Reasons to Back the #SoT2021
What do you think of when you hear the City of Stoke-on-Trent mentioned? Like any city, it has many stereotypes and associations that have become part of the local and national parlance. As a native of Staffordshire myself, I can tell you that sometimes these perceived notions are not always positive.
Stoke-on-Trent is known to some as an area of social and economic deprivation, still ravaged by the devastation of its industries. Certainly there are aspects of this description that hold truth, but then these could be the descriptors of any of our industrial towns and cities that have had to claw their way out of the quagmire of failings of the British production industries.
Many of these factors are out of the control of the majority of the population at large. The socio-economic situation of a particular area is not the marker of a place, but how a city reacts to these challenges are. The recent ground swell of artists and creative people in this area who are coming together and forming collectives to counter these negative perceptions is truly inspiring and one of the reasons why Stoke-on-Trent is a perfect candidate for City of Culture 2021.
I say that it is just one of the reasons, because creativity and culture runs through the veins of Stoke-on-Trent. Built upon the ceramics industry, the city is now widely known as ‘the potteries’. This cultural heritage is omnipresent within the city, with many of the old buildings and premises of the industry still standing. Pottery from Stoke-on-Trent is world-renowned. From the historical legacy of the likes of Josiah Wedgwood, to modern producers like Emma Bridgewater, Stoke-on-Trent is the epicentre of British ceramics. As Bridgewater herself stated in a recent episode of Desert Island Discs, when looking to start a ceramics business where else would you look to go?
While many of the larger ceramics manufacturers closed their doors over the last few decades, there is a resurgence of interest and purpose on these sites. Perhaps the most famous heavyweight of the pottery industry, Wedgewood, now has its own museum and an expansive programme of events. But Wedgwood is just the well-known surface. Stoke-on-Trent is also home to Spode and Burleigh pottery, among many others. While the Spode Factory was closed down in 2008 it is now reaping the benefits if the cultural movement in the city and undergoing significant redevelopment. Already there are artists taking up residence in new studio spaces within the building, and the British Ceramics Biennial hold an exhibition in the China Hall as part of their programme. For those who have been keeping up with the Great Pottery Throwdown, the site of Middleport, home of Burleigh, will be familiar. Midleport also runs as a museum, artisan studios, factory shop and working factory.
New Wave of Artists
So the cultural ceramics tradition is still going strong within the region. And this is just the bigger sites and organisations. In addition, many of the artists and creatives who are getting involved with the cultural landscape of Stoke-on-Trent are ceramicists. Last year I interviewed Denise O’Sullivan and she made it very clear that the cultural heritage of Stoke-on-Trent’s ceramics industry was important to her and prescient within her work.
‘I’d like it to be how it was; with each lady getting to hand-paint my designs but then signing their own name on the bottom, so they have some ownership of it.’
She talked about her memories of the industrial past of ceramics and how she was trying to pursue and recreate similar modes of production as her own business expanded. There was a sense of the need to preserve important heritage of the area as well as moving on from the past.
As such, O’Sullivan has been involved in a series of exhibitions that are seeking to highlight the City of Culture bid and the diverse artistic talent within the region. Previously covered on this site (here), DUST is a travelling showcase of the artists of Stoke-on-Trent designed to coincide with the bid. The main premise seeks to echo the ‘Six towns, One City’ tag line of the Stoke-on-Trent City of Culture bid and highlights the unique make-up of the area. With ambitions to grow from the opening two person show, featuring the work of organisers Andy Cooke and Joyce Iwaszko, to increasingly incorporate more artists at each venue, the fifth iteration of DUST at the Wedgewood Institute in Burslem features the work of almost 30 artists.
This, however, is just the tip of a proverbial cultural iceberg. With groups, such as Appetite and many more, events, venues, and people all coalescing to ensure that the atmosphere in Stoke-on-Trent at the moment is palpable. This is an artistic community that is mobilising. What is great about this is that there is such a collective spirit inherent within this movement. This is people coming together to create communities that seek to culturally engage others. It is art as a social movement for the betterment of the whole socio-economic environment, not just the individual artist.
I have been so inspired and enthused by all of the creative practice and the innovative ways Stoke-on-Trent artistic communities are working together, and importantly being supported by local authorities. It stands as an example to all that working together can achieve unprecedented results. What is truly impressive, however, is the attitude of all involved with the City of Culture bid. This is not just a cyclical ploy to gain investment in the area. This is a real cultural movement. In academia, when applying for research funding we are told to get the project to a state where it is ready to start, that is, with or without the funding, this will go ahead and happen. And this is the exact approach of Stoke-on-Trent. A cultural revolution is gaining momentum. Whether they get the investment or not, it will succeed, just perhaps with modified approaches and outcomes.
The changing of the cultural landscape in Stoke-on-Trent, is not dependent upon the City of Culture bid, but, with so many dedicated and wonderful people involved it would be a more than deserved title. I am backing the bid for Stoke-on-Trent City of Culture, and hope you will too.
Still not convinced? Check out #SoT2021 on Twitter and other social media platforms to see exactly what is going on and keep up to date with all the latest info.