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(c) Kate Withstandley Photography (4)

After a lengthy period in the proverbial pipeline, Dartford Arts Network’s Dartford Assembly project is finally seeing fruition, springing up over a mad 2 weeks and birthing from its project management cocoon a beautiful mass of visual art for public delectation.

Conceived nearly two years ago, the central aim of the project was initially to kill two very significant birds with one stone: to provide a vehicle through which local artists could publicly display their artworks in the town, and to deliver a project which greatly enhanced the aesthetics of Lowfield Street in Dartford (which has been boarded up with hoardings for over a decade) for the general public.

Dartford Arts Network (the local arts network which I co-founded and of which I am Chair) was still in its early inception stages at that point and learning how to produce such a major project as we went along was a huge hurdle to overcome. Thankfully, we received some financial support from the council to make the project happen, but the logistical planning was immense; the time spent on design, artist liaison, landowner and council consultation, material production and site planning was overwhelming. All this was produced with a small group of local artist volunteers, each of whom was trying to (variously); do their day job, have babies, raise babies, have a life and do their own artwork. To say we are incredibly proud of, and grateful to, everyone who contributed, is an understatement.

13 individual artists contributed, as well as art students at North West Kent College, children at The Bridge Primary Community School, and 10 members of the public who produced collage and monoprint works at the public workshops we held last summer at One Bell Corner.

We have had overwhelmingly positive responses from the public, who are generally delighted to see such a wide variety of local art on public display.

I hold a firm belief in the power of art; as regenerator, motivator, and as inspirer. To lift the spirit of a community and create a sense of belief and communal optimism takes more than just physical rebuilding or looking backwards to what once was. It takes beauty and reflection; it takes recognising how much (sometimes unseen) talent and potential is already present in the area and how those resources can be nurtured and used alongside retail and development to draw interest to our town.

This is the first major public art exhibition in Dartford and I am confident it is only the beginning.

Our next project – Plastic Fantastic – is already underway. After winning a grant from Ellandi, the owners of the Priory Centre, to produce a sculpture for the community addressing the issues of sustainability and plastic waste, we will be holding workshops in September to encourage members of the public to contribute to the construction and design. See our website for more details on the project and how to get involved.

Contact us at @dartfordarts / hello@darfordartsnetwork.com / www.dartfordartsnetwork.com

(c) Kate Withstandley Photography (6)(c) Kate Withstandley Photography (5)

(c) Matt Fox Photography (2)

(c) Matt Fox Photography

(c) Jeremy Moseley Photography (2)

(c) Jeremy Moseley Photography

(c) Kate Withstandley Photography (7)

(c) Matt Fox Photography (3)

(c) Matt Fox Photography

(c) Kate Withstandley Photography (2)(c) Kate Withstandley Photography (1)

(c) Jeremy Moseley Photography

(c) Jeremy Moseley Photography

(c) Matt Fox Photography (1)

(c) Matt Fox Photography

Flood: Former footpath between Dartford Park and Brooklands Lake on the left. Original path of river on the right.

Living in a town adjacent to the Thames and with a river running through its centre, people quite understandably keep asking me if I’ve been affected by the recent floods. Have I been plunged into watery despair? Am I wading despondently knee deep in sewage, being accosted by politicians on crucial PR pity visits? No, I answer. Thankfully, that is the truth (Farage and Cameron grinning at me in wellies would no doubt push me over the proverbial water’s edge). As the result of a simple principle which appears inexplicably not to apply to other parts of the country, it was spotted back in the 70’s that we were at risk of flooding and so precautions were put in place. Dartford hasn’t flooded seriously since the late 60’s, a happy statistic our current environment minister seems intent on disproving.

What I carefully neglected to point out to my concerned inquisitors was that last weekend, whilst wandering around Dartford taking the photographs you can see below, it happened that the floods were a momentary blessing to me, bestowing upon my camera some unique shots I do not get to see every day. Passing the much-needed tunnel between our local park and the beautiful yet underrated Brooklands Lakes, I discovered it is currently no longer a tunnel for pedestrians (unless going for a rather cold and boisterous swim) but more of a secondary river with decisively white-water tendencies, the original river spilling over onto the footpath in the manner of a makeshift weir. We can but stand back and concede defeat as nature spits her contempt upon our concrete interventions. It’s a striking sight, and an interestingly microcosmic glimpse into a future decimated by climate change. At the time of writing I believe Owen Paterson, our illustrious Environment Minister, is still in a job. I doubt for very long if the population disagree with his comments implying that climate change is an ’emotional’ response rather than a reality. A news report I read recently hit the nail on the head when it stated that appointing an environment minister who doesn’t believe in climate change is much like appointing a health minister who thinks cigarette risks are exaggerated.

Scientific climate change experts almost overwhelmingly concur that we have been gradually killing our unique ball of gas, with quantifiable evidence in the bag and more to come.  I assumed it was a given nowadays. I thought we all pretty much accepted that we are highly likely to be the victims of nature’s wrathful death-throes unless we begin to accelerate very hard in reverse gear (excepting the US bible belt who are all busy polishing their arks, having been significantly forewarned).  Sadly, even if Mr Paterson realises his potentially catastrophic error of judgment in the next, say, day or so, we are still 10, 20 or even 30 years too late to put the brakes on the destructive weather changes we see battering the planet and which we were first warned about in 1957. Mitigation is the key at this point; damage limitation. If we act immediately, we might just save the planet from complete destruction. If it turns out that even this is now up for debate, I might just start building an ark myself. 2 cats – check. Now where did I put those spare fence panels…?

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Debry abstract

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2010-07-23-Big-Society

When Cameron unveiled his Big Society idea in 2010 I thought it at best a vacuous PR stunt; an extension of the Putin-style photos of ‘friendly Dave in shorts cycling to work because he cares about the environment’. I’m only now beginning to grasp how much I underestimated the Machiavellian skills of the top tier and to see how this cleverly cynical ideology of free labour painted as community spirit is starting to permeate the consciousness of British society.

Spurred by a recent arts project part-funded by my local council, a movement has begun to grow in my declining home town. Dartford Arts Network, a dynamic creative forum for people wanting to get involved in local art projects, is now beginning to take off independently, a community reaction to the ‘cultural desert’ status of the town. Although the catalyst for the creation of this group, that piece of funding was the first nod to the arts I’ve seen bestowed by our council for a very long time, if ever. Let’s not forget that thanks to recent government policy hundreds of towns who were committed to the arts have found their essential funding budgets indiscriminately slashed; the arts predictably facing the chop first and considered dispensable, inconsequential, despite the fact that study upon study has shown engagement with the arts to be quantifiably beneficial to the wellbeing of both the individual and the community as a whole. An active attack from government in relation to arts and community has repeatedly stirred people across the country to take matters into their own hands; street parties, community events; art exhibitions. The ‘blitz spirit!’ the Daily Mail would cry, ‘we’re all in it together!’ But this sweetly served dose of fantasy leaves behind a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste.

There are tell-tale signs that the Big Society spoon-feeding is hitting the spot; in people’s comments stating that we don’t really need the council for this or that anymore as we can just do it ourselves, in the simpering and transparent mandate from above ‘Oh, but you do it so much better than we would’, in Poundland back to work schemes and Free Schools. Through a cleverly constructed confusion between community contribution and free labour, the proletariat are in danger of buying into the idea that it is up to us, not the state, to facilitate these aspects of our lives. As Unison said in 2010 “The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative.”

It’s crucial that we as a community, as a country, insist on more. Not token gestures, but a sustained policy for the funding and promotion of the arts in the future remit of both the government and each local council. We cannot, and should not, do it all on our own. Communities must use these local arts initiatives to focus budget-makers on the impact it has on the high street and to evidence how they should be an influential part of town planning. Instead of endless private flats or more generic chain store retail, why not encourage independent designers and incorporate creative spaces? The arts are not a luxury for the rich or a pastime for the middle-class, but a rightful resource for all and integral to the very fabric of our daily life. Along with the rest of our valuable public services, fight for them before they disappear for good and whatever you do, don’t allow the bigwigs to pass the buck.

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Who knew that poor little old Dartford, kicked and teased like the runt of the Kent litter, abandoned in droves by its own people in preference for the nearby shiny happy Bluewater and sneered at down shiny noses by outsiders, should now be found to be hiding such a wealth of undiscovered creativity? Despite living in the area for 29 years, I have in the past few months realised I have barely scratched the surface of what seems to be an impressive but currently sadly under-connected network of artists and art-lovers.

Dartford Creative, an initiative brought to us by Icon Theatre, aims to unearth and develop these links, stimulating that much-neglected erogenous zone of the area; its creative core. Thanks to the tireless and dedicated co-ordination of Nancy, Michelle and countless others involved in the programme, whose belief and optimism have succeeded in overcoming even the most cynical challenges in their path, the enterprise has resulted in an inspiring programme of art events running every Saturday until Christmas. The thinking behind the plan is effectively simple; this series of events is a starter for ten, intended to whet the creative whistle of locals and to initiate a dialogue which will extend to next year, and the next, carrying on the tide the potentially valuable trawl which will be unearthed through this exercise.

Dartford itself has a long and fascinating history involving no less than rebel kings of England, revolutionary leaders and a few famous Artist/Sirs of its own, including Sir Peter Blake who, for those of you who don’t know, designed the famous Beatles Sgt. Pepper album cover. In fact rather a lot of impressively significant events have touched upon the area, as well as some of the more insignificant but equally fascinating! I was, much like many other Dartfordians I imagine, sadly bereft of much of this information until researching for a piece in Dartford Living on the local gasworks. Upon beginning to dig for information I found myself enthralled at the stories I found, each painting a vivid picture of what the town had been, decades, or even centuries before.

Bringing this history to life is one important facet of the Dartford Creative event and will ensure that this knowledge is both stored and nurtured by participants, passed on and down to the next generation; a treasure hunt on 21st September explores local buildings perhaps usually passed by without a second thought. A beautiful 17th Century pub goes unnoticed day by day, while Victorian shop first floor facades gaze down on the high street mournfully, unseen by shoppers. Events such as the treasure hunt specifically aim to point out sites of local importance, but a running theme throughout the programme is the importance of highlighting of a side to Dartford which lies largely in our unconscious; the historical side, the artistic side, the worth-listening-to side. The effects of probing this point continuously, weekly, are that it will stick and grow. It will germinate and spread tendrils of thought which could lead, well, who knows where? I myself have already made nearly 10 fascinating new acquaintances with whom I’m in regular contact and will continue to be after the event finishes. How many could you make? You see the potential.

Since the project launched on 10th August we have already seen a 50’s style street party, clay model making, the launch of the much-anticipated film competition (which will culminate in the winning film being shown in the eye-wateringly cool mini solar cinema), and, brightening up a rather rainy day last Saturday, ukelele lessons from inspiring teacher Steve Ball. Coming up this weekend is your chance to find out about the history of the street you live in and contribute to the town’s own Blue Plaque programme. If you have any sense at all you’ll be down there each and every Saturday without fail, bright eyed and bushy tailed at 10am like a dog on a promise for some buttery toast. But for those of you who might, like me, be a freakishly over-organised planner and not be able to make this one, don’t panic. DON’T PANIC. There’s the treasure hunt the week after that,  then Mr E’s intriguing theatrical museum on the 28th and much, much more to come. Let me not hear you say ‘Oh that’s not for me, I’m no good at art”, as is often the standard, negative protest from the crowd; if even the dog can get involved in playing the ukelele (see photos), I’ve not doubt you can manage it too.

Expect to see a few more posts on this, intended to both keep you up to date and to nag you like a spoilt 10 year old until you defeatedly submit to getting involved, and are within minutes running around gleefully covered in paint/clay/ukeleles etc.

Dartford Creative runs every Saturday at One Bell Corner from 10am-3pm.

Informal artist networking meetings are taking place at the Bull & Vic on the high street (opposite Lloyds bank) on the following dates:

  • Tuesday 17 September, 7-9pm
  • Saturday 28 September 4-6pm and
  • Saturday 5 October,  4-6pm

All welcome. Please come, I want to meet you all!

To enter the film competition see the details on the website and submit your entry to Vimeo by 1st Nov.

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele...even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Locals learn how to play the Ukelele…even the dog was lulled to sleep by the sweet tones of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

Clay model making

Clay model making

A clay face materialises out of the table...

A clay face materialises out of the table…

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Ready for the next group of eager Ukelele students

Free popcorn while you paint - what's not to like!?

Free popcorn while you paint – what’s not to like!?

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A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

A mini-gallery of some of the work produced so far

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Kids getting their hands deliciously dirty with the clay models

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

Steve Ball inspiring local residents with his Ukelele renditions of Guns N Roses

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An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event - just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

An unofficial addition to the creative vibe of the event – just down the road, local street artist Gee injects some life into the drab hoardings of the derelict shops waiting for development

Street art by local artist Gee

Street art by local artist Gee

jps – Biggie Smalls

I grew up in Dartford, in Kent, or Dirtford, as it is often called by locals or regular visitors. I grew up thinking the town had nothing to offer; no prospects, no ambition, no culture. Over the years I’ve realised this isn’t altogether the fault of the town, or even the people in it (apart from their voting habits). The primary fault lies with the local conservative council, voted in year after year despite their very public and obvious decimation of the town itself. Can any meaningful culture survive in a town which sells off its own constituents’ homes, pubs, independent shops and even listed buildings, to Tesco, for the erection of an industrial estate-sized monstrosity slap bang in the centre of the town? Until last Thursday my answer to this question would have been a resounding no. But I stand corrected. Corrected by the astoundingly diverse and talented works of local street artists being exhibited until this Saturday at the What If Gallery in Dartford as part of the Energized Art show.

DSC_0062The exhibition brings together both local and further afield artists, many of whom were at the private view on Thursday, overheard enthusiastically explaining their inspirations to potential buyers. It was, to me, a beautiful sight. There has been a serious dearth of anything even vaguely embodying a shred of artistic sensibility in the local area (publicly, anyway) and these works gave a glimpse of the possibilities for publicising local arts and culture. It is yet another example of how creativity will defiantly flourish despite an utter lack of support, funding or publicity. It continues to spring into being, channeled by talented creatives no matter what the often dire circumstances. In actual fact, it’s a somewhat beautiful irony that despite local councils’ attempts to stem the tide of up and coming street artists (I’ve noticed fabulous pieces suddenly painted over with council grey), they succeed only in fuelling the fire which ignites much of these works and unwittingly become their subject matter. Traditionally, street art has usually contained either implicit or explicit political messages, generally treated with clever dark humour and satire. In more modern times however, and partly as a result of the Banksy revolution (whether you approve or not, he made street art collectible) the genre is less inclined to stick to its previously defined boundaries. The competition is growing rapidly, as are standards, and audiences are no longer just trendy bohemians but bankers, politicians, gallery owners.  New styles are emerging and a clear widening of the boundaries which were once labelled simply ‘graffiti’.

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Trust icon – Piracy is a Crime

I’m familiar with one of the artists, Savant, whose work combines carefully designed artistic visuals with an underlying message and either uses or incorporating that revered traditional graffiti medium, the spray can. His works seem to be a comment not only on individual issues, but by their whole manner perhaps reflect his own stance on the genre. Deliberately not abandoning the roots of tradition, but  branching away from the formula and incorporating alternative artistic elements. Other contributors have begun to innovate in whole new ways, which would previously never have been accepted as part of that genre; Eska, a talented young pencil artist, creates detailed landscapes reminiscent of Escher (coincidental name?), his small understated pieces hanging quietly in the corner like a nervous child, but beautiful, and delicately contrasting the other works. More traditional artists were showing too, with a veritable wealth of stunning paintings and works lining the walls of the gallery. But it was Jps who produced two of my personal standout pieces from the show: Biggie Smalls and A Line of Charlie. Both are funny, simple, clever and innovative. They shine a new light on the street art spectrum, exploring and commenting on new media but in classic street art style using popular culture and humour to create an instant connection with the viewer. It did strike me as interesting that only a handful of the artists produced a piece which was not on a canvas in a rectangular frame. The move for the street artist from outside object to indoor canvas is very new, but it shows the still gaping divide between the freedom of street art and the restrictions of gallery art. In a way, they’re still either one, or they’re the other. What will be fascinating is to see how this continues to develop. The status and definitions of street art and graffiti have shifted over the past 15 years and are expanding into a whole new format. Where that will lead, I don’t know, but must say I’m looking forward to finding out.

jps - A Line of Charlie

jps – A Line of Charlie

Now that I’m aware of the wealth of street artists out there, I hope to see their works appearing more regularly nearby and have already submitted my request for a collaborative piece to bring some life and beauty back to the emptiness which currently swamps the town. Whether in the gallery or out on the street, the imagination, creativity and ability is there in abundance. More, please!

The Energized Art exhibition is on at the What If Gallery in Dartford until this Saturday 13th April. Well worth a look and a purchase too.

Robin Coleman - Lich Sun Stein

Robin Coleman – Lich Sun Stein

Recycled Memories - Bitches

Recycled Memories – Bitches

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CS Stanley – Rigs of War

Savant - Skull (red/yellow)

Savant – Skull (red/yellow)

Lemak - Robots have feelings too

Lemak – Robots have feelings too

Mos Shaw - Fire Damage

Mos Shaw – Fire Damage

Silent Bill - Hell for Heroes

Silent Bill – Hell for Heroes

Robin Coleman - Daily Dietrich

Robin Coleman – Daily Dietrich

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Hand 'In his own image'

Hand ‘In his own image’

Eska - Sector

Eska – Sector

Cize One - Utopia - "Yeah Right"

Cize One – Utopia – “Yeah Right”

Savant - Girl Face Collage

Savant – Girl Face Collage

Gee - Bad Alice (on solid oak)

Gee – Bad Alice (on solid oak)

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Cize One - Me, Myself and Darkside

Cize One – Me, Myself and Darkside

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Eska – On the edge

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Savant - Ghost Theory

Savant – Ghost Theory

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Having recently been astounded at how long my blog posts take to write and put together, I thought I would give you a little something in the interim period between full posts. What with a full-time job and 3hr per day commute, two volunteering positions, lots of interests, friends, family and the boyf, I struggle to find time for more than one a week!

Yesterday, however,  I took advantage of a free afternoon and the astoundingly gorgeous weather to take a trip to London town with my camera in tow. I squeezed my way through the Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery and rubbed shoulders with the cool cats at the preview of the new Damien Hirst show at White Cube (reviews to follow).

On my walks to and from these venues I was snapping away at anything which caught my eye. Details have always interested me. The little things which people don’t usually notice. A detail can sometimes be a clue to it’s surroundings, or can sometimes seem alien as it is taken out of context. These were my favourites from the day – I hope you like.

All photos were taken with a Nikon D60 Digital SLR with 18-55mm VR lens.

Builder’s Tea – St Thomas Street, London

Fourth Plinth – Trafalgar Square, London

Jaws Shadow – St Thomas Street, London

Fashion and Textile Museum – Bermondsey Street, London

Discarded flowers – Bermondsey Street, London

The Shard – from St Thomas Street, London

Sun through the trees – Leathermarket Street, London

Paint detail – Lowfield Street, Dartford

Closed down shop – Bermondsey Street, London

Graffiti on Board – Lowfield Street, Dartford

Closed down pub – Lowfield Street, Dartford

Torn St George – Phoenix Place, Dartford

Derelict land, previously Ripley’s Market – Lowfield Street, Dartford