identify my destiny
Our portrait this edition is not a person, but a place - Bike Stop, Darlington.
A social enterprise initiative of First Stop, a local homeless charity, the Bike Stop project offers preloved and refurbished bikes for sale, a full cycle repair and servicing facility along with training and bike workshops to suit everyone. All housed in a very stylish environment, run by a dedicated staff team and skilled volunteers, so if you are completely new to cycling or want to get going again this is the place to start.
Based in Skinnergate, Darlington this is a million miles away from neon lycra - think funky Amsterdam bikes, well-designed baskets and panniers, local cycling events, such as the Buttonhole Run, a Darlington version of the famous Tweed Run, coupled with supportive cyclists who know everything about bikes. Stylish bikes, knowledgable staff, the promise of the open road - Bike Stop - a portrait of summer possibilities.
Interview by Jo Colley
I first met Cath Walshaw when she and I were doing a project together with a group of women in redcar, combining my work as a poet with hers as a visual artist. I immediately thought - wow, she looks amazing. And then I was further impressed by her approach with the group, inspiring and down to earth at the same time, as you would expect from a woman cut from the Yorkshire landscape. I was really chuffed when she agreed to be our portrait in this edition of Foxy, and went to her studio in Gateshead to interview her.
Cath is a very talented freelance artist originally from Leeds, now living in Whitley Bay. She has worked in several media, but is a printmaker by training. She has supported herself through making and teaching in participatory arts in a career which spans several decades. Her interests include the new perspectives emerging through digital developments, which profoundly challenge our traditional sense of place and identity. She is also interested in memory and memorialising: one of her projects, Shipwreck, investigates costal heritage and memorial sites. In examining these shifts in how we understand our lives, her practice seeks to fuse together the past, the present and the future. Her work investigates the relationships between people, identity, community and place, and how these elements come together in the memory, or are fetishised in objects. She is a great collector.
"I've never made a lot of money, but I've always been able to keep my head above water. It's been tough sometimes - even more so now, in these lean times. but I don't regret my career choice: money isn't everything and I've thoroughly enjoyed the places art has taken me."
Sometimes the places have been distinctly odd.
"I can remember standing waist deep in waste at a recycling plant searching for plastic bottles."
I wondered if it was a lonely life.
"It can be. If you're just in the studio. But I also get involved in participatory projects and collaborating with other artists. There's a real joy in that."
There seems to be more collaboration across the arts now - and maybe less emphasis on the genius of the individual artist. Writers, film makers, musicians, visual artists, theatre directors, installation artists, pushing the boundaries and limitations of their own chosen medium against another's practice.
"Collaboration can open things out. Being a printmaker - it's so painstaking, working with the layers, the neatness to keep things controlled. I am a bit of a control freak and i thought collaboration wasn't for me, but it's helped me loosen up a bit."
Cath puts a high value on the arts. "Life isn't worth living without these explorations: they enable us to have a framework to investigate our identity, family, heritage, to realise what we share - and explore our differences."
What do you most enjoy about your life?
My relationships, friendships, living by the sea, being creative, making things, my family - having a body! I love my yoga. Getting older - things get better. Life gets better before the body really creaks out - you feel confident and at ease with yourself. Its another creative space.
What gets on your nerves?
I am lucky enough to straddle the pre and post digital world. Both are good, but the loss of civic identity now worries me. People used to talk on park benches, bus stops, trains. Very few people do now. We are being robbed! Traffic makes me cross too - being stuck in a jam, even though I am actually contributing to it. Supermarkets! They have taken over the way we shop and farm, and this is not necessarily a good thing.
Who has inspired you?
Certain artists: Cornelia Parker, Susan Hillier - she pulls together ephemera and tat she has collected and makes connections between one generation and the next, which leads you to think other interesting thoughts. I wish I had started collecting things earlier! Sally Wainwright - a northern woman champion. She is coming into her own at the moment. The comments she is making about northern life in a small town is excellent, told through strong women characters, who are complicated and complex. not the usual heroine.
What music do you listen to?
I love 6 music, for the range. Also, my partner is a musician so he brings in obscure and interesting stuff. I love black American soul, northern soul and reggae music. I am also getting more interested in classical - Philip Glass, Brian Eno - on the edge, a weird out there cusp of outer zen listening. peaceful and relaxing. I can work and think my thoughts. It puts you in a place of deeper thoughts, and helps to sustain that.
What's your favourite outfit?
It comes and goes, but I love my Flora Robinson outfit: a long red woollen kilt with a zip up leather jerkin (black). A bit Vivienne Westwood: she was at the heart of punk. that's one of my favourite winter looks.
I like clothes that aren't in fashion and I like quality clothes. My mum made clothes so I know how they are put together. I always inspect seams! I'm a Yorkshire lass with an eye for quality. I love tweeds, and I've recently met the weavers on Harris and bought tweed there to be made into garments for me.
I also have vintage clothes, which I love wearing, for the attention to details and clever seaming and stitching.
Then there are my Emma Peel clothes - though I don't like to wear them much now. I don't want to wear skirts so short now. I am more restrained. I know what suits me.
Bury or burn?
Bury. Then worms will come and eat up thee .. I was brought up a Catholic, so the notion of the flames licking at your body is hell and damnation to me! I like the idea of going back into the land, with maybe a tree planted above me.
More about Cath and her work ..
This edition of Foxy takes as its portrait Rowena Sommerville, the CEO of Tees Valley Arts. Rowena is a published writer, an illustrator, and a singer; she has worked for TVA for 18 years and been CEO for the past decade. However, she is also on the cusp of leaving TVA to take up other creative opportunities. Foxy wanted to grab her at this key moment in her life.
Where are you from?
I was born in Bristol, and grew up in Wiltshire, at the end of a long country lane. Later, my family moved into the village of Box, 5 miles from Bath. So my beginnings were in a very beautiful area of England, close to a beautiful city.
What did you study?
I was always arty, and did my arts foundation course in a stately home: Corsham Court, an English Country House owned by the Methuen family with a garden designed by Capability Brown. So yet more beauty! There were white cows, white cats and white peacocks. But the downside was I had to live at home, and since this was the end of the 60s, it meant opportunities for sex and drugs and rock and roll were limited. My next move was to go to Brighton, where I did a degree in graphics and illustration (and sex and drugs…).
I had not the slightest idea how to earn a living. After my degree, I got a job for a year, in an unrelated area, with the Richmond Fellowship, a community mental health organisation with a broadly psychotherapeutic, Laingian ethos. This was in a big house south of London with15 residents and 5 very young staff. It was an intense and very challenging year, dealing with serious issues, unhappy people, lots of group meetings with your own behaviour reflected back to you.
What did you do next?
I had a variety of jobs, in each of which I was offered free training: as a teacher, librarian, social worker. To each of these offers I replied – no! I’m an artist! I was also making jumpers to sell, but I didn’t really know what I was about. I joined Camden Social Services in the mid 70s (my desk had a phone, a typewriter, a filing tray and an ash tray). One of my clients was Alan Bennett and the Lady in the Van. This was 1976. He wanted help to take her to the baths, but it was turned down, on the grounds that it wasn’t possible to establish her actual age. He wrote me the most brilliant letter, which I wish I had a copy of. I was number 2 of a long line of social workers on this case.
So you didn’t become a social worker?
No. I got married and had my two sons whilst doing bits of creative work and youth work. We moved to Leeds in 1983 to get out of London and buy a house. That was great. But we visited Robin Hood’s Bay and fell in love with it: we moved there in 1988. My kids grew up there.
Then, through acquiring children’s books to read to my sons, I decided I could have a go myself. I wrote some rhyming stories for children with illustrations, and got an agent. I published my first book, If I were a crocodile (Century Hutchinson/ Random House) It was also used on children’s TV. I was also freelance illustrating for EJ Arnold, the publisher of schools’ text books and for Yorkshire TV children’s programmes. At the same time, I worked in a local pub to make ends meet.
And I began singing - although I had always thought I could. On a school trip me and another mum and a teacher started singing in the back of the coach, and thought we could do something with this. We formed Henwen, an all female acappella group, and started getting gigs locally. Then we spread our wings further, even doing a national tour in 2007 with Ian MacMillan performing a piece co-written with him. The group is still going, but it’s been a bit quiet recently. After I leave this post I’ll get things going again.
Are you always an organiser in the activities you do?
Yes in some ways. Working in TVA has given me a lot of skills: I know what needs to be done, and I’ve practised this many times. Lots of artists have great ideas, but don’t know how to think through the logistical aspects – so they don’t plan out their funding bids properly. Now there isn’t so much money, there’s more pressure on projects to be deliverable. You won’t get funded just for good ideas.
How did you get to be CEO of Tees Valley Arts?
Through the books and my work for TV, I got invited to go into schools to talk about my work. I found I enjoyed this, and was good at it. I started to do workshops in schools and I also taught adult art classes. Then I got a job working for what was then Cleveland Arts, on a project called Articulate, funded through the Health Action Zone, for arts and disability. This was in 1999. I worked for three years on this, and also did projects funded through Creative Partnerships. I realised you could make things happen, and this was when I got the first funding for work with for asylum seekers and refugees.
I became Social Inclusion Manager in 2006. I was also doing an MA in Creative Writing with Manchester Metropolitan University. It was an online MA, taught by Michael Schmidt, which was one of the reasons why I chose to do it. This was quite early days in on-line studying, and there were some issues, but it fitted into my life. I loved Michael Schmidt – he was very sharp. In my final year my tutor was Michael Symmons Roberts, which was a bonus. I got a distinction.
In 2008, I became Acting CEO, which was then ratified in 2009 - just as budgets were shrinking everywhere. If I’d known there was such a thing as arts management way back – I think by now I’d be running the Old Vic!
How do you manage the balance of your life?
Over the last 5 to 10 years since being Chief Executive Officer, I’ve found that the demands of the job take up all my energy. I don’t resent it but it’s a fact. Now I’m coming up to leaving, while there’s still some spirit and energy left, I’m both excited and frightened.
What frightens you?
What if you look into yourself and there’s nothing there? What if what you do is second rate? What if you can’t get it out anywhere? I’m also aware that I’ll miss stimulus, the colleagues, the bizarre events in the wider arts world. I don’t want to disappear in Robin Hood’s Bay! I want networks and people to correspond with – that’s very important to me.
Aging is also an issue: will I be able to drive my car to Sainsbury’s?
Do you think you have achieved everything?
I feel a raging sense of under achievement! I want to go back and be a pop singer!
I would like to have a really fulfilling mixed creative practice where I am engaging with interesting people and my work is showcased in places I respect. And I would like people I respect to respect my work!
Looking back, I think there have been three major events in my life which changed my view of myself: the birth of my first child, the acceptance of my first book and the death of my mother.
Has being a woman helped or hindered?
I can’t imagine being a man. Yes, men get breaks, but there’s so much joy in being a woman, however difficult and challenging it can be. Women have brought me strength. In the arts wold, there are a lot of senior powerful women, though you still see lots of men at the head of things.
What’s your favourite outfit?
The outfit I’m thinking of is one I made myself out of some chintz curtains from a charity shop. It was pale pink with enormous cabbage roses: deep pink, red and yellow. I made it sleeveless, with a full skirt dropping to low mid calf and I felt like a queen in it. It was lovely to wear, and people always commented on it. It was like wearing a ballgown. So bloody lovely! It fell apart in the end: the red roses went first.
But I’ve had a lot of good outfits. Being tall means complete strangers have often complimented me on my look. I make a point of doing the same to other people as I think it’s a lovely thing to do.
I’ve always enjoyed clothes. My mum used to make all my dresses. I had a lot of gingham, small flower print frocks, very pretty, with smocking. I was aware I had nice clothes. My mum taught me to sew and knit, for which I’m very grateful. When puberty started I rebelled against the home made dresses. It was the very dawn of the 60s, and I decided that I preferred C and A. Probably broke my mother’s heart! The shift dress kind of look.
My style icon is Jimi Hendrix. I have a photo of him pinned by my desk. For me, he is the epitome of an amazing look as well as an amazing being. He summed it up for me, that sense that there was more to life.
What music do you listen to?
African music of various kinds. I still absolutely love Leonard Cohen. But also black music of all kinds: Marvin Gaye, Otis, Aretha, Stevie Wonder, Brenda Fassie.
I love the McGarrigle sisters. I saw them live in Whitby a while back. I also listen to a bit of classical: Aarvo Paart, John Taverner. I’ve got broad musical taste really. I love the star quality of some of the women singers of the past: Dusty Springfield, Shirley Bassey. They were amazing.
What do you read?
I love crime fiction: Ian Rankin, Deon Meyer, plus the older writers like Chandler. I don’t like gruesome stuff :I find it a bit boring. I like a well-plotted novel. I love Hilary Mantel – especially Beyond Black. I’m a huge fan of Tony Hoagland the poet who has a collection called ‘What Narcissism Means to Me’. And I love Larkin too. I think Kate Tempest is a knock out – especially with the music. I like the mix of spoken and sung words – I’d like to do more of that. I like to perform. In fact, I’m better at performing than being in an audience.