“I escaped from London for a weekend and happened to stay with a friend near Burnley. I got on a bus to Hebden Bridge to have a look around and met some people on the bus and never went back to London,” she says..
That was 29 years ago. For the past 11 of those she’s been working as an independent artist and this weekend she’s one of the 89 artists and designers taking part in Hebden Bridge Open Studios.
Roo studied typographic design at London College of Printing, where she learned the art of rendering lettering. It wasn’t until she moved to West Yorkshire, though, and enrolled at Todmorden Community College that she developed a passion for painting.
As well as making prints, cards and notebooks, Roo has developed her ‘shelf portrait’ paintings of books on shelves that have become her mainstay in recent years. “My work has always been about the importance of the things we end up gathering around us and how they join together to tell our story. Not just the treasures on the mantelpiece but the everyday things like aunt Tessa’s teapot, your dad’s old hammer, or old books you’ve read and enjoyed,” she says.
“I love the way you can glance along a bookshelf and be taken back in time to when you read something. Someone asked if I could paint their favourite books and it went from there. I’ll usually go round and talk to them and discuss their favourite books and through that you find out about different parts of their lives and it’s such a fascinating process.”
Hebden Bridge Open Studios has been going for 17 years and Roo says it’s an important date in the town’s calendar. “Being an artist can be a rather solitary life and this is a wonderful opportunity for us to find out more about each other.
"I’m in a studio group myself which is invaluable, but there are lots of independent artists who work in their houses up on the top somewhere who might not interact with other artists. So it’s really helpful to find out about each other’s work and build stronger networks, and it’s also a great way for the public to see what we’ve been doing. To have visitors come and look at what we do and for us to be able to talk about it is great.”
Hebden Bridge Open Studios is a not-for-profit organisation run by a team of volunteers, without whom the event would not happen. The local artists taking part stretch throughout the whole of the Upper Calder Valley, from Walsden through to Luddenden.
One of the organisers is John Noble-Milner (aka wildlife sculptor Geckoman), who specialises in largely bronze sculptures and has been involved in the event for 10 years, including last year when it was held online due to the pandemic.
Normally the annual weekend event is held in July, but at the start of the year the organisers hedged their bets and opted for two dates – one in the summer and a second which started yesterday.
It is the first time two events have been held in the same year, not that anyone is complaining having been starved of culture for so long. “After such a long period of lockdowns, we’re excited to welcome people into our studios. This is a great chance for people to meet and talk to local artists and get a look inside some of the best art studios in the country,” he says.
“Hebden Bridge is famous for its vibrant, thriving art scene. This event is bursting with colour and unique art ranging from larger-than-life puppets, paper cut lanterns, wallpaper, landscape and impressionistic painting, sculpture, felting, jewellery, woodworking and ceramics. If it can be imagined, someone in Hebden Bridge will make it.”
John says the July event was a success and he hopes this one will be, too. “I think people were so keen to get out and do something again and being able to go around lots of different art studios and workshops was great.”
Hebden Bridge has a reputation as Yorkshire’s Left Bank and has long been a magnet for artists and those working in the so-called creative industries.
“It’s just the right size,” says John, who has lived there for the past 12 years. “You always bump into someone you know and we’ve got pretty much everything. I’ve lived in London and Edinburgh and there’s not too much we haven’t got here and if you do want big city stuff we’re only a short train from Leeds or Manchester.”
The town isn’t unaccustomed to adversity, though, something that has stood it in good stead these past 18 months. “We’re a resilient community. People are aware of the flood risk we live with around here and we’re used to the idea that something might happen that makes life difficult, so we all pull together. There’s a really good community spirit in Hebden Bridge, especially within the artistic community.”
He feels the pandemic has fostered an even stronger sense of togetherness. “It’s got people talking about what they’ve been doing and what they might do in the future. I think it’s quite a pivotal point for a lot of people, a chance to reflect on what they want to be doing.”
Open studios is a chance to express all this. “We’ve got amateur artists who don’t do any other events and like getting involved in it because it isn’t expensive and you really are part of an artistic community, and at the other end we’ve got professional artists who are at the top of their game,” he says.
“It’s something that’s unique, but it’s something that’s unique to everywhere. There’s artistic communities all over the place and this is one of those occasions when we can say to the public ‘we’re here, come and have a look.’ You don’t just have to buy things from Amazon, there’s some amazing art you can see and experience –- and it inspires people. Just coming and seeing some art is good for anyone and everyone.”
Hebden Bridge Open Studios starts today and runs this weeken. There are booklets on individual artist’s studios at various locations in Hebden Bridge including Hebden Bridge Town Hall, Hebden Bridge Post Office, Heart Gallery, Hope Gallery, Spirals and Todmorden TIC.
Some studios are open by appointment only. For more details visit hebdenbridgeopenstudios.org#
Why the open studios events matter...
Todmorden craftsman Dan Morrison, who makes sculptural lamps and clocks, says: “Most of the fun and satisfaction I get as an artist comes from all the creative stuff that I do behind-the-scenes, out of the public view. Open Studios provides a great opportunity to invite people into my world and share my enthusiasm and stories.”
Amy Mellis specialises in handmade designs, including quilts and screen prints. She is based at the Egg Factory, a co-operative consortium in Hebden Bridge that she and three like-minded friends set up seven years ago. “It’s an important part of the town’s creative life and it’s nice to feel that you’re a small part of that.”
Mytholmroyd illustrator Jayne Smith says: “Artists often work in solitude, and may seem a bit of an enigma to the general public, so this event is a great way for people to see into our worlds and maybe be inspired to start creating art.”