Interview: Jessica Jackson and her reclaimed sculptural lighting
I know you all love a good bit of upcycling (that’s why you’re here, right?) so today I’d like you to meet a woman who’s managed to combine her love of collecting, her desire to upcycle with her talents for making and teaching into a social enterprise business that is one of only a few community interest companies. UK-based Jessica Jackson and her company Jessica Found It designs and makes sculptural lighting from salvaged, reclaimed and found objects. As she writes on her Twitter profile: Not butcher, nor baker but candlestick maker, junkster, jester, magpie, messer, collector, designer - and all this from someone who actually started out a dancer!
Come and join me as Jessica reveals all …
Tell me about your background and how you’ve ended up where you are today?
I studied art, dance and theatre at university and built a working museum installation for my dissertation, which helped me understand my desire to collect and the idea of value. I’ve always erred on the side of green and made efforts to live a low impact lifestyle – waste and reuse being two ideas everyone can relate to.
I needed a creative career and something that was socially good. I worked in a children’s centre and planned to train to teach but found myself lost in London. I moved back to my home of Shropshire and have never looked back. If you dig deep, you’ll find an amazing network of artisans and makers enjoying the pastoral inspiration there and what I consider a really great quality of life.
Explain your creative process – how do you work? Do you start with an idea first or is it a found object? And why lighting and candlesticks in particular?
I rarely design anything first, the process is dictated almost entirely by the objects. There is a rough plan with a light whereby it has to have a suitably heavy base, a shade of some description and then something in between but that is open to interpretation!
I can’t throw anything out. It may have no place in today’s project but in a month’s time it will be exactly what I need. I was nicknamed ‘Moth’ briefly as a teenager. My bedroom was full of weird and wonderful lights – UV, fibre optics, a lava lamp, fairy lights of every imaginable variant. I’ve always been really moved by interiors and so accidentally started making a light – I like the functionality, but also the fact I can make something that goes far beyond its function.
Have you had to learn any new techniques or crafts in order to do what you do?
I had to learn to solder right at the beginning when I fell in love with old copper pipes. My technique has improved vastly; I could certainly have a bash at plumbing! I did a course on brazing [to solder metals with an alloy eg joining brass and silver] but I need to refine this before it’s good enough to use on my work. Plus I’d need to make the financial outlay to buy the kit so I could practice regularly enough. I’m beating copper more, too, for some more sculptural pieces. This is an amazing craft – understanding the surface you’re working on and how the material will move with each hammer blow makes a huge difference.
Where do you go to source the recycled materials you work with? Do people give them to you or are they found on your travels?
Both really, it certainly isn’t as simple as clicking on an ebay listing. I have to dig deep, venture into industries I would never have thought of and find the right people to speak to. If I can enthuse them enough about my work then sometimes I get a lead. In the last week, this has successfully gained me boxes of redundant fire sprinkler heads and a galley of brass typeface for a hot foil letter press. I have no idea what I’ll do with this yet, but it’s amazing! I peep into skips as I walk past, rummage through scrap piles on farms and I do buy bits and pieces as well, from flea markets, junk shops and auctions.
Tell me more about the social enterprise aspect of the business?
There are three strings to it really. As a Community Interest Company I chose to concentrate on the environmental aspects, the educational and the charitable. This is demonstrated in the design itself, where upcycling is deemed better for the environment than recycling where materials are broken down into their component parts. With copper pipes, for example, this would involve shredding, which uses large amounts of energy. With upcycling, you are changing the use of something, adding something, adding value. I see potential in materials and hope to save them from their fate.
With regards to education, I deliver workshops in various settings. This creative endeavour is a brilliant social tool as I can also raise awareness of environmental issues, waste and sustainability within the workshop environment. I strive to ensure that participants take something physical away with them, and this item is always useful. For example, adult participants in a gallery in Shoreditch made planters from used beer bottles. 13- and 14-year-old students made wallets from old cassette tapes and students from a school for children with disabilities made decorative lampshades with scrap material, photos and old magazines.
The charitable aspect is where I donate from sales of specific items to chosen charities. My company is asset-locked to my local recycling scheme and £1 from each sale of my upcycled water tank earrings goes to the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
What challenges, if any, have you faced along the way?
I frequently come up against the ‘craft’ problem. It seems that what I do isn’t considered a craft so there have been a number of shows and groups I’ve not been able to participate in because of this. Exposure is the next one. I’m delighted to have a platform to talk about what I do beyond the pieces themselves but could do with a couple of glossy magazine spots, which would help get things moving!
If you weren’t collecting discarded, reclaimed, unwanted objects, what do you think you would collect and why?
I started collecting vintage telephones for a short period. I found an original 70s lip phone at my local flea market and then shortly afterwards an amazing pink stiletto phone but after that I was at a bit of a loss. The original rotary dial phones became really expensive and I drew the line at the ‘Karma Chameleon’ [a rather kitsch novelty phone!]. Other than that I think unusual silver jewellery. I already have far more rings than fingers, but can’t resist a look when I see some. I really am a magpie.
Where do you go, or what do you do/read/see for inspiration?
Nature is without a doubt my main inspiration. It may not look it from the work I produce but there’s something about the way industrial design mirrors nature’s patterns in so many ways. I live out in the sticks and so am affected by the changing seasons and natural world daily and don’t have to go very far to find it.
I must make more effort to visit exhibitions. Whenever I do I’m brimming with thoughts. It’s quite a solitary practice I lead and it’s great to speak to other makers and see what work they are producing, even when it’s a totally different genre.
What would be your dream project/commission?
I am currently waiting to hear about a big commission for a chandelier for a bar in Bangalore. This is a really exciting prospect. It would involve sourcing more than 80 trumpets – no mean feat! I usually tell people that half the fun is the finding and half the fun is the making but I’m not really looking forward to having to source that many of the same thing.
To be given an entire space to design would be a dream. I don’t necessarily consider myself an interior designer but to design spaces for interactions would be a really interesting challenge.
Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?
My work is, kindly, often described as inventive, even if it looks a bit Heath Robinson [an English cartoonist and illustrator, best known for drawings of eccentric machines]. When I was told that once [the latter] when trading at Spitalfields market in East London, I was reminded how I’m a descendent of George Stephenson, inventor of the locomotive, so it must be in the genes!
Thanks so much, Jessica, for sharing your story with us and best of luck with the Bangalore bar commission!
If you’re in the UK, you can check out Jessica’s creations at:
Ludlow Green Fair - August 25th
Notting Hill Design Fair – Nov 14th/15th
And the Greenwich and Spitalfields Markets (get updates on twitter @jessicafoundit)