Having a lovely time, wish you were here

Our three sheds – now resplendent beach huts – sit incongruously in the Princess of Wales Arcade, taking pedestrians aback as they head for Greggs or The Card Factory.

Any apprehension about no-shows amongst the volunteer actors is unfounded. Everyone is here, eager to quash last minute nerves and get on with the dress rehearsal.

CS_290815_139-EditCS_290815_245-EditSceneMaker Ashleigh is already handing out Creative Scene rock from her plastic seaside bucket. Someone tells me later that lettered rock was invented in Dewsbury, but I don’t believe them.

“They look good,” she says, nodding towards the beach huts, “I hope we get a good audience.”

“We’ve got to do better than the balloon man,” I say of the joyless character round the corner making balloon toys for a burgeoning crowd.

CS_290815_035-EditThe dress rehearsal goes well and before the first of the two ‘proper’ shows, I take a walk around town. It’s a warm morning and already the place is buzzing with kids playing in the giant sand pit in front of the town hall and parents shouting out quiz answers to the local radio presenter.

As well as the beach hut performance Creative Scene has installed a giant whale in the market and organised a pavement artist to create a huge seaside-themed artwork. I have to imagine the colourful bathing caps and fixed grins because I miss the dry land synchronised swimmers.

Back in the arcade Ashleigh has taken it upon herself to do some evaluation. She’s brought a small whiteboard and marker pen and is planning to ask people what they think of ‘art’.

“It’s one thing to put on something like this but we should really be asking if it’s doing what we wanted it to do.” She nods down at her whiteboard. “I’m going to ask the audience and the performers what art means to them. Just one word. They write the word on the board and I’ll take their picture. But I’m feeling a little nervous about asking people I don’t know.”

“Just dive in,” I suggest, “they can only say no.”

CS_290815_100-EditAfter the first advertised show I chat to Sharon, mum of eight-year-old performer Georgia. She’s likes that her and her daughter’s seaside memories have been written into the play and their embroidery efforts are on show.

“We like to get involved in lots of different things,” she says, “What they’ve done here is fantastic, isn’t it?”

Sharon is later collared by Ashleigh and writes the word, Interesting, on her board. “You were a little nervous about asking people,” I say to her later, “so how has it gone?”

“Okay,” she says cheerfully, “people are a lot friendlier than you realise.”

“And what have people written?”

“One man wrote, Enlightening. And one of the mums wrote, Outlet, which is intriguing.” Having seen her son enthusiastically charging around the place, I can see what she means.

The sun peeks over WH Smith’s for the final show which attracts the biggest audience of the day. For twenty minutes Greggs sells no pasties and the grumpy balloon man takes a break.

CS_290815_184-EditCS_290815_283-EditBefore I pack up I put my tape recorder in front of Elaine, one of Connect Housing’s clients who, inspired by the Chol Theatre people, has made some of the ‘cushion fish’ and had a bit part in the play. She’s staying at a refuge for domestic violence victims just now.

“What do you think you’ve got out of being involved?” I ask.

“I’m a long way from home,” she says frankly, “and this has made me realise that whatever my past, I can still start all over again. I’ve got my confidence back working on this project. Life’s worth living again.”

Back at the station I’m impressed that the staff have installed a shower to wash the sand off your feet before getting the train home.

Attached to Dewsbury with an elastic band

“It’s Dewsbury-on-Sea tomorrow,” I hear one bloke say to his mate as we step onto platform one. And, as if to confirm, there’s a trail of those vinyl pavement stickers outside the station promoting the annual town centre celebration.

The team at Creative Scene have needed little encouragement to metaphorically don their bathing suits and organise a number of activities for the big event. Today I’m looking in on SceneMaker Ashleigh who’s helping with the final preparations for an ambitious installation and performance involving three garden sheds-cum-beach huts.

“We’ve been working with Connect Housing,” says SceneMaker Co-ordinator, Ruth as she leads me to the new offices of the local social housing provider. “They’ve been keen to entice clients into their new community space with some arts activities, and Creative Scene has reached a whole set of new people.”

Over the past two weeks a couple of meeting rooms have hosted a series of workshops for both Connect’s more vulnerable clients – domestic violence victims and mental health sufferers –  as well as for the general public.

Inside I meet Nuala Reilly, Community Networker for Connect. “It’s been great to have such high quality workshops for our service users,” she says, “and many have come back for the drop-in sessions.

“One young woman commented that she’d normally be stuck in her out of town hostel but said she’d really come out of herself this last week. It’s been a big win for us.”

CS_280815_071-EditCS_280815_022-EditIn the middle of one of the rooms, amidst an aura of quiet panic, scenic painter Kate is adding finishing touches to the three beach huts. One apparently ‘belongs’ to a reclusive beachcomber; the second is the venue for a Ibiza-style disco and the third is a ‘home sweet home’ hut painted in pastel colours and furnished with fabric fish.

Tomorrow they will be installed in a nearby shopping arcade and become the set of a short play inspired and performed by the workshop participants.

It’s all been coordinated by the wonderful Chol Theatre people who have teased stories out of Dewsbury folk about making journeys and about what ‘home’ means to them.

“And what have people been telling you?” I ask Vicky who’s pulled the script together. “Give me a couple of examples.”

“One guy sticks in my mind,” she recalls. “He says he feels as if he’s got an elastic band attached to Dewsbury. He often goes away but is always drawn back to the town he likes.

“And then there’s 87-year-old Barbara whose grown-up children live all over the world. She says when she comes home it’s always a little strange until, that is, you’ve brewed yourself a cuppa.”

CS_280815_053-Edit“What have you made of it?” I ask Ashleigh who I find sewing a tentacle onto a jellyfish.

“I think the people of Dewsbury are more willing to do things than we realise,” she says. “I’ve heard that local people are very practical and not interested in ‘arty’ things. But that’s not what we’ve found.

“Even those who’ve never done embroidery or sewing before have attempted it, they’ve had a go. And it’s been adults as well as children, I’ve been struck by that.”

Although here as a volunteer, everyone says SceneMaker Ashleigh has been a crucial member of the team. She’s been working with textile artist Gemma who – she tells me as she irons colourful bunting – uses art to connect with people from all walks of life.

CS_280815_034-Edit“The power of art to engage with people is far beyond what you expect and you see the results straight away,” says Gemma. “Everyone is really excited about tomorrow, they’re really proud of what they’ve achieved.”

“What time in the morning?” I ask above the whir of a cordless drill.

“Dress rehearsal outside WH Smith at 10.30,” someone shouts.

Where the town is the venue

A modern day pilgrim, a 19th-century Baptist chapel and haute cuisine pies: it must be another Creative Scene event.

CS_070715_0006-EditWe’ve ventured a few miles out of North Kirklees to the imposing Birchcliffe Chapel in Hebden Bridge to intercept artist Anthony Schrag on his contemporary pilgrimage from a small Scottish town to the Venice Biennial. That’s 2,500 kilometres of pilgrimage.

Anthony arrives to set up his slideshow, still wearing his overtrousers. “How was the weather today?” I ask, recalling the thunderstorms.

“Some of the worst I’ve experienced so far,” he admits. It’s only Day 18 of 100.

Anthony is the latest artist to be commissioned by Claudia Zeiske of Deveron Arts in Huntly, 40 miles north of Aberdeen which, for the last 20 years, has hosted ‘The Town is the Venue’, where art happens on the street, in parks, pubs, cafés, at the railway station or in disused shops.

Tonight, with an audience of SceneMakers – six have made the trip over the border – artists, administrators and curious hangers-on, Claudia and Anthony will talk about their work before we’re fed by the legendary Dewsbury Pie Shed.

CS_070715_0046-Edit“This is our art gallery from the outside,” says Claudia, showing rural Huntly from afar. “And this is the inside,” she says, with a picture of the town square.

We hear about one project after another: the adopt-a-dad scheme for families whose fathers work away; about a South African artist who rebranded the town; and another who organised a bike rally which left coloured chalk lines through the town creating an alternative cycle path.

“The projects mostly have identity, environment, heritage or socio-economic issues as their theme,” says Claudia as she talks about a drive-in cinema created for boy racers, a rapid response ‘police van’ that plays music to drunken street fighters and a hi-vis-clad Northern Irish artist who became the town’s health and safety confidante.

Amongst the seemingly outlandish projects there’s a serious message that engaging art does not need a physical venue – an art gallery or theatre – and that the audience is just as likely to be moved by participatory art happening on their doorsteps than by a painting or sculpture.

CS_070715_0069-Edit“Please don’t judge me,” jokes Anthony as he jumps up to give his talk, “I’m not normally the kind of man who would wear socks and sandals, but after wearing hiking boots for such a long time…”

To set the scene, Anthony shows us some of his past projects involving hanging on a wall like some living artwork; becoming a human piñata for Glaswegian children to whack with sticks; or trying to escape his armed bodyguard in South Africa.

CS_070715_0066-EditHe then tells us something about the genesis of his pilgrimage. “Whether it’s climbing up something or blowing stuff up, I’ve always been interested in the idea of challenge. And Claudia and I have been discussing the Venice Biennial, it’s power in the art world and whether there was a place for participatory arts. The two have come together in the pilgrimage.”

After the talks, and as pies are being demolished, I ask some of the SceneMakers their opinions:

“I liked the idea of people from different disciplines coming together to make an interesting arts project,” says Ashleigh.

CS_070715_0086-Edit“It was very inspiring and motivating,” says Rebecca, “it’s definitely given me something to think about.”

“Fantastic,” says Phil. “Really good to get an insight into how artists have brought work into the community. And inspiring to see weird and wonderful ideas getting off the ground.”

“Do you think something like that could happen in North Kirklees?” I ask.

“Yes I do,” he says emphatically. “If they can do it, then we can too.”

“And what did you think of the pie?”

“Superb,” says Phil, dislodging a crumb from his upper lip. “I generally prefer a little more filing but I’ll give it 8 out of 10. You have to remember I’m originally from Wigan where we are renowned for our pies so an 8 is pretty generous.”

Continued in Turn left at The Alps

The iron men of Crosby

It feels like an end of term school trip to the seaside which makes Ashleigh the new girl in class.

Actually it’s another art adventure with Creative Scene and we’re off to Crosby beach to see Anthony Gormley’s iron men and then to meet the artist himself. To mark its 10-year anniversary he’s talking at the magnificent St George’s Hall in the centre of Liverpool.

“What do you know of Antony Gormley?” I ask Ashleigh who’s become the latest SceneMaker.

“Well, I know of The Angel of the North obviously,” she says, “but I’ve never seen any his work in the flesh.”

“Or in the cast iron,” I suggest.

CS_290615_0034-EditAshleigh and her husband have recently moved to Dewsbury where he’s the assistant pastor at an Evangelical church in town. Originally from Zimbabwe, she’s a practicing artist who came across Creative Scene after seeing the Museum of Hidden Delights project on the market.

“And what do you make of West Yorkshire?”

“It’s really pretty and the people all speak their minds,” she says with a laugh, “which is a good thing. But it seems all the arts activity – exhibiting opportunities, workshops – are in Leeds or Huddersfield. There’s almost nothing around here.”

The minibus is buzzing with shared experiences around the arts. SceneMaker Simon is showing Creative Scene’s Rebecca a video of an outdoor dance performance he’s recently enjoyed at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival in London, and SceneMaker Sonja – here with her friend Liz – is telling me about how public art in Filey and Scarborough has become a magnet for each resort.

Our driver, Naz parks up by Crosby Leisure Centre and we pile out and make a beeline for the ice cream van. We’re at the seaside after all. “I’m surprised how widely spaced they are,” says Liz as shoes are discarded and we step onto the beach, “you could mistake them for real people.”

We make our way to the nearest rusting statue, each of us chipping in what we know about Another Place. “100 all together… 17 different casts of the artist’s body… all numbered… this one’s number 64…do you think they’ve been embellished in certain parts?”

CS_290615_0082-EditCS_290615_0094-Edit “They look sad,” Ashleigh says after we’ve seen a couple of ‘men’, “their eyes are closed and there’s no expression on their faces. I like that there are lots of them and not just one, it feel like it’s about all of us.”

While we walk between one version of Gormley to another, I take the opportunity to ask Simon about his SceneMaker experiences. “How has it changed your view?”

“It’s changed me and my opinions,” he says frankly. “When we first spoke I was a bit  blinkered but now I understand much more the relationship between art, economy and place. I can see art as a way of anchoring a community.

“Look at this place,” he says, waving an arm, “this was only meant to be temporary but local people demanded it should stay because it was having such an impact. Heckmondwike too has the potential to be really creative and attract people to do creative things.

“Creative Scene has empowered me and hopefully I can empower the town. I know that sounds a bit arrogant and ambitious but people have to do what they believe in doing.”

CS_290615_0125-EditAfter negotiating the jellyfish and leaving a Creative Scene badge on number 76 – it’s already wearing a waistcoat – we head into town hoping to see a dazzle ship in the Albert Dock. Instead we run out of time and end up racing across St George’s Plateau eating our fish and chips, much to the disdain of Albert and Victoria looking down from their bronze horses.

CS_290615_0226-EditThis Liverpool Biennial event is in the resplendent Small Concert Hall dominated by a huge crystal chandelier. Steered by his interviewer, Gormley talks briefly about his iron men: “It doesn’t feel like my work anymore,” he says, “it’s now become part of the place.”

The highlight is when his comments on heroism, Classicism, Stonehenge, place-making, collecting birds eggs, and natural selection culminate in a fan asking if she can have a selfie with Sir Antony.

CS_290615_0268-EditThere’s mixed views afterwards. Some hoped to be inspired or know more about the process of putting his 100 men on the local beach. “I like what he said about trying to make people think and feel in a different way,” says Sonja.

“I tweeted that I’ve been listening to Antony Gormley with Crosby beach sand between my toes,” declares Rebecca, “which is now getting a little unpleasant.”