Jo Dunn: Full Interview
Interview by Nicola Hargrave
22nd January 2019
NH: This is Nicola Hargrave for West Yorkshire Queer Stories. The date is the 22nd of January 2019, and I am with:
JD: Hello, my name is Jo Dunn. I was born on the 12th of April 1963 and I, I’ve lived – I was born in Liverpool but I’ve lived in Leeds since 1982. And I identify – in terms of this project – I would identify as lesbian. I would also use the word dyke or gay, or I quite like the word queer now, although when I was young that was like the absolute worse thing you could possibly call yourself. But I like the way that word’s been reclaimed actually. But I don’t go round telling people I’m queer. If they ask, I would say I’m gay or I’m a lesbian. But to be honest, it doesn’t come up that much, in conversation, anymore [laughs] Okay?
NH: Yeah, thank you Jo. Right, so let’s go back to your late teenage years. You were still living in Liverpool and this is, well you said you knew from a young age that you were gay, so do you wanna talk me through sort of your initial coming out, your initial thoughts?
JD: Well, I knew from an early age, quite young. Like, I dunno, definitely under ten. Maybe even five, five or six. I knew I was a bit different in that sense, I felt it. I felt an attraction to the same sex. Sorry, can you repeat the question?
NH: Yes, tell me about your sort of late teenage years, when you came out to friends.
JD: Okay, late teenage years. Oh yeah, that’s what I was just talking about before. Yeah, I didn’t tell any of my friends that I was gay, when I was a teenager. I sort of dealt with it in quite a typical way. I was arty, so I did a lot of painting and I used to write poetry about it and – I see you laughing here – I know it’s really cheesy, but hey ho, it got me through. I used to read a lot. I was a bit of a loner until I was, I started the sixth form. I did have, I always had one or two friends, usually blokes, boys. Like that painting I showed you of my friend Mark, that’s from when I was 17. But no, then when I was in the sixth form I met a girl at school who just hit it off really well and, oh her friend’s sister was gay and y’know it was not a big deal so I did, I came out to her and then I came out to my close group of friends and it was a huge relief actually.
I hadn’t told my mum and dad at that point, but there was a few problems at home, which meant that it wasn’t – well, I didn’t think it was gonna be top of their list of concerns anyway. I did tell, I did come out to my mum and dad in the end. They were having an argument; I came out to them to try and distract them [laughs] which sounds really weird. But – I remember my mum was in tears and my dad had been smashing crockery and – I was on my way to come to Leeds, actually, to hang around with my lesbian pals for a weekend, and I just, I couldn’t bear to see my mum so upset, and I just thought, if I tell her that, it’ll change the subject, y’know? [laughs] I remember, all she said was, ‘Oh I know that’ [laughs] And then she said, ‘if I was your age now I would be too’, which I’ve never forgotten that she said that, y’know her and my dad had a very heterosexual relationship, y’know what I mean, there wasn’t any, she never had any gay affairs, as far as I know [laughs] So yeah, so that was a bit of a relief, actually, to be able to not just have to keep that to myself, about being gay. And it did make a lot of things a lot simpler actually.
And, as I mentioned, at that time in the early ‘80s it, there was a strong wave of feminism. What did we call it just before? Second wave, yeah, okay. So, there was politics involved. I mean it wasn’t, for me it wasn’t a political choice to be gay, no way, that’s just how I am but there was, there was politics to back me up. There was support. There was a really, really thriving network in Leeds, well in this particular, the area that I lived in in Leeds, in Chapeltown at that point. Y’know, there was women’s discos nearly every week, for instance, there was women only events to go to and women would join, we’d set up groups to like the miner’s strike, which was in ’83 to ’84, Women Support the Miners, Women Against Pit Closures, y’know. I remember going on lots of demonstrations for this and that. Not, nothing to do with being gay, just, just being, having a voice. Making yourself heard, as a woman, which y’know that was just mind-blowing, actually. I think, when I look back on it now, because it doesn’t seem like that now, in the gay community, but maybe I’ve sort of separated off from it and I don’t know. I know there’s loads of worlds out there that I don’t know about, and that’s fine as well, that’s okay. But –
NH: Shall we go back to – 1982 was when you said you came to Leeds to do fine art at the poly.
JD: At Leeds Poly, yeah.
NH: So, tell me what it was like at Leeds Poly in 1982 sort of as a young newly out gay woman.
JD: A newly out gay woman. I have to say it was pretty bad. And I had no idea, I thought it was gonna be okay, but. It was, it from, in terms of the college and the tutors, it was not a supportive environment to be gay. There was a certain amount of hostility, I think, from unfortunately – I remember this guy, yeah, I won’t mention his name. He was actually from Merseyside as well, he was a part-time lecturer, and I remember him telling me my brushwork was like bodily juices, and he put a sort of sexual interpretation onto my, my landscapes [laughs] which just, that just didn’t click with me. But again, that’s something that I’ll never forget, cos I just thought, I don’t know what I said to him, I just probably said [grunt]. But I just thought you, you arsehole, what the hell are you on about? [laughs] I told my mates in the pub that Friday and everybody just laughed their heads off so.
There was one tutor, there were one or two tutors who were supportive, but it was, and they were all part-time – the, it was I think really there was perhaps two or three tutors, who were all female, one of them was art history; one of them she didn’t, she wasn’t a painter, she didn’t sort of teach me anything about my painting practice, but she was very supportive in terms of feminism and being gay. And she, she, she took part in, there was a women’s art group, which I did go to a few meetings of. I didn’t feel like I fitted in too much because they weren’t my, I was a painter, y’know my work wasn’t like theirs, I didn’t do semantics, I didn’t take photos and smudge grainy photos with lots of text all over them, y’know, the work that they produced at that point, it left me absolutely cold. But then again I did have quite a clear idea of the kind of work I wanted to do so. But in terms of a group, at least I didn’t feel alone at that point in my life, in terms of my sexuality anyway. Because I did have a fantastic, it just felt like there was an amazing support network around me, socially. Y’know, like I lived in a shared house. They weren’t all lesbians, but there was two lesbians, two straight girls, but we got on fine. And, yeah we had a good laugh as well.
NH: So, you was involved in more kind of feminist stuff, you were saying, at that point, rather than actual, y’know, LGBT stuff. So, tell me a bit about –
JD: Yeah I would say so.
NH: – what was going on, early ‘80s, feminists.
JD: Well, as I say, feminists supported the miners, and that went on for a long time, as you know. I remember there was women who abseiled down the Houses of – was it in the House of Lords? Y’know, women were taking direct action. I remember, yeah the screen printing, I worked with Wendy on a couple of posters, I did some posters. Y’know, we used to have events, like social events with the disco to raise money for different groups. To be honest, I can’t remember all the different, the different groups that I would’ve taken part in and supported –
NH: So, would you have gone to meetings at this point?
JD: I didn’t like meetings that much, to be honest. I wasn’t like a mad, I mean, I was just who I was. I didn’t take up politics just for the sake of it or just to sort of, to wave a banner for the sake of it, but.
NH: So, how did you stay informed of this sort of thing? Was there newsletters? Was you talking about it amongst yourselves? What was?
JD: Yeah, just word of mouth, I would say, yeah.
NH: Cos I mean, this is pre-Internet isn’t it?
JD: Yeah, we used to read Spare Rib. I mean there wasn’t any programmes on the TV or the radio that I can remember, where we’d get our inspiration from. I mean, I didn’t watch TV for about ten years at that period I think [laughs] I didn’t, y’know I didn’t listen to Radio 4 then either [laughs] But that sorta thing it wasn’t on the TV much in the mass media, so it did feel a bit more like you were a bit out on the edge, really. And y’know, people sort of expressed that with their haircuts, I suppose, and the clothes they wore and big boots and so on. I got a bit of flak for my outfits.
NH: Tell me about those, what did you wear? How was your hair?
JD: Well I had curly hair then, which I quite liked having curly hair. I still got curly hair a bit, but it was very curly when I was younger. So, I didn't, I never had a crop, a crew cut, but like lots of women liked a Sinead O'Connor haircut, but I never did that. But I did have a pair of dungarees for at least two or three years. I had a obligatory pair of Doc Marten boots, which used to go to the Army and Navy Store. But they didn’t even have a till, they used to have a pipe system where you’d give the salesperson your money, they put it in like a little pod and stick it down a pipe, and it sort of shot through the building to some – I never, I used to imagine that at the end of it some creepy old guy with a load of money around him and he’d sort of take your £5 out and put your change in and this pod’d get shot back up and come out. So that the cashiers and everyone had to actually handle the cash, I suppose.
Anyway, Army and Navy Stores were all the rage and there was a massive one in Liverpool. So I got me, me oxblood DMs [laughs] God Almighty! Yeah, rainbow laces you know it was a bit of a bad luck actually when I think back on it [laughs] But yeah, dungarees were definitely a big part of it. And I had a pair of red jeans which I was mad about for a year or two as well. I wouldn't mind another pair of red jeans actually. But yeah, I did get street hassle.
JD: Um… I mean it wasn't just me, a lot of people did. But I, you know I couldn't really pass as heterosexual, or I never, I never felt like I could. People, a lot of people, you know, the kids at school sort of, I think they knew I was gay… maybe, but people on the street, I suppose because of what other feminists were doing… and yeah I did get, I did get some abuse on the street. I got stones thrown at me at least once or twice… I remember some guy just, he was, I was going one way down the pavement he was going the other way and he just slapped me in the face – when he got to, when we passed each other. Just, I mean, I didn't know him. He was just, I think that was what do you call it, homophobia, anti-gay vibe, which you know. Things are better than that now, actually. [laughs] I haven't been slapped in the face for ages! [both laugh]
NH: Wow! So, what, what sort of names would you get called? Because I know you introduce yourself [unclear, overlapping sound] as a lezzy but you like ‘dyke’.
JD: Lezzy, dyke [unclear] lezzy, queer, that sort of thing.
JD: I don't think there was, well I suppose there's always been you know a lot of slang names for it, but yeah, lezzy, dyke… lezzy I think was the main one. Butch dyke, all that crap.
NH: But you're happy to use the word dyke to describe yourself, so how –
JD: Oh yeah!
NH: – how did you come round from that being something that was thrown at you as abuse but now you're actually happy to say that that’s what you are?
JD: Yeah, even before I was abused as a dyke, I, I liked that word because, I told you I used to write poetry, I used to read a lot of poetry and my first girlfriend was a big reader. She introduced me to lesbian feminist poetry. It wasn't so much British poetry that I knew of then but there was a lot of American stuff, writers like Audre Lorde and Judy Grahn. And Judy Grahn wrote an amazing poem called ‘Edward the Dyke’, which was one of the first, it was more like a story than a poem [laughs] God I don't know if I've still got the book. ‘The Work of a Common Woman’, or ‘Poems of a Common Woman’, something like that the book was called and yea, the first poem in it was called ‘Edward the Dyke’ and it was about a lesbian called Edward [laughs] And it was totally surreal, it just blew my mind. But… y’know she… that poet would probably be 20 years older than me, maybe. I don't know exactly, but, as well as it being a, it was a role model, there was somebody, there were people, there were women, out there, lesbians out there who were in print. And, y’know, that was a huge inspiration.
I mean, I remember – okay, my mum and dad met and got married in the 1950s – this is another thing I remember. My grandma, my dad’s mum, before my mum and dad got married, my mum’s to be mother-in-law gave my mum a copy of The Well of Loneliness by Radcliffe Hall and said, ‘you should read this before you get married’. Well, something along those lines. I don’t – and I always thought it was just to make sure that y’know you’re not gay or wha- I don’t know; I never asked, I never had the conversation with my grandma, cos I coulda done, cos she didn’t die that long ago actually, but. I always thought that was a bit of a hoot. And – why am I telling you this? Oh yeah, so what I’m saying is that I felt then, for me, in the early ‘80s, there was lots of literature that was a damn sight better than that. And positive stories about women who were gonna be lesbian – you don’t have to end up shooting yourself.
I mean there was a point, honestly, I was depressed when I was about 14, 15. And I could not imagine being older than 28, I just thought, ‘I’ll have to kill myself before I get any older than that, cos I wouldn’t be able to bare it’. But I mean won’t, things turned out a lot different, thank God, and then that was because of, well it was for lots of reasons, but there was a wealth of feminist lesbian literature that we could read to… just to see ourselves, somewhere else, not just in bloody Leeds 7 or Leeds 6 but you know out there on the other side of the Atlantic, in different countries and, well I think we took a lot of inspiration from that, actually. And, y’know, what I’m saying is, my mum didn’t have anything like that. I’m not saying my mum’s gay, no way, but for old, for women of those previous generations, I just think, ‘God, thank God I was born in the ‘60s’, y’know, I’m so lucky – imagine if I’d been born in the’ 20s or the ‘30s and my life, God only – I might never have met any lesbians, who knows? [laughs] I mean, I think you probably would’ve done, but it’s a lot better now. Thank goodness.
And now, God, there was something on the radio the other day where they were saying – this is on Radio 4 – they were saying y’know, being gay is one thing a lot, it’s one of the least problematic areas for young people. Of all the troubles and difficulties they have to deal with, in their young lives now, in the 21st century, being gay is no – this is what the general consensus is – it’s not as difficult for young people now in, like, the young ones, the 20 year olds now, it’s easier for them to be gay. It’s not so, it’s not such a terrible, terrible affliction [laughs] Which, you know, to our parents’ time, it was, I suppose, for a lot of them anyway.
NH: So, let’s get on to some fun stuff.
JD: Fun stuff!
NH: So, you were a DJ –
JD: A part-time DJ, yeah.
NH: Okay, a part-time DJ –
JD: I didn’t get paid, okay?
NH: Alright, tell me more about where, when, how you became a DJ.
JD: I became a DJ – well, I loved music. I’ve always loved music; I was a big record collector. Records were affordable in those days, so quite often, for instance, you’d buy a record every week. Cos I had a part-time job when I was in Liverpool, and then I spent my grant money, a lot of my grant money on records as well I suppose. And there was a big second-hand record market. You could get a second-hand record for a pound. And then of course there was singles, seven-inch singles you could buy them really cheap. And – god, how did I get into it? Somebody must’ve asked me, because I had a few records, and I mentioned that in those days we had the women’s discos, and there was one at the Dock Green in Leeds 8 or 9, at the corner of… was it Stanningley Road and Harehills Road. There was one, and they were on Wednesday nights, so I remember, and then it would alternate with another pub, which has been knocked down now – I think it was called the Woodpecker. And that was, it was at the bottom of York Road, it’s kind of like a flyover now, that big intersection. So, it was there at the Woodpecker one week and then at the Dock Green the next week.
And there was a few women who did, did DJing, it wasn’t the same person every week. So we used to take it in turns. So, that’s good, cos everybody like, everybody had different record collection so everybody, some people’d be really into like The Jacksons or playing a lot of soul or, and some people like – I was really into playing reggae music, I was just, even before I came to Leeds (excuse me) I got into dub music in a big way [laughs], that’s all I listened to – the occasional Bob Dylan, but I was, I was mad about record, and of course great for dancing. So, I had a specialist reggae collection. I did get a few complaints actually, ‘can you play some pop music please? Can you stop playing reggae please?’ [laughs] But hey ho. Like I said, I didn’t do it every week. And it was good fun, and I don’t know if you paid to get in – I can’t even remember that. I can’t remember if there was an entrance fee but the disco, at the Dock Green it was – the Woodpecker closed down cos they built that, that flyover in the 80s I suppose, that wasn’t, that was only there for maybe a year or two after I came here, to Leeds. But it carried on at the Dock Green and they’d have them at other venues. And these, sorry, these pubs had their own equipment, so you just had to turn up with the vinyl.
And I lived in Harehills (just turning the volume down). Yeah, I lived in Harehills, so I’d – it was kind of, it was just dead exciting. Yeah, that’s what I was saying, the disco room was like a room upstairs, so you’d go in like the side entrance of the pub and you didn’t have to go into the bar, which was – God knows who was in there, in the bar in those days [laughs] I don’t remember – there was never any trouble between the two separate groups of the pub users. So, we used to go up stairs and disco just during pub hours, from I don’t know what, about half eight ‘til 11 o’clock. And I used to take – records are quite heavy, so I, I went everywhere on a bicycle in those days, so I used to strap all my records on the back of my bicycle, I had a cardboard box on a rack on the back of the bike or something… Yeah, that was good fun; that went on for quite a few years as I remember. I don’t even know when those discos stopped. I can’t, you’ll have to ask somebody else. But it seemed like the went on for a long time.
NH: Is this through the ‘80s then?
JD: I would say so, yeah. I’m sure. Probably, probably into the ‘90s, I dunno.
NH: Was it packed out? Was it just women that went there, did any men go?
JD: Yeah. No, they were women’s discos, so it was separatist in that sense. The bar staff would be women as well. Occasionally we’d get something what we’d call ‘straight dykes’ that’d come up from town, and I got dead pally with a couple of older women who, they didn’t wear dungarees and Doc Martens, they wore dresses and coats [laughs] and had nice hair, y’know, like curled, permed hair or whatever. And yeah, straight dykes, and y’know I remember chatting to them a lot and them telling me all stories about like the pubs, the gay pubs in town. There was the Viaduct and the one on the corner, is it called the Red Lion? No, opposite there.
NH: The Bridge?
JD: Yeah, there’s The Bridge and then there’s another one round the corner. I didn’t go in them that much, to be honest. Occasionally, we would, sometimes they’d have gay discos in town. I don’t know how they managed to take over a bar, a disco for a night and have it women only. But it was a bit more risky; some women got in trouble outside with y’know drunken yobs and that. Cos they say lesbians are just dead obvious in those days. I never thought about that really, but yeah I think lesbians were more obvious because of this sort of unofficial uniform of like [laughs] the boots, the DMs and the spiky hair and all that. I didn’t, we didn’t have nose piercings in that day though, but it was tattoos – tattoos – oh no, actually I got a tattoo, that’s right, me and Wendy got a tattoo, and we were quite ahead of our time. Tattoos was not a big thing. Maybe on older people yeah, but that tattoo craze that’s gone mad now only probably took off about, I dunno, 10 or 15 years ago, but anyway. I had a little bluebird on my ankle and Wendy got a bumble bee on her arm. And everybody – it was £2, from Babs’ Tattoo Parlour! £2 for a tattoo! People pay a fortune for them now. Oh God my mum went bloody ballistic as well when she saw it [laughs] poor mum. So yeah, what else – what was I saying?
NH: So, we’re up to the ‘80s now aren’t we, so.
JD: That was in the ‘80s, yeah.
NH: So, at some point you must’ve stopped going to discos and settled a bit more, if you like? So, what happened after your disco years?
JD: My disco years! [laughs] … what happened after my disco years? Well, yeah, I moved in with my girlfriend at the time and she, she was working. So, I’d started – I think I started, I think I just focused more on my work. By the time we got to the late ‘80s I was, I took all the energy that (excuse me) I had I put into making my first film, or just finding ways to make time to do my artwork, which as now it’s quite difficult to make money from that. But I had a good social life. We used to go camping, like, y’know with all our lezzie friends. We used to go take over a field for a weekend. We were quite into things like that. Yeah, we cooked tea for each other. I remember a lot of social evenings having meals with my friends – nothing, not because it was anybody’s, special reason, just cos we liked eating together and being together and it was, yeah, a good support network of friends, y’know when you’re in your 20s or your late 20s. And cos we were lesbians, it wasn’t, y’know, quite a few of us didn’t have children. […] But, I used to look after lots of children, I love children, yeah. We used to have kids, we used to have our friends’ kids to stay over, things like that, which was a treat for them as well as for us.
But yeah, friends were really, really important. And I saw much more, I feel like I had a much stronger social life then than I do now, but then again as you get older you become more independent anyway or I think maybe you do become more able to get on with things by yourself a bit more. Or you’re just busier with work I suppose. Like I said, my work, my artwork was really important to me then, it always has been, so. Yeah, that was – I would say at that point I was more, maybe that’s when my artwork became more important to me than the fact that I was able to be a lesbian. Cos, y’know, when I first come out, meeting all these amazing women living differently, that was mind-blowing. But that’s not enough to live on, y’know, that was just a phase as I was growing up. Y’know when you get older it does become more work-focused, so… so yeah.
NH: Can I ask you about your art, cos you’ve obviously been a painter since quite a young age? So, and, I mean, I’m looking round the room at a lot of examples of your art and it’s connected to nature. Was there any time when you were making art that was perhaps a bit more representative of your identity? Have you ever made art that people say, ‘oh that, I can see Jo Dunn in that’?
NH: You said at college there were women making feminist art.
JD: So, you mean Jo Dunn the gay, the lesbian, as against Jo Dunn the human being? [laughs]
NH: Yeah. Yes, yes.
JD: Okay, I did do some – I did do some pictures about… about my sexuality, yeah, about sex and sexuality. I did cartoony pictures of people. But actually, I don’t think I like put them out there in the same way, or put, perhaps yeah perhaps they weren’t so serious to me or for fun or. I wouldn’t, y’know I didn’t – I don’t remember trying to sell people pictures of these pictures I did or anything like that. I don’t know, they were more for just private amusement or. Maybe I’d give them to people, actually, yeah. I’d give a lot of pictures away, y’know, I always made people birthday cards or if it was their birthday, I’d do them a picture for a birthday present. I’d do my work ‘til about five o’clock and then I knew I was gonna see them for tea it was a birthday, so I’d knock off a quick painting for them ‘til half five, before I went to the off licence for a can of beer. Yeah, routines, routine’s quite important actually when you’re trying to be creative, I think so. But yeah, it…
In a way I feel like the answer to that question is ‘not much’. But perhaps it’s cos I don’t look at it like that, or I’ve never really thought about that. I mean, sometimes I dig out old, like I’ve got dozens of sketchbooks, thank God they didn’t get burnt in the fire. All my life’s sketchbooks, which is like, loads of ‘em, loads of ‘em, which I used to write things in, my ideas as well as my drawings, thank God they got, they’re still here. And when I look back through them, oh my God. There’s some funny little cartoons, but yeah mostly – not cos they were like too rude to show anybody but just… that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my artwork, I suppose, that’s the thing. Yeah. In fact, maybe more now I could imagine doing something like that with my artwork, but yeah.
NH: Tell us about films – you’ve been involved in making films.
JD: Okay, well that. I got into animation when I was young as well. A friend of mine got a job at Leeds Animation Workshop, and I was still at art college then, doing painting. But the idea of using animation as an art form, and not just as like Tom and Jerry or children’s amusement, that was like massive sort of eye-opener for me as well. And I, it didn’t take me long to think, oh, well I was painting all these landscapes and a lot of them were imaginary places, which I don’t do so much now, I paint real places, but at that point in my – maybe it’s all part of my escapism, but I was painting a lot of places from my head. And then I thought, ‘oh, I could make an animation film of like being in this world, flying over these landscapes’. So, that’s, and then it’s cos of a friend of mine got this job and sort of, the whole concept of what you could possibly do with animation was introduced to me.
So yeah, I started making my first film as soon as I left college. I mentioned it to the teachers at college, but they were very, they shook their heads [laughs] they were so not encouraging. They shook their heads and said, [patronising voice] ‘don’t you think that’s a bit complicated, Jo?’ Y’know, ‘don’t you think that’s a bit too much for you?’ Y’know, I mean, ‘you’re just about to start your third year, just focus on what you’ve been doing, Jo’ so blah blah. I did, I just carried on painting for a year and as soon as I left college, I started planning my first film, and I was lucky: I got a grant from Yorkshire Arts, as it was called then. A production grant, a film production grant to pay for materials, paint and paper. I think I got £5,000, which was quite a lot of money in those days. It wasn’t for living on though, it was, it did all go on paint and paper cos I was a watercolour, well I am a watercolourist, y’know and I like good materials and quality paints, and watercolour paper is very expensive, so I spent about £1,000 on paper, yeah. So yeah, so, ohh, well yeah it took my actually nearly five years to make that film [laughs] I don’t –
NH: What’s the name of it?
JD: It’s just called ‘Watercolour’. But I won, I won some awards with it, it did well. It went around the world and it helped me get a grant for my next film. And I had to – as I say, these grants, they were, they were quite sizable chunks of money, but it wasn’t enough to live on, so I had to work, I had to get part-time jobs and then, basically I taught myself to type and I used to work in an office part-time. Did that for quite a few years, part-time. But it does take your energy away. I remember, I worked, I had an office job in Harehills, a family centre, five mornings a week, that was quite good. I’d get up and go to work at nine o’clock, sit in an office, answer the phone, type, do things like that for three and a half hours, get home for one o’clock, have my lunch and then make my film in the afternoon. That, that worked quite well, actually. So, it didn’t take me five years to make the next film, only about three and a half [laughs]. Yeah, and then, yeah, I dunno. I’ve not done animation all my life.
But when I – I got to a point in my 30s where a few things went wrong and I actually thought I’m gonna give up being an artist, and I tried to give up. I just got a full-time office job, which was just terrible. But, and I didn’t want to paint at all for a coupla years. But it came back cos, thank goodness it did. And it was just cos I was having a really bad time. I didn’t have any – I suppose, when I look back, I didn’t have any inner strength to do my artwork cos I was just dealing with too many complicated social issues, social things going on in my life, but anyway, I got through that. And y’know, again to go back to what my mum used to say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, so. Y’know you couldn’t stop me from being an artist now if you wanted to. Even if you tortured me, y’know [laughs] I mean, that sounds heavy but, I think that’s true, actually. I’d find a way, when your back was turned, to do a drawing in secret [laughs]
So yeah, I never, unfortunately never got a job at Leeds Animation Workshop. I did, I woulda, oh anyway. But I did work for them freelance on several, quite a few different occasions over the years. I was quite interested in their rostrum camera. They bought a rostrum camera and they got a woman called Begonia Tamarit, who was a rostrum camera operator in London, to come up to Leeds and show us how to use it. It’s like a ten-foot-high camera mounted to a wall. On a column the camera goes up and down and you have – there’s a plinth underneath the camera where you lay your artwork out and you do your ani- you film your animation. And it takes the role of 16mm film. But I, I just thought it was an amazing object, and I got really into using it, and I did some film titles for people and I – I did work for the Workshop freelance, as I say, doing cel painting and some animation on the film in the ‘90s. ‘Matter of Interest’, I worked on that.
NH: So, your films that you made have been made – are separate from the Animation Workshop?
NH: They come out as Jo Dunn films?
JD: That’s true, yeah. I’ve not made a lot of films, cos they do take a long time, animation films. I’m making one at the moment, which I’m trying to finish off.
NH: Tell me about that.
JD: Oh, it’s – it’s about a whale, amongst other things, and it’s an adaptation of a short story, which I read, by a New Zealand writer called Keri Hulme. She wrote a book which won the Booker Prize, a novel called ‘The Bone People’. It won the Booker Prize in about 1983 or ’84, and that just blew my mind. In fact, that made me want to go to New Zealand. She was a kiwi; it was set in New Zealand. And then through that I read some short stories she’d written, and there’s this one particular short story, it takes place at sea and there’s a boat, and a couple on the boat, a sailing boat. And it’s basically about the world above the water and the world below, so the story kept cutting to what’s happening on the boat to what’s going on in the deep, beneath. And there’s a whale and all the sea creatures, right, descriptions in the story are – from the massive whale, right down to the microscopic plankton and things called diatoms, which you can’t even see with the naked eye – but it’s all fascinating, rich material for an animation film cos, y’know, you have to imagine it. And she was a good writer, so it inspired me. So, to cut a long story short, I went to New Zealand to meet her and she gave me the film rights for the story, the writer that is, Keri Hulme. And I did, I got some development funding from BBC, BBC2 and Yorkshire Arts, so I developed the script and storyboard and blah blah blah.
But unfortunately, I never made the film. It went on hold. Again, just cos of situations in my life took over, having to make a living… just life, life incidents, various things. But anyway, I’ve picked it up again, and I never quite stopped working on it. I get it out every now and then and do a bit on it. When I got into, when I worked in IT, I got into trying, teaching myself how to do computer animation. I spent years, actually, fiddling around, not with a single paintbrush, just with a keyboard and a computer. And of course, there’s lots of software you can get to help. I even built my own computer. I learnt how to build a computer so I could get a more high-powered one. Nowadays all computers are really high-powered, it’s not an issue, but in the ‘90s most computers were just for, a lot of computers were just for word processing, really, so if you wanted to crunch video files you needed two hard drives and all this, that and the other.
But now, I just think, well, I’ve gone back to the paintbrush. Y’know, the way I’m making the film now, and the way I’ve made – the last collaboration, or the last film that I worked on with the Workshop three years ago, it was using real paint, real paper. Sure film it digitally, edit it digitally, mess around with it digitally afterwards if you want, you know, we don’t use 16mm film anymore but I’ve realised that, to me the artwork is, you just can’t, I can’t – something that’s made with the human hand, that’s drawn by hand, with a real pencil and paper, you just can’t beat it; a computer programme cannot do it as good. That’s my personal held belief anyway [laughs] And so I’m quite happy that I’ve realised that, cos it, y’know, it does save time, actually – once I went back to animating by hand, it was a lot quicker than faffing around on a computer.
And in fact, Terry and I went to Leeds Arts University last week, we’ve got an intern that’s studying there at the moment. We’ve got an intern, she comes to the Workshop one day a week and we went to drop off a giant picture frame for one of her college friends and she, the intern, she said, d’you want to come and look round the college?’ And she got us a pass so we could just have a quick browse through all the studios, but I was shocked because – this is an arts college; every room I went in there was people sitting in front of giant TV screens, y’know, computer monitors and there was people making films, but it’s all, all digitally created, or nearly all and I [cringing noises] I didn’t like it, y’know, I just, I think there’s something missing there. Some… bit of… soul or life but y’know. But y’know that’s just me, I’ll do it my way and everybody else can do it their way or whatever. And y’know, like I said, it doesn’t, the paths do cross. I use Photoshop so I do, I do some things, I might do artwork by hand but then layer it in Photoshop to get different effects, which I couldn’t have done with a 16mm camera, but actually, I learnt how to do some special effects with the rostrum camera, and you can do some amazing things with film and backlighting and, like you can run film backwards and forwards through the camera to different exposures to create special effects which actually you can’t recreate digitally. It’s just different. But y’know, I’m lucky I’ve had experience of both, which goes back to how lucky I am I was born in 1963, cos I’ve had the old world and now the new world, if you like. And they’re both different, they’re both quite different. I quite often think, how would it be without a mobile phone. I’d have so much more time. The mobile phone’s getting me down at the moment, too many notifications.
NH: Yeah, switch it off.
JD: I find it’s invasive, actually.
NH: I think we could about finish there, unless you’ve thought of any other tales you’d like to share? Been really good so far, I think.
JD: I hope it’s been of some use to you.
NH: Yeah, no, I think it’s, I think you’ve got some really good stories in there.
JD: Yeah, well. What time is it?
NH: It’s 11:40.
JD: There’s nothing on the tip of my mind. I mean if you ask me questions, I could probably talk on for another hour, but perhaps we don’t need to.
NH: I’ll pause it there. I think we’ve captured –
JD: Well, thanks for interviewing me.
NH: Well no thank you, Jo, thank you.
JD: Yeah, go on back to what? Art college days, when I was at Leeds Poly, you were asking me about, was that a supportive environment? And it wasn’t particularly supportive. As I already mentioned, y’know, the tutor saying, ‘oh your brushwork’s like bodily juices’ and all this and that. But, oh there was a, a young man who was in my year, doing the degree. In the second year I remember I used to go landscape drawing with him, used to go out with him sometimes, he was a really quiet bloke. And then his practice changed in the last year and we could never work out what happened, was it one or two of the male tutors egging him on [sigh] I mean, the Yorkshire Ripper had been caught by then, but Leeds was famous for the Yorkshire Ripper in the ‘70s. And this student, oh my God, this contemporary student, college student in my year, he started – his degree show basically… sculptures, he’d made life-size sculptures, women’s bodies that had been chopped up, hacked up with a knife, body parts in fridges, blood all over it. Sort of hyper-realistic, super gory and really, really gross. And no… no sort of um, what’s, no backstory, no political motivation to do it – he’d gone wrong. But he hadn’t had guidance, y’know, 22, 21. I don’t – to us it wasn’t just his fault, it was like what was going on. It – somebody’d graffitied in the lift: ‘fuck a tutor, get a first’, cos that happened while I was there.
Anyway, these feminists that I, some of them that I knew, came in when the degree show was on – it’s on for, I dunno, two or three weeks at the end of the summer term – they basically ram-raided the gallery and went in there with a load of sledgehammers and absolutely trashed his work up, just smashed it to pieces, and unfortunately they got caught. I don’t know how they got caught, I wasn’t in the vicinity at the time, but it ended up in a big court case that was sort of the year after I’d left college. They had three women in the dock – and that was another thing, the feminists we all got together and supported them, y’know, we all went down to the court every day to just sort of be there with them and get in the gallery, the public bit. Just to show support. But, I mean as I said to you, I was painting landscapes at the time and perhaps, perhaps that was just as well [laughs] Nobody trashed my work, d’you know what I mean? [laughs] But yeah, that was, that was, you just can’t imagine that happening now. But maybe it would? Things, some things are, some things are retrogressive, and some things come round time after time. And it’s not like we’re living in a sexist-free society now at all, so y’know, it’s something that could happen again. But yeah, that was an important part of my, of things that were happening in Leeds at that time. Direct action basically, that’s what you’d call it, direct action. Okay.
NH: Thank you.