Jessa Fairbrother: Hothouse Birmingham

Towards the end of last year we caught up with some of the speakers from the line up at Hothouse Birmingham. This time around we've spoken to University of Westminster graduate Jessa Fairbrother who has introduced us to her series Conversations with my mother. We've unravelled a real interest in Jessa's work and we hope you enjoy reading about her experience of speaking about it in Birmingham last year.


Series Statement:

Conversations with my mother.

This is my story of severance..

It explores the relationship I had with my mother and my own inability to become one. It is a photographic performance of being cut from the role of the daughter while at the same time denied a maternal role to shape my future.

We had been tentatively making work together using a single disposable camera, taking photographs of our own lives. I would take one and send the camera to her in the post; she would do the same. We tried to communicate through this process. 

Not long after my fertility began to unravel. I was unable to concentrate on my story because it was then we both found out she was going to die. 

From the series Conversations with my mother

From the series Conversations with my mother

I dismantled my existing life to relocate and care for her, my second parent dying of cancer. In the immediate moment I was concerned with the gesture to record her as she was but felt the photograph's inability to do this. I photographed myself responding to the surroundings, to negotiating space. Once or twice I asked my mother to photograph me, echoing the way we had used a camera only a few months before. I tried to make sense of things that had no sense except sadness.

I jostled with several personas during this period - wife, daughter, sister, artist. I gained new roles and became Carer. I became child-less…. or child-free. We strived to understand and love each other more completely; we looked at each other seeking resemblance, resentment, entanglement and reliance. I became Orphan. 

An orphan. 

I put on her chemotherapy wig afterwards – it was the only thing that smelled of her. I burned, buried and embellished photographs of us. I performed my grief and began to stitch.

I cried a lot for her. I cried for my loss of feeling the hug of her body, her touch, her laugh. I cried in sorrow at the abrupt suspension of future narratives, for the mother I would not hold again and for the child who would never hold me.

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

You and your work: I am an artist using photography, based in Bristol. A brief overview of how I got to this point includes a degree in English, a stint of unsuccessful acting attempts, a fall into journalism (where I discovered my love of photography) and teaching. Both my parents were artists but I did everything to avoid this myself... although it was probably inevitable I would end up forging this path of my own eventually.

When starting my own visual work it was rooted in documentary practice - due to the influence of being a journalist I suspect. It wasn't until half way through studying my MA at the University of Westminster that I began to physically include myself, fundamentally changing my direction. I was thinking through ideas about happy endings, performance, the appeal of clichés, romance as a structure... but I was struggling with the ‘things’ I was actually photographing: I couldn’t get a handle on what it was I was looking for. One day, in a tutorial, I began to talk about the dress a boyfriend had given me when I was 21... it seemed a little ‘wedding-y’ - which was why I had never worn it.  A friend suggested I put it on and photograph myself in it.  I did - that was the start of how my practice transformed: a light suddenly went on.

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

I started searching for communal meanings defined and given shape through the presence of a figure: I use(d) my own to express this,  concentrating on treating the body as a mortal vessel upon which experience physically imprints itself. My stitch and mark-making I do now is emblematic of this. I am at my most comfortable making work occupying various mediums - I use them to extend the image-object beyond a single time and space. 

Influences, style, and genre: There is a core group of artists that have anchored me, including Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann, Elaine Reichek, Mary Kelly, Rose English, Ana Mendieta, the archive photographs of the Salpȇtrière Asylum… I’m also really drawn to American quilts and whatever I see in the Victoria and Albert Museum! Most things filter in and out when I make my own work. I love Instagram for finding things. I read a lot when researching and go to see as much as I can. 

I am concerned with the fragility of the body, how it hovers on the edge of being both here and not here - how its failure is simple. My interest in performance within familiar structures is a way of trying to ward off this inevitable frailty. When I began to embroider work I literally and metaphorically punctured the skin of the photograph - this became representative of the body for me.

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

It has always been important for me to make emotional work.  Maybe this stems from my original desire to perform, translating personal feelings from the inside to an unknown audience. 

I use film, mostly printing from negatives: I only really make the one object - it makes more sense that way. I’ve recently managed to get back in the darkroom and do some printing myself which allows me more room for experimentation - there is less fear of marking my prints afterwards. With bigger work though I will need some help.

The main practical feature of my working method is how to protect my fingers! When I am sewing they get really sore. I have all sorts of tricks... Recently I got rubber thimbles, and ‘spray-on’ plaster liquid helps protect them a bit. There are some wonderful quilter’s gloves I found which are really thin with rubber tips - they are the best of all. It's a balance of protection and keeping the ability to feel the paper, without getting grease on it. Especially when I work with tracing paper, which is a nightmare for marks.

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

Images from the series Conversations with my mother

The Talk: I did the talk at Redeye’s Hothouse event because I met Paul [Hermann] many years ago when I had moved to Sheffield and was looking for photography networks I could plug into within travelling distance. We kept in touch through various things - he’s been to Photobook Bristol a few times, which I have been involved with since I moved here, and it’s a small world - our paths are always crossing. When I thought it was a good time to start talking about this particular body of work publicly, Hothouse seemed a good way to do that. I was really touched by the response - the audience were very sensitive to it which moved me a great deal and I got some lovely messages afterwards. It is important for me to go to events and be present - I find it much more beneficial than email. People like people.

Future plans: I’m constantly working on something... All my work takes a very long time and there always seems to be research to do or people to contact, as well as the actual embroidery. I have a solo show at the Birmingham City University which I am really looking forward to, opening on January 16th at the Vittoria Street Gallery.