Behind the handsome exterior of a Grade II listed town house at 71 High Street, Runcorn, a group of artists are hard at work making beautiful things and discovering new ways of generating creativity in the North West

Photos: Jennie Harper

Founded in 2012 by a group of artists determined to secure a permanent creative space for Runcorn, Hazlehurst Studios has recently expanded from a first-floor premises at 73a High Street to occupy the entire building at 71 High Street, previously a solicitor’s office, where it is becoming a flourishing centre for art and design.

Great British Life: Printmaker Cathy RounthwaitePrintmaker Cathy Rounthwaite (Image: Jennie Harper)

Printmaker and textile artist Cathy Rounthwaite, one of the original founding members, has seen the studio grow from a personal passion project to an endeavour that now reaches out to the entire community.

The journey began with the purchase of studio space above Mears & Jackson funeral directors ten years ago – a leap of faith for Cathy and her partners: “We were so naïve we didn’t even know if we could pay for it; we just launched into it. There were times when we couldn’t pay the bills. It was absolutely freezing. It was so cold people wouldn’t take their coats off.”

Since then, the determination of Cathy and her fellow artists has transformed Hazlehurst into a creative hub for the surrounding area. The expansion into 71 High Street earlier this year has been a dream come true. With new workshops, a printing press and a dedicated exhibition space, Hazlehurst Studios is now a thriving centre for the arts in Runcorn.

Great British Life: Studio artist Ellie WatsonStudio artist Ellie Watson

“We’re really starting to see the community element of the project coming together,” says Cathy. “We have a group of people on board who want to move forwards; it’s amazing – we’re all different but we think in the same way.”

Community and collaboration are key to the ethos of the studio, both between artists and between the creatives and local residents. Talking about the print arm of the studio, for which she is responsible, Cathy explains that people don’t have to have a studio at Hazlehurst to be part of its community:

“People who can’t afford their own printing press can come here and use ours. We run workshops and meetings and hire out space and the use of the facilities. We meet and learn together. People shouldn’t have to travel out of Runcorn to experience what we can offer in-house.”

Great British Life: Jewellery maker Gail Louise runs jewellery crafting workshopsJewellery maker Gail Louise runs jewellery crafting workshops

Director Claire Pitt explains the studio’s mission to extend this collaborative practice and to offer spaces for local creatives to teach and learn: “That’s how we want to expand. The amount of studio space is only ever going to be limited so it’s a great benefit to have facilities that can be hired out and that cater to people’s different price points and time commitments.

Even if people don’t have a studio space we want it to be an accessible place and one that artists can run workshops from. It’s about helping to upskill local people and providing the opportunity for people to be creative in this area.”

Teaching people that they can go away and make art is central to Cathy’s vision for Hazlehurst: “That’s really important. It’s liberating.”

Great British Life: Artists and workshop attendees can enjoy this specially developed spaceArtists and workshop attendees can enjoy this specially developed space

Having a dedicated exhibition space is an important part of this mission; the team hope to open their doors to the general public as exhibitors of their own work and as hosts to art made by other creatives. By being able to show the work of practicing artists on their walls, Claire explains, the team at Hazlehurst hope to raise the aspirations and expectations of vising creatives, inspiring them to create even bolder and more experimental work: “With groups and workshop participants at any level, whatever age, you want something aspirational and an exhibition, the level of pride that people feel when their work is up, is key to this.”

Just last month they hosted their first exhibition of work by artists from across the UK and the globe. Hot Bed Press’ 20:20 Print Exchange was a show of 567 prints by artists from as far away as Moscow and Hong Kong, covering six walls of Hazlehurst’s studio space, including their new exhibition gallery.

“It’s been a learning curve,” laughs Cathy.

The success of Hazlehurst is driven by the commitment of the creative team behind it. Claire explains that as a not-for-profit Community Interest Company, any earnings go straight back into the studio: “It’s always important that any profit is reinvested into the building and into the equipment. Every decision we make, we have to justify it – is it going to work and is there an appetite for it? Will it pay for itself? We like to be self-sufficient. The studio rent that we all individually pay is what keeps the studio running and that’s why we all give back. People need to be actively involved in the place, it’s the only way it works.”

Great British Life: Maria Tarn runs sewing and embroidery workshopsMaria Tarn runs sewing and embroidery workshops (Image: Jennie Harper)

It’s this team effort, and the contribution not just of money but of time and enthusiasm, that makes Hazlehurst so special. Most of the practicing artists run workshops for the public, including sewing and embroidery workshops under the tutelage of textile artist Maria Tarn and jewellery-making sessions led by artist Gail Louise, which run in a dedicated workshop space equipped with eight specially-designed carpenter’s tables, overhead lighting and jewellery-crafting tools.

The breaking down of perceived barriers between artists and the public is key to the artists’ vision at Hazlehurst. Anybody can create art and part of Cathy’s mission is to help build people’s confidence, through workshops and classes, so that they feel able to make beautiful things.

“There isn’t a divide between people and artists. I get excited when people come in and say they can’t draw or make art and then go home with something they’ve made themselves. For me that’s the best thing, people coming in thinking they can’t do anything and going out with work they’re really proud of.”

Great British Life: Studio artists Mima Cornish is a counsellor who uses art as part of her workStudio artists Mima Cornish is a counsellor who uses art as part of her work

Claire agrees: “Art is still so often put on a pedestal and there is a fear factor for many people – they think it’s elitist, there’s still a stigma attached to it. People who do want to participate don’t have endless money to pay for courses or equipment. If we can cover our costs as artists and help to keep the cost of learning low for visiting creatives it’s the best of both worlds – it’s self-sustaining for us and it cuts the cost for them.

“You never want to stop playing and you never want to stop learning and anything we can do to encourage people to do that is super important. A lot of people think they’ve missed their chance or need to go down a traditional route to be creative but there are many different pathways into art and creativity.”

Claire’s growth as an artist is testament to this. After years of teaching herself to draw while caring for her mother, Clare secured funding from the Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme to set up as an artist and secure studio space at Hazlehurst – she is now a Director and supports her own practice through funding for community projects.

Her story shows that creating art is a dream that can come true for anybody. And that’s the mission of Hazlehurst – to facilitate the creation of art and to show people, all people, that they can create, that there is no barrier.

“Once you start working,” says Cathy, “you realise that it’s something intrinsic to you, you can’t stop once you’ve discovered it.”