Sunday, 9 September 2012

The E17 Art Trail: Crafts, Cats, Cuts and Camera Porn

Every September the E17 Art Trail descends on Walthamstow in East London. This annual event connects the dots between the scattered creatives of the local area, inviting us to view the diverse work of over 3,500 professional and amateur artists. 

Whilst galleries, studios, shopfronts and sheds from Blackhorse Road to Wood Street have been seized for artistic subversion, perhaps the most fun can be had in visiting the many artists who are exhibiting from their homes.  There’s no curatorial agenda and so there is a delightful chaos in wandering from the little flat of an elderly amateur painter of floral watercolours to view the smart graphic work of the professional illustrator just across the street. In giving equal opportunities to creative endeavours from artists all backgrounds there are some genuine surprises to be found, regardless of whether you favour high concept artistic intervention or wholly unironic paintings of unicorns and fairies.

My highlights included professional illustrator Matt Richard’s audio-visual project, Musical Views, which featured crisp graphic portraits of local musicians alongside recordings with their sitters.

Richard’s digital drawings are rendered to capture an analog printed feel that neatly suited their subject.  His commercial work, also on display inside, was very strong in itself and so it was heartening to see that he had entered into the local spirit of the trail with his street installation.

I was also energised by the enthusiastic painterly adventures of David Bryan’s Inspiration Comes Tomorrow.  Bryan had been inspired to exhibit as part of the trail by a neighbour and had set himself the goal to putting together this exhibition of selected works in acrylic, oils, printing and photography.  He is clearly enjoying the challenge and was a buoyant host as he led us round his journey as an artist.  Like so many others on the trail, he wasn’t pitching himself as a fully formed professional but rather he was openly inviting us into his world through his journey into art.  He had a colourful energetic flair and I liked his woodcuts, prints and mixed media work that had somewhat of an Eastern feel, so I’ll forgive him for siding against me on the oil versus acrylic debate.  

Along the way, there is also enough room for the quirky and crafty.  The Made in Stow letterbox cinema is a cute conceptual installation that reimagines movie classics as if they were filmed in Walthamstow.  These are screened in a literal letterbox format (above).  

Meanwhile, the Back to Front project along Wingfield Road has sponsored residents to print large front window hoardings of any image they choose to represent themselves or their families – collaborating on an open air gallery that includes everything from Frank Sinatra to “the frog from our garden”.  

Idiosyncratic personal obsessions are a running theme, with last years’ Tears of Blood (above) being one of my all time favourites.  With very little explanation, a resident artist had exhibited a small collection of photoshopped images of giant cats crying tears of blood across picturesque landscapes.  When we arrived his house was busy with visitors and our host expressed genuine bemusement at his popularity.  “But…”, I tried to explain as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “you’ve made images of giant cats…crying tears of blood…across picturesque landscapes!” Perhaps this says more about me than him.

The artworks here are not without teeth in other respects.  Notable inclusions this year included some worrying psychedelic portraits of local homeless people and a sculpture that invoked the notorious ‘milk-snatching’ of former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a witty commentary on more recent Conservative Government cuts.  Both of these are exhibited at the little Vestry Museum which was also screening a series of short films; a diversion I was denied by my slight hearing issues and the fact it was one darkened room too many for one of the hottest days of the year.

More traditional craftsmanship can be found at the E17 Designers Market in the Asian Centre or at The Penny Fielding Gallery, where – among other things - the incredible and diverse leatherwork of saddler Mia Sabel is on display.

Just across the road from here you can find the unofficial mascot of the trail in Carl HarrisCatboy.  His Catboy series of drawings and prints are lively and joyfully energetic.  Originally, the boy with a cat for a shadow had only his titular feline companion to share in his adventures, but over the last year the daydreaming protagonist has adopted a bear and circus monkey into his fantasy menagerie.  Harris is something of an Art Trail success story with the Catboy’s charm proving as infectious as his own.

More pictures from a story yet to be written are on display in Amy McSimpson’s…er…Pictures From a Story Yet to be Written.  Her quirky illustrated characters dance playfully from the walls, the small collaged images offering a fractured glimpse into a captivating little world yet to be explored.  McSimpson is sharing an exhibition space with Sharon Drew, whose New Paintings are colourful, luscious and assured abstraction of the type I really like but people don’t seem to make so much anymore.  They were also notably generous with their time and their refreshments.

Finally, we spent a little time with Some Easons and a Bergman, which was truly a family affair, collecting the prints, paintings and crisp medium format photography of the eponymous extended family.  The medium format prints from a selection of vintage cameras are as good a reason as any to never touch the Hipstamatic again and they also had one of my favourite titles of the day – the (child friendly) Sir-Mix-A-Lot referencing, ‘I Like Big Hats and I Cannot Lie’.

It’s hard not to be drawn into the local narrative as you stumble from one little social gathering to the next, sharing recommendations and anecdotes – although with growing caution as you realise everyone seems to know each other.  This event showcases the strength of the community as much as the painters, poets, sculptors, knitters, makers and do-ers who line the route.  Many of the people we spoke to only got to know their neighbours through the event.  Whilst most of the work we saw was for sale, we never once felt like we were being given a sales pitch, instead people were welcoming and generous with their time and – in some cases – their wine.  We talked about community, art, the pain of losing the joy of swearing once having children, the various techniques of living room art installation, children’s book illustrations, the aesthetics of dragons and a great deal of technical camera porn.

Community art events of this nature are often exclusively niche – whether in the form of self-congratulatory urban hipster art markets or timid rural village fetes.  What the E17 Art Trail achieves by being so genuinely inclusive is that it becomes honestly engaging and relevant outside of the postcode. In placing creativity at the heart of the community, it celebrates the essential role that art can plays in our ability to communicate, to relate and to socialise. 

The E17 Art Trail continues until the 16th September.  You can read more about the event on the official website, where you can also download an app to plan your personal trail.  We only saw a fraction of the exhibited work but there is a very interesting blog project that spotlights some of the artists here.