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Learning with Joy Cuff

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Black-and-white polaroid portrait of Joy Cuff working on set of '2001: A Space Odyssey'
Black-and-white polaroid portrait of Joy Cuff working on set of '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Written by
Erin Liu
Published date
28 January 2020

A core element of my Bridging the Digital Gap traineeship is a series of online modules designed by The UK National Archives. The modules were created to complement the practical skillset I am developing at UAL by (1) outlining some of the theory underpinning professional archival practice and (2) setting out a series of reflective tasks. The first module introduced the archive sector and collections management as a whole, and accompanying tasks involved unpicking UAL’s strategy documents and speaking with its stakeholders to develop a better understanding of the UAL Archives and Special Collections Centre (ASCC), where I am physically based throughout the traineeship.

The structure of this introductory module gave me the opportunity to speak with a number of people integral to the ASCC’s operations, to set aside time to reflect not only on the nature of their relationship to the Centre and its collections, but also on the significance of archives more broadly. In my previous blog post, written a month into the traineeship, I mentioned being struck by how long-term relationship-building with donors and depositors is core to collections care. One of the people I had the pleasure of learning from was Joy Cuff, who holds a unique relationship to the ASCC as both a collection creator and depositor, as well as an active volunteer for the archives.

Joy studied painting at the Kingston School of Art. She was once described as a ‘jobbing artist’ - a characterisation she feels at home with - having made a living through her artistic practices since leaving school nearly 60 years ago. Many of her jobs were found in the British film and television industry, which included modelling, illustrations, designing and building (miniature) sets, and matte paintings for works such as Thunderbirds, She, Fahrenheit 451, Family Life, Like Other People, Elizabethans Image, Mackenna’s Gold, and The Rumanian Brancusi, among other projects.  As a Special Effects Department Assistant on Stanley Kubrick’s science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Joy produced moonscape table-top models for the film, which were celebrated for their accuracy and realism. Information about this work and related research and documentation is available on the archives catalogue and can be viewed by appointment in the Centre.

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Joy Cuff Archive, 'faces' sketchbook (1)
Pages from Joy’s ‘Faces’ notebook, started while studying at Kingston School of Art between 1960 and 1964. Image credit: University Archives and Special Collections Centre.
Scrapbook pages with photographs and illustrations of human faces
Pages from Joy’s ‘Faces’ notebook, started while studying at Kingston School of Art between 1960 and 1964. Image credit: University Archives and Special Collections Centre.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, Joy visited the ASCC to see the Kubrick boxes soon after the archive opened in 2007. She opened up two boxes at random only to find her own work held within, and it was from here that Joy’s relationship with the ASCC began. She went on to deposit her own archive at UAL in 2007. The archive illuminates Joy’s rich body of work, both in relation to and beyond the film 2001.

When discussing what motivated her to deposit material, Joy cited issues of preserving memory and sharing knowledge in the public domain. As an artist, one can easily forget the details of technical processes when going from project to project. For this reason, Joy has always been especially meticulous with process documentation, and she is able to easily share precise details from her notebooks when asked by students and researchers about her methods. One such notebook held at UAL is ‘Matte Shots Painting Time’, which documents Joy’s work on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Erik the Viking and offers insight not only into the materials Joy used, but also into working patterns and remuneration.

Joy emphasised that whether it is her work or someone else’s, she feels strongly that material outputs and objects - particularly those of historical value - are better off in a place where they might be interacted with, learned from and remixed for generations to come, rather than held in a private space, inaccessible to others. The ASCC, as the custodian of Joy’s archive, ensures safekeeping and facilitates access and engagement with it. In this sense, the ASCC and depositors like Joy, support one another in their shared projects of memory preservation and knowledge sharing.

Joy Cuff Archive, 'She' sketchbook
Pages from Joy’s sketchbook for Vengeance of She, depicting a close-up sketch of the eye from the sculpture featured in the film. Image credit: University Archives and Special Collections Centre.