Which bits of Plymouth and its surrounding area first gave you creative aspirations?
My childhood home was in Saltash, and we spent many weekends at Portwrinkle. This short, grey, stony beach is home to my fondest memories and strongest associations: the pain of bare feet touching searing hot shingle and seaweed dried to sharp crisps. The chronic ‘summer graze’ that my little toes suffered from thrashing them against the rocks hidden in the surf. The curiously comforting stomach ache on the homeward journey from licking the shells to make their colours come alive. I was very sure-footed as a child; I remember rock-climbing barefoot in summer, clambering around to the next bay where we would spy on nudists. Hours spent gazing into rock pools; whole days spent searching for treasure in a single square meter of shingle, sweeping off layer upon layer to reveal shells, sea glass and sand hoppers. Whilst not a traditional golden sand, blue sea beach, it is my favourite place in all the world, partly for its winter plumage. An empty beach is a special place; sitting alone on the shore, watching, listening, being comforted by the hot water bottle inside my coat. I sang songs to myself, using the waves as a metronome. This place is the backdrop to my life story, and is the conceit I use to explore my relationships and my place in this world. One day I will have my ashes scattered there, and I will be the backdrop to some other nobody’s life story.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a project I call ‘Living in the city, longing for the sea’. I take driftwood and whittle it into crochet hooks; I then use the hook to create a kind of portrait of the beach it came from. It is a practice centred on memory, yearning, love and storytelling: Each piece of driftwood is unique, and ‘tells’ its own story through its physical properties and what yarns look and feel right when it’s been whittled. It keeps me connected to the sea and connects me with friends and strangers who gift me sticks from their coastal wanderings.
I live in London now, and I have a romantic idea that the sea is reaching out for me with every high tide, missing me as much as I miss it.
If you were to bring friends back to Plymouth , which bits would you show off?
I haven’t been back to Plymouth for many, many years. I’d have to take them to Dartmoor, the middle of… preferably the bit where you can twirl 360 and not see evidence of another living soul. I’d take them rock-pooling at the beach and catch a train across the Tamar, the view is so, so good.
What gift would you give to Plymouth to facilitate a thriving cultural life? ( it’s a game so the budget is irrelevant)
I would like to gift every year group of every school an artist-in-residence. And one whole day a week to explore the world in a more creative way. I think it should not necessarily be focussed upon a tangible outcome, but should leave space for more experience based time (quiet observation of the world we find ourselves in). Plymouth is so well placed for this – city, coast, moors, it’s got the lot.
Jess Rippengale was born in 1977 and spent her childhood avoiding eye-contact. She now lives in London with her partner, son and two cats and has scored the biggest room in the house in which to store her driftwood and yarn stash.