Artists Jaron Hill and Angelina Jesson have been working together since meeting at London’s Central St Martins. Together, they craft mythical worlds that take us beyond the day-to-day and provoke new ways of thinking of the body, reality and what it means to be human. Their latest work, supported by West Yorkshire Queer Stories, is short film Riding West on a Walrus Tail – a surreal look at queer identity, embedded in the West Yorkshire landscape. Interweaving direct interviews with LGBTQI+ individuals in the region with a fantastical staging of some of their stories, it’s a tender and playful homage to the area’s queer community.
We sat down with the duo to discuss this project and to hear more about West Yorkshire’s understated queer history.
Could you tell us more about the project you’ve been working on?
Angelina: For the past year we’ve been working on a commission for West Yorkshire Queer Stories, in partnership with Leeds Museum, to create a film in response to several testimonies gathered from LGBTQIA people in West Yorkshire. It has been the richest project we have ever had the pleasure to work on. Some scenes in the film work as surreal and intimate portraits of a person while others are fantastical interpretations of real events. It’s about bringing people, places, and heritage together in a theatrical way
What was the main aim of the project?
Angelina: There are so many associations attached to West Yorkshire but not one accounts for the large queer community that is and always has been thriving. Hebden Bridge, for instance, is the largest community of lesbians in the UK and Ann Lister who lived in Halifax in the 1800s is one of the UK’s first female queer writers. WY hasn’t always been a place that is instantly associated with queerness and so the larger political motivation for this project has been to unravel these preconceived notions of West Yorkshire by highlighting these queer groups outside of the familiar London narrative. For us the film has really been a celebration of Yorkshire and queer pride, reinvigorating West Yorkshires past and present through a new perspective.
Within the UK context, how do you think the experience of queerness alters depending on where you are based geographically?
Jaron: There’s the narrative of young queers fleeing their hometowns in search of the bright lights of a big city. This is a necessary route for many people in need of safety or a freedom and liberation they perhaps didn’t have at home, but there’s also something notably radical in staying put. Not everyone has the privilege of being able to leave, to afford university or risk starting their life again somewhere else. There’s a humble privilege in being able to nurture and teach the community that raised you by simply existing and being present. I admire those who carve out their own paths of queerness in suburbia and the countryside.
Why is it important to spotlight queer stories away from London?
Jaron: It’s so important to remind people that amazing and inspiring people do exist outside of the metropolis. West Yorkshire Queer Stories share real, unheard and unfiltered queer voices, it’s great being part of a project with a commitment to nourishing the community I grew up in, with a focus on genuine and honest representation.
How did you find the stories and people you wanted to feature within the film?
Jaron: Within our work, we often blur the line between reality and fantasy, and we wanted to reflect this in the films casting. We reached out to a number of queer people from West Yorkshire who’s stories, activism, jobs or personalities inspired us, some we met through the West Yorkshire queer stories project, some we already knew, and some we found on social media or through trawling the internet. We also worked with a number of actors, within each scene it’s not always clear which is which.
Could you talk us through some of the favourite stories you uncovered whilst working on this project?
Angelina: We found one of our subjects, Gail Beales, a trans woman living in Leeds, on Facebook. Gail was such a muse for us and an amazing example of how real people are often much more exciting characters than fictional ones. She and her husband own Automobeales, Leeds’ only LGBTQ+ friendly MOT garage. When they aren’t riding motorbikes they like to dress up as steampunks, Gail also practices Stav, a nordic martial art. We asked Gail to be in the film as a semi-documentary style interpretation of her own interests, she invited us to Automobeales where she reenacted certain moments of her daily life as beautiful moving portraits.
The project also features actor Ian Baxter, who appears in the play The Purple List. Why did you cast him?
Jaron: We met Ian at a WYQS event at Leeds Museum. He’s an actor who is currently touring a one-man play detailing the central character’s journey in dealing with his husband’s worsening dementia. Alongside being an actor, he’s an active member of WY’s queer community so we invited him to meet us for coffee. We clicked straight away, he showed us his wedding video in which he walks down the aisle wearing a very gay rainbow dress while his husband wears a suit made from balloons. We immediately knew we needed him in the film.
Garments by designer Cecile Tulkens appear in the film, what was the creative thinking behind this choice?
Jaron: West Yorkshire is historically known for wool and textile production, the Brontë sisters and its stark landscape. Cecile’s work complements these themes, the garment we featured in our film was a knitted suit, with rocks as buttons and a matching knitted tie. The colours blend seamlessly with the moors and we felt that her work connected with the project on a few different levels, so it was a perfect match.
Riding West on a Walrus Tail will be screening at the West Yorkshire Queer Stories Celebration Fundraiser on 27 February at Everyman Leeds.