ART U Need Community Art Project Explodes Across Essex

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 23 March 2007
a group picture showing five women standing over a prostrate smiling man

Photographer Anne Kathrin Greiner, image courtesy of Commissions East

(Above) L to r - Andrea Mason; Milika Muritu; Hayley Newman; Lucy Harrison and Jane Wilbraham, with lead artist Bob & Roberta Smith (on the ground) at the launch of Art U Need on March 16 at Tilbury Fort.

Since January 2006 a group of intrepid artists has been actively working in some of the more neglected corners of South East Essex on a series of sculptures, interventions, public art blogs and all manner of community based art projects to try and transform the region's open spaces.

Coming together under the banner Art U Need: An Outdoor Revolution, the group has been working with the artist Bob and Roberta Smith who has been curating the work and advising the artists on how best to respond to these often ignored areas of south east Britain.

The sites, which are all within the regeneration areas designated the Thames Gateway, include Canvey Heights, Rochford Reservoir and The Garrison Estate in Purfleet, were chosen by community representatives, local authority arts officers and Bob & Roberta Smith.

The artists include Lucy Harrison who has been working on Canvey Heights; Hayley Newman, based at Rochford; Jane Wilbraham working in Purfleet; Milika Muritu based on the Queensway Estate, Southend and Andrea Mason who has been developing work on the Northlands Park Neighbourhood in Basildon.

a picture of a man wearing a brown jacket and straw boater

Bob and Roberta Smith. Photographer Anne Kathrin Greiner, image courtesy of Commissions East

All are known for their work in the public realm and key to the projects they have devised is the close collaboration of the local communities who live in these places.

“Art U Need is an innovative project which the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership (TGSEP) sees as an important part of the regeneration programme in South Essex,” said Steve Williams, Chair of Thames Gateway’s Social Regeneration Forum.

“We believe that encouraging local people to be involved with artists in the creation of work that reflects the stories of people and their localities is an important step towards building stronger, more cohesive and sustainable communities.”

The resulting work ranges from a mobile sculpture of a giant fish that will act as an information point, kiosk and performance platform in Purfleet, to the inauguration of the Canvey Island Rendezvous Club, where locals meet to talk and walk the area.

Hayley Newman has had the local diving club retrieving a sunken sculpture from the depths of Rochford Resevoir and reconstructing it on the river bank, whilst Milika Muritu’s project, Queensway Streams on the Queensway Estate, involves an ambitious collaboration with the local residents of a tower block.

a photograph of a woman holding up a card

Art U Need artist Andrea Mason with one of her diaries describing all the events and activities in her Art U Need Needs U project at Northlands Park Neighbourhood, Basildon. Photograph Martin Figura, courtesy Commissions East

The latter is an art installation or public art sculpture that is essentially a colourful ribbon of Perspex that illuminates the building and the communal drying rooms – from top to bottom.

It seems to have caught the imagination of the locals – among them resident Mike Chapman who commented: “It will draw attention to the tower blocks and maybe people will say ‘I wouldn’t mind living there now’. It will raise the profile of not only the building, but also the estate.”

In Basildon a series of events and programmes has been devised aimed at every section of the community. It ranges from community dog walkers' events to poetry slams. There have even been parkour demonstrations – to introduce youngsters to the joys of free running (and jumping off buildings) in their local urban environment.

Also in Basildon a speaker’s corner has been so successful that a local has taken the project on board and is going to continue running it is a local resource. “I’ve been to most of the events, and I’ve had so much fun,” said Basildon resident Lisa Horner on Andrea Mason’s project.

“When I took part in the Speakers’ Corner, it really brought out the fight in me, and now I want to stand up and speak out! I think we’ve lost the art of communication, and I want to fight against this habit we’ve got into of not communicating with each other.”

a photograph of three scuba divers photographed from behind

Divers preparing to retrieve pieces of Hayley Newman’s sculpture from Rochford Reservoir. Photographer Anne Kathrin Greiner, courtesy Commissions East

All of the work has been developed under the watchful eye and guidance of Bob and Roberta Smith. Something of a renegade artist, his work often questions the value and purpose of art, and his appointment by the commissioning body for the area Commissions East was aimed at finding out if art can genuinely transform the way people relate to where they live.

The Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership, through the Investing in Communities programme, has initiated Art U Need, which is funded by the East of England Development Agency and Arts Council England, East. Commissions East is the leading visual arts development agency for the East of England. It is project managing Art U Need.

Art U Need: My Part in the Public Art Revolution, by Bob & Roberta Smith will be published by Black Dog in Autumn 2007.

a group photograph showing people holding up a placard

Photograph Lucy Harrison, courtesy Commissions East

(Above) Members of Lucy Harrison’s Rendezvous Club, who meet monthly for themed walks at Canvey Heights, with the cover artwork for the guidebook, Captivating Canvey.

A series of events has been arranged and facilitated by all of the artists involved:

On Saturday March 24 Jane Wilbraham’s 'The Purfleet One Float Carnival (or, The re-inauguration of the Ministerial Fish Dinner)’ will tour the Garrison Estate, starting at 11am at Purfleet Primary School. Visitors will be invited to inspect a sculpture of a giant fish, and take away copies of the Purfleet Cookbook of recipes compiled by local residents.

On Sunday March 25, Art U Need’s education officer, Kate Clayton, will be leading a ‘bus tour to some of the Art U Need sites. First stop is Rochford Reservoir to meet divers involved in artist Hayley Newman’s ‘A Secret Sculpture’ project, followed by a Mass Picnic at Northlands Park, Basildon, devised by Andrea Mason.

There will be further bus tours of the work happening in Basildon on Sunday April 15. Call Kate Clayton on 07923 559002 for more details.

On Sunday March 31 members of Lucy Harrison’s Rendezvous Club will be leading walks around Canvey - starting at 2pm from The Oysterfleet Hotel, and meeting at 4pm at Canvey Heights for the unveiling of new signs in the country park.

The ‘Captivating Canvey’ guidebook, designed by Lucy with a cover illustration painted by local signwriter Bob Gibbons, and including observations and reminiscences from Rendezvous Club members, will be launched. It is the first publication from Rendezvous Press, which was set up as part of Lucy’s ‘Canvey Guides’ project.

An audio guide has been recorded, which includes spoken contributions from residents and the main walk narrated by local actor Roy Blackwell. It will be available for hire from Canvey Library, or as a download from www.canveyguides.com. A map has also been installed at Canvey Heights Country Park.

Also on March 31, Andrea Mason’s ‘Art U Need Needs U’ project will be celebrating three months of walks and performance events at an ‘It’s A Wrap’ party in the Mirren Studio at the Towngate Theatre, Basildon, from 7-10pm.

For more information see www.artuneedneedsu.org; www.myspace.com/artuneedneedsu; www.thebasildonblog.blogspot.com; www.youtube.com/user/artuneedneedsu.

Milika Muritu will be launching Queensway Streams on April 1 at the Queensway Estate between 5.30 and 9pm, whilst on Tuesday April 10 Kate Clayton will be leading a group of 8-11 year old members of Footprints, a youth group from Rochford, in a try-dive – as a result of Hayley Newman’s project with Rochford-based dive group Dive Odyssea.

For more information on any of the launches and events, see www.commissionseast.org.uk/artuneed

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