DUST: The Art of Stoke-on-Trent
How often have you walked around a town or city, one you are familiar with or not, and despaired at the lack of use of an old building? Perhaps it is an old council owned property, once an architectural centrepiece of the community now reduced to an empty shell. It might just be a beautifully built residential area that hasn’t had the love or care that is needed to maintain its integrity.
As I approached the Old Baths in Tunstall last month this was exactly the feeling that I had. One of anticipation about what was inside this majestic old building and anxiety about the state of disrepair it had fallen into. As was aptly stated on the door in an elementary hand, ‘Abandoned’. Yet, this was not going to be the case for the next week. Local artists Andy Cooke and Joyce Iwaszko were about to enter and curate an exhibition that brought together a number of Stoke based artists to showcase the vast and varied work being produced in the area.
This is indicative of a larger collective group within the region who are all coming together to promote and work together on Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for City of Culture, 2021. Currently Hull holds this title, and as such has seen a significant amount of investment and regeneration, with an estimated £60million boost to Hull’s local economy for this year.
The City of Culture programme was first awarded in 2013 to Derry Londonderry. followed by Hull in 2017. It is awarded every four years and entails the winning city to develop and produce a national creative events programme for the year that it holds the title. Overseen by the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport the award seeks to promote and encourage a cultural activity and sees significant investment in the winning area. The benefits of this have impact in a number of different ways, not just in the delivery of the creative programme itself, but also in long-term investment and socio-economic prospects.
The bid in Stoke-on-Trent seems to be aptly timed. With the rich cultural heritage of the city, historically being the heart of ceramics industries, and the growing co-operative culture of artists within the area it is a city on the cultural ascent. Yet still showing the signs of the decimation of the manufacturing industries, including ceramics, that were so integral to the socio-economic make-up of the city, there is still a large amount of regeneration needed.
A central aspect of the bid is the focus upon the six towns that make up the city of Stoke-on-Trent. This is reflected in the concept behind the DUST series of exhibitions. Tunstall Baths was the third in the series that had already visited Stoke and Hanley. Those familiar with the area will instantly recognise the pattern here, especially if I mention that the next iteration of DUST opens at Fenton Library on Friday 17th February, as the organisers have sought to exhibit in each of the six towns. It is this unique make-up of Stoke-on-Trent that is the focus of the City of Culture 2021 bid with the tag-line: Six Towns, One City.
In January, however, it was Tunstall Baths that would be the venue. I was fortunate to be invited by one of the artists to help hang their work, and consequently got an insight into how the series of exhibitions was being put together. When we arrived, unloaded all our equipment out into the lobby area of the building, it was clear that there was a lot of work that needed to be done to turn this into a presentable space – the previous occupants had left a fair amount of debris in their wake. Nevertheless, it was even more striking how wonderful this space was and what potential it had as an exhibition space.
Walking in, past the vintage ticketing booth and the now disused changing room areas, we entered the baths themselves. A vast chamber at the back of the building, lined on each side with old-fashioned poolside changing booths, the centre of the room was consumed by a white tiled chasm; the empty pool. It is a strange sight, like seeing a dishevelled, abandoned doll, a pool with no water has a haunting ambience. This was not the original choice of venue for this exhibition, yet once we started to examine the work that had already arrived and the space to hang it, a strange feeling of serendipity seemed to dawn.
The huge roll of plastic, the previous covering for the pool, was still in place, suspended over the deep end. This offered the ideal mode of hanging for the large roll of paper that Iwaszko had used at each venue to create responsive pieces of work with the ceramic dusts that she uses in her own artistic practice. The aquatic theme was also reflected in the photographs of artist Dawn Jutton who had a series of images based around Trentham Gardens. Having originally devised a different mode of hanging, in response to that space Jutton decided that the differing scale of her work was mirrored in the gradient of the pool floor and thus resolved to suspend her images from the handrail of the pool.
Other work was hung on a mixture of easels down the centre of the pool area and items of furniture, such as tables and filing cabinets, found within the building. There was a broad range of pieces, including painting, photography, and ceramics. All of the artists were asked to respond to the colours of the DUST logo, a mixture of yellow, blue, and pinky/red tones. Denise O’Sullivan, local ceramic artist (see my interview with O’Sullivan here) brought in several pieces, one of which included a decorative pistol, based upon some old ornaments belonging to her Nan, to symbolise the starting gun for the City of Culture bid being fired.
With a key aspect of this exhibition series seeking to engage with wider audiences and promote the City of Culture bid, the chosen locations seem to be a tangible intermediary. For those in the local area seeing the abandoned building that they had once frequented reopen, even if just for a week, it was a tantalising draw. While many visitors came for the art, others came to see what had happened to the building itself. This act of curiosity instigated an engagement with the art in a way that may be impossible for a traditional gallery space because there is no imagined barrier between the individual and the perceived artistic world.
With DUST moving to Fenton Library and then off to locations in Burslem and Longton there is still plenty of opportunity to experience one of these art exhibitions yourself, as well as have a curious wander around a historic, disused building or two. In addition, with each exhibition the roster of artists is extended, ensuring that there will always be new and exciting work from the talented artists of the Stoke-on-Trent area to enjoy.
For more information about the DUST exhibition series check out the Facebook page, here.
More information about the Stoke-on-Trent City of Culture bid, and how you can get involved, can be found here.