Now that the Community Maker project is officially over, it's a good time to reflect on everything that happened within the 3 year project.
Initially, the project was commissioned by British Ceramics Biennial, in partnership with AirSpace Gallery and funded by Paul Hamlyn, as part of the World In One City projects. As a new resident in my area, and the recipient of one of Stoke's one pound houses, I had committed to support community activity and development, and so for me, it made sense if this could be via an art project for the area: Community Maker. To provide context: The Portland Street Area was one of the areas in the city which had been earmarked for demolition within the government's devastating Pathfinder scheme of housing renewal. It was one of the areas where the CPO processes were slow, and had not got to demolition stage, before the programme was scrapped in 2010. This left a mixed area, where some homes were boarded up, some were still in the hands of owner occupiers, while in many cases there were private landlords, some who had looked after their properties, but in many cases, properties were run down. The £1 home scheme aimed to address issues caused by the failed regeneration scheme, by bringing the worst homes (now owned by the council) back into use, and into the hands of owners who would invest in their properties and in the area. For the community members that had lived within the area throughout the period of being condemned and then left high and dry, the failed regeneration scheme was an open wound. They had seen good neighbours move away, the decimation of their community, and little investment. Despite this, the residents continued to try to maintain a sense of community.
The idea for Community Maker was to bring a fractured community together via sessions involving clay making and sharing food together. To begin with, the proposed outcome for the project responded directly to the area, and a local custom which was discovered soon after moving to the area. The community would organise a 'bring a plate' event, where each person would bring a plate of something to share, creating a community meal. The aim for the project, was to work towards creating a special Community Maker Ware, designed together via the community events, which would become the 'bring a plate' crockery for community events. I liked the idea that this set of plates would be stored in cupboards across the community, and would come out at community events, bringing the set back together. From the beginning then, we were working together to create imagery which could be included in the plate design. From the first session, BCB provided an excellent project support, ceramic artist Alice Thatcher, as this was my first time working with clay. Alice has been invaluable for the clay know-how, but perhaps more importantly, is from Stoke, and so connected really well with the residents.
The first session in Summer 2015, was a drop-in session creating an asset map of the area, mapping resources, and identifying areas for development with the neighbours.
We used pre-prepared lino cuts, referencing the Victorian Language of Flowers to invite people to say what works about the area, and what needs work. These questions were chosen carefully, to avoid going straight for the negatives, and encouraging a discussion around the things that are good about the place, but also what people felt should be priorities for improving the place for the people that live there. Looking back this was a really important exercise, first for meeting the neighbours, but also in order to begin the conversation about this area from their point of view, a space for the residents to represent their own place, but also right from the start to identify the most pressing needs.
To very quickly (because there are plenty of blog posts documenting what happened) round-up the 3 years, this is what happened:
The biggest finding from year one, which was repeated again and again by members of the community was the need for a community space to get together. The local pub, shop, community centre were all still boarded up, and people felt strongly that in order to thrive, a space was sorely needed. From a practical point of view, we had found the lack of a space problematic too, and while the tent was great for creating a sense of something happening, British summer weather meant it was not always comfortable. In addition, the tent size limited the number of people that could take part in the activity.
Year Two: as a result of the findings from year one, and subsequent conversations with the council and Rebecca Davies (whose Oasis Social Club had visited the area in 2015, and had the same outcome in terms of identifying a need for a permanent space) 2016 became all about asking 'What if we have a permanent space to share? What would it look like? Who would be involved? and What would happen there? For 2016, Rebecca and I applied to arts council to fund a one month programme of activity within the semi-derelict local pub, because the city council had mooted the idea, that if the community could show need, and a sustainable plan for the building, they would turn the Portland Inn Pub over into community hands.Partnering with a brilliant team of organisations: British Ceramics Biennial, AirSpace Gallery, Appetite, My Community Matters, The Portland Street Community Group and the city council meant we were able to deliver a lot within the programme. Over the four weeks that The Portland Inn Project took place, we delivered more than 50 activities, with over 600 attendees, and gathered the ideas and evidence for a business plan, to transform the pub into a community space, with makerspace social enterprise and some residential spaces upstairs, to bring in income and the opportunity to host artist residencies in the future.
We delivered the business plan to the council in November 2016. We were advised that it could take a good deal of time for the process to be complete.
Year Three: the final year of Community Maker, we were back in the tent on the green space. By the summer 2017 the hole in the pub roof had got a lot worse, and a winter of weather leaking into the building meant it was not viable to be in the building. It was good to have the project happening while we waited for the decision on the pub, in order to keep some activity happening in the area. Being back on the green space in a tent, it was clear from the very first session that something had changed about the area in the year since our programme in the pub. Living in the area, I was already aware of an increase in drug dealing, but it was not until we were attempting to run a programme of activity on the green space that the scale of the problem became really clear.
There was a clear need for more support and services in the area, which being there and trying to run a community project brought to light. We were able to respond quickly, by organising a meeting with My Community Matters, to bring the council, local service providers and the community together to discuss a plan of action for the area. The summer was a real challenge, but demonstrated even more, why the pub was needed. Not least as a space for the community to take part in workshops and activity, but also as a space where services can be provided. From a very practical position, trying to run a clay workshop, when at times there were real concerns about safety was a real challenge, and I felt that if we had at least the luxury of being able to look after the boundaries of the activity - it would have really helped.
John Domokos from The Guardian was in our area filming during the summer, and captured some of the challenges, and what we are trying to do in his film.
The programme over 4 weeks involved continuing to talk to the community about the pub, and continue to advocate for the Community Asset Transfer to take place. Through the workshops we decided to produce a prototype set of plates from scratch.
So thinking across the across the 3 year programme, about how I feel about it. It is a mixture of complex thoughts. Community Maker has been a catalyst to bring people together, but it has been so important that I live here - so I am seen as a neighbour first (and maybe) an artist second. Being a resident and an artist has meant I am more aware of the rhythms of the place, and able to respond genuinely to what is happening on the doorstep. It has been good to be able to get to know my neighbours via the project, and the levels of trust established have been greater, I believe, because my investment and commitment to the area is clear (I live here.) What has been a challenge throughout the three years, but particularly in years two and three, have been in relation to the difficult aspects of the area. Whether intentionally or not, our presence as a project has, over the two years, interrupted some of the anti-social and illegal activity that has been taking place within the same space. This has at times, made us a target. At times personally, that was difficult, to know that I could not escape at the end of the session to somewhere else, as this is where I live. Also, in making this work you become more visible in the community, this can sometimes be inconvenient, and can leak into family time.
To consider the outcomes over the three years, the intention of creating a ware which could be in people's cupboards has transformed into something new, more complex and in response to the community but what we have done is listed here:
- imagery for community maker wares to be made in the future
- lots of photos of activity
- a business plan for a community led development project
- a community interest company set up
- a successful (under 15k) arts council project delivered (in addition to the Paul Hamlyn funded project)
- a brilliant partnership with Rebecca Davies
- a core group of active neighbours working together
- a set of partner organisations who will continue to be involved in the development of the project
- a set of partner organisations who will continue to be involved in the development of the project
- a community asset transfer (CAT) of the Portland Inn Pub in progress
- a commitment of £50,000 from the council to shore up the building once the CAT is in place
In terms of what is next for the project.
Rebecca Davies and I are going to the Scottish Sculpture Workshop for the best part of a month in February - March, to spend some time together working on the project. We will be writing some funding applications, thinking about the development of the organisation, testing out the making of some wares which can potentially be sold to support the funding of the project, and setting up a crowd funder.
We want to continue the Community Maker project within the Portland Inn - first making fixtures and fittings for the pub over the summer, then making the wares we have now designed with the community, which can go into production.
Longer term, we want to work with Industry partners to offer apprenticeships in the community, responding to the recognised skills gap in the city, by training apprentices in skills that can lead them into work.
The next few years are going to be busy.
What a fantastic project. As a Canadian with deep roots in The Pots, I visited Stoke a dozen years ago to research family history. I fell in love with the place and also felt terribly sad about its deterioration, which I imagine became even worse in the years after my visit. So to see what you’re doing with the Community Maker project and your other community-building ventures makes me incredibly happy.
I went looking for more information about you and Andrew and your yarden after seeing you last night on Small Spaces, Big Dreams. I hadn’t recognized you from the Guardian piece on the pound houses (another fantastic project which I wish could be even bigger - it breaks my heart to see historic terraced housing estates demolished).
My partner and I are going to be in Stoke for a couple of days in October and I’d love to visit AirSpace Gallery to see its little yarden and also to visit the Portland Inn and see what’s going on there. I’d be delighted to meet you and also to support your efforts in any way I can.
Thank you for your commitment to building a vibrant, inclusive community.
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