Art and Friendship - celebrating the 40th anniversary of Belper Art Group

Belper Art Group

Belper Art Group - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Belper Art Group recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Ashley Franklin pays them a visit

Belper Art Group

Belper Art Group - Credit: Ashley Franklin

We have long been told that angling is the UK’s largest participatory leisure activity. A healthy nine per cent of the population go fishing at least once a year. However – get ready for a suprise – a recent government survey has revealed that 13 per cent of the adults in this country paint, draw, sculpt or do printmaking. That is over eight million people. So why are we being told that painting and drawing is a dying art?

The detractors would have been silenced long ago had they known that the Royal Academy has to impose a limit of 12,000 entries for its Summer Exhibition, and that 6,000 applied to enter BBC TV’s Big Painting Challenge; there were nearly 30,000 for the Little Painting Challenge. If the Painting Challenge has ironically inspired you to turn off the television and pick up a paintbrush, you might care to seek out an art group.

There is one thriving set-up in Belper. The town’s art group recently held a competition evening where over 100 paintings were on display, covering an impressive seven categories: watercolour, acrylic/oils, mixed media, drawing, pastel, photography/digital, and a special category entitled Ruby in honour of the group’s 40th anniversary that members could enter with a piece in any medium.

There is certainly cause for celebration. Five years ago the group had dwindled to half a dozen regular members and contemplated packing away the easels, today it is revitalised. When I alled in to one of their weekly Thursday evening meetings at the Strutt’s Community Centre, the members’ room was buzzing.

Sunset over Milford by Dawn Horsley

Sunset over Milford by Dawn Horsley - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Straightaway, I understood why member Sylvia Owen says she ‘enjoys painting in company.’ As several members painted or drew, some were poring over other members’ work, discussing and advising or simply enthusing and encouraging. ‘Although we are not a teaching group,’ says Treasurer Anne Devenport, ‘we constantly help where we can, sharing our specific skills.’

I was also impressed to see such a wide spectrum of media and subject matter. While Sue Slack, a retired Royal Crown Derby ceramic artist, was applying the finishing touches to her floral watercolour, Andy Mayers was sharpening his pencil skills with a still life of a sheep skull. Although Maggie Sutton was in the final stages of an intricate watercolour of Whitby harbour, she still found time to engage with Geoff Futter, admiring the brightness of the colours in his oil painting of Stone Roses drummer Reni.

Most Read

I then came across new member Andrew Kusmierczyk who has brought a surrealistic strand to the group with his intriguing, phantasmagorical drawings. Then my gaze was diverted by the sight of another recent member John May, hovering over his iPad, clutching a thin stylus. Had he taken a break from art to dash off an email? No, he was, er... procreating. Procreate is a digital painting app.

‘I used to do acrylics,’ John explains, ‘but I like things to be quick and instant. With this app I can go in, squiggle, and a few loose free strokes later, I have created a picture.’ John showed me a delightful example of his work in the style of Raoul Dufy, the French artist noted for his brightly coloured, carefree paint flourishes. ‘That style is ideally suited to this iPad app,’ states John.

Reni, Stone Roses by Geoff Futter

Reni, Stone Roses by Geoff Futter - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Then I suddenly beheld three dimensional art as Rachel Billings walked in with a scale model of the building occupied by the Belper ironmongers Tomes, one of several models of local buildings made as part of a major project by the group for an exhibition at Belper Mill.

Shortly after, co-founder Albert Pickersgill, who is 86 and still active along with two other original members, took me aside and said: ‘We can surprise you even more. You’ve only seen part of what we do. Along with model making, we’ve had pottery, lino cutting, clay modelling, glass-making and even calligraphy in our programme.’

Albert then reveals that he personally dabbles in woodturning. He has also been busying himself with the production of a special display depicting the group’s history. The group’s story began in 1975 when evening painting classes at Belper High School came to an end. All 12 students, inspired to paint and stimulated by each other’s company, decided to form their own group. ‘Painting was new to most of us and we were keen to learn from each other,’ explains Albert, ‘so what better than to carry on together? That’s always been a strength in our group – and in most other leisure groups, I imagine – pursuing a pleasurable hobby with like-minded people.’

The Belper Art Group has largely prospered, though ironically it was when they excitedly moved into Strutt’s Community Centre in its opening year of 2009 that the group almost foundered.

Belper Art Group

Belper Art Group - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Those troubled times now seem distant with the group currently comprising a record 28 members. Key to the group’s renaissance was a fresh new committee – the Chairman and Secretary both left at the time of their move to Strutt’s – a proper constitution, strong publicity drive, and the introduction of a new programme every three months, prepared by a committee constantly liaising with the members.

‘This is a very democratic club that listens to its members,’ says Chairman Teresa Bailey. As the newest member Doe Scullion reveals: ‘I joined because I like trying new ideas, media and techniques, and this group has plenty.’

Indeed, the group’s mission statement reads thus: ‘To promote and encourage the enjoyment, knowledge and exploration of all aspects of art in all its forms.’ This summer’s programme is typically varied: evenings with a portrait model and painting flowers plus an outdoor sketching and painting meeting are mixed in with more specialised sessions, such as working with ceramics, painting abstracts with acrylics, and sketching cartoons and caricatures.

The group’s mission statement also embraces the ethos of ‘working with and for the community.’ As well as staging an annual exhibition, the group takes part in the Belper Food & Drink Festival where people are invited to ‘come and have a go’ at painting on a large canvas. They have also produced a huge Belper mural and were invited to design the Amber Valley Tourist Map. A happy outcome of the group’s raised profile in the area was a £250 donation from Belper Town Council towards the cost of their anniversary celebrations.

Venetian Mask by Teresa Bailey

Venetian Mask by Teresa Bailey - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Another advantage to membership is that whereas some art groups meet during the day, inevitably attracting only seniors, Belper Art Group convenes every week in an evening. Thus, it brings in a wider age range. There is quite a variety of types, too, brushing away the notion that amateur artists are, as one commentator sweepingly pointed out, ‘white, upper-middle class retirees in smocks and straw hats.’

‘We attract people from all walks of life,’ states Anne, ‘and different nationalities, too.’ Anne also points out that members range from raw beginners to skilled practitioners like Ken Spencer who has won three awards at the prestigious annual Patchings Exhibition. ‘All are individuals with their own ideas and input,’ she adds.

‘The members continually encourage and inspire me,’ enthuses Maggie Sutton. ‘I get constructive feedback on my paintings and it’s fun trying out different techniques. As a result, I’m a much more confident artist.’

Maggie also concurs with most of the members I spoke to in finding art not just relaxing but positively therapeutic. Frank Smith returned to painting to alleviate stress at work and found it worked even better after joining the group: ‘My first night here was a revelation. I forgot everything and two hours had passed before I knew it.’

Geoff Futter joined the group at the beginning of the year even though he is already a member of Matlock Artists Society: ‘I just wanted to be around artists more in the hope it would stimulate me to paint more. It worked!’ Geoff enjoys his painting so much that he recently made the extraordinary decision to reduce his working week to four days.

Chairman Teresa Bailey enjoys her drawing so much that barely a day goes by without her picking up her pencils. Teresa joined Belper Art Group after a long career designing children’s clothing and household textiles. As she relates: ‘After always working in gouache and to deadlines, it was a different, exciting experience to explore different media and crafts. As well as the group being warm and welcoming, I also found a varied, lively, adventurous bunch of members whose work was inspiring in giving me a much broader view of art.

‘Being in this group has made me treasure drawing even more. Something indefinable happens to me when I am drawing. It’s about observation, imagination, practice. When I am concentrating deeply on a drawing, I am blissfully unaware of anything else, and if I am inventing a landscape or characters, I have total freedom to create a visual world. It’s a wonderful escape from reality.’

As for the future of the Belper Art Group, there was an encouraging sign talking to new member Dale Lees. He joined only a month ago yet says: ‘It feels as if I’ve been here a long time because they’re so friendly here – not at all cliquey like some groups can be – and I’ve already picked up so many tips and great advice. I’ve got the impetus to feel I can improve.’

There’s a cheeky grin on Dale’s face as he tells me just how happy he is to have at last got inside this former Herbert Strutt Grammar School: ‘You see, I failed my 11-plus, so I didn’t get in the building.’

‘I also joined to bring the average age down,’ added Dale, smiling even wider. ‘That means hopefully I’ll still be here in another 40 years!’

The Belper Art Group meets every Thursday evening at Strutt’s Community Centre from 7.00 to 9.00 pm. For further information, ring: Frank Smith (01773) 827700 or Andy Mayers (01773) 824021.