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Back to the Black Country

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

In January I was looking for opportunities for projects where I could explore the knowledge I had gained from my Arts Council DYCP funding - bonding photographs to exterior (concrete) surfaces. I’m not sure if it is a lack of confidence or imagination on my part but I really didn’t know where to start. So, the Artists Newsletter and Axis Web seemed like good places. I trawled through all the opportunities and ended up applying for 3. The first I left til the last minute and wasn’t surprised when I got a negative response, the second one was really beyond my experience in public art but thought I‘d give it a go – unlucky…the third looked really interesting though. It was a company called ArtTrack that were looking for quite very specific EOI's in order to commission 25 artists to build artworks into the fabric of a state of the art tram system connecting Dudley in the West Midlands to Birmingham - the artworks from my understanding will be purposeful and reflect the community as opposed to gentrify the space and ignore the towns unique 'personality'.

Although there is a good local bus service in Dudley itself, it remains quite isolated due to the lack of a decent and reliable public transport beyond its environs - which like much of the country has seen these vital connections diminish.

Anyway, from my EOI, Art Track liked my portraiture meets concrete idea, so last week I drove to Dudley with my pop up studio and spent a couple of days meeting local people in the Gather Café initially supported by a project coordinator and then left to my own devices. I had never been to the town before and only visited Birmingham a couple of times so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

But it was like a gift, everyone was without pretension, very open about themselves and their life experiences and talked with a real love of the town and community. Although this part of the country is historically called 'the black country' (earning its name from the foundries and forges that oozed smog above its rooftops in the 19th century) this evocative title rather cloaks the energy and enthusiasm of the community although when uttered by them it is said with pride.

Maurice and Beryl: We are both from the Black Country and have been married 62 years. (when I asked if they would kiss for the photo Beryl said, yes of course he always loves kisses)

To try and capture the community, I set up my studio and created something of a conveyor belt of portraiture over about 4 hours and with the help of Lorraine and Stu the owners of the Gather Cafe, many people were happy to sit for me. I tried, as far as I could to find out a little about the person and their connection to the town and then use that information as a pivot for the images – some images worked better than others but that goes with out saying really.

Mark Antony: “I didn’t have parents and grew up in children’s homes in London. I moved to Dudley for work and love it here – its real – London’s lost that I think.”

Charlotte: “I have moved all around Dudley but I’ll always stay here because it is my core.”

Bev: "People don’t always say good things about Dudley, but it’s our town and we love it"

Andi “I fully embraced myself as a trans woman six years ago. Dudley has been a brilliantly supportive and accepting town. My church, Top Church, are incredibly affirming, showing me that I can be the person I am meant to be.”

Sonny and Alex “Sonny is my father-in-law and role model really”.

Sarah “I recently took one of my foster children to a local nature reserve – I said “look at that swan” he said he didn’t know what swan was – it was a first! he later took is social worker one the same (massive) walk and she said she couldn’t believe how knowledgeable he was – I love being a foster carer, sometimes it’s tough but really rewarding”.

Lorraine and Stu (owners of the Gather Cafe): "Gather is a home from home and we think it represents the diverse and friendly community that is Dudley. It’s the people that make our town what it is and they’re open, straightforward and giving".

I then took a walk around the streets of Dudley town centre and captured a few portraits of local people, waiting for buses, going to the market and tending to shops and stalls.

My last port of call for this trip was the towns extensive and very impressive archives where for a fiver I took some photos of original maps and was taught by the staff how to effectively access their online service.

Maps of the locality from the Dudley archive - the map on the left dates back to the 1800's

Over the next two weeks I will select and trial the portraits on concrete slabs, as prototypes for an exhibition in July '22 in Dudley itself where all the artists will show case their plans for the build and share these ideas with the community. I’ll keep you posted.

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