Review at the Art Yard
(7 June – 2 July 2016)

Review by Fran Wilde was the first solo exhibition from The Art Yard, a newly opened and unique visual arts space in Cradley Heath, a town that was once the epicentre for the UK’s industrial chain making. Comprising video, photography, printmaking, etching, painting and drawing, the show encompassed over twenty years of art making; a vast survey with the different walls of the exhibition space hosting groups of over forty pieces. For Fran this exhibition offered her a very personal ‘review’ of her work and I was delighted when Fran asked me to join her at The Art Yard one afternoon to find out more…

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Fran is an artist and an arts educator, and for forty years has been as busy making her own work as she has been activating and developing the work of others. “When I think about it I realise I’ve worked with a lot of people, helping them, in their own ways, discover and develop an interest in art and find out what artists are about. My own work has been very much on the side.” Fran summarises her practice saying simply “I am a drawer”.

The opportunity for a solo exhibition was the first of its kind both for her and the gallery. Fran described Review as a set of unresolved stories, “I’m good at finding stories but I am no good at the endings – with this exhibition I am showing you the stops and starts and my influences…”

Undeniably the biggest influence of all is India, a topic that has been problematic for Fran to express over the years due to its vast scale and cultural complexities. Fran was born there and has returned several times as an adult, there are many references to India in the various artworks that were on display.

Some of the first works that greeted me in the exhibition were a series of framed postcards. Despite their intimate scale these studies are dense; layers of drawings, collage and hand printed detailing create a series of curious landscapes. India was also the subject matter and starting point for one of Fran’s video works, Carousel (2009), a hand-held camera shooting footage of frenetic traffic backed by music from a fair ground merry-go-round in the UK.

We discussed Fran’s many and varied processes, each set of works presented a different kind of approach to the materials. Fran described herself as “clumsy and messy”. She said, “I always work in series, which helps my focus, which is not to say that things don’t fail… I learn a lot through failure and mistakes.”

Fran told me that she spends a lot of time looking at the work of other artists, her practice is as ‘open minded’ as she is. “It’s a way of counteracting habit, such as with gesture in drawing, though I constantly fall back into well tried ways.”

My favourite works in the show were two framed photographs, each one containing a larger-than-life photograph of each of the artist’s hands, Fan for the left hand and Fan for the right hand (2000). These ‘quiet’ works were displayed underneath one of the several video works. The ‘fans’ were in many ways invisible, simply a pattern in a north Indian rug. These works were not for sale – it was as if they existed far more for the personal reflections and contemplation of the artist herself, than for anyone else.

“Hands can confirm or contradict what is being said and they provide a very specific form of gestural ‘speaking’.” In Eastern Dance hands are “so controlled and styled and yet equally from this extreme control comes a sense of fluidity… hands reveal an awful lot.”

Fan for the left hand

‘Fan for the Left Hand’ (Photographic Print, 2000)

Quickly our conversation turns back to drawing: “I really need time to work out how the medium [I’m using] works. In the series Dark Matter (2014) every breakfast time, for four months, I half-filled a willow pattern bowl with porridge, into which I slowly poured treacle and photographed the resulting surface patterns.” The outcome was a series of ‘free drawings’ whose definition was generated by the alchemic properties of the materials and which, for Fran, expressed some of her thinking around the politics of where East meets West.

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Dark Matter (Photographic Print, 2014)

Fran moved to Cradley Heath four years ago after living and working as an artist and arts educator at Focal Point Gallery, Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. She studied BA Fine Art in Birmingham in the 1980s and has family here. Moving back to the Midlands reignited her interest in the area, its history and culture.

Since moving Fran has invested greatly in the creative activity of the area. She is a founding member of both the Cradley Heath Creative, who meet regularly to plan and deliver creative opportunities in the town, as well as a community interest company, Walk Works, alongside fellow creative and historian Vicki Darby Smith. Together they have developed bespoke walking projects focused on looking, investigation and discussion.

I was curious to know where Fran’s enthusiasm and desire to make local, creative things happen comes from. She said it was partly to do with the need for public expressions of local creative activity, and in particular, a desire to increase the proximity and access to contemporary visual arts practice in the region.

The Art Yard opened in April this year and was set up by artists Louise Blakeway and Warren McCabe Smith. It is an exciting independent venture committed to providing opportunities for local artists. The space itself was for many years the home of a popular independent shop selling bespoke printed clothing that gave a modern spin on the character of The Black Country, but owner Warren decided to sell the business and reimagine the space. After an extensive re-design The Art Yard now operates spaces for exhibition, teaching and learning and has two large studios where Warren and Louise work. There is a packed programme outlined for the next six months and a strong desire to expand this further by offering bespoke sessions for artists to support all kinds of professional development.

The Art Yard retains a commercial function, but in this iteration the emphasis is placed on the display and selling of original artworks. It really is a wonderful place to be and is successful on many levels; it is a concept born from a strong desire to create ways for the development and promotion of artists and their work. Louise and Warren have crafted a vibrant centre that is open-minded and sociable and has so far proven popular with the wealth of creativity in the area. It is also successful because as a business it is self-sustaining. A range of spaces may be hired by artists in order to exhibit their work and any profit made is then for the artist to retain themselves. This artist-led approach is inspiring and long may it succeed.


Inside the Art Yard.


Inside the Art Yard.