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Blazing an art trail
IT’S that time of year again – artists and businesses are coming together for the Leigh Art Trail.
Teaming up to showcase the talents of both artists and Leigh’s plethora of quirky independent businesses, the popular event sees visitors flock to the town to take in the pop-up exhibitions held in galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants.
It runs from June 16 to June 23, and you’ll find ceramics displays nestled up crooked wooden studio stairs and paintings beside your tables in restaurants. Or why not take in photos while you sip a coffee?
This year sees a range of special events join the exhibitions, including photographer Alan Hockett, who will be turning the porch of St Clement’s Church into a camera obscura, similar to a pinhole camera.
Then there are performance art students Chrissy Cochrane and Ruth Hazel – or Generic Head – performing in the Leigh Library Gardens.
“We’re trying to open people’s ideas about art,” explains Sharon Byrne, an artist and one of the organisers behind the event.
“Yes, you can come and buy paintings or photographs, but it’s not all 2D. Contemporary art has expanded considerably over the past decade or two.
Artists work in multimedia more and more and it’s important to include performance artists and other events around the more traditional forms.”
Sharon, who is showing her work at shop Net Paper, has been involved in the art trail since it began, having recently moved her work back to Leigh after painting in London.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” Sharon explains. “My dad was a fisherman, I’m from a Leigh fishing family and when I went to art school as a mature student I took a studio in London, exhibited in London and thought everything had to be there – and it didn’t.”
Turning her focus back home, Sharon discovered a close-knit circle of artists working from Leigh – rather more invisibly than now, with events like the art trail bringing them to the fore.
“That was a very exciting point in my career,” she says. “When I realised I was able to work and live in the same town. As I grew up, Leigh was a very quiet area – it wasn’t the Leigh that I know now.”
Sharon describes the first year as unrecognisable to the event it has grown into. Working in arts education, she exhibited a folder of work alongside other artists in Leigh doing similar things, which sparked an interest from fellow teachers and art enthusiasts.
“I put my folder out and that was it,” says Sharon. “There was a lot of conversation and interest from teachers and other people. It was a few years down the line before it became more of an exhibiting opportunity with a collaboration with businesses.
“The initial thought was really just to showcase artists and the quality of artists that lived in Leigh, not necessarily with businesses – that was something that became apparent over time.
“Despite the vibrancy of Leigh, there aren’t many studio spaces and Leigh has a reputation for independent businesses, so it seemed a natural collaboration to team up with them.
“Now there are more than 20 art trails in Essex, but Leigh was one of the first. We are at the forefront.”
For photograher Helle Johansen-Baker, the collaboration with businesses has been taken to another level after teaming up with handbag designer Carmen Woods. Not only is she exhibiting on its premises, but the two have developed a unique way to blend their talents.
“We’re working on something together, which is quite novel from my point of view,” says Helle who moved to Leigh in 2010 and got involved with the trail as a way of settling into the town.
“We’re getting my images printed on to material and making cases and bags and phone holders, just so people have something different to take away with them.
“Prints are really big this year in the fashion industry and it’s a really interesting thing that I didn’t know that much about.”
Sharon adds: “As well as keeping with the spirit of the art trail by working with local businesses, it’s a way of exhibiting the artist and the idea of looking at her work. That’s an opportunity Helle might not have had, had she not teamed up with Carmen.”
When Helle moved to Leigh from Dorset she applied to the art trail, keen to meet with other artists and encouraged by her partner.
“I showed my work in Chloe Elizabeth, when she was a very new business,” she says. “It was good for me and good for her, too.
“It’s a nice thing to work with local businesses. As a new person here, I would say it’s important if you want to be doing this to just get involved.”