Creative Cirencester

Creative Cirencester, by Tracy Spiers

Creative Cirencester, by Tracy Spiers - Credit: Archant

Tracy Spiers gets the creativity bug when she visits the artists and craftspeople of Cirencester

David Darston explains his work process to Tracy

David Darston explains his work process to Tracy - Credit: Archant

I came across this quote the other day by Albert Einstein. It said simply this “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.” So I am taking his advice and doing just that. I know creativity comes in different guises; in the way people dress, decorate their homes, design their gardens, compose songs and perform. But today I am focusing on the visual arts. Come on a journey if you will to the historic Roman town of Cirencester.

Over the years I have written about its amazing history, architecture, landmarks, walks and abundance of unique independent shops set in a myriad of wonderful alleyways. I have alluded to the artistic enterprise that exists here, but not in the depth it so deserves. So, dear reader, I encourage you to be inspired to visit Cirencester this month to catch a positive bug - the bug of creativity.

Of course there is evidence of great music and literature - one only has to pop into the magnificent parish church of St John the Baptist or Octavia’s bookshop in Black Jack Street to witness this - but today I want to celebrate the plethora of artists. Their work is often seen more than they are, but they represent an industry which not only adds essential colour to buildings, gallery spaces and outdoor spaces, but also inspires and feeds the soul.

My first stop is Wetpaint Gallery, based on the busy London Road, launched by Celia Wickham in 2002 to specialise in contemporary and Modern masters. Over the years Celia has given Cirencester the opportunity to view works by Sir Terry Frost, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro and the like.

One of my favourites is the late John Piper, a war artist, painter, printmaker who creates a powerful sense of emotion and atmosphere in his images. His work was shown last year, but I am grateful on the day I visit, his stunning screen prints are still up, and I am pleasantly distracted. A transition is taking place at this delightful exhibition space. Wetpaint Gallery reopens this month as a pop up gallery in association with Artventure, a business set up by forward thinking Charlie Hill.

Although Celia is still the gallery’s director and will be running an on-line service showing a programme of virtual exhibitions and staging gallery shows for more high-profile artists; Charlie is becoming the gallery manager and will be basing her own business here. With her warm personality, enthusiasm and fresh vision, up and coming artists have what they need. A venue to exhibit, someone who is passionate about the work they produce and at a price that they can afford. This is the young woman responsible for supporting the hugely successful and vibrant Hare Festival, whereby large and small hares, decorated and painted by a wide range of different artists, were placed in different buildings, shop windows and public places throughout Cirencester.

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Launched two years ago, Artventure stages art events and exhibitions for talented artists at the infancy of their commercial careers, who are looking for a wider public exposure for their work.

Tracey Elphick with new work in her studio

Tracey Elphick with new work in her studio - Credit: Archant

“To be successful, artists need to earn a living from their work. Properly staged art events help us do that, and provide an environment where gallery visitors can really enjoy and appreciate a whole range of art,” explains Charlie, who graduated from Falmouth with a Fine Art degree.

The first joint venture between the gallery and Artventure is a photography exhibition which opens on February 17 and runs until March 7. This will include the work of Nettie Edwards, Bernard Cooper, Cath Harries, Ken Skeham, Lee Simpson and Simon Terrill. There will be a private view and launch of the gallery on February 20, 6-9pm.

“I am really excited about it. I now have a permanent location from which to run Artventure and it means there is a base and lovely venue where I can exhibit people’s work and help them sell it. I have been planning to do this for two years and I am delighted that it is now happening.

She also hopes to host weekly life drawing classes, cultural activities, painting workshops as well as wine tasting, music, literature and poetry evenings.

An arts ambassador to the core, Charlie is also taking on the organisation reins of the biennial Cotswold Open Studios from Tessa Webb, a freelance Chartered Marketer and Associate Lecturer at the University of the West of England. Tessa launched the event in 2010 and has an excellent way of helping artists and small businesses market themselves. In 2012 and 2014, Tessa won the PR and Marketing Campaign of the Year at the Cirencester Chamber of Commerce for the event. She was also runner-up in the Creatives Champion Award because of her work to support the arts in the town.

“Cirencester’s identity is rooted in the arts and crafts and we need to showcase all the amazing creative talent that we have on our doorstep,” says Tessa.

“The Arts and Crafts movement is as alive today as it was in the 19th century. I am really pleased to be passing the baton on to the next generation. Charlie is just as passionate as me about supporting the arts. I feel confident that we have found someone with skills to make this event even more of a success.”

Richard Kenton Webb on the Columbia Press, printing Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's commission of Robert's

Richard Kenton Webb on the Columbia Press, printing Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen's commission of Robert's House, Siddington - Credit: Archant

Tessa’s husband, painter and printmaker Richard Kenton Webb (read our Q&A here), will be one of the artists exhibiting in this year’s open studios. He is also Programme Leader for the Drawing and Print degree at UWE in Bristol. Visitors to his open studios will be able to learn more about his recent show and lecture tour in Australia where he is just about to have a one-man show. Wetpaint gallery will be the face of the open studios, housing a piece of work from each artist participating in the event, where people can view a sample of what’s to come as well as pick up their brochures and maps. Unlike previous years, the event spans three weekends instead of one, from June 9-28, with studios open on June 13-14, 20-21 and 27-28. There will be a private view at Wetpaint Gallery, June 11 6-9pm.

Some 30 artists, including some new faces such as ceramicist Mouse Martin, mosaic artist Debbie Stirling and painter Fiona McIntyre, will be exhibiting in about 20 venues, concentrated in the Cirencester and South Cerney areas. Charlie is particularly keen to find artists in Bibury, Quenington, Daglingworth and Stratton to complete the programme.

“I think it is a fantastic project that helps the public buy directly from the artist and gives them a chance to find out how the artist works,” she admits.

What makes an art community work is the unseen networking and social connections that go on. In the centre of Cirencester, New Brewery Arts is a hub of creative activity. A whole host of workshops and activities are planned all year round. In February alone I notice their fun-filled programme includes clay inlay and marbling, glass blowing, mask making, paper engineering, poetry, Lino printing, and felt pot making and this is just a wee taste of what goes on. Makers and artists have their own studio space here where they can operate their businesses and be in immediate contact with their audiences. For the past three years, they have put on two collective shows in the new Brewery Art’s pop up gallery. This year’s exhibition, Flights of Fancy, takes place from February 7-28. Each participating maker produces pieces specifically with this theme in mind.

It promises to be an uplifting event. I interrupt prolific mixed media artist Tracey Elphick as she works in her spacious ground-floor studio. She carefully applies layers to her canvasses using collage, inks and acrylics and brings her compositions together with confident finesse. Inspired by her love of the sea, her trips to the Scilly Isles and Cornwall, her cheerful images are guaranteed to brighten up any room. Familiar Cirencester scenes are given the same treatment and customers can pop in at any time and buy an original directly from the artist as well as an extensive range of prints and cards. Beach findings are used in her sculptural pieces of relief boats and collage pieces used in her images are relevant to the location they depict.

“I love the excitement of starting a new piece. Initially I am very free and experimental and I enjoy building up the layers. Gradually the image evolves and I pull the elements together at the end. I have lots of things on the go at the same time,” she admits.

“Our annual pop-up show is a great opportunity for us as makers to work together on one theme and produce something different. It is a good opportunity for not us not only to try out new things, but to get together and work together as a team.”

Daniella Wilson-Dunne, a stained glass artist based at New Brewery Arts

Daniella Wilson-Dunne, a stained glass artist based at New Brewery Arts - Credit: Archant

In her studio opposite, stained glass artist Daniella Wilson-Dunne is equally as passionate about her media. I am greeted by an impressive owl and an array of dazzling colour. So what is it about working in glass that excites her?

“It’s just magical. It is pure colour and I love how the light affects it so that throughout the day a piece never looks the same. It’s colour therapy every day,” she explains.

Daniella started as an apprentice working in a glass studio some 27 years ago and has been based at New Brewery Arts for 20 years. Both she and Tracey run workshops as part of the ongoing craft workshop programme offered to the public.

Inspired by glass, I can’t resist walking into another workshop as I watch staff at Loco Glass hand-blowing a commissioned purple lampshade. It is mesmerizing watching the process as the bulb gets bigger, is shaped, blown and grows before one’s eyes. There is something about watching the process of something being made that helps one understand and appreciate the end product. Shoppers in Cirencester can pop in at any time to watch this amazing skill. Colin Hawkins, managing director chats to me in the midst of the delicate process.

“I am really pleased to be part of a thriving hub of creativity,” he states whilst his assistant Emma Baker, who recently graduated from Sunderland University with a glass and ceramics degree, is thrilled to be working in this exciting industry.

Enthralled by what I have seen, I make a vow to return to see what delights Daniella and Loco Glass come up with for Flights of Fancy, before walking to the multi award-winning Corinium Museum.

Here I interrupt David Durston as he finishes hanging his current exhibition Two Genres which runs until February 8. His exhibition is followed by When in Rome, aimed at calligraphy enthusiasts (February 14- March 15) by Gloucestershire Lettering Arts. David’s show is a successful blend of two extremes in painting techniques - both abstract and figurative - with the common denominator of textured surfaces. Sand, glue, gloss paint, applied using tennis nets, syringes, washes and scumbling on substrates such as old sacking, herringbone linen and heavy weave canvas, provides an intriguing and very tactile end result.

Jan Baker admires the items on sale at New Brewery Arts' craft shop

Jan Baker admires the items on sale at New Brewery Arts' craft shop - Credit: Archant

Inspired by landscapes in the Cotswolds, Perth, Seattle and St Lucia, David’s collection of images transport one to another place. The retired Head of Expressive Arts at Cotswold School, Bourton on the Water, who won a Major Award from South West Arts, is excited to exhibit again in Cirencester after 30 years.

“Since I have retired I have had the luxury of time to experiment in different ways. It is quite an unusual exhibition in that it shows two extreme approaches but if you look closely you can see the connection. The textures are very physical,” he explains.

“If you had asked me to paint seascapes four years ago I would have said a resounding “No,” but I am thrilled with my new series.”

The artists who represent a tiny proportion of Cirencester’s art community share an underlying passion and enthusiasm for their particular creative practice. Whether you are young or mature in years, there is something for everyone in Cirencester. A workshop may just be the very thing to kickstart that creativity. And as Einstein so clearly reminds us, once you have got the bug of creativity within you, it bubbles over and like a keen evangelist, you just to have to pass it on and share it. Cirencester, you are a creative inspiration.


This article by Tracy Spiers is from the February 2015 issue of Cotswold Life magazine.