"You need patience and mindfulness - light is everything."
Emma Trotter is part of the exciting developments around food and community involvement which have been happening recently in the wonderful Smeltery café in Middlesbrough’s mima art gallery. It was in this lovely setting, on a sunny June morning, that my interview with Emma took place.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I come from Stockton, and I went to art college in Hartlepool. Then I moved down to Brighton to study Editorial Photography, but then realised the course wasn’t quite right for me. I came back home for a reassessment, and then decided to study Fashion at Northumbria University. I was more interested in trend forecasting - I’d been doing working as a visual merchandiser, where I had a rare amount of creative scope. Everything I’d done previously melded into it. It was a great experience – I did a lot of travelling, and made a great connection with a company in Paris.
"My boss was a fascinating woman, a big inspiration for me."
After I graduated I moved to London and started working for this company. I was very lucky – I probably didn’t appreciate it at the time. It’s a tough, very competitive industry but somehow I landed on my feet. My boss was a fascinating woman, a big inspiration for me. She’s still working and traveling all over the world in her late 70s, a specialist in her field. I feel very privileged to have worked with her. Her pathway wasn’t the common route either – when I compared myself to her, it helped me to shift, to see how different experiences meld together. This was the early 2000s. Now I think people are more attractive in terms of employability if they have a lot of different experiences.
"I went to India for 4 months"
My pathway has been undulating – I finished that job, and decided to travel. I went to India for 4 months. I left my job on the promise that I could freelance when I got back. I worked with an NGO in Delhi, which employed women who had been affected by HIV, either themselves or other family members. They were taught jewellery making skills, and were highly adept: it was also a social opportunity, independence, a chance to leave the family home and meet other women. It was a very inspiring time for me. I also visited other small organisations enabling and supporting women through craft. I decided I wanted to set up a business of my own. I thought I’d be working with craftspeople in India then promoting them back home, have a café, an arts space and all that … and at the same time Luke was setting up here, and he asked me if I would be interested .. a Community Art Café in Middlesbrough, in an art gallery!
A few twists and turns later, it felt important to do something here, where it could potentially make more of an impact, and returning also felt right.
A lot of young people move to London – what do you think about that?
Unfortunately, that’s where the work is – and maybe they don’t get the right support to set up for themselves up here. Although it has really changed. I moved back here from London in 2016 and I really noticed how things are different now. I came back to start something! Luke and I got together romantically at that time and I thought, yes, I can get involved in this whole venture.
"We wanted to combine everything – food, community, art"
What’s the main thrust behind The Smeltery?
We wanted to combine everything – food, community, art. It’s such an iconic building. And we were starting from scratch – we’re very different from the original café. I’ve always loved The Waiting Room (link) – in fact, I worked there when I was studying. I loved what Luke had created there – especially the Sunday nights, with performance and food. It had such a homely feeling, hidden away, but a really great place. Everything was prepared with love, always fresh and wholesome. That’s what we aim for her, using local ingredients, taking care with the preparation, knowing where everything comes from. We get a lot of good feedback. (NB The Smeltery is an artist commission by Luke Harding as part of mima's new direction as the UK centre for Arte Util (Useful Art))
Do you have any plans for the future in The Smeltery?
We’d like to do more evening events – music, poetry, with food. We’d also like to do more community related stuff. We’ve made some links with North Ormesby Youth Projects, having young people come and work in the kitchen, and that’s been great. While I was in London, I did some work with Kids Company, some mentoring and befriending, and I really enjoyed that. That could be something I might do here, in some way.
Plus we have a really exciting development happening with a three month residency at the Orange Pip Kitchen– the café in the newly reopened Town Hall.
What about your personal plans?
I think I’d like to develop my leadership skills – maybe through the Clore Programme (LINK). Personal development is important to me. And of course, I’d like to get involved in more community projects. I’m interested in the creative use of food waste, in the politics of food generally, and I need to understand how I might work on that. I’d also like to do more travelling and have been looking into the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust awards. https://www.wcmt.org.uk
They look like a brilliant idea of helping people travel with a purpose.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
I’m a Buddhist! A Nichiren Buddhist, actually, which has a chanting practice. It’s an important part of my life. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nichiren_Buddhism