Wednesday, 10 July 2013

60 SECOND INTERVIEW: Jemma Thompson

JEMMA THOMPSON moved to Bridport aged just a few months old when her grandfather became stand-in vicar for the Powerstock Parish. Studying art in Liverpool and signwriting in Devon, but always calling Bridport home, Jemma went on to design and paint many of the signs in the town, including shop signs for Lula, Get Stuffed, Bella’s Cake Shop, Cornucopia and the Red Brick Cafe sign in the Rope Walks car park, as well as restoring the Coats of Arms in the Town Hall, and gilding the weather vane on its dome. In 2012 Jemma was attacked by a man wielding a hammer while walking on Langdon Hill, an event she describes as a turning point in her life. She has publicly expressed sympathy for her attacker.

WHAT made you take up animal portraits?
I started taking animal portraits commissions after drawing my first boyfriend’s dog in 1992. The picture was a bit of a hit with friends, who then asked me to draw their dogs. It has been that way since then. I have been commissioned to draw sheep, and a chinchilla, as well as horses, cats and dogs. I’d like to have some farm animal commissions, that'd be great.

HOW did you get into signwriting?
I got into traditional signwriting in 1999, having finished my art foundation course in Liverpool and not really knowing where to go next. I came home and saw Colin Grainger up a ladder in South Street painting 12” high letters on a shop fascia. I drew up the courage to ask if I could have a go as it looked beautiful. Colin very kindly allowed me to go up the ladder and fill in some of his outlined letters. The signwriter’s brush has huge long soft sable hairs and was so wonderful to use. I asked him if I could work with him, but he sadly declined as he only had enough work for a one man business. But he marked out my name on a piece of wood, gave me a brush and some paint and asked me to start with that. I then went to South Devon College to train on the last traditional signwriting course in the UK where I won an award for being the best signwriter in 30 years. I was super keen and a real perfectionist at the time. Thankfully I am somewhat more relaxed now.

WHAT are the signs you most admire? 
Those which speak of an educated human hand and eye. Those that have light brushstrokes, a clear simple well spaced layout, and colours which are easily read and speak to the reader at the necessary different volume. Strangely enough, they are the ones that look so simple, like nothing has gone into them. But to achieve that has taken years and years of practice and an intuitive understanding of a natural, aesthetic, readable balance, which a computer cannot achieve.

IS THERE a type of sign you dislike?
I’m not too keen on vinyl, plastics and fabricated signs, mainly due to ecological reasons, but also due to the fact they are often produced by computer programs and sometimes people who have had no training. They have bred a huge wave of badly designed impersonal ugly signage across the world.

HOW has the hammer attack affected you?
In many ways it has been a great turning point. Having had such a huge head injury like that, I am much more alert and consciously awake now, rather than dreamy eyed reflective art student, irresponsibly daydreaming her life away. I now have a much healthier attitude towards life, knowing that it could disappear or be taken from me at any moment.  

AND it has affected how you react to paints?
Yes, I am investigating finding ecological paints to use for my signs, as the good old treacle type stuff I use at the moment is highly toxic for me as well as the planet. 
It even states on the tin that it can cause, cancer, birth defects and reproductive issues and attacks your immune system. A lot of household items have similar warnings but we tend to ignore them. But post attack, my body is much more sensitive to anything ‘attacking its system’, so a healthier attitude and sense of balance all-round has come from it. Hopefully it is the same for him too but I don’t know.

IF YOU could write one sign that sums up your view on life, what would it be?
I think it would read ‘Common Sense’ on a deep green base, a block round hand letter with a soft yellow face, a gilt reflection on the bottom and a light blue shadow to express a ‘middle of the road’ type of understanding, and that we are all responsible for where we are at.

WHAT objects do you always carry with you?
Whatever book I am into at the time. More recently I have started carrying a sketch book and pencil with me again.

WHAT is your earliest memory?
Sitting on a potty, in the sun, next to our garden pond in Victoria Grove, transfixed by a ladybird crawling over the back of my hand.

WHO has inspired you most in your life?
Pat Bowcock of Ourganics in Litton Cheney has to be right up there on the wall of super inspiring people. She has given so much to me and to the local community by her ethical, self-sufficient, sustainable philosophy. Just by the way that she lives on her smallholding, working with the community and her responsible attitude towards life around her in general is hugely inspiring. My family too of course. They have been an amazing support this past year and we have a much greater sense of togetherness post the attack than I have ever known.

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