This year will be The Mercury Mall's second year taking part in The Big Draw Festival. We are thrilled to have been able to catch up with Natalie Bays, and hear her opinion on the importance of drawing in everyday life, and the role that creativity plays in The Mercury, as well as in our development and wellbeing.
Hi Natalie! Thanks so much for talking to us today. This is The Mercury Mall’s second year taking part in The Big Draw Festival; what was it that initially inspired you to get involved?
I first heard about The Big Draw through a friend who lives at Trinity Buoy Wharf, the fantastically creative arts space where The Big Draw is based. I was grabbed pretty quickly by the simplicity and versatility of the idea. Drawing is good for wellbeing, people of all ages enjoy it, it’s a great communication tool for people with different languages and it pretty much puts a date on our civilization. Cave drawings being one of the most antiquitous things you can find in the world. I guess the inspiration is having such a wide but comfortable net to throw, in how we get people to be creative!
You have some really exciting Big Draw events in the pipeline for 2019 (which we’ll find out more about shortly!) but, firstly we would love to hear a bit about The Mercury Mall outside of The Big Draw Festival. The Mercury has a truly refreshing approach to combining consumption with a dose of creativity; you host a wealth of crafty clubs year-round which help to bring people of all ages together, whilst simultaneously helping to combat loneliness within the community. Could you tell us a little more about The Mercury’s creative initiatives outside of The Big Draw?
Outside of The Big Draw, the whole Mercury team is passionate about their town and the people who live here – making sure that we use our town profile and footfall to do good where we can, whether it be through sustainability projects (we have installed the first energy generating floor into a shopping centre, ever!) , to improving the centre as a safe space (every quarter our security team host a gaming event so that teenagers can feel more comfortable in the centre) to enhancing our facilities to cater for everyone (The Mercury has been given the ‘Autism Friendly Award’ for the work we do in making the centre catering of spectrum needs – including holding a sensory day every week for our customers). Obviously, we have our tenants to think about too in this story – but they are pretty open to our mad ideas too – Caffe Della Terra hosts our Breakfast Club every week, Joe’s Place had a theatre in their restaurant over Christmas, Premiere Cinemas hosts our Film Festival and TechHouse sponsor all of our gaming events.
Whilst we are seeing an increase in shopping centres taking part in creative and wellbeing initiatives across the globe, it remains a reasonably unusual feat. Why do you think that shopping centres are a good place to get creative?
I think the best thing about having a creative centre is that you enhance the soul of the place. If your space has soul, people will gather and become part of, and in turn enhance that soul. I think there is a unanimous agreement that people either like to be creative themselves, or like to see creative things - for a shopping centre, from a commercial perspective it would seem foolish not to use something so simple to entice people into your building.
I guess the hard work, and what I often see from ‘art events’ in shopping centres is the mis-understanding that the philanthropic nature of creativity isn’t necessarily a quick-win for footfall. Customers like to see that creative events aren’t just there to boost sales in a shop. People hold their creativity dear - it is very personal to them and I find that people only tend to engage if they see an authentic reason for doing it. For our creative events, this really isn’t the case – we look to curate activities that we think our community will like to see or will make our town better in some way. We want to strengthen a local community that we all feel a strong relationship to- either through living here, or having family here.
Digressing slightly into art theory, I am hugely intrigued about the idea of a place or space having an aura – collectively created by the people that dwell there, this is my personal reason for thinking creative events are great (ref: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Art in the age of mechanical reproduction’) – If I think of the centre as a participatory art piece- the more consideration to curation of the piece that the architects (our team) put in – whilst considering each and every customer as a graphite line or ink dot - through careful manipulations of those strokes you can create something truly beautiful.
Last year your events were fun, experimental and wide reaching; from performance and drawing inspired by the work of Beatrix Potter, to Edwardian block printing with lettuces! How did you find the experience of running these Big Draw events? Were there any particular highlights that you could point to, or anything particularly difficult that you have learnt from for this year’s events?
We had so many events last year and they were all massively fun to be part of! I think the highlight for me was actually a very small event that we ran just before Christmas where we invited children and adults to draw on home made pavement outside of the cinema with our resident artist Nigel, fully adorned in a Dick Van Dyke outfit (which actually, we hadn’t asked him to wear)!
In reflection, we have had some basic difficulties like with all events, with timing and marketing and leaving everything to the last minute etc – but otherwise it was easy to set up most things. I must say though that most of our smooth sailing with our more involved workshops are due to our collaboration with the Brentwood Road Gallery and the curator there Lisa Walker. She has always been on hand to really maximize what we can do as a team and get the most enthusiastic young artists there at the workshops.
What should people expect from this year’s Big Draw events at The Mercury, and why should they get involved?
This year, we are really working on supporting our artist community and creating a home for creativity. We have a couple of major plans – including creating a gallery space on the top floor of the centre for local artists to display works, and we have also begun a monthly art and drawing club (Three Art Thursdays) for all levels of artistic ability.
Three Art Thursdays is really exciting for us and our master art plan. Led by two local artists, Nigel and Gill, there are three clubs over an afternoon / evening. The first, a social and casual drawing club and the second a ‘drawing from life’ class for both adults and children. The intention behind this club is that parents can be creative alongside their kids. This is something that I feel is missing from our society – especially for artists who have families. When I was younger I used to love drawing with my mum and I remember the best inset days from school where I could go to art college with her and draw with ‘real artists’ – it was really inspiring and I think the foundation for me to going to art school.
So far, the kids have loved being able to jump between Cezanne inspired sculpture to drawing large scale on an easel and the adults (parents or not) have also appreciated having some young blood in the room!
We also have an architecture week coming up! This is also something that I am very excited about – we have a really cool urban planning / architecture team coming into the centre to teach and play a master planning simulation game with young creatives. Drawing plans / building models and solving real life problems that we have in our London borough at the moment – including the amount of homes we have and reduction in green spaces. Its really cool to see how drawing can practically make social change and I think young people should take agency in that as soon as they can to create their own more sustainable world.
This isn’t it though - we also have collaboration ideas in the pipeline with awesome local illustrator team Brennan and Burch as well as with the Havering Arts Council. Most excitingly we have been asked to join a borough arts consortium to help shape our towns cultural strategy for the next 5 years – which is a huge privilege and also a great position to find some brilliantly fresh ideas!
Each year The Big Draw Festival carries a theme for our co-creators to explore. This year’s theme is ‘Drawn to Life’, focusing on the vital role of creativity for our health and wellbeing. As ‘social prescribing’ gains greater recognition as an effective tool for living a healthier and happier life, creating opportunities for accessible, fun, creative events has become more important than ever. What role will ‘Drawn to Life’ play in your events at The Mercury this year? Furthermore, does this theme play an important role in your life and work outside of the Festival?
I am so happy about this year’s theme. Wellbeing is something that the centre has been working with as a strategy for the last two years, and we are catering for many activities outside The Big Draw to explore this already. For example, we have just held an allergy and vegan food festival, we will soon be introducing wellbeing ‘pause points’ in the centre and plan to have a wellbeing weekend at the beginning of April which will explore mindfulness, mental health and activities that can help with this locally. This is actually also where our next Big Draw event will be held, as Nigel our resident artist will be doing some mindfulness drawing with people.
With me, I guess I have come to realise over time how important being calm and reflective is to your health and your efficiency in work and life too. I like to think that I have a healthy balance nowadays – but I would say that it is visual arts and drawing that grounds me and destresses me when I need it.
What are some of the benefits you see of taking part in The Big Draw Festival? Is there any advice or guidance you would give to those that are uncertain about registering to put on their own event?
Selfishly I would say all of the fun events that you can attend yourself from creating them!
But on a serious note – I think by facilitating drawing activities or any creative project you also have the ability and power to change the way someone lives, and the way they go about their everyday lives, whether it be by creating a place where people can meet (like a club or social activity) or teaching a new skill, or even inspiring people by showing them beautiful imagery. Any activity is worth shouting about - big, or small.
The other day we held a mother’s day portrait competition. I was overwhelmed by a child, 8 years old, who had won a prize – her face was beaming because she had won and she was thanking everyone who had helped organise the exhibition. Her mum said that she was having some difficulty at school with her lessons and art was what helped her escape the pressure when she got home. Her drawing was considered, and she had made effort with the colour the composition and all of the details of her mums clothes and location they were in. This competition at school, for her – was something that she could enjoy, without anxiety, while she was finding other things hard. In a world where art isn’t seen as necessary in education I truly feel that we all need to do our bit in keeping our communities colorful.
Thank you to Natalie, and the team at The Mercury Mall!
Have you been inspired by Natalie's interview and The Big Draw Festival 2019 theme: #DrawntoLife? Why not join our global Festival in 2019? Registration is now open! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.