Where are they now? with Jessica Johnson, Arts Award 15th Birthday

We chat to Jess Johnson who achieved her Arts Award 10 years back and is now pursuing her dream to be a novelist, to celebrate Arts Award's 15th birthday

Hello Jess, what are you up in your creative work at the moment?

My current work is an urban fantasy novel for young adults. It’s gone through some rounds of revisions and it’s currently in edits.

Recently I created a short film called Time Share for the Here’s Your Seat project at Skimstone Arts. It was made during lockdown with my husband, Tom Spence.  Youcan watch it here (time stamp: 14:32): 

What are the highlights of your arts career to date?

  • Having my photography in an installation at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts

  • Playing funk-rock on an ocarina in Skimstone Arts’ band Reality Boots

  • Writing a novel

  • Producing a DVD that meant a lot to the participants in a community project for my Gold Arts Award

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your creative work or career since completing your Arts Award?

According to my Mam, when I was asked (aged six) what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an author. After a 20-year detour, it took my health failing to bring me back on track!

After working for a few years in business administration I took time out to go to college and study the sciences, but the big themes and questions in art kept calling me. After that, I went to Newcastle University and studied philosophy as a mature student, so I could combine science and art in a meaningful way. Not long into my degree, my health took a turn for the worse, and I had to withdraw after my first year. I’m now disabled with multiple chronic illnesses that have left me pretty much housebound, and I use a power chair on the occasions I need to go out.

The first thing I did when my health failed was to pick up a camera, and I produced a collection of photographs called Through the Living Room Window. As it became harder to stand up, I turned to writing poetry, then disappeared into a hundred different worlds via audiobooks! 

After that, I self-studied novel writing for a year. Five months later I had a novel planned, and six months later I’d written it. I only have enough energy to work on it a little bit at a time, but similar to learning an instrument, the page is patient. It’ll always be waiting for you to return, whenever you’re ready. I’ve also created a pen name and I’m actively engaged in the writing community on Twitter which has opened up a brand new social life to me of like-minded creative people.

So what do you hope to be doing in five years time?

I hope to have a book on store shelves and be working on another…

Tell us a bit about your Arts Award

I completed my Gold Arts Award with Skimstone Arts in 2012.

Before I started, my hobbies were reading and writing fanfictions and editing fan-made music videos using my favourite anime and music. Gold Arts Award gave me the courage to step out of my comfort zone, pick up a camera, and create original content for the first time. I used it to explore deep themes of how landmarks relate to society – something which served me well later when I began a philosophy degree.

My Gold Arts Challenge saw me travel across my region and make a trip to London learning photography. I photographed landmarks, reflected on how they play a role in the ‘body of society’ like organs in a human body, and edited together two human bodies out of the images. They were projected in an empty shop front as part of an exhibition called Landmarks at the Newcastle Arts Centre.

For my Gold Leadership, I documented an intergenerational community arts project called Soul Soup. I managed a team, a budget, learned to interview people, how to use a video camera, and I produced a DVD. The participants of the project were all invited to a premier celebration event at the end of the project, and they each got to take a DVD away. The community project was run by Gateshead’s Arts Development Team and my film provided valuable feedback for their evaluation.

So are you still involved with Arts Award in any way and will you be doing anything to celebrate the 15 year anniversary?

I’ve mainly taken a back seat in recent years, though I recently helped a young person to edit a music video for Skimstone Art’s lockdown project, Here’s Your Seat.

As for the 15th anniversary, I’ll be holding my own private celebration. I joined Skimstone Arts in 2011 so I could do my Gold Award, and walking through the doors I met a young man doing his Gold Award at the same time. In 2017 we got married!

Have you become an Arts Award adviser since completing your Arts Award? 

Yes, I’m an adviser at Bronze, Silver and Gold levels.

Gold Arts Award gave me a lot of practical experience of leadership and working with others so helping younger and newer group members to complete their Arts Awards was a natural next step for me.

My centre, Skimstone Arts, works with vulnerable people, often coming from challenging backgrounds, and in some cases, Arts Award is the highest qualification they achieve. It has been rewarding for me to help people gain the confidence to take ownership of their own ideas and arts practice, and to see their self-esteem rise as they accomplish something. Small things like offering to type what someone dyslexic says, or asking questions about why they’re doing things in a certain way, can build a young person’s sense of importance.

I have not found any other qualification which creates this sense of value for a young person like Arts Award. Even in a group project, Arts Award supports young people to take full ownership of their individual role.

What advice would you give to young people doing Arts Award who want to follow in your footsteps?

Collect evidence everywhere! Get a ticket for an event? Keep it! Vlog or take photos at events. Make a quick recording of your thoughts after a gig or concert on your phone. Keep a video diary. Not everything has to be written evidence - create a scrapbook. Make documenting your Arts Award journey fun.

Where can people find out more about your work?

You can find many of my previous projects, going all the way back to my Gold Award, at Skimstone Arts or on Skimstone’s Facebook page

Unity of Species – photography and poetry

Through the Living Room Window – an independent photography collection

Smokescreen – photography

Peace Procession – spoken word, installation

Tom’s a Witch – short film, performance

P.A: The Performer’s Assistant – short film

Reality Boots - Louder Than Words album: keyboard, ocarina, lyrics, spoken word, performance

A Natural Anthem - spoken word, ocarina, performance, photography

L.I.E (Limitations, Imitations, Emulations) – 2 short films: The Shadow Cycle and Shadow Funk

Arts Award Voice – articles and reviews for the online magazine

Expectations – photography, installation

Who Owns the Inner Shell? – spoken word, performance lecture

Landmarks – photography (Arts Award Gold project)

Arts Award 15th Birthday!

Arts Award has been supporting the development of creativity and leadership skills for all young people for 15 years. Arts Award has championed creativity, nurtured talent and offered insights into the arts world, together with a taste of creative careers.Across the UK there are over 4,000 centres and an impressive 521,455 Award achieved.

Arts Award alumni news

Read more interviews with Arts Award alumi or visit the Arts Award Voice Community Hub for exclusive alumni updates, support and discounts. If you've recently finished your Arts Award and want to let us know what you're up to, drop Nici the Arts Editor an email

Header Image Credit: Mark Savage


Nici West

Nici West Voice Team

Nici is the an editor for Voice. She loves all things books, theatre, music, art, visiting other countries, anything creative, and sometimes attempts to make YouTube videos. Alongside Voice she writes and edits through her own pursuits.You can occasionally find her running marathons dressed as a black dog.

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