Illuminating invisible histories

Heroes, Juliet Middleton-Batts

As an experienced graphic designer, Juliet Middleton-Batts could have continued to follow her comfortable career path, instead she took a gamble and returned to continue her art education. Ten years down the line, she’s a practicing artist with an enthusiasm that's infectious. Her desire to know more, to discover and to share the stories she uncovers, her drive and love of detail all inform, influence and enrich her work.

Taking the plunge and leaving a good career behind can be scary and risky, but Juliet was ready for a change:

I got fed up of putting things in boxes! A few friends had done the foundation course at Saltash College, which was part time, so I thought just do it, and I absolutely loved it! I then came straight to the University of Plymouth and did my  degree - BA (Hons) Fine Art -and I was just in heaven. I then decided to have a year out as some people had said to me if you don't do that, if you go straight from BA to MA you tend to carry on with the same work, so I had a year out and then went back to do my masters - MA Contemporary Art Practice - and graduated in summer 2017. But I still couldn't bear to leave, so I applied for the AA2A (Artists Access to Art Colleges Residency) and was selected! 

Both degrees have undoubtedly shaped me and given me the skills and tools to create my artworks. The BA gave me the chance to experiment and find my own creative path and the MA taught me the depth of engagement needed to achieve my goals. The written work on the MA was invaluable for the writing of proposals and gave me the correct terminologies to describe my work, as well as the confidence to promote it and to believe in myself.

So I'm now on my own. In some ways it's really sad because i know so many people at the University and I can't have access to the Library and the workshops, but it's also quite exciting.

<p>Julie Middleton-Batts<br></p>
<p>Lineage, Julie Middleton-Batts<br></p>
<p>Relative, Julie Middleton-Batts<br></p>
<p>Smaller of the two brown cases, Juliet Middleton-Batts<br></p>

Memory, gender and the archive are recurring themes in Juliet's work:

Social history and social awareness have informed my work since my foundation study (and probably long before this, too), but I am not really sure why? These interests led to me working with memory and the memorial and on to the archive, particularly with the domestic archive and family photographs and objects – I developed ‘The Gendered Archive’ while working towards my masters, which continues to be an ongoing project. I grew up in a rather matriarchal family as my father died when I was a baby, so I was raised by my mother. My grandmother lived very near to us (my grandfather died when I was quite young), I had one sister and my godmother lived opposite us, so I inevitably became a bit of a feminist.

Research is at the heart of all my work, and I love to find unexpected or hidden stories from the past that I can weave into my work.

At the end of our BA course we went to St Ives and looked at the lighthouse designed by John Smeaton. I remembered I had a direct family connection to Smeaton and decided I had to do something with Smeaton's Tower Lighthouse – a centrepiece on Plymouth Hoe – as it's such a beacon.

It was while I was researching this lighthouse that I made a link to the Suffragette movement, which has influenced my work so much this year because of the Centenary of Votes for Women. I discovered that they put a bomb on the step of Smeaton's Tower with the aim of sending a strong message to a visiting Winston Churchill, who didn't agree with their cause. The bomb was due to explode whilst Churchill sailed by with a grand view of the Hoe from Plymouth Sound. The bomb was planted with a label that read 'Votes for Women or death in ten minutes'. 

My installation at Smeaton's Tower included a mirrored surface, in order to reflect the ever-changing surroundings of both land and sea. It combined ideas of displacement, the changing conditions of place, the revolving action of a lighthouse lamp and seeing what the lighthouse sees, and laser-etched on to the riser step was the message left on the bomb.

The centenary of Votes for Women continues to influence Juliet's work 

Heroes is probably my favourite piece of work to date, it includes 100 laser-etched ‘medals’, each engraved with the name of a suffragette who went on hunger strike while in prison, and who received a medal to commend their commitment to the cause. It pays homage to the dedication and sacrifice of each individual campaigner and the collective impact achieved by the movement. I showed this piece as part of the Plymouth Art Weekender in the Mills Bakery Studio (Royal William Yard) which I really liked, but installing it at Devonport Guildhall contextualised it as it was installed in one of the historic prison cells. Spot-lit in the darkened cell, the suspended medals move and cast intriguing shadows on the walls. 

The second cell is dedicated to my grandmother and personal hero, Barbara Kathleen Squire, a suffragist and supporter of the women's rights campaign with non-violent protest. The installation includes personal effects that I inherited and it forms part of my Gendered Archive series. 

While I was doing my masters I created a project to do with domestic objects being passed down and I realised that domestic objects tend to be passed through the female line. The Gendered Archive examines personal, historical artifacts and transferences and the female narratives they embody. Central to my work lies an exploration of women as keepers of history and custodians of the past, with an emphasis on gender and the domestic archive.

<p>Heroes by Juliet Middleton-Batts, 100 laser-etched ‘medals’ each engraved with the name of a suffragette

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<p>The Gendered Archive by Juliet Middleton-Batts at Devonport Guildhall</p>

In 2017, just after completing her MA, Juliet was invited to take part in Plymouth’s spectacular light festival Illuminate:

I was really chuffed to be asked to be part of the 2017 event after Chris Bennewith (Head of Art, Design and Architecture) saw my work at my MA show and then I was even more excited to have my proposal selected for this year’s event. I work really hard and am passionate about my practice, so it is really gratifying to have that acknowledged and have the chance to realise a new idea for 2018.

For the 2017 event I wanted a confined, intimate space to suspend a laser-etched portrait of my grandmother and decided on the old, red telephone box outside Ocean Studios. I had already used this for a piece entitled ‘Memory Box’ for the Art Weekender of that year and thought it would be fun to use it again for ‘Light Box’. My work for this year is very different and plays with my favourite building in Plymouth, Smeaton’s Tower Lighthouse and the iconic telephone box again. The social significance of both these structures interests me and I will be making a visual and historical connection between the two. The lighthouse stands as a beacon on the headland and represents the seafaring legacy of the city and the vintage K6 telephone box visually connects to the tower with its colour and social significance. Both structures are more than their function, standing as nostalgic icons of communication and humanity, embracing the social aspects of lives lived (and saved) and remembered pasts. Inspiration came from the visual connections of colour (red and white) and the banding effect on both buildings.

<p>Light Box #2 by Juliet Middleton-Batts</p>
Light Box – Illuminate Festival 2017
<p>Illuminate 2017 by Dom Moore<br></p>
Illuminate, a spectacular light festival that connects the Mayflower 400 destinations across the UK

Life as a full time artist 

Since graduation and doing the residency I've become more confident about my practice – with every show I install I learn and develop as an artist. I no longer have any formalised connection to the University (except as an alumni), as I have my BA and MA degrees and my AA2A residency has now ended, so after eight years this is quite strange, but also quite liberating.

There's no such thing as a ‘typical’ day for me, it could include researching, emailing, writing proposals for open calls, sketchbook work, ordering materials, updating my website, promoting shows on social media, planning exhibitions and always making ‘to do’ lists

You need to let people know about your work or they will miss it. You know your work so well but you have to communicate it. Luckily, I particularly enjoy marketing and promoting my work and shows and having a graphic design background certainly helps. I am very organised and efficient and I think that really helps as well.

I am really keen to get my work shown outside of the South West and this is my main aim for 2019. I am keen to continue with site-specific, research-led work using multi-media processes. Perhaps there will be an opportunity with the celebration of the centenary of women in Parliament, Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat in British Parliament, and she represented Plymouth...

Watch this space ...