Nurturing a passion for the arts

That’s it. After 101 stories from every corner of West Yorkshire and beyond, I’m finally bringing this Making a Scene blog to an end.

For three years I’ve had the pleasure of documenting dozens of activities as the Creative Scene team encourages local people to bring the arts into their everyday lives.

For me it all started on a cricket pitch in Heckmondwike and 36 months later I was back in the town capturing people’s experiences of the increasingly popular annual illuminations festival.

In between I’ve not only witnessed some fantastic events but, crucially, followed the journeys of ‘art ambassadors’ who’ve embraced every opportunity on offer.

Set up as part of the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places programme, Creative Scene initially won funding for a three-year programme. Although that’s now been extended until 2020, it’s been acknowledged from the very beginning that creating a thriving arts scene depends on nurturing passion and building skills.

So my emphasis in writing Making a Scene has been on people: the people who’ve been on a creative journey, where their lives have changed for the better because of art and who now have the ability to change other people’s lives too.

I first met these ambassadors downstairs at Dewsbury’s Cocoa Lounge. On a dark and windy evening in December 2014 they were being challenged by the Creative Scene team to answer questions like ‘what do the arts mean to you’.

Amongst the spring rolls and samosas I was introduced to several people who have since been instrumental in many of my stories.

Local solicitor Andrew Marsden confessed to us all that night that he felt he was sleepwalking through life and made a conscious effort to ‘let the arts in’. Fifteen months later, after documenting his quest to bring an opera to Batley, I photographed him, arms outstretched and exuberant, on stage in front of a hometown audience. Brilliant.

Rebecca Foster was at that first event. A high school teacher at the time, she set up the West Yorkshire Drama Academy and, like most in that room, was wondering what this new arts initiative could bring to the area.

Since then her drama students have been involved in a plethora of Creative Scene events, often collaborating with other artists. Some have even used the experience they’ve gained in volunteering roles to advance their creatives studies at college and university.

And Rebecca has developed her own skills too. In September this year I watched her take her place on the stage of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield for the after show panel discussion for the Creative Scene-commissioned The Ruck.

As assistant director, Rebecca had clearly enjoyed working with, and learning from, professional director Joyce Branagh on this new fantastic play about the inspirational Batley Girls Rugby Team.

Compiling Making a Scene has taken me to community centres, libraries, pubs, cafés, parks and shopping centres. I’ve run round Birstall’s market square photographing yellow-caped cyclists and accompanied audience members as they made their way through Wilton Park with Tinker Bell.

It’s been great to see the same people I interviewed at one event come back a few weeks later to experience another.

On the other hand I’ve stood on the sidelines of a number of exciting shows feeling despondent that more people are not witnessing such amazing art on their doorsteps. But developing audiences – making art part of the everyday – is what Creative Scene is all about and it takes time.

With a gentle nudge here and a glimpse into the possible there, the Creative Scene team with the ever-increasing band of local art adventurers are showing the way.

2018 and beyond will see yet more great work. There will be more new commissions, more opportunities and more local people getting involved as audience members, participants, volunteers and practitioners. Hopefully you’ll be amongst them.

“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.

Artists put Dewsbury back on the map

“I’m procession manager and assistant creative director,” Corrie tells me as she gathers everyone together outside the butcher’s for the rehearsal.

“Wow. It’s like The Apprentice.”

“That’s what we said. But rather than being competitive, we’re all working together brilliantly.” And then, at the top of her voice, “Can everyone listen please? At the front of the procession is going to be the musician, then comes Shoddy and Mungo…”

It’s the big day, the culmination of Creative Scene’s Make It Happen course. Working with outdoor art specialists Walk The Plank, 25 artists have been learning about staging an outdoor spectacle in the best way possible… by doing one themselves.

The artists have been mentored over six days by a team of specialists in shadow puppetry, fire-drawing design, lantern making and production management. And today it all comes together.

Curious passers-by are handed leaflets and encouraged to return later. “They’ll be lanterns, fireworks and shadow puppetry. This fire drawing will get attached to the scaffold and set alight. You must come back at 6.30.”

I catch up with landscape artist Waheeda Kothdiwala. “Last time I saw you, you were burning things in the park,” I say. “What’s your role for this evening?”

“I’m producer of the lantern parade and I’m terrified,” she says frankly. “But we’ve all been encouraged to step out of our comfort zones and that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.”

Dewsbury artist Jax Lovelock is helping to add lengths of inflammable rope to a wire frame. “What are you doing now?” I ask, trying to keep my tape recorder in front of her.

“We’re idiot-checking,” she says, “making sure everything connects together so it all burns.”

“What do you think you’ve learnt these last few weeks?”

“There’s not enough time to tell you everything,” she says, twisting a metal tie, “but I have learnt to understand that not all the ideas come at once, sometimes they take time to grow. And ideas change at the last minute but, if we’re all calm, it all comes together.”

“And what will you do with what you have learnt?”

“Oh, gosh, absolutely loads of stuff. I can’t even begin to think about it now.”

“Okay, that’s enough. Perfect answer. Thank you.”

In Brigantia – Creative Scene’s pop up  studio space on the fifth floor of nearby Empire House – final shadow puppet rehearsals are in full swing. Performers are made up and don their costumes.

“Half an hour to go,” someone shouts.

By 6.30 the town square is fizzing with expectation. Freshly-briefed stewards are in place, fire cans lit, and performers gather again in front of the butcher’s. Someone mentions the crowd has hit 400.

Corrie has one hand on her earpiece, waiting for the nod. “Okay,” she says to the clarinetist, “hit it!”

During the next 45 minutes, as lanterns dance and children gawp, you can almost feel the self esteem of the town grow just that little bit. It’s as if there’s a collective, “Wow, this is happening in Dewsbury!” coming from everyone in the crowd.

“It was wonderful,” says Keisha who opened her beauty salon business in the square two days ago, and kindly loaned a power supply for the event,  “very exciting. You kids all enjoyed it didn’t you?”

“It was epic!” one shouts.

“For Dewsbury this is very unusual,” she says. “I’ve never seen so many people here. Let’s hope it continues.”

“I’m an investigator of all things unseen and all things unknown.”

Ian and I look sideways at each other. “We’ve met before?” he suggests.

“The last time I was here it was for the Bicycle Ballet at the Tour de Yorkshire.”

“Oh yes,” he smiles, remembering when yellow-caped performing cyclists entertained the crowds before the peloton arrived.

This afternoon I’m at Birstall Community Centre for the first performance of A Real Alien Adventure by Ripstop Theatre. It’s the latest of Creative Scene’s On Tour family shows.

Already there’s a small group here from the nursery and holiday club across the road, all heads down, colouring in. While we wait for the rest of the audience community centre chair Ian Blamires tells me there are improvements planned for the space.

“We already host local pilates, yoga and slimming groups,” he explains. “But once it’s decorated, the kitchens upgraded and a small bar added, we can hire it out as a function room. It’s a good space but it could be better.”

“We’ll start in about 15 minutes,” says Creative Scene’s Ben as he ticks another parent off his printout. “Sit wherever you like, on the cushions at the front or on any of the chairs.”

Samantha has brought her two boys, six-year-old Daniel and 18-month-old Shane, as well as her own mum Rowena as an extra pair of hands.

“I found it on the Kirklees website,” she tells me, “when I was looking for activities for the kids. But no, I haven’t been to any of these before.”

I tell Samantha how Creative Scene have been running this series over the school holidays for a couple of years now and how they tour community venues across the region. “You should get yourself on the mailing list,” I suggest as she pulls Shane’s coat off.

Three expectant children have already positioned themselves on the cushions up front, their grandparents on the seats behind them.

“We’ve been to two or three of these before,” says Grandad Alan.

“Three or four,” corrects Grandma Lyn. “We’ve been here before and to Batley Bulldogs. We’ve really enjoyed them, and the kids love them too.”

“Will you tell me what you think at the end?”

Akaal and Jodh manage some quick colouring-in before the show starts. “They like these kind of events,” says their mum Joyty who, with her partner Inderjit, have brought their daughters from Bradford. “They love those aliens in their underpants books, so I’m sure this will be a hit.”

Ben switches off the lights and the room comes to a hush as Miss Amelia Buttersnap introduces herself. “I’m an investigator of all things unseen and all things unknown,” she says to the delight of the youngsters.

With the help of improbable homemade gadgets and imaginative shadow puppetry Amelia sets out to communicate with aliens who then kidnap her cat, Tibbles. With her Uncle Bertrand’s dodgy spare rocket she’s eventually reunited with her mog and, along the way, saves all the world’s pets from the same fate. Phew.

“It was good,” says Joyty once Amelia is safely back on earth. “The voices of the aliens could have been louder but, other than that it was good. It had them engaged for most of it.”

“The shadow puppetry in the middle was too prolonged” says Grandma Lyn.

“But it was very clever,” says Grandad.

As six-year-old Purdy introduces her toy monkey to Tibbles I discover that her and her mother are On Tour veterans. “We’ve seen the lighthouse one, The Worried Walrus, the teacup one,” says Kerry. “We liked the walrus show best.”

The Real Alien Adventure continues this week at:
Batley Bulldogs RLFC on Wed 25 October, 2:00pm (sorry SOLD OUT)

Thornhill Sports and Community Centre on Thu 26 October, 2:00pm
(Please note that there are accessibility restrictions at Thornhill Sports and Community Centre because the lift at the venue is broken. Please email if you have any questions about access)

Healey Community Centre on Fri 27 October, 2:00pm

Tickets available here