Drawing as thinking

“We want to understand the changes that are taking place for you all,” says Steve after we’ve had our chilli and nachos. “We’re interested to hear your reflections and aspirations.”

It’s the second of Creative Scene’s ‘The Social’, an opportunity for North Kirklees’ creatives to network and learn from others.

But also, as evaluator Steve Swindells from Huddersfield University points out, a chance to hear from those who can help shape the direction of this innovative arts programme.

There’s an eclectic mix here tonight and I’m pleased to see long-standing Creative Scene supporters, Sonja, Ashleigh and Duncan are among them.

On tonight’s bill is visual artist Matt Worden who’s planning to get us to see the world differently with an evening of observational drawing.

“First off, we’re going to make our own sketchbooks,” he says, demonstrating with an A2 sheet of cartridge paper and a craft knife. “Please be careful with those knives!”

Matt now invites us to draw a self portrait. “But we’re going to do it blind, so everyone shut their eyes,” he says, “and don’t take your pen off the paper.”

The room falls silent as lines are drawn, marks made. Laughter follows after a couple of minutes as we reveal our efforts. “Oh yes,” says poet Jason, “I’ve forgotten to draw my beard!”

The self portraits are a starting point for us to introduce ourselves. “Mine is a bit different,” explains Duncan, holding up his new sketchbook. “There’s me, with muddy boots, on a narrowboat, holding our baby. Why am I here? New experiences give you new perspectives, don’t they?”

The evening unfolds into part drawing exercises and part autobiographical talk. Matt tells us of a career in the NHS involved in socially-engaged art practices. Fifteen months ago he took voluntary redundancy and now uses art in leadership training.

“I also set up a ‘drink and draw’ class in our area. I love showing people how to use different materials and getting images down on paper,” he enthuses. “Whether it’s locals coming to the evening classes, or corporate managers looking for new ideas, drawing helps people define themselves.”

As we get onto our next exercise – drawing a horse upside down – it’s clear Matt loves teaching people to draw. And it’s clear people here are enjoying being taught.

“It’s all about looking,” he says, “and concentrating on shape and form.”

When we turn our horses the right way up – hey presto – even the self-proclaimed non-drawers are surprised with their equine sketches.

“At school we’d have broken that image down on a grid,” says Sonja. “But this was really useful, and quite straightforward. I could do that.”

“Storytelling through images has always been very powerful for getting your point across,” says Matt. “We’re being fed information all the time through images and we don’t always realise it. There’s power in images.”

Some more exercises. Next we’re focussing on our own hands. First we draw just the creases in our skin and then we get to draw the whole hand.

“Now draw with your ‘other’ hand,” says Matt. “So, if you’re right-handed, draw with your left.”

It’s great fun. My cack-handed drawing is better than the one with my ‘proper’ hand. But there’s a more serious side to all this than just making marks on paper. Our participants are beginning to see how useful it could be to their own practice.

“I can see how you can adapt these techniques,” says Fiona. “They help you look at things from a different point of view. If I were writing, for instance, it could help you think of a different way of approaching your subject, turning things on their head, using your non-dominant side. It’s been really useful.”

“That all really resonated with me,” says Sonja as the pens are collected up, “particularly the upside-down technique.”

“Your horse was amazing,” I say.

“I’m going to get my mum to have a go. She’ll say she can’t draw but I think she can.”

The next Social is on Thursday, 6th April and is all about socially engaged art practice featuring Bo Olawoye, from Nottingham’s New Art Exchange. Email Creative Scene if you’re interested in coming along.

“The process of getting lost in creativity is really exciting.”

Today’s the launch of the West Yorkshire leg of Idle Women’s On The Water project. The Shepley Bridge Marina near Mirfield will host a new canal boat for the next six months or so.

“I read that last year, on International Women’s Day, you launched the project in Burnley,” I say to Cis O’Boyle, co-project founder and ‘caretaker’ of the ‘Selina Cooper’.

“I can’t believe that was a year ago,” says Cis as we sit in the marina’s café. “A lot has happened since then.”

Cis and fellow project founder Rachel Anderson worked together on large-scale art projects in London before setting up Idle Women in 2015. “Where did the idea of building a boat to run creative projects by and for woman come from?”  I ask.

“While working on one project together we realised our whole creative team – a bit by accident – were women,” explains Cis. “It was really refreshing. There was a freedom to express ourselves without being patronised, a real immediacy of creative exchange and genuine encouragement between each other that’s not typical in a patriarchal environment.”

Idle Women relates to the name given to the women who worked on the waterways during the Second World War.

The Selina Cooper, designed and built by women, is named after a Lancastrian suffragette, the first woman to represent the Independent Labour Party in 1901. And it was in the shadow of Burnley’s textile mills where the anything-but-idle project began last year.

Cis and I walk to the canalside where the boat is receiving visitors. “You’re welcome to have a look from here”, says Cis, “but it’s a women-only space inside.”

I take a shot or two from the stern. “And there’s accommodation as well?” I ask, peering into the cabin.

“There’s a small galley kitchen at the other end and enough room for two to sleep on board. This year we have two artists resident for three months – Nicky Bashall and Stella Barnes – who’ll be leading lots of activities.”

I jump back on land as half a dozen smartly-dressed older women are helped onboard. “We’ve just had lunch at the golf club and thought we’d have a look,” says one.

“We saw it on Facebook,” says another, by way of explanation.

As they pour in, others come out, including Ashleigh Beattie, a local artist and supporter of Creative Scene who I haven’t seen for a while.

“How’s your little one? How old is he now?”

“Fifteen months and very active,” she says.

Ashleigh moved to Dewsbury a few years ago and, as a visual artist, she quickly tapped into the local arts scene, always keen to get involved with new initiatives. “Are you thinking of applying for one of the little residences?” I ask.

Cis explains. “We’re inviting women to apply to stay on board from two days to two weeks. You can do whatever you want: sit and have peace, read, draw, anything. In exchange we ask you to make an invitation for other women to join you. That could be just sharing tea and cake, or running a workshop or sharing a skill.”

Before I leave I chat to Stella who will be staying on the Selina Cooper for the next three months. She’s just come to the end of a twelve year stint as Director of Participation at London’s Ovalhouse. A canal barge on the Calder and Hebble Navigation will be a big change. I ask her what’s she got planned.

“I used to be anxious about having a plan but, over time, and having interrogated the ethics of participatory work, I’ve abandoned planning,” she says, frankly.

“If your planning is too rigid you don’t have that experience of time trickling away, of being immersed in what you’re creating,” Stella says. “The process of getting lost in creativity is really exciting. You only have your own skills and ideas to navigate the route. That’s quite a nice metaphor for being on a boat.”

Visit the Idle Women website for details of forthcoming activities on the Selina Cooper.

“All of art is about telling a good story.”

It’s ten to six and the pies have arrived. “I don’t mind trying them first,” I say, standing over the steaming meat pie and liquified mushy peas, plate in hand.

Tonight is the first of Creative Scene’s The Social, a new series of networking-cum-inspiration events, bringing artists and creative and community leaders together from across Kirklees.

We’ve taken over the Old Turk pub on Wellington Road in Dewsbury – usually only open on the weekend – where Jimmy Fairhurst is tonight’s ‘turn’.

Jimmy’s theatre company, Not Too Tame, are stalwarts of Creative Scene’s pub tour circuit so he’s in familiar surroundings. In between mouthfuls I ask him what he’s got planned.

“I’ve been asked to talk about how we create the stories that we tell,” he says “and I was going to show a few clips of our work but, just by chatting to people already this evening, I realise it’s not about that. It’s about getting people to relook at their own stories and empowering their own voices.”

It’s a packed house and there are lots of people I haven’t seen before: a poet, a creator of carnivals, a painter and others who are keen to help make creative things happen in North Kirklees.

The evening kicks off with an ‘ice breaker’ involving a ball of string and our favourite literary characters. It is, after all, World Book Day.

Next up is visual artist Sarah Pennington who coordinates these events on behalf of Creative Scene.

“We want The Socials to be fun,” says Sarah, “but we also want to provoke discussion and prompt new ideas. So we will really value your contribution.” Everyone has been given a funky notebook to jot down their thoughts and questions.

“One of the reasons I started Not Too Tame is because I don’t hear voices like mine anywhere,” begins Jimmy as he takes to the floor. “Many people think their stories are not important enough to be told. But we know those voices are relevant and interesting. They matter.”

Jimmy’s session is hands on. He’s soon split everyone into pairs – “Did he say I was A or B?”– and we’re telling each other personal stories prompted by some questions he’s posed.

Soon the room is loud with intense chatter. There are tales of family history and of class… of achievement… ambition… and pride.

After five minutes Jimmy puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles the room to silence. “Now retell that story back to the person who’s just told it,” he says. This is speed-storytelling.

A feedback session gets us all thinking about what makes a good story. Does it have to be truthful or just make a connection? Surely something that resonates with the listener is all that matters?

During a break where local band Fie!Fie!Fie! sets up, I take my tape recorder from table to table.

“Having seen Not Too Tame perform, it’s good to hear their rationale,” says Simon who’s behind the annual Heckmondwike light festival.

“It’s got parallels to what we do. To attract an arts festival audience nowadays you’ve got to have a story to tell that people can get behind and take ownership of. That kind of storytelling is important.”

“I’ve enjoyed tonight,” says newcomer poet, Jason. “It’s been good to listen to Jimmy and talk to like-minded people.”

“And storytelling is something you’re familiar with?”

“Yes. I want to get back into long-form writing and tonight has given me some new ideas.”

“It’s been brilliant,” says Donna, who I met volunteering at Batley Festival last year.

“I just clicked with Jimmy and everything he was saying. All of art is about telling a story isn’t it? It’s all about relating a good story.”

The next Social is on Wednesday, 22nd March when visual artist Matt Worden hosts an evening of active looking and observational drawing. Email Creative Scene if you’re interested in coming along.

“What we make out of it may be different but we all need dough.”

“We’re not sure what to expect but we know it’s going to get messy!” says Julia, as she prepares to welcome this afternoon’s audience in her pinny.

“You’ve been involved in the development of this one, haven’t you?” I ask.

“Yes, I was lucky enough to be part of the commissioning process,” explains Julia, “and we’ve nurtured it and helped it along since then.”

It’s the beginning of half term and The Barn at Northorpe Hall is the venue for the premiere of Dough!, the latest family show in Creative Scene’s successful On Tour series.

For the last few years events manager Julia Robinson and her small team have welcomed touring shows to this elegant, historic barn and the adjoining child and family charity has become a valued partner for Creative Scene.

Part of Dough!’s development phase included sessions with the charity’s young carers group and with Create, an arts activity group of young people with learning disabilities.

“They all made beetroot bread in our kitchens,” says Julia, “and shared a meal together afterwards. Those sessions helped to inform this piece.”

As final technical checks are made and the cast grab a snack, I take the opportunity to put my tape recorder in front of writer and director, Olivia Furber.

“We’ve had a great relationship with Northorpe Hall,” she explains. “We met a lot of young people who were all very generous with their exploration with us: touching, making and smelling different things.

“They were an important part of our research and gave us a good understanding of what textures and smells really interested children. We had a lot of fun.”

Unlike previous ‘off the peg’ productions on the On Tour circuit, Dough! has been ‘home baked’ by Creative Scene. Last year, three production companies were invited to work up proposals that responded to North Kirklees in some way and London-based Olivia was subsequently crowned ‘Master Baker’.

“In North Kirklees I noticed that different communities were living side by side but it didn’t feel as if there was much mixing between them. It’s very multi-cultural where I grew up in London – and I know not perfect – but it feels more fluid and less segregated than here. So I wanted to say something about that in this piece.”

The barn is now full of parents, grandparents and dozens of excited children. As the lights go down Olivia sits amongst the kids on the cushions in the front row.

For the next 50 minutes the children – and their adults – are transfixed by the goings-on of baker Azed and delivery girl Frankie as their paths collide and, through lots of messy dough, they discover common interests.

Afterwards I chat to Jo who’s brought two of her pals from Huddersfield and their respective children. “We saw it advertised and thought we’d give it a try. Really good theatre and not expensive. The children have been totally engaged with it,” she says. “It’s amazing they sat through the whole thing.”

An evaluation session disguised as ‘messy play’ follows the performance as tiny hands are quickly covered in gooey flour and water.

“What was your favourite bit of the play?” asks ‘Frankie’.

“When you were making stuff,” says one five-year-old.

“When you were dancing,” shouts another.

“And what did you make of it all?” I ask Julia as the barn eventually empties.

“It’s been great, very enjoyable. And a good turnout. There have been lots of new faces who now know about the barn, about the charity and about the family shows we put on here. So everyone’s a winner.”

As I leave I do my best to avoid the trail of small doughy footprints that lead out into the car park.

Dough! rises again for the rest of this week: See the Creative Scene website for venues.

Following in Obama’s footsteps

Guest blog from Creative Scene Director Nancy Barrett, attending the Tandem Europe partnership event in Athens with Heckmondwike art ambassador Simon Thirkill.

I’m getting a little concerned. Simon’s flight arrived two hours ago and I’ve still not heard from him. I’m due to shepherd him to the hotel and then on to the Benaki Museum where we’re making our first public presentation of our project, ‘Taking Our Place’.

Over the past 16 months, Creative Scene’s Producer Vicky has been part of a network of 25 young cultural producers selected to take part in Tandem Europe. The ‘Tandem’ is a partnership working together on creative solutions for social innovation.

Vicky has been sharing the model of community commissioning that saw Simon bring a whole host of digital fun to the annual HeckmondLIGHT event.

I get a call. Simon’s already arrived, checked into the hotel and is at the Museum ahead of me, so I get my skates on and head off too. The Benaki is the oldest museum in Greece, now housed in a swanky new building. President Barack Obama, I read in the in-flight magazine, visited last month.

Simon and Vicky are in the midst of a large crowd as a panel of the project organisers is quizzed, game-show style, about the Tandem programme. The host is a man dressed in a long curly wig and a woman dressed as a snail is making her way slowly around the room.

We grab a glass of wine and settle into the merry throng. Soon, Simon and Vicky take up their place by their poster presentation and field questions about the project from the curious arty crowd.

It’s good to hear the interest in how local people in North Kirklees are working as co-commissioners and producers with professional artists, and to see Heckmondwike take its place on the European map.

Simon must be tired – he had an early start to make the flight to Athens – but you wouldn’t know it. He’s found other ‘light-art’ projects around the room, is sharing experiences with fellow enthusiasts, and making plans to visit.