The power of the network

“This is our last scheduled meeting,” she tells me as we sit in vacant office space above Heron Foods in Dewsbury, “and I don’t want it to end.”

For the last twelve months local artist Harriet Lawson has been an enthusiastic participant of The Faculty, a professional development and mentoring programme for artists set up by Creative Scene and its northern partners.

cs_181116_039-edit“How has The Faculty changed you?” I ask.

“I’m making work now,” she says bluntly. “Before I was more concerned about my part-time job and not about being an artist.”

“So it’s given you permission to be an artist?” I suggest.

“Yes, I suppose it has.”

Harriet, I know, is being characteristically modest. In the time I have been writing about her own personal artistic development she has not only brought other artists together for weekly art interventions around town but has also set up a successful partnership with fellow artist, Ruth Bridges. The duo are up for an O2 Think Big award at a swanky do in London next month.

“We’ve had lots of interest in our litter pick idea,” she says, “and we’re going to make a project out of everything we’ve collected.”

“Is that where you leave a penny in place of the rubbish?” I can’t keep up with all their projects and ideas.

“That’s the one,” she laughs, “and we’ve been pushing an A0 clipboard on wheels around Dewsbury, making an audit of things that are broken and chatting to people along the way.”

Harriet and her fellow artists reconvene for the afternoon session. Today they’re meeting with the directors of the four Creative People and Places (CPP) programmes that established The Faculty.

cs_181116_004-edit“The Faculty has very much been an experiment for us,” says Patrick Fox from Heart of Glass in St Helens. “What’s really been interesting is seeing the power of the network you’ve created, the critical mass of people sharing ideas but also demanding more.

“The CPP network was conceived around audiences and not around artist development but that is beginning to change mainly because of The Faculty and your own experiences.”

cs_181116_019-editHarriet is not alone. None of the participants see today’s meeting as an ending. There’s talk of how to continue with some informal networking to keep the group together. And Jenny Rutter from Left Coast in Blackpool and Wyre encourages everyone to attend the one-day professional development workshops scheduled.

“It’s really important we value ourselves as professionals,” she says, “and invest time in our own training, just like solicitors or plumbers would do.”

cs_181116_031-editWith a room full of socially-motivated artists, talk of the political landscape is not far away. There’s concern that, because of local authority cuts, many practitioners are finding themselves working in vulnerable communities with little or no support from other professionals.

“Sometimes there just isn’t anyone on the ground,” says Creative Scene director, Nancy Barrett. “We’ve been wanting to work in a neighbourhood near here called Dewsbury Moor, but we can’t find the people – youth workers, for example –  who have a paid role to work in those communities to support them. We can’t put artists in risky situations. What do we do? It’s a real challenge. But it’s not going to go away.”

Like so many others, these practitioners are feeling their way through unfamiliar scenarios. Old models of community engagement won’t necessarily fit any more, despite the need for artistic interventions being greater than ever.

I look forward to following Harriet’s journey as she navigates this new terrain.

The Academy professional development workshops continue in Blackpool from now until March.

Starring the People of Batley

It looks like a production line to make goodie bags for a children’s party. The long table in Creative Scene’s office is full of stickers, coloured card, small gifts and a pile of orange stripy paper bags.

CS_260816_001-EditThe fifth annual Batley Festival is only a couple of weeks away. Leaflets have been distributed and social media is abuzz. Local artists Harriet Lawson and Ruth Bridges from Dewsbury Free Art Fridays have been invited to add to the build-up, which explains the crafty cacophony.

I last met the artists a couple of months ago as they were planning to shinny up lampposts. Since then their playful art intervention has included replacing Dewsbury’s litter with coins and Olympic-inspired medal making.

“We just try and make it fun,” says Harriet. “And yes, we often get some strange looks.”

She and Ruth are both graduates of the Creative People and Places artists’ professional development programme. The Faculty brought together emerging artists across the North to encourage debate and new thinking around social arts practice.

“Free Art Fridays is a great way for us to test new ideas,” explains Ruth. “We can see what people like, and don’t like, and it’s giving us confidence as practitioners.”

The strategy is paying off. Their ‘real-temporary’ tattoo workshop has already been a huge success at an arts festival in Morecombe and is booked for other ‘gigs’ too.

CS_260816_011-Edit“So, what have we got here?” I ask, eyeing a laser-cut wooden badge.

“The evening spectacular is called The Batley Picture Show,” says Creative Scene producer, Rebecca, “so it’s a great theme for these guys to pick up on.”

Harriet wraps a notebook and pencil to make a ‘reviewer’s pack’; Ruth adds some leaflets and a bag of toffee popcorn and Rebecca puts it all together in a stripy bag. Soon we have 20 bags of arty goodness to give away.

In Batley’s Market Square we decide to split up. Rebecca and Ruth head towards the library and Harriet eyes up the Town Hall as we set off in the opposite direction.

CS_260816_038-EditA man on a ciggy break clocks the first bag going up above a noticeboard and asks what we’re doing. “They’ve been a lot coming in the Town Hall asking about it,” he says, once we’ve filled him in.

“Brilliant,” says Harriet.

“Well, two or three,” he says, “which, for Batley Town Hall, is quite a lot. Someone said they’d gone last year and had a really good time. I’ve seen the leaflet. It looks great. I’ll have to bring the kids down.”

Buoyed by his enthusiasm, Harriet strides past a bookies and a mini market to leave a bag in the doorway of an empty shop; another under a bench and a third amongst a display of bedding plants.

This is what Free Art Fridays is all about: little bundles of art left for members of the public to stumble upon and enjoy.

There’s another on a window ledge and on the pavement outside a barbers. “I’m tempted to leave one in the ladies,” Harriet says as we reach The Taproom pub. And she does.

FAF_batleyxWe walk together back up Commercial Street. “Two of mine have already gone,” she tells the others as we reconvene.

Within 20 minutes Rebecca is checking her computer back in the office. “Someone’s already posted one!” she exclaims as we crowd around her screen to see one of our bags with its new owner. Instant success.

On Friday, 2nd September Harriet and Ruth will be running workshops for young and old at Batley Tesco from 11am-2pm to make film-related props for the Festival.

Batley Festival – one great, fun-filled family day for all in the heart of Batley – is on Saturday, 10th September, 11am-5pm with The Batley Picture Show at 8.30 in Memorial Gardens.

We’re better together

“Things are hotting up,” says SceneMaker Harriet as she lets me in the front door of the disused office block opposite the bus station. “I’m really excited about tonight.”

The top floor is taken over by a pop-up cinema, artists’ studios and an exhibition space, and is where Harriet is convening a weekly meeting of Dewsbury artists.

“I want to get people together,” she had told me a couple of months ago, “and to show off this town’s creativity.”

She hasn’t wasted any time. Supported by Creative Scene she’s set up a North Kirklees version of the worldwide phenomenon that is Free Art Friday. Each week, from Ontario to Sydney, free artworks are left in public spaces for people to stumble upon and take home.

CS_160516_008-Edit“It’s a way of getting art into the community,” says sculptor Salma as I unpack my notebook and tape recorder.

“…out of the galleries…” confirms illustrator and writer, John.

“Would anyone like a cuppa?” asks Ruth as artist Nicola arrives with her dog, Pepper.

Each Monday night for the last few weeks Harriet and other socially-minded artists have gathered to agree the week’s Free Art Friday theme.

“So what have you done so far?”

In previous weeks’ they’ve made work that counters negative stereotypes of the town. “Last week I made five little thank you cards,” says Ruth “with hand painted lettering that said things like ‘Thanks for being brilliant!’ and ‘You’re ace!’ Whoever found them was invited to give them to other people in Dewsbury.”

“Great idea,” I say as Pepper snaps at me for no apparent reason.

CS_160516_014-EditWith Ruth and John, Harriet is attending The Northern Faculty, a six-month professional development programme for emerging North West artists passionate about developing a social arts practice. It’s a joint effort between Creative Scene and neighbouring Creative People and Places projects.

“Really well,” Harriet had told me the other day when I asked how it was going. “I don’t want it to end. Before The Faculty I was in a just-out-of-art-school wilderness, trying to figure things out. Now I’m trying new things every day.”

“You’ve found a direction?”

“Absolutely. We get to collaborate and be inspired by others on The Faculty. Only last week I helped a St Helen’s artist with a project outside The Saints’ rugby ground. We put out a table near the family turnstiles and taught children how to make banners. It was really successful.

“I’d love to do that with Dewsbury Rams or Batley Bulldogs. Sport and art weirdly go well together.”

Back on the top floor: “And what’s the theme for this week?” I ask, with one eye on the dog.

Harriet’s got a big idea but isn’t sure everyone will agree.

“Some guy has put up ‘Vote Leave’ posters on every lamppost up that road past Matalan. Admittedly they’re really nice… red on white lettering. But I thought we could put up our own ‘Don’t’ signs above each one. I’d love to do that. What do you think?”

She’s relieved when everyone concurs with not only her stance on the upcoming referendum but also her proposed artistic intervention. “We could make them all in different styles,” she suggests, “make it playful.”

Enthusiastic discussion follows about the style, materials, fixings and briefly, the legality of it all. “We’ll need a ladder,” someone says.

“I’m really excited about this,” says Harriet.

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“Good things happen when creative people get together.”

Harriet’s studio has a great view over the Dewsbury rooftops. Today the West Yorkshire town is looking resplendent in the February sunshine, but the top floor of this shabby office block is as cold as the shopping street we’ve just left.

CS_180216_027-Edit“I really do love Dewsbury,” says SceneMaker Harriet Lawson as she struggles with a plastic milk bottle top. “Everyone is quick to slag it off but I’m proud to be from here.”

“Quite milky for me please,” I say, eager for a warm drink.

Strictly speaking it’s the New Picture House community cinema that has the view. The back room Harriet shares with two other artists looks over a car park and an old church. “This is hard-to-rent space and we just pay for the water and electricity,” she explains. “It’s so cold in the winter, we barely use it.”

As I reccé the studio for my photographs Harriet apologises. “We’re having a big clear out soon,” she says, “this is probably the worst time for you to come.”

“But the most photogenic.”

CS_180216_046-EditHarriet graduated with a Fine Art for Design degree from Batley School of Art in 2014. “Even then,” she recalls, “we were encouraged to move to Leeds or London where the ‘action’ is. Why should it be like that? Why can’t somewhere like Dewsbury have a vibrant arts scene? It’s really important for creative people to stay and help develop the arts.”

At the end of last year, in her SceneMaker role, Harriet helped out with Creative Scene’s There Will be Fire extravaganza at Crow Nest Park learning from outdoor fire experts Pa-Boom how to bring Dewsbury’s park and lake to life for thousands of people.

She works part time for a local lighting design company and so was well matched get involved in lantern-making workshops in primary schools. “And I was able to make connections with local youth clubs, places I used to go as a teenager to keep me out of trouble.”

“Did it work?” I ask, cheekily.

“It did, mostly.”

“And what did you get out of the SceneMaker experience?”

“It made me realise how isolated I was as an artist,” she says frankly. “In the past few months I’ve begun to understand just how important Creative Scene and The Faculty are going to be.”

Only this week Harriet has been accepted onto Creative Scene’s Faculty professional development programme. It’s a joint venture with other Creative People and Places projects across the North West, aimed at artists and creatives passionate about their social arts practice who wouldn’t normally get the chance to take part in higher education or a masters course.

She’s looking forward to learning from others in similar towns and bringing new ideas back to Dewsbury. I can’t help but be impressed by her enthusiasm and vision. “I think good things happen when creative people get together,” she says.

CS_180216_080-Edit“One of my big missions is integration. Obviously there’s a big Asian population in Dewsbury: I was brought up on an Asian street and I went to a multi-ethnic high school and so I know that things only get better when cultures mix.”

“So, integration through the arts is on your radar?”

“Most definitely.”

“Do you think you might be a big mover and shaker in the Dewsbury arts scene in the future?”

“I don’t know. There’s a side of me that’s quite shy but another that’s telling me I have to do something. That side will probably get the better of me.”

“It’s exciting, isn’t it?” I say, finishing my tea and reaching for my camera.

Harriet’s work is on Facebook and YouTube.