Joe Smith and Millie SlackPhotos by Alex PC

The John Hughes Arts Festival, now in its ninth year, is run by Jesus College students in memory of their late Dean. Having died suddenly at the age of 35, John Hughes was passionate about art in all its forms. In this spirit, the festival is not only a memorial but a celebration: a multidisciplinary mishmash for artists across Cambridge.

This year’s theme is “Retro Future”, and I ask directors Joe and Millie how they came up with it. “A lot of themes are very broad,” Joe explains, “and there’s a definite value to that. But we wanted something specific – a genre of art. We experimented with a few ways of phrasing it. There was ‘Future Nostalgia’ –”

“Which we realised was a Dua Lipa album,” admits Millie. “So we couldn’t really go for that one.”

“To me, this is the perfect medium for ‘Retro Future’, for past and future colliding”

A specific theme calls for a specific look, and publicity designer Izzy Painter has chosen to use collage. To me, this is the perfect medium for “Retro Future”, for past and future colliding. In contrast with the abstract, minimal designs of previous years, Izzy’s collages are striking and intricate: a rocket rises from fingertips, a cyberman smokes cigarettes next to Audrey Hepburn.

The festival will run from the 10th to the 12th of Februarypublicity design by Izzy Painter

The events card this year is just as eclectic. It includes, among other things, an open mic, a nature trail, a “space-time” DJ, and a screening of The Man Who Fell to Earth. “Joe and I were very into Doctor Who when we were younger,” says Millie, “so maybe the sci-fi is a bit of us coming through. But mainly, we’re all excited to have such a dynamic theme – to do something very different from last year.”


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Since it began in 2014, the festival has always been evolving. Artists do not have to stick to the theme, and the festival team can be surprised by what they encounter. “In my first year,” recalls Joe, “it was online because of COVID, which posed some interesting challenges – there was a lot of focus on video. I remember one by Katie Grenville – she made a miniature version of her room with leopard geckoes and disco lights. Often, art can be very serious. You can look at it on a wall and go, ‘ooo’, ‘mmm’. But sometimes, art can be someone’s room with glittery wallpaper and geckoes.”

“In a similar vein of not taking art too seriously,” continues Millie, “we had a submission last year from Lea Rose Kara. It looked just like a beautiful, pale blue ceramic bowl. Then we got it, and someone poked it, and it wobbled. So that turned out to be an interactive display – I think that was my favourite. Everyone found it quite fun.”

“Often, art can be very serious. You can look at it on a wall and go, ‘ooo’, ‘mmm’”

To have fun and share art seems easy enough a task. But Joe and Millie are keen to emphasise the value of a dedicated space to do it in. “I had some photography in the gallery last year,” Joe explains, “and it’s just a great chance to get your stuff out there. Instagram is all well and good, but it’s nice to have a physical space to show people what you’re doing … and to pretend they might want to buy it!”

Millie is still “always surprised by how many creative people there are in Cambridge”. The festival, she tells me, is for that wider community, not just the college and university. “Like Joe said, it’s so nice to have a space for this amazing stuff that anyone can see. A space to just … mix? And experience the art together.”

The John Hughes Arts Festival will run in Jesus College from 10– 12 February this year.