Founded in January 1999, by a group of artists who have experienced mental health problems and live in the London Borough of Bexley and the surrounding area. The Lodge, Hall Place, Bexley, Kent DA15 1PG. 01322 55489. www.centrepieces.org / email@example.com / Centrepieces is a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO), Registration No. 1160300
On Thursday 20 August, Centrepieces members had an enjoyable day visiting two art galleries in Colchester, the first of a series of trips we hope will become a regular event.
Based in a converted town house dating from 1730 on Colchester High Street, the Minories Galleries have a relaxed atmosphere, fostered by largely retaining the layout of the original building – for example, one of the exhibition areas is named ‘The Front Room’ – which allow a generous amount of white-walled, parquet-floored space in which to appreciate the exhibitions at your leisure. The laid back, friendly vibe extends to the cheeky slogans in the café, ‘No phones at the dinner table!’ and ‘What’s the wi-fi?’, as well as the provision for artistic study, music and theatre performances and, if you’re so inclined, getting married. All this has helped make the Minories an important part of the local community, as well as ideal for an outing on a summer’s day.
This summer’s ‘Masters at the Minories’ exhibition features work by Master of Arts students who’ve studied at the Colchester School of Art. One of this year’s graduates is Sonia Serro, who is also a Centrepieces registered artist. Her work in the exhibition reveals a mature, stylish and sophisticated creative: Sonia’s mixed media composition All at Sea combines digital photography, text, plastic fashioned to resemble the contours of waves and bespoke leather-bound boxes, all in a three-dimensional map of her personal world. It’s elegantly done, and you can spend a long time puzzling over the textures, layers and intriguing and enigmatic phrases she’s used.
Other highlights are Sue Caddy’s Black Vessels, impressively organic ceramic sculptures which could have been anything from clams to upside down mushrooms; Jayne Wallett’s particularly striking gowns and customised dress patterns, adorned with cryptic phrases like “As women get older they become invisible and come into their power” and, a personal favourite, Helen Armstrong Bland’s presentation of found objects such as vintage toys and ceramic ornaments. With some of them backlit through a parachute fashioned into a pyramid, the overall effect – for me, anyway – is of a nostalgic view of childhood.
Worth noting by the door is a sculpture fashioned in the style of an arcade-game shoot-‘em-up. You pick up the gun, point it at a small van in a model landscape, pull the trigger and a cockney voice starts demanding, “Give me the money!” Maybe you had to be there, but I found it very funny, and somehow it sums up the Minories’ refreshingly unpretentious and laid back attitude to the arts.
The same is equally true of First.Site, a visual arts organisation that was founded in 1994 and originally operated from the Minories. In 2003, a consortium that included Colchester Borough Council and Arts Council England agreed to build a new arts centre next door to The Minories in a concentrated attempt to develop an artistic centre in Colchester’s city centre.
It’s a great place. Here you’ll find exhibitions, films, art installations, televised live theatre and vintage ephemera, from old car radios to electric guitars, for sale. The building’s been constructed in such a way that a large, gently sloping corridor guides you through everything from a genuine Roman mosaic to ‘Art Games’, one of which encourages you to interpret recorded sounds by drawing with chalk. It all feels pleasingly organic and effortlessly thought through – the record player by the door quietly playing the Grease soundtrack was a sweet touch – and, because the layout has been so well crafted, you can spend many pleasant hours wandering through First.Site’s artistic nooks and crannies. The management has even provided a children’s play area, and you can’t say that about many art galleries.
(Image Copyright: John Virtue)
The principal exhibition here at the moment is John Virtue’sThe Sea, forty paintings developed from some two hundred notebooks which celebrate the brooding Norfolk coast. Andrew Graham-Dixon’s book John Virtue: 40 Paintingsnotes that “the series as a whole embodies an obsessive revisiting of the same primal place,” but anyone’s who’s grown up by the sea, like myself, can totally relate to Virtue’s Jackson Pollock-meets-J.M.W. Turner-inspired stormy maelstroms of black and white. He’s really captured the exhilaratingly violent collision of wave and cloud that you only seem to find in Norfolk.
After enjoying all that, there was time to dally in the bookshop and for the Centrepieces co-ordinator to have a quick acoustic jam on one of the guitars. You couldn’t do that in the Tate Modern.
At the risk of quoting Wallace and Gromit, it was a grand day out: rewarding and educational with good company. Seven of us went on the trip this time, but it was so worthwhile that in days to come, I’d like to think we could we could expand the attendance to a minibus full. We’ll see.
The sculpture workshops at Hall Place, which began in the summer, have successfully combined creativity and mental well being.
Christie Cassisa (left) with this summer's sculpture group. (Image: Dawn Tomlin)
Running over the summer and planned to carry on into the winter, the sculpture workshops run by Christie Cassisa, funded by an award from the William Kendall Charity, encourage people with mental health issues to express themselves – and hopefully heal – using materials as varied as plastic, buttons and breeze blocks. It must be working, because since the classes began, some people have been so inspired they’ve started bringing along their own materials to work with.
This is because of Christie’s refreshing attitude of “enjoying the materials” and “being the child you weren’t allowed to be.” Beginning in the summer on Fridays, in the pleasant, sunny atmosphere of the courtyard at Centrepiece’s lodge in Hall Place, from the first week the classes had a full complement of students. The space may only allow for seven, but the limited numbers mean that all the attendees have the benefit of Christie’s proactive and enthusiastic one-to-one tutoring.
(Image: Dawn Tomlin)
She’s interested in people and their histories and, in her humorous, gently persuasive way, suggests the best way for them to interact with their work. One student had battled to leave his house for more than half an hour, but after coming to the sculpture workshop, was able to get the better of his agoraphobia and be out of the house for more than three hours at a time every Friday.
Christie’s inclusive approach has gradually spread to the whole group. To begin with, people were quiet and confined themselves to their work, but as the workshops went on, students began making suggestions on how to help each other, swapped ideas and chatted about their projects. The classes now have a relaxed, collaborative atmosphere, and even if at times some attendees don’t feel confident enough to work, they can sit and benefit from the ambience.
Testimonials about Christie’s tutoring have been universally positive, commending a “good teaching style related to individuals’ needs, both emotionally and creatively” (Dawn Tomlin); “learning a lot and enjoying it a lot” (John Exell), as well as the joy of “exploring different mediums and finding I have a bit of imagination after all” (Rosemary Symons).
(Image: Dawn Tomlin)
Plans to expand on the success of the workshops include tackling a different subject every week and drawing classes in the grounds of Hall Place. For now, though, the sculpture works will be recommencing in mid-September. It doesn’t matter if your interests are dragons, masks, Chaos Theory or circles, or your preferred materials are nails, electric drills or clay; Centrepieces will help you get the best out of them and, in turn, get the best out of yourself.
For more information, contact Christie Cassisa @ firstname.lastname@example.org