The designer who turned an old chapel in Watford into a buzzing creative community
- Credit: Sue Lacey
Independent accessories designer Amma Gyan is helping drive forward the creative scene in Watford with a beautiful new hub for fellow makers and artists.
If you’re ever tempted to question the cultural contribution Watford makes to this county, speak to Amma Gyan. The Ghanaian born creative is effusive in her promotion of the local creative scene, she is, in fact, at its heart.
Drawn to the town nearly a decade ago when she and her partner moved out of London, she was attracted to the area’s social diversity while proximity to villages and countryside were added bonuses.
‘Watford is convenient and affordable, with a small town feeling,’ Amma says. ‘The countryside is five minutes away and Cassiobury Park is on our doorstep.’
The 43-year-old came to the UK aged two and by the time she left primary school had set her sights on becoming a fashion designer, although she initially studied web design - 'practical, problem-solving' - after school.
‘After my degree, I went to the London College of Fashion to do a short course in pattern cutting then I became a bag maker and designer. Give me the basics and I can figure the rest out, adapting theory and method to anything.’
Laughing as she recalls going into shops and examining bags in order to figure out how they were put together, she adds: ‘Someone can tell me the theory but I don’t always understand it. As soon as I practise, it makes sense.'
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As her hand made bags were becoming more popular, another item presented itself. ‘I was going to a wedding and needed a belt so went away and made one out of a soft piece of leather.’
A friend in PR loved the belt so much, she produced a press release which was, to Amma’s amazement, picked up by the national glossies. 'Although I didn’t have a business plan, my work was being mentioned in Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire.’
Conscious of the environmental impact of using leather, Amma is particular about her sources. ‘I used to regard leather as a by-product but the more you look into it, the more you realise the skin is worth more than the meat. Now I source it from Italy where I can trace their waste management. And I don’t buy new materials because I want to keep my products sustainable.’
Meanwhile the popularity of her accessories continued, soon manifesting itself in other areas, as Amma recalls: ‘After introducing jewellery, my next break occurred when I had a Hatton Garden market stall. A woman came up to me and said she liked my stuff. Turns out she was a buyer for Jigsaw and I ended up making a complete range of moulded jewellery for them.’
As well as the challenges of juggling a business as an independent maker with raising two children, Amma also had a long-term plan to create flexible studio space for other local creatives.
‘Back in 2013 I put on a craft fair and after that I had regular enquiries for studio space. Then, about three years ago, I was involved in forums relating to the culture of Watford. Number one on the list was studio space. I spoke to the Arts Development Officer at the council and a year or so later I was offered the chapel in Vicarage Road Cemetery. At the time the building had no facilities but I did get funding and eventually picked up the keys last year, two weeks before the first lockdown.’
The artist space, gallery and shop in the beautiful 162-year old disused chapel around the corner from Watford Football Club is called Amanartis Studios (a play on her name and I-am-an-artist), and is now home to several creatives.
With a central aim 'to empower people to overcome the imposter feeling of calling themselves an artist', the site has already hosted its first exhibition. And Amma is expanding her reach too, currently working with Watford Palace Theatre to turn the lower half of the building into a gallery where an exhibition of Louise Greenfield’s striking sculptural art is planned for September.
Making spaces not just for her own work but to support a community of artists and makers, the benefits of learning from and being inspired by others is key to Amma's approach. What would be her advice for others looking to do something similar?
‘What I want to tell people is when you start you have to be prepared for a long, slow road. The quickest way is the slowest way. I used to be quick in my making, now I’m the opposite - there are some things you have to accept take time.
‘There have been lots of hurdles, personal and financial challenges, however all have miraculously been overcome with great support from the council in finding and financially supporting the space and friends and family in encouragement. I'm hoping it's an uplifting story to share coming out of these times.’
To discover more about the studios, visiting, and becoming a member, go to amanartis.co.uk