Hard work and passion are Jess's secret to success
Jess White’s ten years working in the arts, culture and heritage sector has taken her from Essex to India and most recently to The Bowes Museum, where she accepted the challenge of engaging young people with a 15th century religious painting. Her background in delivering participatory art projects, working freelance to manage large-scale events on behalf of arts organisations, including Tate, has proved extremely helpful.
Have you always been interested in art – are you part of an artistic family?
Yes, I have always absolutely loved art from a really early age. I would always be drawing as a child, or wanting to do arts and crafts activities and my mum and dad supported that love of art, by supplying me with the materials to create.
My family is very creative. My sister is an amazing maker and can turn her hand to anything; she is currently doing an MA in textiles design at Norwich University of Arts.
My brother is a painter and decorator by trade, and he does exquisite gold leaf restoration for interior and exteriors. I think my creativity comes from my dad’s side of the family. He worked as a draftsman for Marconi’s and he got to travel the world. He always supported me to problem solve and come up with creative solutions.
My mum instilled in me a really good work ethic, which has stuck with me. When you work in the arts and cultural sector, you need to be pretty determined and resilient.
Did you always plan to follow a career in arts – and was there a particular discipline you aimed for?
When I was in secondary school my favourite subject was art and at that time I was passionate about painting, particularly people and portraits. In sixth form, my parents encouraged me to study other subjects, such as economics, as they wanted me to have a fall back in case the arts did not work out.
In sixth form, I also had the opportunity to go to an art summer school in Kent, at the former Kent Institute of Art and Design for a week.
This was an incredible experience, because I got a taste of what studying art at university level would be like.
It was the first time I got to use a dark room or do print making. After sixth form I took a gap year, hoping to travel, but I ended up working as a waitress in a local tearooms back home in Essex which made me feel like I had missed out, while my friends were at university, but it also made me super hungry to learn when I finally got to university.
I applied for an Art Foundation course at the University for Creative Arts, in Farnham. I absolutely loved getting to explore film, photography, fashion, graphics, and Fine Art. It was in my foundation year that I learned about relational art and this is what really excites me – art that is all about interactions and social encounters. There are many socially engaged artists now.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I am a relational artist; I am really interested in people and the experience we can give an audience. I love facilitating and I love exploring ideas of how to facilitate the best experience possible for a participant, be that in the real world or online. I also love to cook and recently I made a cookbook for which I invited 32 friends and family members to submit a recipe, for my 32nd birthday.
I am half Filipino, so I like to explore that side of my culture through cooking I am working on a project with a friend who I have in the past collaborated a lot with. We are currently testing out different Filipino dishes and trying out vegetarian alternatives, because many of our friends do not eat meat.
You have worked behind the scenes, supporting artists, organising workshops etc – what is it about this side of the business that appeals to you?
It is where I cut my teeth. In my second year at university we had the opportunity to do work experience. I knew I was passionate about art and learning, but not sure if I really wanted to teach.
So my tutors suggested I contact some galleries who had learning departments and volunteer with them. That is exactly what I did and is how I learned that as an artist you could support yourself financially by delivering projects with galleries for different audiences – toddlers, young people, community groups.
I have delivered workshops across the country and abroad and I know how hard artists work. Having been an artist myself, you always go over and beyond when you deliver a project.
So I really wanted to support artists. In co-creating workshops together and by supporting them in their ideas, I also hope that I enabled them to explore their practice through paid work opportunities as well as help create a really interesting programme offer for audiences.
Artists bring a unique and different perspective to projects which I really value. They have a unique skill set, which is their practice plus their passion. I also love to support artists in their own personal development, whether that is through pairing artists together to support one another or by supporting in new skills development such as delivering online workshops on Instagram, a first for some of the artists who delivered Bouts Art School, who since have used this skill to gain further work with other cultural organisations.
You have spent time as an artist in residence in Brazil – how did this come about and what sort of activities were you involved in?
I was a former member of Tate Collective and the opportunity came about through Tate and the British Council. I was one of three young artists selected by Tate to go with artist Gary Stewarts to Brazil.
It was an incredible experience. We were given this amazing space to curate and programme. We created an installation of art and music. I produced paintings, which sold and I even DJ!
You have also worked in India as an art teacher – how was this experience and did you ever imagine you would travel so widely as part of your career?
I applied to be a teaching assistant with British Council, and I taught contemporary British and Indian art at an all boys school. I loved teaching the students about contemporary British and Indian art and I think it is what made me realise just how passionate I am about the arts. There is a really rich and vibrant art scene in West Bengal, which is where I was based.
It was an amazing experience, which I loved. I taught classes of up to 55 students. I even organised a trip to the CIMA Centre of International Modern Art to meet contemporary artist Lalu Prosad Shaw with some of the students I had been teaching.
I have always loved to travel, from a really early age, I have been very fortunate to travel abroad. As a baby I went to the Philippines, where my mum is from, so I have always really enjoyed travelling. I also really love learning about different cultures and it is great being able to work in a country, as you have a really different experience from when you are on holiday.
What did you know about The Bowes Museum before you actually saw it “in the flesh”?
Honestly, not that much, other than I knew it had an amazing collection housed in a spectacular building and that they were looking for a project co-ordinator to engage young people audiences with the Bouts painting.
And what were your first impressions the first time you visited the museum?
I absolutely fell in love with the building. You can’t not, it is simply stunning. I spent a great deal inside exploring the collections. I particularly love the ceramic collections, I love peering into the glass cabinets and looking at these extraordinary ceramic objects.
Was it difficult to make the move to The Bowes Museum during the pandemic?
Not at the time, because I just thought I was starting a new job – no one knew what was going to happen or what life was going to be like, when we entered into the first national lockdown.
It was my second day at the museum and I was told we would be closing. I just thought to myself that no matter what, I am going to make it work.
What does your role at The Bowes Museum entail – and what attracted you to it?
My role in the last 12 months has focused on engaging young people with the Bouts painting. It has involved working with artists to deliver projects such as the Bouts Art School online, which took place last summer on Instagram; making 572 creativity packs, which we distributed through youth partner organisations, delivering partnership projects in the community, such as with Auckland Youth Community Centre and their youth workers and young people; and setting up the Young Curators, who have been meeting weekly since November 2020 and have delivered their own projects to engage young people with the Bouts painting.
What attracted me to the role? The challenge of engaging young people with a 15th century religious painting and the opportunity to create new projects.
How will your evolve once the museum reopens to visitors?
That is a good question. I think for me personally it will feel strange as my entire career at The Bowes Museum has mostly been working remotely from home. But I think it will be such a wonderful feeling when we can reopen to visitors and welcome audiences back.
What advice would you give to the young people you are involved with at the museum if they wished to follow a career in the arts?
Get the experience. Reach out, contact someone from a museum or gallery you are interested in, introduce yourself and ask if you can volunteer or come in for a day.
There is nothing quite like shadowing or volunteering within a place to get a sense of what the work is like and if it suits you. I would also say, if you want a career, just like any career, you have to earn it and work hard for it.
When I graduated I worked seven days a week, as a gallery assistant, as a waitress, as a volunteer and attending Tate Collective meetings and I did that in order to build up my networks and to survive.
The young curators, who are currently working with us, hopefully will have gained a great insight into what working at a museum is like through meeting different members of staff and from delivering their own projects.
If you have not yet had a chance to explore the young people section of the website please do, here you can learn about the young curators and explore their projects, as well as look at previous workshops, which are all available to view online and include downloadable workshop instructions, so you can take part from home.
Find out more at www.the bowesmuseum.org.uk/Learn/Young-People.