“We’re empowering people and they don’t even know it.”

“Last week they cried when they saw Father Christmas in Cleckheaton. They wouldn’t go near him,” says Susan, as she leads her triplet daughters out of the Maze of Curiosity. “Now at least they’ve spoken to him.”

As part of the HeckmondLIGHT celebrations artist co-operative, 154 Collective have built a cardboard labyrinth of creativity, music and wonder in the old Market Hall.

Young adventurers and their grown-ups are gawping, crawling and bopping before they get to see the big man with his sack of festive goodies. “What did you make of it?” I ask Susan.

“Those artists have done an amazing job,” she says. “We didn’t expect it to be this good.”

With its 100-year tradition and billed as ‘probably’ the oldest Christmas lights event in the country, Heckmondwike’s switch-on is a big event in the local calendar.

For the last three years Creative Scene has been working closely with the town’s business community and in particular with festival director Simon Thirkill to make the event even better with art.

In Green Park Simon is fiddling with the connections to his Memory Boxes artwork before the stewards open the gates to the public. “The panels were going in the skip,” he says, “so we grabbed them and made these boxes.”

The illuminated cubes – Simon’s first artwork for the festival – feature recordings from local people recounting their childhood recollections of the lights and their hopes for the future.

The gates open and a curious crowd wander into the park to be greeted by large paper lantern sculptures and the LED clouds made earlier this week.

“I never thought I’d make a cloud,” says Batley School of Art student Joe, with clipboard in hand. “Doing something 3D was very interesting for me because I normally draw. It was really informative and great fun.

I nod towards his clipboard. Joe and his college mate Cameron are amongst the 20-strong band of volunteers for the night. “We’re going to be asking people about their experiences,” he says.

“I’ll come back later and see how you’ve got on.”

In one corner of the park dance music is blaring from a Portaloo-converted human jukebox. In another the Peace Artistes street band is assembling, resplendent in twinkly outfits to match the occasion.

“Crickey, how many are you?” I ask as players emerge from every direction.

“Today there’s about 18 of us,” says a clarinettist, “sometimes we have even more.”

Schoolmates Byron and Tom warm themselves near the huge propane gas flames that intermittently light up the whole park and everyone in it. “It’s always been a family tradition coming down to see the switch-on,” says Byron. “This year it’s brilliant.”

“We saw them putting up the clouds on our way back from school yesterday,” says Tom.

“They’ll be staying up until the end of the year,” I tell them. The boys nod their approval as enthusiastically as any 14-year-olds can.

A small crowd is gathered around Simon’s Memory Boxes. “When I was nine I’d walk from Gomersal with my friends,” they hear one voice say, “just to look at the lights.”

“Dad would take us down to see them,” says another, “it meant Christmas was nearly here.”

Across the road, in the Blue Moon Café, Creative Scene’s director Nancy is welcoming supporters with hot toddies and mince pies.

“It’s been a real joy over the last three years to be working with Simon and the Heckmondwike Community Alliance and a fantastic team of artists and volunteers,” she says, as the room quietens, “we’ve had the pleasure of helping to create a community event that, as you can see, is buzzing.

“Don’t forget to have a look at the Frontier Light in the bandstand that will soon be revealed. It’s from the original Batley Variety Club and has been salvaged and restored by Simon and Anthony, and brought back to life for HeckmondLIGHT this year.”

“I’ve had the most riotous time for these last three years,” declares Simon after Nancy has thanked artists, volunteers and sponsors, “and that has been down to Creative Scene. They’ve facilitated me with the tools I’ve needed but most of all they’ve given me the confidence to go out there and do it.

“The community is gathering behind us and the benefits for community cohesion are absolutely fantastic. We’re empowering people and they don’t even know it. Thank you to you all. It’s been a riot. Give yourselves a round of applause.”

On my way back into the park, I catch up with volunteers Joe and Cameron. “What sort of feedback have you been getting?” I ask.

“All positive,” says Cameron, checking his clipboard. “Either good or extremely good.”

“You don’t normally see this sort of event any more, do you?” says Joe. “This is all community-based. It’s really good.”

A huge crowd has gathered now. It’s the countdown for the lights switch-on and tonight’s special guest, ‘Gus Mantle’, clambers up to the podium. “Do you believe in spirits?” he says. “Do you believe in ghosts? Well, you’re looking at one here.”

‘Gus’ – the ghost of illuminations-past – recites a specially-commissioned tongue-in-cheek story recounting the town’s illumination history before revealing the pulsating Frontier Light to a fanfare from the Peace Artiste band.

Next, with blow torch in hand, he encourages the crowd: “Ten, nine, eight…” and lights the countdown fuse.

Fireworks fizz and cackle as the now famous Momentum Wheel of Light begins to spin faster and faster. And with a collective ‘aahh’ the park lights up, and this West Yorkshire town’s illumination tradition continues for another year, another generation.

A silver lining for HeckmondLIGHT this year

“How many clouds will we be making?” asks one of the students.

“Maybe seven, eight, maybe even nine,” says Tilen. “Some big and some small. We’re only limited by the size of the door. But first we’ll make a prototype.”

I’m in Brigantia again, Creative Scene’s versatile space on the top floor of a Dewsbury office block. Beyond the partition wall are half a dozen beautiful paper lantern sculptures ready for the annual HeckmondLIGHT festival on Saturday.

On this side, in front of a table strewn with electrical components, is Slovenian-born Tilen Sepič, a multi-disciplinary designer and artist. Tilen has been invited to West Yorkshire to work with Batley School of Art students and artists from the recent Make it Happen school.

Together they’re making LED ‘clouds’ that will be strung up in Green Park for the light festival and for a month afterwards.

Festival director Simon Thirkill has been instrumental in bringing Tilen and his work to HeckmondLIGHT. Back in January he was part of a Creative Scene delegation to Athens where he shared ideas with other artists in the Tandem Europe project.

“I got to know about Tilen’s work when a visiting artist from the project came to see what we were doing in Heckmondwike,” he explains this morning. “With this workshop element, and Tilen’s sharing ethos, it’s a perfect fit for us.”

This residency is funded by Creative Europe and is the first artist exchange in a European-wide project called LUCity.

Marker pen in hand, Tilen is now talking about soft and hard light, why sunlight changes colour throughout the day and why diffused light is more pleasing to the eye. “It’s making me feel all Christmassy,” says Donna.

“We’ll mix warm and cool colours so it creates a natural effect,” he explains, threading an LED light strip into a cloud-shaped cage of wire mesh. “If you look at a cloud, one side is lit from the sun and the other by the sky. One is yellowish and one blueish, that’s what we’re trying to re-create here.”

As the participants get stuck in, cutting mesh and covering it with diffusing material, I put my tape recorder in front of one of the diploma foundation students. “What interests you about this sort of thing?” I ask.

“I usually stick to 2D animation,” says Marcus, “so this is really out of the box for me, something very different, and that’s why I’ve come.”

“It’s really interesting,” chips in his mate Cameron. “I like the idea of the two different light sources. That’s really cool.”

“He’s given us a lot of knowledge already,” adds Marcus. “To be honest, I didn’t think it’d be this interesting.”

The prototype is coming along. Tilen is now glueing polystyrene fibre – the sort that fills pillows and duvets – onto the mesh cage. “Who wants to have a go?”

Cameron and Marcus step forward, don gloves and masks, and start glueing. “We’re going to end up with cloud hands,” says Cameron, as they slowly add sticky fibres to the cloud shape. And they do.

As everyone work on their own clouds Tilen tells me how – as a supporter of ‘open source culture’ – he’s keen for his design knowledge to be shared with others. “If more things were modular and we could easily upgrade our own products it would be better for us all in the long term.

“With open source design you’d have thousands of designers working on a product over its lifespan. That’s thousands of minds trying to make things better.”

The clouds are being installed on Friday and will be one of several bespoke installations for this year’s festival. The town’s bandstand will become an illuminated tribute to the famous Frontier Club and an audio piece created by Simon from local people’s memories will be staged throughout the park.

“Let’s make one that’s bigger than that one,” says Tilen, pointing to the completed wire mesh cloud frames.

“Bigger than which one?” asks Donna. “The big one or the little one?”

“Bigger than the big one.”

See the clouds – big and small – and much more at HeckmondLIGHT this Saturday, 25th November in Green Park, Heckmondwike, 5.00-8.00pm.

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.

The Momentum Wheel begins to turn

[Continued from “Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”]

Inside the Market Hall Eleanor, Chemaine and Lou from The Brick Box have set up their Electric Fireside installation. Adorned with twinkly lights the three hosts have also created a ‘drawing room’ where rolls of wallpaper hang from the ceiling.

Five-year-old Thomas is doing his best with a length of bamboo cane with torch and marker pen taped to one end.

cs_261116_098“We only recently moved from Brighouse and I was determined to bring my grandson to the lights this year,” says his grandma Ellie.

“He’s going to have someone’s eye out with that,” I say as Thomas charges about with his giant pen.

“Bizarrely my old neighbour back in Brighouse, who is now in her 60s, recalls her father bringing her to Heckmondwike for the lights each year. He used to say it’s the best in the region. And I can see it’s still lovely.”

As Eleanor and Chemaine predicted earlier in the week, people are gathered around their glowing fusion of fireplaces and mantlepiece. The young people I met at the West Yorkshire Drama Academy are here with friends and family and the Salvation Army is setting up in the corner.

“We’re now going to watch a drama piece by Lucas,” Eleanor says into the mike, “so do all gather round, and next up we’ll have the joy of the Salvation Army choir.”

cs_261116_118cs_261116_140Back on the green the Skiband are whipping up the ever-growing crowd with a rendition of  I’m in the Mood for Love.

“Listen kids,” jokes one of musicians into a little megaphone, “when you go back to school on Monday, work hard and pass all your exams… or you’ll end up doing stuff like this!”

cs_261116_198Father Christmas and his single elf make their way through the tweating mechanical birds of the Aviary Arcadia towards the bandstand stage. The amazing digital projections from the 154 Collective give way to a mesmerising performance by Flame Oz, the warm up act for Santa.

“Hello Heck…mond…wike!” he bellows once on stage. “Did you know Heckmondwike has had Christmas lights for nearly 150 years?” A big cheer follows. “I think you should be especially proud of this great tradition of your wonderful community!” Another cheer.

Once Santa has promised presents to everyone who has been good, he is passed a blow torch to light the blue touchpaper. “Shall we all count down from ten? Ten… nine… eight…”

As planned there are HISSES and WHIZZES, CACKLES and BANGS. The Momentum Wheel begins to turn and a series of digital animations appear in its centre.

cs_261116_309“Ah look,” says a woman to her friends next to me, “it’s a bird. What is it called? It’s a flamingo.”

“A pelican,” I say from behind my camera.

“Oh yes, it’s a pelican.”

As the images complete their cycle the WHOOSHES provide the signal and somewhere in the background Ben switches on the Heckmondwike lights for the 148th time.

“ARHH,” says the town.

cs_261116_322Simon is beside himself afterwards. “Absolutely fantastic,” he says, as if he’s about to wipe away a tear. “People have just taken to it so well, it’s unbelievable. There are people down here from all over Heckmondwike. This is about building communities, this is the way to do it.”

“I thought it was really good,” says Sarah who is here with her friends, Sophie and Helena. “We’ve been coming since we were kids. It’s not the same as everywhere else, is it? And that’s good for Heckmondwike.”

Next I catch up with Pam and Bill from Southport who are down for the weekend staying with the grandkids. “Lovely, really lovely,” says Pam. “It looked amazing. You could really feel the togetherness of the community.” Job done.

“Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”

It’s just after four o’clock and the bright, clear day is giving way to a cold, clear night. All the performers, technicians and volunteers are in place. The stage is set, literally, for HeckmondLIGHT 2016.

“So what can we expect?” I ask Simon Thirkill, stalwart of the Heckmondwike Community Alliance and local café owner.

“That guy on the bike is projecting animated images inspired by the Heckmondwike illuminations,” he says, “and over there are cages with animatronic birds that flap and tweet as you walk past. And then there’s the Momentum Wheel…”

“Which is the centrepiece for the lights switch-on,” I suggest, noticing the ‘blue touchpaper’ elevated by poles, linking the stage and the specially-commissioned sculpture.

cs_261116_253For Simon and his colleagues HeckmondLIGHT is more than just flashing lights and fireworks. “Creating a time and a space for people to experience things together is really important,” he says. “It’s a priority for me to help create those opportunities.”

cs_261116_235Volunteers Sonia and Zane are in position next to the tweeting birds. I’ve met these teenagers before. “So what makes you spend your Saturday evening volunteering at Creative Scene events like this?” I ask Sonia.

“It’s a great way to get involved with the arts, isn’t it?” she says. “There are so many interesting opportunities,” – she and Zane were both ‘lay performers’ at Batley Festival back in September – “and I like the way Creative Scene is making the arts accessible to people in this area.”

“It’s a good way to get to know all the other volunteers,” says Zane. “We’re like a big family, all supportive of each other. That’s why we keep coming back.”

cs_261116_054Zane has helped out at Batley Festival for the last two years, “… and I did  HeckmondFRIGHT last year,” he says.

“I missed that but I saw the film. It looked great.”

“It was really good. We had to carry a coffin around town and the police stopped us and asked if there was a body in it. That was funny.”

Still at school, fifteen-year-old Zane tells me he wanted to be a pilot. “But now I’ve seen what Creative Scene does, I think I want to do something creative like drama or contemporary art.”

cs_261116_222Back near the bandstand Chris from Impossible Arts – co-creator of the Momentum Wheel – is in animated conversation with hi-vis-clad local contractor Ben Hardcastle. Ben and his family have installed the lights in this town for years and it’ll be his job, behind the scenes, to actually flick the switch.

“The firecrackers are quite loud: BANG, BANG, BANG,” explains Chris, “but the final bit is the WHOOSH of the fireworks, that’s your cue to switch on the lights.”

“So when I see the WHOOSH and not the BANG,” reiterates Ben.

“That’s right. The WHOOSH and not the BANG,” says Chris. “Brilliant, that’s great.”

There’s time before the big switch-on at 6.30 to take a look around. Next to the park the bus hub has been transformed into a mini funfair with waltzers, a trampoline and vendors selling the obligatory flashing light sabres and battery-powered windmills. Excited children, wrapped up against the cold, grapple with bags of candy floss and dodgy-looking burgers.

Across the busy road artists Rozi Fuller and Liz Walker have taken over Simon’s Blue Moon Café. With a light box of sand and some technical wizardry they project festive animations onto the window of the caff.

cs_261116_062cs_261116_066“Would you like a go?” ask Rozi.

“No, thanks,” I say abruptly. “I’d love to but there’s so much going on, I’ve got to get round everything.”

[Continued in The Momentum Wheel begins to turn.]