Whitby sculptor Emma Stothard stands back from the back-breaking, finger-shredding work of bending willow and wire and sips her tea; she’s working on a series of creatures – dogs, horses, hares and giant lobsters – which will “take root” in various locations around Staithes next weekend, as part of the 2015 Festival of Arts and Heritage.
“I was thrilled to be asked to make something for the festival – I’ve been each year and thought how good it would be to see some of my animals in the village. The willow lobsters will be at the top of the bank as you enter the village, the life-size horse on the Staithe, the dog, a beagle, will be poking his head round the corner of Dog Loup (one of the narrowest ginnels in the country, I’m told) – and the two three metre lobsters by the harbour. But I don’t want to reveal all the locations – it will be fun for kids to find them during the weekend,”says Emma.
Historic Staithes, with its steep cobbled streets, hugger-mugger fisherman’s cottages and bijou beach features in national newspaper “Top Ten places to visit” lists these days. The festival began in 2011 when a group of people got together having been inspired by a similar event run in Pittenweem, a fishing village in Fife.
Emma makes her sculptures in her huge workshop on the outskirts of Whitby. Originally from Holderness, she returned to Yorkshire in 1996 after doing a degree in Fine Art in Southampton and moving to Somerset – where the Somerset Levels are famous for willow – to learn traditional weaving. Emma now exhibits internationally and closer to home, at Highgrove, in Gloucestershire. A sculpture of Prince Charles’s beloved Jack Russell Tigga, made out of willow grown on the estate takes pride of place in his country garden.
Staithes has a long artistic history; in the late 19th century a group that included Laura Johnson (later Dame Laura Knight) arrived in the village to paint outdoors. Inspired by the landscape, the light and the fisherfolk, they became known as the Staithes Group of Artists.
Around 30 artists live in the village today, and many more will be arriving to “exhibit” in cottages which will double as galleries; last year 130 artists were hosted in 87 venues. Work on display – much of it available to buy – will include painting, printmaking, textiles, ceramics, jewellery and crafts.
Another major artist exhibiting in Staithes this year is light artist Mick Stephenson. Many of his sculptures are made from items that you or I might throw away. His eyes shine as he enthuses about his plans for the festival, which include a giant neon deckchair, “Light Fantastic”, an illumination trail round the village using lanterns made by local children out of plastic bottles, and something rather unusual involving a Reliant Robin. How did Mick get on board? “I was a tourist, staying in the village and our landlady Vicki was describing the atmosphere during the festival, and I thought how appropriate it would be to perhaps tag a light trail onto the Saturday night events; having spent some time in the village I could see the potential for an outside gallery.
“I especially love making work for the coast – the sea is a fabulous blank canvas and I hope the residents will enjoy seeing their village lit up in a unique way. My neighbours were startled to see me staggering home the other day with a pile of lobster pots – I’m going to do something with them for the festival’ says Boston Spa-born Mick.
Other highlights of the weekend will include walks and talks; local historian Bill Hinchley will be leading visitors round the village, pointing out its secret corners and telling tales of smugglers and murders, and stories of the sea will come from lifelong fisherman John Cole as he demonstrates the ancient art of lobster pot making.
Tim Birkhead is one of the keynote speakers; a zoologist and Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Sheffield, he is author of The Wisdom of Birds and has spent the last 40 years studying the seabirds of the British Isles, and will explain why the Yorkshire seabird colonies are so special.
Heritage plays an important part in the life of the village and will be celebrated in events and exhibitions throughout the weekend. There’s a special exhibition, “Staithes at War” recalling U-boat escapades, German spies, life in the air raid shelters and the tragic sinking of the SS Empire Heath with the loss of eight Staithes men.
A really special event is the outdoor picture show with live piano accompaniment, which runs next Friday and Saturday night.
There’s also a vibrant music programme ranging from street buskers to sea shanties and concerts – the Men of Staithes choir will perform in the Lifeboat house along with other local musicians.
Mick sits back in his chair in his workshop, surrounded by objects that most folk would consider fit only for the recycling bin. “The festival is a wonderful opportunity to take the gallery into the street, and it’s great to see families out at night as spaces are transformed by light. I’m planning to do something with kids and glow sticks on the beach after dark – there’s a very positive vibe, some really nice stuff going on. It feels as if the years of artistic endeavour have seeped into the fabric of the buildings and streets. It’s going to be great!”
Staithes Festival of Arts and Heritage, September 11 to 13. Most events are free and you don’t have to book. Programme £1. Visit www.staithesfestival.com for more information.