ill sometimes, and subsequently spent a lot of time off school. I was painfully shy as a child and used to hide under my mum’s skirt when we went shopping. This shyness meant I enjoyed being at home, and I think this is where I developed a love for making and creating things, and being in my own headspace.

My father grew up in the Gorbals in Glasgow in a single parent family and my mother was an orphan who grew up in a children’s home. I’ve always had the feeling that our family had to start afresh and there wasn’t really any history, beyond my parents, to hinder us. My parents’ background and experience led me to develop an interest in class and how it affects us in life, and makes us who we are.

What brought you to Bruton?
We wanted to move from the city and as my eldest daughter was already attending a Steiner school in Brighton, my partner and I started to look at Steiner schools elsewhere. We had good friends in Dorset and they suggested we check out the Meadow School in Bruton. On the same day we found a period cottage for sale in Batcombe and ended up taking the plunge!

Jackie Brookes - artist and theatre designer
Photographed by Ben Taylor

What makes Bruton special?
A really precious part of my experience of living in Bruton has been getting to know the people who are involved with, and running, the Bruton Museum. I owe so much to their help and openness.

How did you first get involved in the art world?
Maybe that initial influence of creativity came from my parents. My dad was a good carpenter and he always involved me in making things, and my mother was often sewing or baking. After my A levels I chose to study English literature but at the last minute decided I wanted to be a painter and got a place at Wimbledon School of Art. During my foundation course, there happened to be a module in theatre design, which I realised was a perfect combination of literature and art. I moved to London just after my 18th birthday and felt totally inexperienced in life, and really didn’t have anything to say. So, theatre was brilliant for me because I could use a script, and express myself through that script.

Tell us about those days at university?
While I was studying, a lot of my friends were painters and I was aware of the hierarchy within the college between the different disciplines. Painting was at the top closely followed by sculpture and printmaking then theatre and graphics at the bottom. Performance art was very fashionable at the time so I started to think about the differences and similarities between theatre and ‘art’ performance. I also had become very disenchanted with theatre because, with a few exceptions, I found it dull and formulaic with shouty acting, which did not seem authentic.

After I graduated, I went on to take an MA, once again in Theatre Design, at the Slade School of Fine Art. I misguidedly thought I would be able to paint and draw and get away from the theatrical skills of model-making, costume design and storyboarding. However, what I discovered was an even more traditional world, which emphasised hierarchical structure. It seemed to be more about knowing the right people and discovering the right doors to open in order to progress and become successful. I don’t like snobby elitism. Art exists in a world of high status, but that is not its purpose. It is elevated because it elevates us. It did however open my eyes to a different kind of theatre. We were given free tickets to The Royal Opera House for example and I found it very exciting to sit high up in the Gods and watch the spectacle unfold. In a way, I feel like I’ve slipped through the net. Maybe it’s because I’ve always believed in what I can do. I also had brilliantly supportive parents. My father in particular never judged me or said no to any of the things I wanted to do, he just drove me there! So I grew up with a strong belief that everything was possible.

It occurred to me that it wasn’t the art itself that was important, but the creative process, the holding of a pencil or brush, and the struggle to define something out there - Jackie Brooks, artist & theatre designer.
Photographed by Ben Taylor

How did you find your own expression amidst these feelings of disenchantment?
After my degree, I spent a lot of time working in fringe theatre. This became my apprenticeship in everything from sound effects, lighting, costume and set design. My boyfriend at the time was a musician and we used to put on these amazing gigs. A group of us would hire out a big church in London and have 50 bands and musicians performing in one day and then make a record of it. I was also in a Gagaku Orchestra playing Japanese imperial court music, and was a member of the London Musicians Collective. I became involved producing programmes, newsletters, and designing graphics for record sleeves. I spent a lot of time producing images and creating artwork over and over again.

What was the most important lesson your early life and education taught you?
I was quite ill with extreme eczema all the way through my twenties and, and spent a lot of time in and out of hospital. The twenties are often a time of wildness and experimentation. However, due to my illness I really had to look after myself. The Eczema caused my face to often be red and raw, and I just wanted to hide away. I don’t know what pushed me to do it, but I chose theatre as a profession, where you have to be publicly and visibly confident. This forced me to confront my fears and early childhood shyness, and ultimately to transcend my physical self. It involved continuously putting myself in exposed situations, like costume fittings and rehearsals, where visual appearance was important. I learnt to totally surrender to the knowledge that I had no control over the pain I was in and just do it anyway.

Was there a breakthrough point in terms of your career?
At the end of my MA, there was a theatre design competition on at the National. I got through to the finals and my work was displayed in the foyer. This paved the way to my first proper job, when three of us were paid to go and see all the shows at the National and then discuss them. At the time, the Writing Development Department of the National Theatre Studio, really wanted to understand how to incorporate design into their productions, and achieve the right balance between performance, writing and image. I worked there with Directors like Peter Gill and John Burgess and after a while I started to design new productions working in collaboration with the writers. It was a fantastic time where I learnt a lot about the impact of words, timing, musicality, and the beauty of human expression through poetic language.

Jackie Brooks - I can cut pretty much anything with a scalpel! (Photographed by Ben Taylor)

What inspired you to explore paper cutting?
My best friend at college, who’s mother was Polish, gave me a book she had received from her mother on traditional Polish folk paper cutting. This caused conflict between them, as her mother was unhappy about her giving this rather old and rare book away. I was so captivated by it that I found it hard to give the book back and felt responsible for using it to good purpose. I loved the archetypal folk images, some of which dated back to the fourteenth century. I started to copy and use them to make birthday cards. I found the whole process of creating these paper cuts both intellectually challenging and wonderfully rewarding in terms of the artistic journey. It was also refreshing after all my naturalistic three-dimensional theatre work.

How did you learn the art of paper cutting?
I just looked at the book and used my existing model making skills, which already involved precise scalpel work. It was all a matter of experimenting and trying things out. I can cut pretty much anything with a scalpel! After a while I just stopped looking at the book and developed my own language. I cut half a picture and open it up. It is always a surprise.

“It’s out of the veil of darkness where I can produce something beautiful, and then have it brought out into light and revealed on stage.”

How did the paper cutting evolve?
After my initial birthday card making adventures, I was compelled to try some bigger pieces. My best friend got married, and as a wedding present I created a large paper cutting for her and had it framed. She was a costume designer and we used to work together sometimes. Her brother used to go out with Tracy Emin, and Tracy asked us to help her sew the names on her tent “Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963 - 1965”. She paid us with art and on the back of the picture I had was the name of the framer who lived in my friend’s hometown. So to cut a long story short that was how my piece ended up on the bench next to Damian Hirst’s, where it was admired by a collector. This gave me the inspiration and impetus to carry on, and coincided with me being offered a beautiful studio space in Bruton.

How do you get into the creative flow?
I go to my studio and just sit myself in the chair and let things happen. I work in my head a lot and allow ideas to be presented to me. I have a team like the Numskulls in the Beezer comic, who work 24/7, so sometimes I might already have an idea before I arrive in my studio, and then it’s bit like hit and run.

Setting the scene. The intricate art of model making.
Setting the scene. The intricate art of model making. (Photographed by Ben Taylor)
Setting the scene. The intricate art of model making.

What do you love about art?
I am really driven and not happy if I’m not making things. I’m also a perfectionist so quite difficult to live with! [laughs] I love the fact that it is hard to realise a ‘head idea’ into a physical idea. It challenges me. When I worked in Theatre, I used to love sitting in the auditorium during technical rehearsals and would feel absolutely at home and in the right place. I was captivated by the sights and smells, and the sound of the seats tipping up, with the red velvet rough and crushed along the front edge. All of this felt very beautiful to me. I’m really a back-stage person and enjoy the fact that I can sit in the dark and not be seen. It’s out of the veil of darkness where I can produce something beautiful, and then have it brought out into light and revealed on stage.

How did Bruton Casespace come into being?
I started working at Bruton Museum, when I was asked to curate the Ernst Blensdorf exhibition at King’s School. The whole process of familiarising myself with Blensdorf’s life and work really touched me. I also had to design cabinets for the exhibition and along with Barbara Saunders (the then Curator) started changing some of the existing cabinets in Bruton Museum. I then had the idea that it would be great to show other artist’s work in the museum, and this was how Bruton Casespace was born.

What do you hope to achieve with Bruton Casespace?
I encourage artists to see it as a piece in itself and not just an object in which to hang their work. It is a kind of tiny stage in which the work can perform. The museum is the larger drama and the street beyond an even bigger part of the picture. Each exhibition is like a different act or scene on stage. I like the idea of transformation, and how someone exhibiting at the museum transforms that space and the next person transforms it again. It is a subtle thing but the other exhibits in the Museum take the pressure off the artist as they are less exposed but it is still a solo exhibition. The audience also has the surprise of seeing art in that context. We also get the opportunity to see a side of our neighbours we didn’t know. It engenders respect and pleasure.

You’ve been involved with the Hauser & Wirth Somerset development. What did that involve and how did it come about?
Hauser & Wirth exhibited their plans in Bruton Casespace and I got to meet Alice Workman who is heading up the whole development. She asked me if I would assist Guillermo Kuitca, who was to paint a mural in the main dining room in the farm building. It was a really magical project and took place during the hot summer months of 2013. The dining room was still within a building site and had no mains electricity, so it was quite a challenging environment to create art in. My role was essentially to hold the space and carry out work that would support Guillermo Kuitca’s creation. I painted the doors and ceiling, with the aim of retaining the original distressed look of the building, and to provide a suitable environment for the mural. It was a real privilege to work with Guillermo Kuitca in such an intimate way.

I’d really like to explore running workshops with children where the focus is purely on the creative process and experience rather than the end result.
Photographed by Ben Taylor
"I’d really like to explore running workshops with children where the focus is purely on the creative process and experience rather than the end result."

What impact do you think the Hauser & Wirth Somerset development will have on the local art scene?
For me personally, one of the things I really miss from my time in London is the ability to have greater access to art and culture. So from that point of view, the opening of Hauser & Wirth Somerset will be heavenly, because international art will be coming to me. For local artists and residents it will do nothing if not inspire debate and that has to be a good thing.

What do you think would help local artists to thrive?
Having affordable studio space for artists to work, socialise and exhibit their artwork in.

What inspires you in the world of art?
I think there’s something really beautiful about the human endeavour of simply creating something regardless of how the end result might be received by others. I think the impulse to create something is really healthy and critical for mental wellbeing. I’ve witnessed my own children screwing up their finished paintings and throwing them into a corner. When they were little they didn’t seem to care about what happened to their final creations. It occurred to me that it wasn’t the art itself that was important, but the creative process, the holding of a pencil or brush, and the struggle to define something out there. I’m also very inspired by what my friend described to me as the ‘liminal’ where it’s possible to inhabit the space between the conscious and the unconscious. That is where I am most happy when working. Good art for me makes this manifest in the physical.

What are your plans for the future?
I feel really passionate about children in art and theatre. On occasion, I’ve witnessed children crying because of the pressure schools sometimes put on them to produce ‘good art’. It seems that even at this early age they are being exposed to judgements about what their art should look like. I’d really like to work with children where the focus is on the process and experience, rather than the end result. That way they can develop tools that can be used to say what they want to say. I would like to foster reverence and irreverence alongside this. I would like them to ask themselves what is art for?
I want to make some new work now, and don’t want to look at the stuff I made in that first year in the studio.

Jackie Brooks Artist and Theatre Designer in Bruton
Photographed by Ben Taylor

Who has been the biggest inspiration in your life?
The usual people. Family, friends.
One of my tutors once said something that always stuck with me, and that was to remember that no matter what the creative process, it’s about you, and what you bring to that creation. This is because you are the only really unique thing in the whole process, no matter how many people are doing the same thing. We don’t have to create original work just ‘our’ work.

Tell us a secret about yourself.
I was once an underwater body double for Kelly MacDonald. She was in Train Spotting and Girl in a Cafe. I was on the film set of ‘Stella does Tricks’ and they were shooting a scene where she had to swim a width under water and just couldn’t do it. I was roughly her height and build so they gave me a haircut and her costume and my underwater swim was spliced into the film. It was quite difficult to do actually.

Are there any artists who inspire you?
I have a real thing about Dutch Masters, and the representation of fabric and clothes. My mouth literally waters when I see exquisite paintings of people wearing velvet, satin and silk. I really love to look at paint and enjoy the magic of skilled painting. I don’t think you can beat it. I have a strong feeling of travelling back in time and being in the painting myself. Having said that, I also get the sensation of being on the edge of the future in a contemporary gallery. I am inspired by that too.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming artists?
Do it and don’t give up!

If there was one thing you could change in the world what would it be?
I read about the brutality in the Congo. It affected me deeply. A Baptist knocked on my door today and I asked him how his God justifies it. One of the things he said was that if we loved our neighbour as we love ourselves it wouldn’t happen. I found this humbling and remembered a character in a children’s book who was encouraged to be ‘kinder than you need to be’ I liked that.