Wednesday, 8 March 2017

From struggling student to Head of Art School

For International Women's Day, we're kicking off our new blog with our very own Jera May, Head of Richmond Art School. 

Jera's remit includes all art, craft, music and drama at RACC. It’s a large umbrella but one that offers countless opportunities and creative connections between artists, students and tutors. 

Here Jera talks about how she got into the art world, her weird and wonderful collections, her personal work, and what Richmond Art School has to offer now and in the future.

Discovering art and craft 

I first got into art in a round about way because I was dyslexic. I felt  bright, but I couldn’t really read or write properly and wasn’t doing very well academically at my local school. It was really frustrating. My mum and dad decided to put me in a convent school that recognised dyslexia and did arts based courses. So I learnt how to read and write through drama, art and literature instead.

My parents also had a huge influence on me. My mother is an extensive collector of antiquarian artefacts (junk), so when you walked into our family home, it was like walking into an installation, or a theatre set. The house was her sculpture, her art. She’s a highly creative person, and when we were growing up she expressed it through domestic means. Later in life she did it through attending numerous adult education classes, and she is now a painter. 

We had a completely Victorian kitchen, full of old equipment and culinary objects: butter churns, washing dollies, potato peelers with manual handle turning, everything. There were various collections of snuff boxes, art deco combs, and ceramics absolutely everywhere  – she is a real advocate for the Arts & Crafts and particularly likes William De Morgan, Lucy Rie and Clarice Cliff. 

Although most of the objects in the house were  from charity shops which she took us on regular outings to, we also went to the V&A Museum all the time, and would drive around London at the weekends  going to the theatre or exhibitions. She would always talk about the buildings and the era they were built. I got an amazing art education through having this wonderful period with my parents. I think it’s probably the most privileged experience I’ve had – getting that insight into art, culture and architecture from an early age.  

Going to art school

I wasn’t really interested in doing a degree. I’d just scraped through my BTEC in sculpture as I went backpacking to Madagascar half way through the course, and was more interested in travelling than art at that time. I was a really bad student!

But then, I had a bit of an epiphany. I opened a page of Crafts magazine and it said – “Stourbridge – beware of imitations.” As soon as I saw it, I just knew I had to apply. 

Stourbridge was a degree course in glass. I’d never used glass before, but I liked the idea of it because it encompasses sculpture, plaster, wax – glass is a composite material. The process to get to glass is all about casting, negative space, impressions, repetition – creating something out of different materials.

Jera in Bolivia sitting in front of a handmade kiln
Jera in Bolivia, in front of her handmade kiln
The course moved to Wolverhampton University, and I was one of the first students to go there – I think I only got in because they were desperate for people. I had a fantastic professor called Keith Cummings, and I really flourished there. Although I ended up going back to fine art sculpture and took my MA in Fine Art at UAL (with another amazing professor, Jordan Baseman), my craft /design degree taught me invaluable knowledge concerning the importance of skills and materials, and a real appreciation of functional crafts. 

After my BA, I continued travelling. I got involved in a WWF funded project setting up a community crafts centre in Bolivia, where I lived and worked for two years. I taught ceramics and worked with indigenous tribes to enable them to rediscover lost crafts, as a means of creating fair trade products as an income. This amazing experience reinforced my passion for the handmade, taught me the importance of community and really made me realise how creativity can change lives.

My vast range of collections

I went through a period of working with house clearers. I like memories and sentimental things that aren’t necessarily my own, and incorporating them into my artwork or my own home. There’s a connection between the house I grew up in and the relationship between the self and the environment, that I recurrently refer to in my sculptural practice – I talk about objects and how they identify with people, and vice versa.

Many of my own collections have experiential or sentimental value - things people have made or found for me, I also have a fossil collection, a photographic plate collection, a scientific glass and equipment collection - I particularly like transparent materials, and old instruments that measure things for some reason.

Usually what happens is people donate their rubbish to me because they know I will take it!

My personal work as a practising artist

A high sculptural installation consisting of lots of wood and furniture, held together by rope
The Delirium of Joy, 2008

I tend to work in the genre of sculptural installation often with a projected element, although I do also make drawings and collages. I have some lifetime projects that continue all the time – they’re never ending. 

The Delirium of Joy from 2008 was my final MA work. It was a milestone where everything came together and I really understood a piece of work to its best potential. The integration of ethereal video component with real materials both personal and found became a metaphor that I have used repeatedly. So I might consider the virtual projected element as some kind of utopian ideal or escape, or a deluded reality. The physical aspect of the work is very much on another plane. 

Stills from the Delirium of Joy video piece, showing a seagull flying in front of an old painting of the sea
Video stills from The Delirium of Joy, 2008

The facilities and ethos of Richmond Art School

Art building

When realising the new Art School, we worked with the architects Duggan & Morris very closely to design the new building, and went through a whole consultation process with students and stakeholders. We had fantastic double-height drawing studios at Clifden, and extensive craft facilities which we were determined to preserve. Our new building has been absolutely built to be an art school – the windows, the industrialist look, the raw materials – steel, brick, concrete, glass – very neo brutalist and incorporating the environmental aspects. 

We took all the old furniture from our site at Clifden, so it’s a mixture of the old and new which works really well. Part of the new building also has an amazing contemporary exhibiton space, gallery and theatre for drama performances and music concerts– it’s all about collaborative experience and community.

The art school, and whole college has a great atmosphere – it’s very inclusive and welcoming. We’ve got some fantastic staff – really experienced practitioners, and the facilities are great. 

Three women sitting at potter's wheels throwing clay

We wanted a multi-disciplinary dialogue to happen, even if only visually. So people studying ceramics could walk past a workshop doing bookbinding, or people doing print can engage with people doing plaster moulding because everything is on site. We want people to be able to move laterally between studios.

It’s so important to keep teaching the crafts. Lots of colleges that have these traditional facilities are closing their craft provision to make way for the digital age, but at Richmond Art School we know you can have both. We feel it’s meaningful not only for maintaining heritage and improving quality of life, but also looking at a sustainable future by teaching people skills to make things they can use in their everyday lives. Our gallery shop supports this idea by enabling students to sell the work they make at the college, which we are hoping to expand this year into an online shop. I call myself a Progressive Traditionalist and I think it applies to the art school as well!

A key role we can provide is to try to offer creativity for all people, of all ages, backgrounds and cultures and abilities. We’re a real conduit for opportunity. People might want to learn a new skill, or to try ceramics with their children, learn how to make clothes, or they might just want to feel better about something in their life. Here they can do a course, progress onto another, then maybe go onto higher education, and then onto a whole new career or just come and enjoy themselves and meet new people, learn practical skills and be creative. 

The sky’s the limit. Arts for everyone! 

You can see more of Jera's work on Axisweb.

We’ll also be having an Open Day on Saturday 15th July with tasters, free demonstrations and tours of the art school. More info to follow, but put it in your diary! 

This blog will be a platform for all things creative around Richmond and South-east London. We’ll be celebrating the work of our students, tutors and local creative folk – so if you’d like to get involved, please email us at