Woman with brown curly hair wearing a graduation cap and gown and smiling.

Transformed books and visual arts to spark the imagination , Ngā pukapuka panoni me te toi ataata hei whakaoho hinengaro

Author Dr Jess Richards explains how she wove words and art together in quietly captivating ways to realise her long-held dream of doing a PhD.

Dr Jess Richards believes in the power of stories to keep our imaginations alive.

“As adults, we often lose sight of our desire for magic and strangeness," she says. "Within stories, we can find a parallel world to disappear into, between mundane daily rituals, tasks and chores.” 

Dr Richards’ PhD from Massey’s College of Creative Arts, which she completed in 2020, was itself an intensely creative place to "disappear into" for three years. As a writer, her lively gothic imagination had already conjured phantoms and folktales, circuses and magical cities, talking keys and embroidered birds that take flight. At Massey, she experimented with blending storytelling and fine art.

For her main project, 'Reading Room', Dr Richards gathered up unwanted books from op shops then, often at her kitchen table, slowly transformed them with scissors, glue, ink and correction tape into 16 richly tactile "transformed book artefacts". 

Photograph by Jessica Chubb

'Girl Stories', one of the transformed books that formed part of Dr Jess Richard' PhD project.

“The transformed books were simultaneously pieces of fiction writing and creative objects which could be engaged with in a performative way. The examiners received a vintage suitcase containing these books delivered to their homes – the books were all one-off handmade objects which they had to spend time reading, in silence and alone.”

The meticulously crafted project earned Dr Richards a place on Massey's Deans List of Exceptional Theses for 2020.

Other outputs from her creative research have been presented at art galleries, performance spaces, libraries and conferences in New Zealand and overseas. 'A Crumpled Tale' (a short story on a pillowcase, made with inks, threads, and paper) was a finalist in the biannual Wellington Regional Arts Review in December 2020 to Jan 2021.

Read about Massey’s College of Creative Arts
Dean's List of Exceptional Theses and other doctoral student achievements

Visualising worlds

Art and writing have long been dual threads in Dr Richards’ life. Originally from the UK, she gained a degree in Visual Performance from Dartington College of Arts in south-west England when she was 21. Years later, she delved into fiction writing at a community night class at Sussex University. 

By the time she embarked on her doctorate at Massey in Wellington, she already had three literary novels under her belt. 'Snake Ropes' came first, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award, then 'Cooking with Bones'. Her most recent novel, 'City of Circles', was shortlisted for the British literary awards known as the Kitschies (past winners include Margaret Atwood). 

Alongside the writing, she was always sketching too.

“I think it’s very instinctive. Primarily I’m a writer, but I often draw as well. Using artistic processes as part of a creative writing project can free up ideas which wouldn’t have happened otherwise."

"It’s possible to either sit there and write and edit and make something really concise at one stage in a project, or get out the scissors and glue and paint, to see what might emerge later on. Sometimes, when writing fiction in particular, drawing, map-making or photography can help me visualise the world I’m writing about.”

Photograph by Jessica Chubb

'An Illegible Drawn Story: The Tale of Three Dresses', 2018

Fittingly, Dr Richards' two PhD supervisors at Massey were artist and sculptor Professor Kingsley Baird and writer Dr Thom Conroy.

So why embark on a PhD? Why not simply make experimental art, without the support of a university? 

“I always wanted to do a PhD ... to spend three years deeply exploring different writing processes. But there was little to no funding in the UK for anything arty in terms of postgrad research. Nothing that I could see, anyway. So for over 20 years I just assumed it was out of reach," she says.

"Then I came here and discovered I was able to apply for a PhD without having done a master's, possibly because of being a mature student, and having published three novels. And all those years ago, I’d got a first class honours degree, so I was lucky enough to be eligible to be considered for  a Massey University Doctoral scholarship. It's been such a luxury to spend three whole years on a creative research project. Such an absolute privilege.” 

From the UK to New Zealand

Dr Richards moved to Wellington in 2015 to be with her partner, now wife, the author and artist Sally J Morgan. That sense of having two homes is a theme in her latest work – a creative non-fiction manuscript about birds and ghosts. It emerged from some of the texts she wrote and exhibited in one of her PhD installations, 'Ghost Writing', which was shown at Massey's Engine Room Gallery.

“A lot of the 'Birds and Ghosts' project is about being here and elsewhere – in between places. Part of me is here, where I live with my beloved wife, and part of me is hankering after my family in Scotland."

"My dad died suddenly just three months before I arrived in New Zealand for the first time, chasing love. So grief and love are central themes which are threaded through my 'Birds and Ghosts' manuscript. It’s an inventive project which combines forms – creative non-fiction lyric essays, poetry, and drawings of flocks of birds."

More information


Professor Kinglsey Baird's profile
Dr Thom Conroy's profile

Colleges and schools

Massey’s College of Creative Arts

Massey's School of Art


  • Richards, J. (2017, 2018). City of circles. Sceptre (and Hachette in New Zealand).
  • Richards, J. (2013, 2014). Cooking with bones. Sceptre.
  • Richards, J. (2012, 2013). Snake ropes. Sceptre.

Academic publications

  • Richards, J. (pending, early 2022). Beauty, Sleeping. On Repair: Performance Research 26 (4).
  • Richards, J. (2019). From unwanted memory to "palimtext" – a creative writing process through a series of textual iterations. Memory Works, Memory Connection, 3 (1).
  • Richards, J. (2018). Performance as text: text as performance: love like salt, a collaboration between a writer and an artist. On Writing and Performance: Performance Research, 23 (2).
  • Article contributor and co-editor (2018) 'Visual Performance: A Way of Being', Theatre, Dance and Performance Training (peer reviewed via Exeter University UK).
  • Richards, J. (2016) 'Drowned / Undrowned' sections within polyvocal paper collated and edited by Dr Sam Trubridge. 'Sudden Depth: Fluid States in the Shallow Sea.'

Exhibitions and performances

  • Richards, J. (July 2021). Flock of Ghosts VIII and Migration III (drawings) published in 'Beyond Words', International Literary and Arts Magazine, 16.
  • A Drawn Story was part of an online group exhibition Stand Still, curated by GalleryGallery. Wisconsin, USA, January 2021.
  • A Crumpled Tale (short story on a pillowcase – inks, threads, paper) was exhibited at Expressions Whirinaki as one of the finalists in the biannual Wellington Regional Arts Review Dec 2020–Jan 2021.
  • Richards, J. (2020). Ghost Writing Solo [Art exhibition of altered book pages, textual objects, stories and transformed books]. Exhibited at The Engine Room Gallery, Wellington, February 2020.
  • The Reading Room installation of transformed books, Performing the Artefact conference, University of Otago, Dunedin, 2019.
  • 13 Ways to Re/Tell a story: The Bookbird (installation) Te Pikitanga Gallery 2019
  • Palimpsests: An exhibition of Pages (installation with Madaleine Trigg) Te Pikitanga Gallery 2019
  • Before the Gale, a ‘talking-book video’ shown at Performance Arcade (NZ) 2019.
  • A Tale of Two Brothers the Performance Arcade, Wellington (NZ) 2017
  • Love Like Salt (performed with Sally J Morgan as Morgan+Richards) Performing, Writing Symposium, Massey University, Wellington (NZ) 2017
  • Solution (authored and directed by Sally J Morgan, performed Sally J Morgan and Jess Richards) Dfb Gallery Chicago, (USA) 2016
  • Drowning/Undrowning (performed with Sally J Morgan as Morgan+Richards) Sullivan Gallery Chicago (USA) 2016
  • Undrowned film (video - Sally J Morgan, text – Jess Richards) shown at the Performance Arcade, Wellington (NZ) 2016 and at the Deep Anatomy exhibition at Auckland Silo Park, (NZ) 2018.
  • Drowning/Undrowning (performed with Sally J Morgan as Morgan+Richards) Triggering Memory Symposium, Massey University, Wellington (NZ) 2015
  • Dissection (performed with Sally J Morgan as Morgan+Richards) MART Gallery, Dublin (Ireland) 2015
  • In the Hollow of your Hand (authored and directed by Sally J Morgan, performed Morgan+Richards) Deep Anatomy Performance Symposium, Long Island, the Bahamas (USA) 2015
  • Back Together (authored/performed) Brighton Fringe Festival (UK) 2005
  • Artaud in Wonderland (directed and performed by Damian Wright, designed by Jess Richards), Edinburgh Fringe Festival (UK) 2000. The Guardian review of the work made specific mention of the design ‘a dazzlingly simple staging of white sheets and lights that creates all the terror of electric-shock therapy.’
  • Artaud in Wonderland (directed and performed by Damian Wright, designed by Jess Richards) Brighton Fringe Festival (UK) 1999
  • TV Dinner (Costume designer/scenographer) Present Technology Theatre Company, Cardiff, Wales (UK) 1998
  • Disjunctures (authored/directed by Mark Jeffrey) National Review of Live Art (UK) 1994

Published 25 January 2022.

 Jess Richards

Jess Richards