Jenny Hayes went along to catch a glimpse of Jamaica Street Artists
The former carriage-works building on Jamaica Street has been one of Stokes Croft’s most impressive architectural landmarks since 1905. Once occupied by workers fitting out carriages for the use on the Great Western Railway, it is now home to a very different kind of industry. For the last 20 years Jamaica Street Artists, a collective of around 40 members, have been working together to develop and maintain a strong community of artists in this inner city area. I’ve often walked past and admired the imposing building, wondering what it must be like inside those historic walls. So when studio manager Lucy Ward offered me a tour of the artists’ studios prior to their open weekend on Saturday 20 & Sunday 21 June, I jumped at the chance of getting a sneak preview of what visitors can see if they go along.
When I stepped inside, it was everything I’d hoped for and more. Occupying the top three floors of the carriage-works, the Jamaica Street Artists’ studios are flooded with light from the vast windows and jam-packed with intriguing paraphernalia, ranging from half-used tubes of oil paints in every colour of the rainbow, to cute textile owls blinking out from shelving units, to murals made entirely from old wooden rulers. I even glimpsed a 3D printer in action, creating parts for the shadow puppets made by one of the collective’s members. This myriad of equipment reflects the diversity of the artists at work here, including fine art painters, illustrators, animators, sculptors, textile designers and photographers. It is a mix that Lucy says is a key factor in the success of Jamaica Street Artists.
“We try to keep a good balance of established and new artists, and the areas they work in. This keeps morale high and encourages a cohesive community in which the artists can talk about their ideas and learn from one another, with the more experienced artists happy to support those just starting out.
“It also creates a process of osmosis that is beneficial for everyone, because when a collector or gallery come to visit one of our artists, they may also encounter work by another that interests them. This gives the artists here a platform to the wider art world that they might not otherwise get working in a studio on their own. And it also makes for a supportive and collaborative atmosphere within the studios, because everyone appreciates that the success of one member contributes to that of the collective as a whole.”
Even as a visitor to Jamaica Street Artists this relaxed, community-spirited ethos is palpable. The first floor is open plan, with artists moving in and out of each other’s workspaces chatting about projects or dropping off an always-appreciated cup of tea. The second and third floors house separate studios occupied by those who prefer a quieter space, but even then I find that most are shared by like-minded artists.
Even when I venture behind a closed door to find someone hard at work on a piece, they are more than happy to down tools for 10 minutes to chat to me about what they are doing. And it is this that is the whole point of Jamaica Street Artists’ open weekend – it gives people the chance to gain a new perspective on art in the city. While we can wander through the streets and enjoy the graffiti that Bristol is now famed for on a daily basis, it is rare to have the opportunity to step into the studios of artists who push boundaries across other genres, and in doing so maintain the city’s reputation as one of the most creative places in Europe.
“The open studio event is a great opportunity for people to see inside a place that they wouldn’t usually be able to,” says Lucy. “They can have a look around this amazing building, and talk to our artists about what they do. For the artists themselves, it’s a great way to find out what people think about their work, so it’s really valuable for everyone involved. “It’s also our main fundraising event of the year,” she explains. “On the Sunday afternoon we hold an auction, where buyers can purchase one-off small canvases produced by our artists. Each of our artists produces a small, one-off canvas that is then put up for auction on the Sunday afternoon. Every year things get really exciting, as people bid to buy an affordable work by their favourite artist. And even if you don’t go into it with an artist in mind, if you’ve looked round the studios beforehand and seen someone’s work that you like, it’s the ideal chance to buy something from them. And all the money raised during the auction is invested back into Jamaica Street Artists, so we can sustain the creative community that we’ve built here.”
And the relationship works both ways, with many of the artists using their talent to invest something back into the community. Abigail Reed, a fine art painter, runs fine art classes for the elderly in some of the city’s residential care homes and is also involved with the charity Kids Company.
“It is brilliant to be able to do this kind of work, because I am passing on real skills to people who wouldn’t usually be exposed to them. I have the best of both worlds, being able to go out into the city and share what I know with others who want to learn, and then come back to my studio here at Jamaica Street Artists and create my own pieces.” Abby’s work comprises vast, black and white paintings of animals that are both magnificent and reassuring. “I used to paint people too,” she says, “but found I wanted to escape from the human and instead express what’s going on inside us from a different perspective. So it was a huge relief to start painting animals instead, and through them create both a sense of escapism and a reminder to people that we are not the only show in town, and that we sometimes need to step back and take an objective look at other things to see how beautiful and powerful they are.
“A lot of my childhood was spent in nature, where I frequently encountered animals and admired them from that perspective. This childlike viewpoint is something I’ve tried to bring to my work nowadays through painting on such a large scale. It makes the viewer feel small, so they can look up in wonder and see something everday – such as the shape of a dog – and elevate it into something new and extraordinary. That is the way nature affects children, when they are gazing up at these big, strange, wonderful creatures, and I want to reignite that feeling in adults.”
But I’d associate a child’s view of the world with a kaleidoscope of colours, so why is it that she paints in monochrome? “It’s because I’ve always done a lot of drawing,” Abby explains. “I want to retain that element, to avoid the paintings being too lifelike.” It certainly works, and seems to further strengthen her ability to elevate animals from the mundane to the sublime. In one painting, this limited palette picks out the muscle definition and fine sinews of a group of sleeping dogs, lending a distinguished nobility to their familiar poses. At the opposite end of the colour wheel, but with a similar interest in the natural world, is the work of Martyna Zoltaszek. She’s only been a member of Jamaica Street Artists for a couple of months, but already the creative atmosphere within the collective is starting to rub off on her. “I’m usually really precise in the way I work,” she says, “but here I’m suddenly hungry to paint on a large scale, just smashing paint across the canvas with real freedom.”
This energy is palpable in her work, which depicts huge, colourful jungle scenes where blue leopards and pink tigers slink through lush, vividly green foliage and bright tropical blooms. But it’s hard to imagine how the urban landscape of Bristol inspires these exotic pieces…
“I was born in Poland, surrounded by grey concrete buildings and growing up wearing gloomy school uniforms, watching black and white TV, and enduring long, bleak winters,” she says. “So I devoured books to feed my imagination and help me create a colourful world for myself. My very first drawings were of monkeys, flamingos and other animals that I’d read about. But because I’d never actually seen any of these animals, most of the time the flamingos have their legs bending the wrong way, and there are elephants with trunks coming out of their heads. It’s hilarious to look back at them now!
“As I got older, I moved on to different subject matter, but now I’ve returned to the jungle theme because it just feels right to me. Animals offer a great way to express so many ideas without putting them out there in a literal way. When you look at my tigers, they are all inspired by people and situations that I’ve experienced, and it’s a way of representing the emotions they’ve brought up in a way that can be understood on a different level.”
With this ability to express the human condition through animals, it’s no wonder Martyna won a place as one of the select group of artists painting a sculpture for this year’s Shaun in the City trail. She couldn’t divulge which one was hers, as it’s all top secret until later in the summer, but I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for a sheep with a wild side. After chatting to one of Jamaica Street Artist’s newest members, I then met up with one of its longest standing. Andrew Hood is an established painter who exhibits all over the world, yet has remained part of the collective here for 15 years. So what is it that keeps him here?
“There’s a huge difference between working at home and working in these studios,” Andy says. “When I was just starting out, it helped me take a huge step forward in my career because I became part of a self-perpetuating cycle of support, both mentally and professionally. Working alongside other people who were producing art for a living meant they understood what I was trying to do, and because they were already active and known in the art scene it opened up opportunities for me that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.”
There’s an echo of Lucy’s earlier words in this explanation, and it’s interesting to find in Andy a member who has moved full circle within the collective. Having once relied on the work of other artists to draw people to the studios, he is now one of the established members who generate that interest, and with it opportunities for newer artists’ work to be seen by galleries and buyers. Like everyone else I’ve met, Andy is looking forward to opening the doors on Jamaica Street Artists later in the month.
“The open studio weekend is a great way for people to come in and meet some of the famous artists we have working here, and also discover some new blood on the art scene. There’s a real buzz around Bristol generally at the moment, with galleries across Europe showing a huge appetite for the work that’s produced here, and this is a chance to see some of the talent that we have in the city.
“But this success is only sustainable if it is supported by the local community too. We are all starting to appreciate the importance of buying local and reinvesting into our city’s economy, and that extends to art too.” I’d never thought about it that way before, but Andy makes a good point. Just like our independent shops and grassroots initiatives, the success of our artists depends on them being valued and supported by the people of Bristol. And rest assured, these artists give back what we put in and then some. Not only have they put the city on the map as a centre for the creative arts, drawing in thousands of visitors a year in the process, they’ve also transformed rundown streets into thriving areas once again.
It is a tangible transformation, as Andy points out: “The establishment of Jamaica Street Studios in the 1990s has been a catalyst for the changes that have taken place in the area. Just as the Tobacco Factory breathed new creative spirit into Southville, so too have the studios here. Wherever an artistic community grows and flourishes other businesses, like cafés and shops, spring up around it, attracting more people to the area and creating positive growth.”
Well, ain’t that the truth? Nowadays Stokes Croft and Cheltenham Road are lined with quirky cafés, intimate restaurants and laid back bars. Ideal for treating yourself after a busy day chatting with a few of the artists who’ve propelled Bristol to the forefront of the global arts scene, meeting those who’ll keep it there in the future, and snapping up a canvas to take home at the open studio event.