Artist & musician Kate Jackson rediscovers a love of home

Kate Jackson at Smith's Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds.

Kate Jackson at Smith's Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Sometimes you need to go away to properly appreciate the town or the county you were brought up in. This is certainly true of singer and artist Kate Jackson who is staging her first solo exhibition and residency at Bury St Edmunds gallery Smith’s Row.

Kate Jackson's dynamic portrait of Bury's sugar beet factory.

Kate Jackson's dynamic portrait of Bury's sugar beet factory. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Jackson, who attended Culford School, before moving to Sheffield to study art, is now back living in her home town and is displaying a new collection of townscapes which take the viewer into an abstract world of towers, shapes and blocks of colour.

Removed of context – a backdrop or people – a single building often becomes the equivalent of a painted portrait. She describes her new work as Abstract Brutalism, a series of works which looks at shape, colour and space. One of the defining images in this current exhibition is Kate’s dynamic portrait of Bury’s sugar beet factory.

“For me the sugar beet factory is a symbol of home. When I am returning to Bury along the A14, it’s the first thing you see. It always says home to me.”

For many, the name Kate Jackson is synonymous with indie rock band The Long Blondes and so linked with the city of Sheffield that many people assume she is a native of steel city, but Kate’s a Suffolk girl.

The band "Long Blondes" comes to Bury, the home of lead singer Kate Jackson. Kate (right)

SAT MAG The band "Long Blondes" comes to Bury, the home of lead singer Kate Jackson. Kate (right) is pictured with band members L-R: Reenie, Dorian, Emma, Screech. Pix Phil Morley 17/5/06

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“The family moved to Bury when I was three and we have been here ever since,” she says. Except that’s not strictly true but I know what she means.

At 18 Kate moved to Sheffield to study fine art at university and while there she found herself becoming increasingly involved in the local music scene. After graduation, she joined The Long Blondes as lead vocalist and before anyone knew it they were playing packed gigs and having hit records.

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“I have always loved music but I didn’t become part of a band until I was in my 20s when I joined The Long Blondes. Painting has always been part of my life. I have been drawing since I was eight years old. My mum’s an artist, so when I was a kid my mum would take me to Aldeburgh and we would sit on the beach together sketching.

“Funnily enough, I still have some of my drawing pads and funnily enough all my line drawings from that time are all of buildings. My mum drew flowers and people but I would sit there at the age of eight drawing a building.”

Badlands, Olympic Park by Kate Jackson at Smith's Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds.

Badlands, Olympic Park by Kate Jackson at Smith's Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Gregg Brown

She said that shape and colour have always influenced her work and that is how she sees the world. “I love playing with geometrical shapes along with shades, tones, lines, forms and patterns. I don’t know my real dad but he was an architect so I have always wondered whether there is something genetic buried deep inside me – something encoded onto my DNA. I never grew up with him and I have never been taught anything about architecture but this fascination has always been with me. It’s always been in there.”

She said she was studying fine art at Sheffield when The Long Blondes were signed to the Rough Trade record label and she left her art career behind – trading an isolated existence in a studio for a life on stage in the spotlight.

“But, I always knew that I could always go back to it and I never entirely left it behind because all the time I was with The Long Blondes I always designed all the cover art for the albums.”

Back in the mid-2000s she said the challenge was always to make her art fit the music that the band was making. It was a trade-off between her vision as an artist and the need to reflect the collective voice of the band.

Vistors at the launch of Kate Jackson's exhibition at the Smith's Row Gallery, Bury St Edmunds

Vistors at the launch of Kate Jackson's exhibition at the Smith's Row Gallery, Bury St Edmunds - Credit: Archant

Today, Kate is happily leading a dual career both as a fine artist and a solo musician, writing and recording her own material as well as gigging with her own band. In fact her life is so synchronised that her studio is located in the same building in St Andrew’s Street as the band’s rehearsal space.

She said that this state of creative grace only came after a lot of soul searching and a couple of false starts.

“When The Long Blondes came to an end in 2008 I had a couple of years of saying: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What do I do next?’ People knew me as Kate Jackson, lead singer of The Long Blondes and in fact I really only recognised myself in that role. Then, at the age of 29, my career of being a lead singer in a band seemed to be over. It was really hard, when you have done that, to switch and start again. I had to begin a new career and find a new direction.

“I tried to keep my music going but I found that I was increasingly going back to art because that was my first love.”

Kate Jackson at Smith's Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds.

Kate Jackson at Smith's Row art gallery in Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Gregg Brown

She says that now, after having lived in Rome for four years, a return to Bury St Edmunds last year has seen her life become much more balanced. Her career now embraces both art and music and her residency and exhibition at Smith’s Row will see her working in the gallery creating artwork for a new album which will be launched at a listening party at the gallery on Saturday, August 29.

“I have written and recorded a new album with Bernard Butler, the guitarist with Suede. He and I started working together many years ago, just after The Long Blondes broke up. We started working on these songs and never finished them. Last year I got in touch with him and said: ‘You know that album that we made, shall we do something with it?’

“So I went down to London, met up with Bernard, starting picking the album apart, deciding which bits we liked, what we wanted to keep, what we wanted to re-record, did a bit more work on it and it’s ready now to go out into the world.”

She said that listening to the record and re-discovering some of the themes in the writing, she realises that there is a lot of cross-over with her art work.

“So when I was talking about having a painting exhibition I wanted to include the album as well because it’s all part of my creative process. The art and the music now sit quite well together whereas before I used to see them as quite separate entities. The album is going to be called British Road Movies, it’s very guitar-based because of who I wrote it with. It definitely has that 70s feel to it. There’s a bit of Neil Young in there with lots of big guitar riffs going on, also lyrically it owes a lot to Neil Young. I wanted to write some road songs but from a British perspective.

“The whole thing is quite cinematic, there are lots of visual references, so I thought that it would be great to make the album artwork during the residency.”

She said that her artwork could be viewed as images seen from a car window on a road trip. “The weather also an impact on how the finished work looks. One piece in the exhibition is called Badlands, Olympic Park that was based on a photograph I took at a Bruce Springsteen concert and that was as the sun was setting on the building next to the park. You get that feeling about the time of day, the seasons, everything. It all impacts on the way I see things.”

Recently Kate has become intrigued by the way that the urban landscape interacts with its rural surroundings. She has become increasingly preoccupied with the periphery of towns. “I like the contrast between the industrial landscape and the beautiful natural world outside. I know Suffolk is predominantly a farming area rather than an industrial area but you still do get that jarring image of a man-made structure against the natural landscape. I love the fact that there are places like the sugar beet factory or Felixstowe Docks or the BT building at Martlesham, they stand out against a very rural backdrop.”

All the work in the exhibition has been created over the last 18 months and because they are all part of the brutalist series they work as a whole. “I view the sugar beet factory as a brutalist work even though it is also a romantic image. For me it is a symbol of home.

“When I came back I realised I love Suffolk and I love Bury. It is quite a varied landscape.

“I did a project called Margins about two years ago where I walked around the outskirts of Bury St Edmunds just so I could see Bury from a different angle rather than just looking at the centre of the town. Lots of artists draw the cathedral or the Nutshell and it’s easy to get a picture postcard impression of Bury and that’s not the way that people live. So I wanted to see the estates and I wanted to see the point at which the town ends and the countryside begins. That was fascinating because you do get more brutal buildings in these environments, more ‘60s and ‘70s breeze-block buildings then you are into the realm of a common British landscape.”

She said that having been away she now views Suffolk with fresh eyes. She combines an intimate love and knowledge of the landscape with a more objective eye. “I feel that Suffolk could be from a David Lynch film. It is quite Lynchian. I have seen lots of different landscapes having been in a band and toured all over the world but there is something about Suffolk that just draws me back. I feel that I belong here. It is my home. It is in my soul and there’s nothing I can really do about it.”

Kate Jackson: In-Residence at Smith’s Row runs until August 29. Admission Free.

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