Published on 14 February 2023
When Joy and John Hall met more than 25 years ago as mature students on the first day of their art degrees at the University of Sunderland it was the start of something special.
After a study trip to Cragside in Northumberland, they shared a coffee and realised how much they had in common. They bonded over their love of art and developed a friendship which soon blossomed into romance. The pair graduated in 1997, and married in 2004 at Cragside - back at the spot where it all started.
Once they’d graduated, Joy gave up her old job with a textile designer, and John left his work with the local authority in Teesside, to work as artists full-time.
Joy and John live in Sunderland and are co-founders of Four Cats to Feed, with their long-term friend and fellow graduate, Elaine Nicholson. The team produces craft and artisan pieces for sale in craft fairs and markets.
This week, the couple returned to the University with J & J 2023, an exhibition celebrating their work, at the Priestman Gallery on City Campus (February 15-23).
“It’s been truly life-changing since we began this journey at Sunderland more than 30 years ago,” says John, aged 70, who studied Fine Art, then went on to a Masters in Art and Design.
“Art was an outlet from our day jobs, neither of us were expecting to find love, so meeting Joy was a complete surprise. The University course gave me such confidence in helping to develop my craft as an artist and sculptor, and we made life-long friends on the journey. We were lucky to be part of such a closeknit and supportive student community.”
Joy, 62, who studied a foundation course before completing her degree in Art and Design (Textiles) at the University, says: “As well as meeting my future husband which was fantastic, Sunderland had such a huge influence on my journey as an artist, and one of my proudest moments was completing a dissertation; something I'd never thought possible having lived with dyslexia.”
Joy, who went on to achieve a First-Class degree, added: “We really hope people enjoy our exhibition, it is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and are both thrilled to be returning to the university campus. Although a lot has changed since we studied at the former Backhouse Building, all those wonderful memories have never left us.”
J & J 2023 was originally scheduled to open in March 2020, but the event was an early casualty of the COVID-19 lockdown. Although frustrating at the time, the delay has enabled Joy and John to create fresh new work to add to their existing portfolio.
Joy’s work demonstrates her skills as an artist and seamstress. Often informed by heritage and a humorous look at the modern world, her work is known for the use of historical materials, for example, old handwritten letters or vintage fabrics, and her attention to detail.
John's work is often three-dimensional, using found materials to upcycle into quirky automata. Heavily influenced by his love of music, nature and visual puns, his sculptures are as appealing to children as adults.
The exhibition has been launched with support of Regeneration NE CIC, a non-profit arts organisation which uses the arts to support better mental health and wellbeing.
Kathryn Barnett, who runs Regeneration NE CIC, alongside Gary Nicholson, both Sunderland graduates, said: “Regeneration NE is delighted to be supporting Joy and John with the installation and launch of their new exhibition.
“It is especially poignant for myself and fellow director, Gary, as we started our own creative journey at the University of Sunderland.”
Professor Kevin Petrie, Head of the School of Art & Design, at Sunderland, said: “We are really pleased to be able to finally host this exhibition, after a delay caused by COVID, from two graduates who are running a creative business and making artwork 20 years after graduation.
“It’s also great that this show has been supported by Regeneration NE an important community interest company, led by Sunderland graduates, which delivers creative interventions to support people’s physical and mental wellbeing in the north east and beyond. This really highlights the valuable role of creativity in society.”