It was actually a coincidence that I came across the Creative Older Women (CROW) exhibition in Make Tank, a consequence of my new route back from the city centre. But, as soon as I entered the space and saw an array of paintings, photographs, ceramics and more, I was enamoured by the different forms and presentations. Through the information provided at the exhibition, I discovered that all this work was produced by 23 older women artists, brought together by the CROW group. After speaking with the very accommodating Ray Gosney, I set up an interview with her, and the instigator of CROW, Val Jones, to provide some background to Exeposé readers, and encourage more engagement.
The CROW group began as Val struggled to find any art collectives after moving to Exeter, despite having over 30 years of art experience. Taking matters into her own hands, she put a call out to bring together any older women artists, as although she found there were studios uplifting the work of ‘emerging artists’, this focused on younger people’s work, isolating older women artists. Personally, I had never seen an exhibition highlighting older women artists specifically, which, on reflection, shows how these artworks can be overlooked – something Val and Ray wanted to combat.
Val was able to collaborate with Make Tank to create a space for CROW, and on the 22nd January 2022, 17 older women artists came together for the first workshop, an icebreaker, combining costumes, photography and drawing. “We all dressed up in feathers and others took photographs or drew us”, Val recounts. The group has gone from strength to strength since, expanding to almost 90 members, and having monthly in-house workshops, spanning from life drawing, abstract art and bookmaking.
When discussing the importance of CROW with Val and Ray, the support it provides was a key factor. Both felt a familial connection with the women of CROW, and could share in similar experiences and support each other’s work. Unlike Val, who had been consistently selling and displaying art, CROW enabled some artists to exhibit their work for the first time in years, some for the first time since raising children. “Artists are often very isolated, and I think that female artists are even more isolated, and older women artists are extremely isolated”, Val explains.
Artists are often very isolated, and I think that female artists are even more isolated, and older women artists are extremely isolated.Val Jones, Printmaker & Painter
Both Val and Ray also expressed their want to defy the sexist-ageist stereotypes of older women: being ‘past their prime’, or ‘too loud’, or ‘too meek’. CROW emphasises that older women are not monoliths, and their value is not just based on children or a husband. To me, the diversity of artwork displayed also reflects how there is a range of experiences, inspirations and talents of older women, which the exhibition showcases excellently. CROW uses their exhibitions as a platform to not only demonstrate the importance of older women in the art world, but in society overall.
Another key motivation for CROW was that both Val and Ray found there is a limited cultural scene in Exeter, despite it being a city, and becoming part of the UNESCO creative cities network in 2019. “I’m quite disappointed about the lack of culture in Exeter”, Val admits. Apart from The Phoenix, they explained that there are few spaces for exhibitions in Exeter, with the city centre not even having a place to buy art supplies.
I’m quite disappointed about the lack of culture in Exeter.Val Jones
With the closure of Exeter’s arts university in 1989, Val and Ray felt that there has not been a creative hub in Exeter since. They compared Exeter to other cities, such as Bristol, which has a clear artistic identity, yet also to Totnes, where Val lived, as having more artistic connections and resources, despite being a town for only around 8,000 people. Whilst there has been opportunity for some exhibitions around the city centre, these have always been temporary, with commercial rent rates preventing creatives from being able to afford spaces to work and exhibit.
Ray discussed potential plans for the old Debenhams unit to have a cinema, and said “if there’s films showing, why couldn’t there also be a space for painting, or for theatre, as they are all different kinds of art.” Val added, saying that due to austerity, art can be “very low on the agenda” for funding and support.
Due to austerity, art can be “very low on the agenda” for funding and support.Val Jones
CROW has also faced barriers to their existence, as though Make Tank has been a core hub for exhibitions and studios, there is often a question over the permanency of their spaces. This creates a vicious cycle for arts in Exeter: if people are not able to afford places for art in Exeter, it will inhibit the chances of creating a cultural community, yet, without the demands for a cultural community, the council is less likely to grant areas for art.
In an ideal world, the women of CROW would like it to be the start of a thriving art scene in Exeter, to bring together the city, as Val noticed that the city is currently mainly constituted of the University and places to shop. Cultural binds could allow the city to flourish, and also empower creative people, enabling them to make art a living, rather than simply a hobby. Though artists can now sell work on sites such as Facebook, Val contends “you can’t get an emotion from it”, whereas you can connect more when work is exhibited.
For students of the University of Exeter, Val and Ray underlined their welcome to this exhibition, to view the work of wonderful older women artists, and to also reflect on relationships that we have with older women, both related and non-related. Ray questions “There are a few older women [artists] around that are well known, but not a lot, in comparison to men. Why should it still be that way?”
There are a few older women [artists] around that are well known, but not a lot, in comparison to men. Why should it still be that way?Ray Gosney, Artist
As a lover of arts, I believe that showing support for initiatives like this is crucial, particularly for uplifting older women, and could help Exeter develop more of an artistic identity.
The Crow Show: Light, runs until the 26th September, at Make Tank Exeter, 3–5 Paris Street, EX1 2JB.
Thanks to Val Jones (@valjones31 on Instagram, www.valjones.co.uk) and Ray Gosney (@sue_gosney_ray on Instagram)