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Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black and black text which reads Further Afield. exploring art and disability in rural spaces.

Interview with Joanne Coates

Writing by Louisa Adjoa Parker

“I am a visual artist… but I’m also a farm labourer… I guess at the moment, I’m really exploring those two things because I think for a long time, I maybe like, hid the fact that I had to do other work to exist as an artist. And actually, now I’m thinking that well, what does it mean, to be doing those two things? And how does that intersect?”

About the conversation

In the fifth episode of the series, Bella speaks to Joanne Coates, a working-class visual artist who lives and works across the North East of England. They discuss Joanne’s substantial catalogue of work that explores working class culture and community in rural spaces, how disability, rurality and class intersect, and the motivations, challenges and rewards of establishing creative community in rural settings.

Accompanying this recording is a wonderful text written in response to the conversation by Louisa Adjoa Parker. You can read it below.

Further Afield Logo featuring a green table microphone outlined in black.

Further Afield interview with Joanne Coates

Listen to the audio version here

“I think growing up and not kind of seeing class talked about in terms of a rural context, but being really aware that a lot of the people around me, you know, having multiple jobs or… struggling, but not necessarily talking about it and [how that’s a] hidden element of class in the countryside.”

Accompanying writing by Louisa Adjoa Parker

second skin

telling our truth

we’ve learned to stand in our truth – you up north and me down south, all the others in between – feet planted on furrowed earth, arms outstretched, faces tilted towards the sun, still as scarecrows, crows circling in the wintry sky above us. this is me, we say, and us, we might feel like imposters, but we are real, and we are here, and we are now. we’ve been many things, us daughters of the soil: mother, daughter, grandmother, artist, writer, witch, farmhand, milker, matriarch, waitress, servant, storyteller, truth-seeker, and all the others in between. 

unearthing stories 

we’ve unearthed stories from the land, teased them out from where they’ve lain: tucked between gnarled tree roots, silt-covered on the riverbed, under nets and rubber boots that stink of fish. our hands have dug through layers of shingle on the shores or thick mud mixed with animal shit until our fingers were bone raw. we found stories under rusting tractors, in the walls of country houses where only the wealthy got to leave their voice behind. in grains of sugar at the bottom of a cup, in tobacco, cotton, coffee, tea. women’s voices from the present, from the past, ringing out like church bells. we gave voice to what was already there, brought stories out into the air, held them, let sunlight fall on them, wash them clean.  

how to talk about art

listen to the stories we want to tell, the way we want to tell them. shed the skin you live in and step into ours; reimagine histories, make space. listen to what the land offers up. let us find the words to tell you about our art, let us frame it with mud and leaves and wildflowers instead of gold if we want, because that to us is gold. let our voices be clear as the water trickling down from the hills. listen to us the way you might listen to birdsong, tilt your head, let the high notes wash over you, brush your skin, before they rise into the sky. 

on being held

we want to be held as though in the thick boughs of a tree or cradled by a bowl of land: us and those who hear our stories, held the way our mothers might have held us a moment after we were born.  we want to be held by the places we love, where the land’s infused with memories like drops of saltwater. i turn your words a group of people to support me around my mouth with my tongue, imagine it: a group of people holding me through work and words and grief and love and life. it’s ok, they might say, what do you need? we are here. we are here.

layers of identity like rock

we have layers inside us, like layers of rock, or rings in a tree. we are women, who’ve known what it is to have no net to catch us when we fall. we’ve picked ourselves up from the ground, dusted our skirts, put one booted foot in front of the other, walked on. we’re shapeshifters, different beings according to the eyes that see us, the land and skin we’ve found ourselves inhabiting – we’re shaped by place, and it, in turn, is shaped by us. we might be one thing one day, and another the next. we want to unpick these layers of self, decide which of them we get to show and when and how.

what do we need to grow?

sunlight, water, air. and money, as much we might like to live in a world without it. art is priceless but how can we make it without money? we have to live and eat and breathe and move across this earth and pay the bills. we need time to work and time to rest, space for our bodies, space inside the room of our cluttered minds. and then: the other layers of need, for our imperfect bodies, imperfect minds. maybe we want to bring a dog to work, or maybe we are scared of dogs. we might need a quiet room, bands of sunlight falling on a polished floor, or a vast space with nothing but the trees and grass or wide blue sea, wild water tumbling in a rhythmic dance. we might need the clink of glasses, voices merging into one, laughter, or machinery whirring at dawn, the low bellow of cows. we need a conversation that keeps flowing, like a river, or a stream – what do you need? oh, OK – not a stagnant pond we hurl pebbles into with a thunk. we need networks of people, spread out like tree roots. 

bodies in rural spaces

we have to be strong, and never get sick. we need our bodies to work the land or wait on tourists with a smile or clean houses for people who have more money than us. we need bodies that can walk for miles, carrying fat babies, down tracks, through valleys and dark woods, along shores with salt air on our faces, wind scrubbing at our cheeks, over undulating land, latticed leaf shadows falling on the earth. we need our bodies to be able to wander, lose ourselves in order to be present. how can we be daughters of the soil if our bodies are not standing firmly on it? there’s no space for bodies that don’t do what they’re meant to do here, in this place. 

seeds of hope

we’re scattering seeds on the land around us, under clouds spilling down from the sky, lit with a silvery light – you up north and me down south, all the others in between – flinging them wide, watching as they fall earthwards, land next to gold bales of hay, rusty metal, on earth flecked with flintstone, riverbanks, peat bogs, in bubbling streams, wondering if they’ll take. years later we might find a tree flowering in spring, white-pink petals, flowers like bells, and remember. all great art comes from a single idea and perhaps, all art is great art. we want to bring people together, share our hopes and dreams, eat and walk, rejoice in our loves of art and stories and wildlife and us and this land we wear like a second skin.

A person sitting in a field with a dog. The person has long curly dark orange hair and the dog, a border collie, is black and white.
Joanne Coates

Joanne Coates is a working-class visual artist working in the medium of photography who lives and works across the North East of England. Her work explores rurality, hidden histories and inequalities relating to low income through photography, installations, and audio. She uses photography to question the concepts of power, identity, wealth, and poverty, by exploring the social histories of land, gender, and class to narrate stories that have long been forgotten – or simply never told.

In 2022 she was announced the winner of the Jerwood / Photoworks award. In 2024 Coates was awarded with the Baltic Vasseur Arts Award and a Working Class histories grant.

A black and white image of a person standing leaning against a tree.
Louisa Adjoa Parker

Louisa Adjoa Parker is a writer and poet of English-Ghanaian heritage who lives in south west England. Her first poetry collections were published by Cinnamon Press, and her third, How to wear a skin, was published by Indigo Dreams. She has a coastal memoir forthcoming with Little Toller Books. Louisa has written extensively about ethnically diverse history and rural racism, and as well as writing, works as an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion consultant. She is a sought-after speaker and trainer on rural racism, black history, and mental health.

Louisa’s latest publication is titled “How to wear a skin”

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