This week we are talking to Jess Wall, a visual artist who works primarily on paper. Her practice blends contemporary culture with historical elements, which often takes the form of sourced imagery and text. Her subtle ink drawings depicting an inherently British everyday, often including hidden cultural motifs.
Image description: a landscape poster showing a detail of an ink drawing depicting two elderly women sat at a table eating from a bowl. Bold grey text in the centre reads Jess Wall, underneath in a smaller font reads wallinky.com.
Can you give us an overview of your practice?
My practice is predominantly ink based, I tend to create work as I see fit really. I enjoy the process of drawing people and our relationships to certain everyday situations. I also just generally enjoy depicting any sort of aspect of life, usually putting a historical twist to it, this could be a reference to a long forgotten place or historical text. These references I often tend to couple with portraits as I feel it strengthens our connections with both those everyday moments and historical fragments.
Your ink drawing "Whodunnit?" is currently exhibited as part of our A4 group exhibition. Can you tell us your process for creating this piece?
This piece as well as the others from the series were inspired by a piece of text from 1918. It was about an area in London (Norton Folgate) which used to be a Liberty; which was an extra-parochial piece of land- roughly meaning, outside jurisdiction of the church. The piece of text in question was called "The Norton Folgate affair" and although it was written after the Liberty ceased I found some of the quotations rather interesting, particularly mingled in
with more "modern" imagery and how that snippet of text could be confused for that situation. Hence why there are some repeated quotes included in some of the drawings as well as some incorrect spellings.
"Whodunnit" was a sourced image from the internet, I couldn't resist using it. I love looking back at old photos of social clubs, pubs and places (as well as the people who inhabited them) that may no longer exist anymore and incorporating it into my practice. I usually tend to gravitate towards references that will either amuse me in some way or it may be simply something I can't stop thinking about. "Whodunnit" was definitely something that just worked for me, like another piece "Well Acquainted". They both felt right.
What drew you to using ink as a media to create this drawing?
I've used ink for years now, I used to use Biro and became quite proficient at using them in more of a "realistic" sense. So I wanted to use ink and fine liners to give my work more of a looseness that I fell it was lacking, by focusing less on those minute details it gave me more freedom in terms of improving my practice and gaining more experience in using a variety of inks for drawing with. I also really enjoy the expressive, more permanent qualities that you can achieve whilst using ink. You can't really go wrong with it, you just adapt to the process.
Jess Wall, "Whodunnit?", ink drawing, 2020
Image description: an ink drawing depicting two elderly women sat at a table eating from a bowl. Hand written text in the top right corner reads "The discovery of the bones in the warehouse made little impression on the district" followed by more text in the bottom right hand corner reading "in three days, after the inquest, it was forgotten."
How did you find your piece worked within the outdoor setting of the exhibition?
Surprisingly well, I think the paired back style of the ink drawing worked well as it seemed to look more Graffiti-esque than I was imagining, which is interesting as this piece was never intended to be exhibited let alone outside!
Many of your pieces combine image and text. What drew you to combining these elements?
Initially graphic novels inspired me to combine both text and image together in more of a Fine Art approach. I often think that you can guide more of a narrative with the addition of text, which is really helpful when using historical elements in your practice. To me, I try to incorporate some text to denote something about the piece; sometimes it exists as a block on it's own or it becomes embedded into the work; perhaps as a fixed point of interest, like text on a newspaper or graffiti in the background. I like the idea of being able to talk to the spectator through the drawing, and give you more of an idea about myself as a person.
Jess Wall, Interesting Information, ink drawing, 2021
Image description: an ink drawing depicting an elderly couple sat at a table, the man on the left reading a newspaper. Hand written text in the bottom centre reads "I suppose this will get into the papers."
Where do you find inspiration for your creative practice?
Everywhere! It could be a piece of music to the slightest expression on someone's face, which usually makes me think, "Oh, that would be a good for a piece...". A lot of inspiration comes from Birmingham and it's past, I think many artists, musician's, poets etc are directly inspired by their home and surroundings, it's no different for myself. More recently I've found that walking videos on YouTube have been a great source of inspiration for my practice, it allows me to gather resources from, well, anywhere in the world really; but I tend to focus on Birmingham and London ones as there are stacks to pick through. It sounds a bit daft but presently I've been really inspired by classic Doctor Who, so I've been creating some alternative designs for some of those stories! I think you can find inspiration tucked into the smallest of spaces.
You describe that your work blends contemporary culture with historical elements. How do you go about presenting this in your work?
It all depends really, sometimes I like to use pieces of history more like "motifs" in my overall drawing. A good example of a recent work that uses this is "H.P Tower" it's a portrait of a woman, that I found through watching one of those walking videos on YouTube (a channel called Joseline G, if anyone's interested). It's a bit similar to "Whodunnit" as I couldn't resist the expression on the woman's face; not to mention the sausage roll was quite funny to me for some reason. Rather than adding the roll, I swapped it out for the old H.P factory that used to be in Aston- it was demolished in 2007, it was a big talking point at the time, as so many jobs were created when it came to Birmingham and then lost when it was knocked down. They sort of become memories that many may not know or talk about now, but are just as important as the Bullring or the Jewellery quarter to me.
Jess Wall, "H.P Tower", ink drawing, 2022
Image description: an ink portrait of a woman wearing a winter coat eating from a Poundland bag inside which is the half demolished or "eaten" H.P tower.
What one thing would you like to change about the art industry today? This is optional in case you don't know.
I think that's a tough one. I think the industry has got a lot better in recent years, there are a good few things I would personally alter however I think that will have to be a discussion for another time...
Do you know what you will be making next?
I can show you if you like! The piece I've just finished is called "Ten Minutes from Home" a colour pencil depiction of Erdington here in Birmingham. Yet again it's a place that is full of history, as well as showing another side to Birmingham which isn't the city centre.
Next up I'm back to ink drawing, my goal is to depict some more "Niche" historical aspects of Birmingham (amongst the classic Doctor who illustrations!), in the style of Graphic Novel covers, hopefully this will make aspects of Birmingham's history more approachable for those who don't know where to start or perhaps aren't local to the area.
A final message from the artist.
If anyone does have any history of Birmingham that they would like to see as a graphic novel cover let me know, my e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org. I do now have an Instagram: @wallinky. There is nothing on it as of yet, but there will be soon; so you can find me there if you'd like, as I am open for commissions. Expect history amongst other things!
If you would like to see more of Jess' work you can find more on their website.
Jess' work alongside others can still be viewed in our A4 group exhibition on our website as well as physical locations around Digbeth, Birmingham as well as Camden Town and Brick Lane, London.