Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Kidsgrove Canal: Wayward Plant discoveries

The Appetite Get Talking Kidsgrove event took place last Thursday evening in Kidsgrove sports centre. I was really pleased to be invited along to talk to community members about the Nature Recovery project that I am starting, in particular to talk about how they feel about the canal. I got the train to Kidsgrove rail station and had a little walk along the canal before heading to the sports centre. Although it is very much autumn already, I was keen to see what might still be growing along the cut; It was surprising, how much colour there still is as you walk along the edge of the water, in terms of flowers and leaves. In fact, I was delighted at the strength of orange of the water, which varies in its intensity each time I visit.

What I found growing along, the canal side was a pleasing number of plants with herbal properties. I collected a good range to take with me as a starting point for conversation with community members.

My aim was to talk about a number of things with people in relation to the canal: First I wanted to explore if people walk along the canal, and if so, how they feel when they are walking, in particular I wanted to ascertain if people feel safe, and their reasons for visiting. I also asked if people would be interested in walking with me, if I were to host a series of Community Walks between now and next March.

I had a series of really great conversations with people, all telling me that they walk the canal regularly, some people because it is a good route to get from ‘a to b’ quickly, whereas others walk and run there for health and wellbeing. Overwhelmingly, people felt safe to walk the canal in the day, but not so much at night (a couple said they didn’t want to fall in, as it is dark). People expressed that the canal is a place of calm – with one individual describing the canal as their sanctuary. A lovely discussion with a young man who likes to run along the canal; he said ‘you know that feeling when have been away and then you get home, that’s how I feel when I visit the canal.’ We talked together about recognising the canal as a nature haven, and I heard a number of times that people visit to look at the trees and plants, and that it can provide a feeling of wellbeing.

I shared the range of plants that I had found along the canal and noted that quite a few have life-giving properties. It struck me as interesting, that the sense of calm and wellbeing expressed by visitors to the canal is relevant to the plants that are growing there. I found sow thistle, whose medicinal uses traditionally have included as an anti-inflammatory, a painkiller and an antiseptic. Herb Robert which has been used to treat nosebleeds and stomach upsets, coltsfoot which if made into a tea has been used to treat Asthma, sore throat, wheezing, bronchitis and laryngitis. These are all wayward plants, that have self-seeded along the canalside, and I have begun to wonder if a purpose planted herbal bed could supplement these *self-propagated herbalists. The other thing that struck me, in relation to the plants growing along the canal, was the opportunism of some of the self-seeders – who had managed to grow in the tiniest of pockets – pockets of opportunity, something to think a bit more about.

People were really interested in joining a community walk, and expressed interest in being joined on those walks by specialists in a few areas: herbal plant specialists, who could lead a foraging walk to help us identify further herbal species along the canal, or heritage specialists that could link the natural ecology up to the history of the canal, or perhaps an ecologist that could help us understand any endangered species along the canal, and how we can better support them. All brilliant ideas.

The first walk we have scheduled will be a Community Walk, to make visible some of the organisations and people already connected to the canal in some way. We have set a date of Saturday, 4th November 11am – 1pm leaving from the lodge by the Kidsgrove Side of the Harecastle Tunnel.

*propagation - the breeding of specimens of a plant or animal by natural processes from the parent stock.

A Seam of Clay and Coal

In November 2018 AirSpace Gallery hosted the Re-Turning project, with artists Andrew Brown, Joanne Lee, Danica Maier & Christine Stevens. The project saw them revisit Stoke to carry on explorations of the city first started during the Topographies of the Obsolete site-specific exploration of the historic Spode site back in 2012/13.
As part of the project they are publishing a book about the work to date. I was very pleased to be invited to write a text, in response to their project, and the Re-Turning exhibition.
A Seam of Clay and Coal.

Great Row, Hard Mine, Bowling Alley, Cox’s Head, Peacock, Bassey Mine, Holly Lane and Mossfield 

These are the names of the seams which hold the city together. This place of six towns and many more villages, developed along the topography of a Seam of Clay and Coal. The discovery of the particular geology of the North Staffordshire landscape saw the development over five hundred years of a material identity centred around clay and coal, those natural resources which made this place ripe for the manufacture and development of industry. The seam running across North Staffordshire importantly revealed itself to contain the long flame coal types that are needed for firing pottery ovens.

“In Cobridge, between Burslem and Hanley, yellow clay two feet thick lay only seven feet below the surface with six feet of red marl immediately below that. Stoneware clays and fireclays were also found within easy reach. The geological strata of North Staffordshire are unusual and, with vertical faulting and extensive outcropping, a very great variety of clays and coals were available on the surface to anyone who dug a little deeper than usual.”

In 2012 a group of artists and academics came to the Spode Factory site, in Stoke-on-Trent at a particular time in its history – a moment of pause, between the declaration of bankruptcy and closure of 2008, and the reimagining of the site that has happened and is continuing. The Topographies of the Obsolete project recognised this particular site for its role in worldwide ceramics since 1770, and in various ways, the fifty participating artists, historians and theoreticians that visited across six residencies used Spode as a trope to explore the ‘landscape and associated histories of post-industry.’
The initial title of Topographies of the Obsolete troubled me when I first heard it, as it talks about something which no longer fits, which has not just gone out of fashion but has become irrelevant. The fascination with the ruins of industry and the human evidence to be found across the site, I could understand, as an artist that had frequently visited Spode since it closed. But just like the phrase ‘post-industrial’ feels insufficient, and doesn’t tell the full story of what this place is now, in focusing on the obsolete, and that which is no longer relevant, it may be possible to miss some of what this place is today, and what it might yet become.

Those that returned aimed to dig “deeper than usual,” and just as the coal seam which built this place only reveals its rich resources with effort, like anything else, the deeper the dig, the more there is to be found. Since that initial period of intensive investigation of the Spode Factory, the artists of the Returns group have for over six years visited and revisited the city aiming to “investigate Stoke-on-Trent, its urban landscapes, diverse communities, manufacturing and craft skills, and the material history that has made it so distinctive.”

I recognise something of the working methods of the four returning artists, which are described as “idiosyncratic” in the exhibition guide, and consist of walking, looking and listening: as an artist working in relation to place and site, I know the value of ‘hanging around’ in places to understand and get underneath the surface. For the re-turning exhibition a Listening Pot was made with people of the city, as a way to open conversations about the migration of material, objects and people. The timing of this has been important, coming in another moment of pause for Stoke-on-Trent, where 69.4% of the city’s voters in the EU referendum voted to leave. Since that vote, national media branded the city the ‘Brexit Capital’ and worrying levels of intolerance and racism have been reported. It would be easy then to join the dots, and label this place as unwelcoming of incomers, and intolerant of difference. Building a Listening Pot with local people feels like an important symbol to offer up in a time of uncertainty, and a space to understand how it feels to live here at such a point.
There have been other moments of redefinition and upheaval, and it may be useful to look to the past, and to one artist’s experience of this place. I want to understand something of the complexity of arriving and making a living here, and how at times this city can feel like a site of compromise and forced groundedness. I will try, via one woman’s experience here, to understand where that may come from.

Grete Marks (1899 – 1990) found herself moving to inter-war Stoke-on-Trent in 1936, exiled from her native Germany after her Hael’s Pottery Factory was forcibly bought by the Nazis, for a fraction of its true value. Marks had designed and manufactured pottery which epitomised the Bauhaus ethos of achieving a balance between fine art and craft. Although originally meant as an architectural approach, the Bauhaus aimed to achieve a marriage between art and industrial techniques, something which Marks held dear throughout her practice, and which still feel like worthwhile ideas to strive towards.   She believed that it was important for the designer to be embedded and connected to the factory process, and so being based in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, she attempted to continue with the cutting-edge design work which she had begun at Hael’s. The early works, made in Germany, are exquisite in their simplicity, perfect form is accentuated with careful glaze techniques which do not distract from the shape of the ware, and which encapsulate the Modernist ideal. Marks is documented as finding the conservative British design industry of the time much more difficult to work within, and these difficulties can be seen via the works made in Stoke-on-Trent.
Some of the wares made in Stoke-on-Trent retain the identifiable Bauhaus form, but have acquired floral embellishments which see them lose something of their essence, and she found the UK ceramics market to be extremely conservative. There were arguments to be had, in relation to the authorship of her work which she wished to retain, and she was reported as being “difficult to work with” which may have been a misreading of the confidence she had in her design practice. 
The confidence displayed by Marks, and the discomfort which it seems to have engendered in the largely male managers of the Potteries in Stoke-on-Trent, make visible a particular unease with artistic creativity, which has been an uncomfortable, if under-articulated aspect of the city’s cultural life. Though a city of creative industry, it seems that the artistic part of this identity has always been underplayed, at least in relation to the individual.  The designer, the mould maker, the pourer, the fettler, the dipper all take a hand in transforming a material which is dug from the ground into a work of art, but are viewed modestly as part of the factory machine.

The artists visiting Spode back in 2012, and the Returns group have sought to find the human amongst this machine. This explains, for me, the fascination with the human detritus, and the evidence of individualism which preoccupied some of the artists who had been involved in “Topographies of the Obsolete,” as they trawled through the ruins of an abandoned pottery, searching for clues about the nature of a place and its people built on clay.
Perhaps then it makes some sense, when seeking to understand the role that clay may have in the genius loci of this city, to visit a still operational pottery, and so, let me share the experience of a tour of Middleport Pottery, in constant production since 1888.

As an artist based here, but not from here, it is not all second nature to me that something solid and lumpen, pulled from the ground can, by passing through the hands of men and women, be transformed into a beautiful object. In this Model Pottery, the factory is laid out in process order, to make the manufacturing of wares smoother, and resulting in the transformation being viewed in real time. The clay end, where traditionally, the men worked (and the roles are still today very gendered) is as dusty as it ever was, and I am enthralled at the notion that liquid clay is being transported around the factory by pipe.
I meet a fettler; her job is to clean the edges off the plates, and she lets me have a go. Fascinated, I ask her what is it like, working in such a historic, beautiful heritage factory. It must be so wonderful, isn’t it?  “Not really duck,” she says.
It is my romantic view of the industry here, which sees art where others see work, and I want to say something to her about the importance of this work she is doing with her hands, but I have worked in factories myself, and being from Kent, learnt the hard way, that picking strawberries isn’t the same as it was in “The Darling Buds of May.”  This distinction is important, and says a lot about this place, and how it talks about itself; the work can be dusty and boring, but I wonder if it does still feel creative on the factory floor?
Next along the factory line I meet a dipper; he shows me a tool he has fashioned himself, from what looks like packing materials. Throughout the tour I see handmade tools, the making of which has been passed down through history, an army of tiny machines which do the one thing needed to perfection.
There is something about this particularity which is only useful in this one place, along the line. It explains a lot about the city today, and its people, who, for a few hundred years, refined their roles within the machine, creating tiny apparatus to get the job done better. Working in dusty and well-used buildings around the city, they used their hands to transform something dug from the earth into beautiful gleaming works of art to be shipped across the world. Their three hundred years of creative endeavour have largely been anonymous, coming down to a few great names:  SPODE, WEDGWOOD, MOORCROFT…

So, what about the next three hundred years? Perhaps those re-turning artists might have felt a possibility as I do, from time to time, that the city could be changing. That maybe some of the skill, and haptic knowledge which is still in abundance here, but which is in danger of being lost, could be gathered up, and transformed into something which recognises the individual and their talents, while still working together to make something worthy of global attention. Perhaps Stoke-on-Trent could become the sort of place where people like Grete Marks could now make an uncompromising go of things?

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Kidsgrove Canal: Nature Recovery Project

As a Stoke-on-Trent based artist I have been making work which explores urban nature for more than a decade. This has included leading urban nature walks, the creation of various floral trails and guides, events which connect people to nature and taking the lead on transforming a disused garden into a pocket park. 

I am really pleased to be beginning a research residency on Kidsgrove Canal, commissioned by Appetite and The Canal and River Trust, and look forward to connecting with Kidsgrove people to find out what they love about the canal, and how they use it now, but also aiming to work together with people locally to begin to think further about how canals and greenways can provide important access to nature for urban areas, and to explore the relationship between humans and nature.

Through the work on the canal, I will look at the biodiversity of the plants and creatures that live on the canal, and to map and track local ecologies of the canal. I am keen to begin conversations with organisations and individuals who would like to consider what Nature Recovery looks and feels like in relation to the Kidsgrove canal, and beginning with questions about the role of canals in supporting nature.

I will be hosting walks and workshops over the next 6 months which connect to the canal and its human and non-human neighbours. Do you have something important you want to tell me about the canal and the plants and animals there? Get in touch!

Watch this space for more information about the project as it progresses.

As the project develops I will be continuing to write up what is happening, and will be also pulling out language that might be usefully explained in the context of the work via a Glossary of Terms:

Biodiversity – the variety of plant or animal life in the world or in a given location, and in the context of this project, aiming to map and track different species in order to gain an understanding of variety and numbers.

Ecology - the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. In this context, we are using ecology to describe the relationship between living things, including humans and other species, from micro through to planetary scale.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Adapt the Nothing

Artist Nicola Winstanley invited me to walk with her, in Summer 2018, around Middleport. She was embarking on a research project, inviting artists, and other professionals to walk with her in a part of Stoke-on-trent which has seen significant upheaval and change over the past 20 years - as a result of various regeneration programmes.
The remit of her project was around a reflection on how places can be impacted by external factors and decision-making, and what this does to the experience of place, for people (and in my case, interested in the impact this has on flora and fauna there too.)

The resulting artist's book 'Adapt The Nothing' is a meditation on the Middleport of today, where there is a lot still to be done, but where there is so much to celebrate. Full publication here.
Here is my 6 page reflection on that walk, and the thoughts that it engendered.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Rules of Engagement: Presenting Two Sides of a Social Arts Project.

Community Maker, 2017, Stoke-on-Trent.
As an artist working for many years with people in contexts of change, I identify as part of the developing Social Art Network, co-founded by Eelyn Lee and R.M. Sanchez-Camus in 2016  as ‘a UK based community of artists committed to building agency for the field of art and social practice.’[i]
Lab: The Rules of Engagement with Dan Russell and Rebecca Davies during The Social Art Summit, Sheffield 2018.
I was invited to lead a lab at The Social Art Summit, which took place in Sheffield, November 2018. I keenly felt the significance and urgency of a gathering of artists to discuss the issues and challenges in working in this way; particularly in the current climate of cuts to the arts, but also cuts to so many public services across the UK, all impacting on our ability to do our work, and to do it well.

In planning a lab for the Social Art Summit I saw an opportunity to create a safe space for open and honest discussion with other practitioners, to (just for a moment) centralise the position of the artist, in relation to the social contexts we are working within, and to be frank about the challenges, and sometimes personal cost that making the work requires.
Lab: The Rules of Engagement with Dan Russell and Rebecca Davies during The Social Art Summit, Sheffield 2018.
Planning the lab came at the end of a long, and varied summer of action for The Portland Inn Project – which I work on with collaborator and fellow social artist Rebecca Davies, who, with The Newbridge Project’s Dan Russell, delivered the lab alongside me. To briefly set the context, our project is in an area of Stoke-on-Trent, originally earmarked for demolition in the Government’s collapsed Pathfinder Housing Renewal Scheme, and now known to be the area where homes were sold for a pound. As an artist, working with people, often on projects exploring regeneration and the artists role in places of change, I was fascinated by this context, and what I, and my family could bring to it. I believe that artists have an important role to play in society, and that this role is often undervalued, or at least little understood. In successfully applying to be a one pound home owner, I hoped to demonstrate through working where I live, just what role an artist might play in supporting a community to develop (one of the conditions written into the £1 home scheme contract, was that each homeowner should contribute to community life.)
'Raising The Roof' The Portland Inn Project community Co-build project, Summer 2018, Stoke-on-Trent.
The summer on Portland Street had been a mixture of highs, as we worked with the fantastic Baxendale Studio architects, to co-build a temporary community building with residents of the area, to real lows – as we navigated some extreme local problems, including the drug dealing and taking of Monkey Dust, which impacted daily, on our project delivery.

As we put together the slides for the lab, we began to discuss how, particularly with social practice, we tend to show the positive parts of the project, the things that went well, the smiling faces of participants, but rarely do we present the other side of the project; the boring bits, the awful bits where it feels like everything is collapsing, the moments of failure and the dirty bits. We discussed that in leaving out the challenges, we fail to show what really goes into making the work happen and more, we make it easy for the true value of what we do to be missed. It was for this reason then, that Rebecca and I decided to present the two sides of our project; the side we always share, which we are careful to represent thoughtfully but often positively, but also to present the second part which we usually neglect to speak about; the more challenging aspects of making the work.

We felt it important within the lab to set out why we often err towards the positive when representing the work that we do, so we set out our Reasons to be cheerful:

1. Negative stigma In the area where we are working the community has had to overcome and battle with negative press and judgement for so long; part of the work is about rewriting the story with local residents. Although we may want to discuss the problems which the area faces, we are aware that in doing so, we are at risk of adding to the negative stigma.

2. Morale For our project, and projects like ours it can feel important to keep positive, the celebratory aspects of a project are important locally for hope and to keep up morale (of residents and ourselves as practitioners).

3. Conscious of audience It is a concern that funders may see it as a risk to invest in an area with  many visible challenges (something we have heard directly from funders about the work we do). This may make them think twice about funding projects if the difficulties faced in delivering the work are openly discussed.

4. Ethics How on earth do you document, share and expose some of the really difficult challenges, for example drug use and dealing which we are navigating within our project, when doing so can be seen as insensitive or at worst, unethical?

We planned in space within the lab to say why now feels like an important moment to share the challenges.

An increasing number of artists are working in this way.

This Means it's ever more important to be truthful and clear about the two sides to the story, that we as artists have to negotiate. It feels important to make the true work more visible in order to benefit the audience and those who want to work in this way.

If we don’t show the full picture, the full impact will never be understood.

In the context of enormous cuts to the arts and public services it is becoming increasingly difficult to secure funding for art projects. In addition, the role and remit of the artist is expanding in some respects, as public sector cuts mean that organisations that would have supported the work previously are no longer equipped to do so. If we fail to demonstrate the true scope of the work that we are doing then we make it easy to undervalue what the impact is. A project's impact isn't demonstrated by how many people came, in most cases, art happening in social contexts is more nuanced and challenging than that. It is Important to be vocal about the gaps we're filling. Our job title is expanding, and the support to do the job is diminishing. 

The Portland Inn Project, final day of the 'Raising the Roof' Summer 2018, Stoke-on-Trent.
We then shared the two sides of our project, the successful parts which are making a difference to the community and location we are working within, the brilliant opportunity to bring architects to our area, and really expand the horizons of our project, and the people we are working with. Then we talked through the parts which are really hard to deal with; the moments of risk and failure and the sometimes personally troubling aspects of working in a precarious context. We talked about this summer, and being threatened by drug dealers, having to call the police on a daily basis, due to anti-social and illegal activity in the space we were working on. We talked about the parts of our role which are generally invisible, and genuinely surprising (even to ourselves) as being part of the remit of the arts project – campaigning with our community all summer to have the shit in the phonebox cleaned up, and going to endless meetings, some of which feel like ground hog day. We did our best in the time provided to lay bare everything that had taken place on Portland Street this summer. This opened up space for group discussion, and time to reflect on what Social Artists are juggling, navigating and at times quietly shouldering. From some of the artists and practitioners in the room it felt like a sigh of relief was let out, finally a space to talk about the crap. For others in the room, this felt like a step too far – and even in this space with other social artists, questions were raised about whether it is ever ok to share the shit in the phonebox, or if some kind of unwritten code is being broken if you do. 

Finally, the group (consisting of artists, curators, educators and representatives from community projects from across the UK) worked together to form some guiding principles for ourselves and others for the coming years. After the Summit, the longlist of points were put into a survey, to enable a wider group of artists to contribute to the final resource. This has now been published by a-n, as a downloadable poster and also as a written respurce (including some of the context provided by artists on what the points raised were referencing. This is included within the a-n Research paper published to document the Social Art Summit.  
The Rules of Engagement: Guiding Principles for Artists working in Social Contexts.

Rules of Engagement, resource illustrated by Rebecca Davies.
Expanding on the resource.
The Social Art Summit Lab included space for discussion around the work that socially engaged artists do, including going over where we access support, issues of representation and the strategies we employ in order to continue to make the work. This led to the putting together of a set of guidelines within the session, which each group talked through. The final 10 for the resource are expanded upon below, to reveal some of the thinking that initiated them, but there were some very good ideas that didn’t make the final 10, when the suggestions were voted on in a survey.

The full 20 are below, (the final 10 and then the ones that didn’t make it). Within the online survey was also a space to add any additional guidelines that artists felt were missing, I have included a few of those below too.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Recognise that people are experts in the places they live and work: This point has come up again and again in gatherings of artists working with people. It is often discussed that it may not always be the artists role to create the culture or to act as some kind of expert, but in fact to almost at times be an anthropologist or investigator. Facilitating the people of the place to uncover and reveal their own stories, is more rewarding for participants and usually has more impact long term.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Work collaboratively: we are capable of more when we work together, but in addition, being vocal about the role each person has taken and the input given to a project is important in truly successful collaborations. Everyone’s contribution is valued.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be clear that Social Change is the aim, Art is the tool: Art is a useful tool to mobilise and create space for discussion, but art is not the end in itself: what we are really aiming for is social change.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Build in space for the voice of the community: As visual artists we often have a sense of how something should look, feel, sound and be experienced, and this is something which we are skilled at, however, if the voice of the community is left out of the work, then the work is purely self-serving of the artist. Rebecca Davies and I came up against this early in our project, when a community member wanted to bring a 5 foot Minion into the public area of our project, for the children. We were horrified, as it did not fit the aesthetic we were working hard to create. It was an important moment, realising that if there is no space for the community to bring in what they want, at some point, we may find the community are no longer standing with us. 
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Know that having enough time is critical: Longer durational projects work, but if a project is short term, hard work needs to be done to ensure it is embedded and meaningful to its location.
Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be honest; know your intentions and share them: It is so important for building trust within the work we are doing with other humans. In order to ensure we are not exploiting others, or allowing others to be exploited, practice openness and honesty about what the aims and objectives are within the project, and if these change – communicate that too.

Don’t make assumptions: Never assume anything. Check and crosscheck, and check again.

Practice self-care; know when to stop: It is important for artists to be clear about how much time they can give to a project, and do their best to stick to it. At times, we can be our own worst enemies, if we fail to value our own time as a resource within the project, we cannot be so surprised when that same resource is undervalued by others.

Value the artist's role in this context (we bring something different): The value and impact of the work that artists do can at times feel misunderstood, or not fully realised.  It is important that we understand and articulate what we bring to working in social contexts.

Rules of Engagement, by Rebecca Davies.
Be a supporter and champion for other artists working in these contexts: It can be lonely, and difficult work at times, and so being a champion for others is important, and having someone to turn to when you need it is equally important. 

And the ten guidelines which did not make the top ten (but still worth sharing here):

Build RESPECT into the project

Set clear boundaries

Do your homework

Practice active listening

Be a reflective practitioner

Recognise if you are the right person for the job: know your place

Be flexible

Lose the ego

If nobody wants it, don't do it

Take responsibility

Selected points that people felt were not yet included were:

Be aware of how funding influences decisions, broker those power dynamics fairly

Be aware of the existing culture

The artist should be working on the assumption that if a project is a success, they might not be needed in future

As far as possible, have fun

Don’t make promises you can’t keep 

Rebecca Davies have continued to discuss the issues raised within the lab, and in particular, have become interested in why it is that sharing the challenges is something that we rarely do, as social art practitioners. This feels like an important area to explore further, and something we want to spend more time on. The Social Art Assembly, taking place at Tate Modern, as part of tate Exchange on Thursday 25th April, 2019 is a perfect space to expand on this particular area. We are going to test the notion of  'The Shit Exchange' creating space for social artists to share the shit bits of projects, but importantly to uncover what the barriers have been for artists in sharing them. We feel this is going to reveal a lot about the role and impact of artists in social contexts, and make more visible some of the diffcult contexts which artists can find themselves in. It will, we hope. also show what additional support may be needed for artists working in these contexts, which should be useful for all commissioners, and projects or organisations working with artists in social settings.

[i] Social Art Summit. (2018). Social Art Network — Social Art Summit. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].

Friday, February 9, 2018

Rounding up Community Maker

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:
Year One: Community Maker took place in a tent. We were mapping and understanding the area, making connections, and hosted one big community celebration at the end of the 6 weeks.
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, we used moulds and made plates, and then glazed the plates, and finally used ceramic lithographs (from imagery from years one and two) to add the patterns to the plates. Over the programme we asked questions each week 'How do we make the pub happen? What skills do we need? What role does this play in the wider community? It was clear that an important part of our role is in bringing services together to work with the community to make improvements.
The biggest highlight of our final year was in the final community event, as part of the programme. Up until this point across the 3 years, it had been Rebecca and I organising the activity, but the bonfire party saw an important shift. Community members, Sarah, Leanne and Kerry came to us, and asked us to help support a community celebration. This was a big moment, and feels so powerful for the future.
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 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.