The impact of everyday creativity on community identity and cohesion

The impact of everyday creativity on community identity and cohesion

By Alex O’Toole


This fascinating short essay by the Creative Director and Producer Alex O'Toole explores the renewal of domestic creativity as a powerful radical act. It was commissioned by LeftCoast, Arts Council England's Creative People and Places project for Blackpool and Fleetwood following conversations about their Inside Out programme using hyper local culture and creativity to empower deprived communities.

About LeftCoast

LeftCoast is a programme of arts, culture and creative activity happening across Blackpool and Wyre on the Fylde Coast.

Our vision is that Blackpool and Wyre is strengthened by communities that share their talents, feel connected to each other and are confident to ‘have a say’ in the matters that effect their daily lives.

LeftCoast are all about creating amazing art on your doorstep. From jaw-dropping spectacle to intimate experiences in your neighbourhood. In the process we hope to inspire and support creatives who live, work and study here.

We champion socially engaged arts practice and we have a set of of commissioning principles that we use to help us decide what work we want to commission. We use any art form which involves people and communities in debate, collaboration or social interaction. The participatory element is key and so are the artworks created – having equal importance to the collaborative act of making/producing them.

LeftCoast was brought together by a local partnership of organisations including Blackpool Coastal HousingBlackpool CouncilWyre CouncilBlackpool Grand Theatre and Blackpool & The Fylde College.  Established as part of the Arts Council’s Creative People and Places programme.

About the Inside Out programme

The backof a woman reading the information next to two hanging images.

Inside Out exhibition. Images Claire Griffiths, June 2021

Inside Out is the brain child of Fleetwood based artist Gillian Wood. It is a project that is bringing together the often unseen and under represented creative talents and skills of the people of Fleetwood and surrounding areas.

It is literally turning the inside, out.

Back in March 2020 Gillian was working with us at LeftCoast as an artist in residence. As with the rest of the country her world suddenly shrunk as we went into our first COVID 19 national lockdown. Her background working in costume on Hollywood films meant she was in contact with a network of costumiers who started to sew scrubs for the NHS. Looking around the area she saw that there was no local equivalent, so she founded the Fylde Coast Scrub Hub.  The scrub hub grew through collaboration with a team of local sewers, producing over 400 sets of scrubs. Fast forward to last summer and those that had been sewing scrubs started to ask themselves, what next? Gill decided to make a film about the scrub hub and interviewed the sewing team in their gardens. She realised what a creative bunch she was working with, people weren’t only sewing, but baking, knitting, making and painting. Not only that but people were sharing stories of people making rocking horses, designing suits and sewing wedding dresses. We thought that this needed celebrating, and so Inside Out was born.

Inside Out Exhibition

The Inside Out Exhibition took place from  22 June – 18 July 2021. It was a celebration of all things creative, made in Fleetwood. We had a phenomenal response to the exhibition, both from those who exhibited and those who visited. It became a place where people could talk about their work, share their techniques and inspiration and just generally exchange stories about their home town. It really demonstrated how much this creative spaces was needed at this time.

The exhibition took place in the old Fleetwood Hospital, the perfect site for an exhibition that created a space for reflection and sharing.

The Inside Out Programme is one of 31 groups to be shortlisted nationally for the Creative Lives People's Choice award, and they are the only group in Lancashire to be shortlisted.

Essay by Alex O'Toole

Fleetwood: The New Creative Radical

How one of England’s oldest Creative People and Places Projects is growing grassroots artists and makers with a DIY attitude

It’s a wet October day in Fleetwood. A group of locals have taken residence for the day in the former Fleetwood Hospital on Pharos Street. They have come to learn from their neighbours how to make different forms of art.

Self-taught maker, Lizza, has taught them all to make a ‘headdress to impress’, mental health worker, Val, has shown them how to make beautiful paper flowers and two sisters, Toluwani and Sinmiloluwa, just 13 and 11 years old, respectively, have guided them through a lino printing session.

Now it is the turn of Kate, who has just put down a blow torch and has begun rolling a marble around a canvas dripping with paint, a group of enthralled locals looking on.

“Can you use dobbers, or does it have to be singles?” someone asks.

“Dobbers - I haven’t heard that word in years,” says another.

Everyone laughs.

“You can use any size of marble,” says Kate, with authority.

Some people write this down.

Earlier in the year, on a balmy evening in June, these same local artists and makers, alongside a host of others, transformed the ramshackle rooms of the former hospital’s upper floors into a gallery space to house their creations for the inaugural Inside Out Exhibition.

In the larger rooms, handmade benches, birdboxes, and fluorescent photos of the town’s industrial past held space with installations of fabric fish and a dining table set for six with a handprinted tablecloth and teacup candelabras.

In a side room, knitted seagulls, perched on deckchairs set up on the sandy floor of a makeshift beach, stared out of the internal windows. A garden of paper flowers was planted in the adjoining room, and in the lobby, a hospital cubicle curtained off a large-scale painting of a naked woman with a cat’s head.

The strange and the beautiful, the natural and the unnatural, the mundane and the magical: all found their place at Inside Out.

The locals flocked in. Who’d have thought that her down the road had been doing all this behind closed doors?

For most of the locals involved, the Inside Out Exhibition was the first time they had shared their work publicly. Many were nervous about the endeavour, a number of them having backed out several times before the opening, only to re-join the fold after encouragement from Gillian Wood, artist in residence at LeftCoast, Blackpool and Fleetwood’s Creative People and Places project.

It was Wood who spotted the town’s exceptional talent for making, when she set up a Scrub Hub there in 2020, making scrubs for the NHS in response to the pandemic.

“Through conversation with local sewers at the Scrub Hub, it became apparent that a lot of people were doing a lot of making in their houses. Knitting, sewing, making clothes and painting, all sorts, but they were doing it individually for themselves because lockdown gave them the time to do it.” said Wood.

“I just started painting during lockdown,” said Kate Ferris, one of the local makers involved in both the Inside Out Exhibition and the Studio Day. “I wasn’t sure if my work was any good, but when Inside Out came up, I thought, why not? Give it a go. I didn’t know anyone else who was doing it, but Gill was so helpful, so patient and encouraging. If I was having a doubting moment, she’d always talk to me. I felt like I had the support. It was nerve-wracking putting my work up against other people’s, but it’s given me a lot of confidence. I am really glad I did it. When people asked me about how I got involved in painting and the exhibition, I was able to say to them with confidence, just have a go, that’s what I did. I sold one of my pieces at the exhibition, and since then, I’ve sold a couple of pieces at commercial exhibitions in Blackpool and Fleetwood. It’s amazing, considering I’d never shown my work to anyone before this.”

Like Kate, most started out making for themselves as a way to keep busy, drawing on their locality, natural and everyday environment for inspiration. Cheap, found, recycled, or repurposed second-hand materials from charity shops kept production costs low. Even the veteran making large-scale rocking horses found a way to work with mastery at low cost. His horses are crafted by gluing layers of plywood together, then sanding them down by hand for hours and hours. The result is remarkable.

The ease of consuming rather than making as a mark of modern culture, is a provocation that LeftCoast have explored before. In 2019, their Real Estates programme in Fleetwood gave rise to Front Door, a new community led streetwear brand created by young people in Fleetwood and former LeftCoast artist in residence, Ocean Farini: a whole collection dedicated to reclaiming working-class creativity for working-class people.

During lockdown, getting dressed was, in large part, optional for the majority of us, and the social norms of working, shopping, and socialising weren’t happening in the same way. Restricted to our homes, it was perhaps inevitable that so many sought to stave off boredom through creative activities. However, with the support of LeftCoast, Fleetwood’s creations became a catalyst for change.

“Some of the work that Gill developed with the makers - transposing their drawings into fabrics and wallpapers - started a conversation about how this culture of domestic creativity is authentically ours,” said Laura Jamieson, Creative Engagement Manager at LeftCoast. “We can have our own art on our walls, and we can design and make our own fabrics. We don’t necessarily have to buy in to consumerism. One resident involved declared she was only going to make her own clothes from now on. She wasn’t going to buy them anymore. That’s where it starts to become really interesting. Fleetwood is a town whose lost industry as a fishing port is still very keenly felt. This has led to deprivation issues associated with lack of investment and a mourning for its past identity. Projects like Front Door and Inside Out are helping people to consider how they can use their own local culture and creativity to help them establish an alternative identity, one which is based on value rather than cost, which could ultimately be more powerful.”

It’s a radical approach, but was there ever a more radical act in life than choosing to be, and to value, your own unique self? For the community of Fleetwood, it could be the re-making of them.

As the year ends, the Inside Out artists of Fleetwood are preparing for their second exhibition. This time, their art will not only be on show. It will also be available to buy, too.

Alex O'Toole sitting in her studio

Alex O'Toole, Creative Director and Producer

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Resource type: Articles | Published: 2022