In the first of our #Play2018 Big Draw Festival organiser interviews, we are thrilled to be talking to the team at The Mercury Shopping Centre in Romford!
Kicking off during the Easter break on 2 April, The Mercury’s free Big Draw Festival events will give you the chance to try your hand at screen and block printing, collage, and to combine storytelling and sketching in true #Play2018 form!
We caught up with Natalie Bays, The Deputy Centre Manager, who explains why shopping centres are the perfect place to get crafty…
BD: Hi Natalie! Thank you so much for talking to us today ahead of your Big Draw Festival events taking place at The Mercury Shopping Centre, Romford this April. Beyond your events for The Big Draw Festival this year, The Mercury runs a whole host of free crafty breakfast clubs from embossing and knitting to DIY for all ages, all year round. When and why did The Mercury start hosting these workshops?
NB: The Mercury has always been a shopping centre with a social conscious and a creative team. Breakfast club was initially set up two years ago to create a regular place for people to meet who simply wanted to be social and do something. There are so many people at a loose end during the week, especially in our town and loneliness is something that we should all actively combat where we can; for this to happen in a shopping centre, well, it just makes sense, it’s in the middle of town and you can buy coffee and cake literally everywhere! Great chat fuel.
Since its humble beginnings, it has transformed to be a large group of people making things for charity and purpose; with huge amounts of good community initiatives being thought up and implemented by the group. Of course, it's artistic outcomes are entirely down to our three leaders, Karen- our crafty paper folder, Carol our queen knitter and Nigel our super painter.
Images L-R: Breakest Club, Nigel the painting group leader and Mercury Mall Breakfast Club knitters donate hats and blankets to Queen's Hospital Neonatal unit.
BD: We believe everyone can draw and everyone should have access to creative activities, that's why The Big Draw was born 18 years ago!
Over that time we've seen all kinds of organisations get involved, from schools to science centres, libraries to lidos. Increasingly, we are seeing more Big Draw Festival events in shopping centres all over the world, we love the idea that you can balance consumption with a dose of creativity! Why do think shopping centres are a good place to get creative and try something new?
NB: Shopping centres are great places to raise awareness and build new audiences- it's a place with a comfortable and safe environment, teams of customer facing staff and is impeccably catering to all walks of life. Everyone generally feels comfortable in these buildings and the glorious thing is that there are very few people who do not come here.
In the past shopping centres have had a bad rap for being commercial and for being 'odd public/private' spaces and I think because of that wellbeing and creative initiatives have steered clear. A purpose other than shopping wasn't definable. I guess we are now at a turning point where we can show (as a shopping centre) that we genuinely care about creativity, health and wellbeing too, and are lucky enough to have the resources to work hard at making things better in our towns. After all it is people who run these spaces. We live and work here everyday.
It's also worth mentioning that Shopping centres are meticulous when it comes to spatial design and place making. Despite the shops, it is built to be a centre. A centre of activity, full stop. Why not play around with that? It could be a community centre, health and wellbeing centre, science centre... or maybe even a lido?
Ok. So I once suggested a venetian-style canal down the centre of shopping arcade and it was laughed-off. I personally think it would have been beautiful!
Images L-R: The Mercury's distinctive dome glass roof, more Breakfast club creations and creators!, Kids having fun at Mercury Mall's Summer Fun day 2017.
BD: Some of your Big Draw Festival events this year will specifically focus on celebrating women in art. Through screen printing, performance, play and drawing visitors will be inspired by the work of Beatrix Potter, who famously confounded the stifling gender stereotypes of the time to become the first female published lithographic print artist. Can you tell us a little more about what visitors can expect at your Big Draw events and who can get involved?
NB: We have attempted to be as wide reaching and experimental with our Big Draw Festival events as we can; from story time with an ‘Edwardian’ to block printing with lettuces, and it all takes place in an ‘English Country Garden’! However taking a sensible step back we think it is also as important that we have an accessible theme to it all. Peter Rabbit and his tales are such a cultural pillar to our childhood, and now also to a new generation due to the recent film release, that hopefully everyone can feel safe entering into any event.
For our first event on Monday 2nd April, our local Breakfast Club ‘ArtClub’ tutor Nigel will be guiding drawing in the style of Beatrix potter using ink and fine line pens; deviating, as Potter did to creating images on smaller pages, for smaller hands. A fun workshop aimed for an older generation, this will be held in one of our coffee shops, ‘Cafe Della Terra’.
Tuesday 3rd April will see a local performance art duo The NO Collective really take on the idea of Play, dressed as Edwardians, they will be telling stories of the famous animals from familiar stories and making up their own illustrated stories with local children.
On Wednesday 4th and Thursday 5th we are lucky enough to be hosting Jenny Bell, a local award winning and very political printmaker - she will be exploring elements in Beatrix Potter’s life as a botanist in two contemporary screen-printing workshops where young adults, between the ages of 12 -18 will explore, textures, techniques and working into patterns with different mediums.
Our crescendo of the week will be an exhibition of works from young women in partnership with, and curated by the Brentwood Road Gallery on Friday 6th. The BRG is a unique contemporary gallery in the walls of a local arts specialist school, the drawings which we will display are responses from a recent touring exhibition of Cornelia Parker’s work which was held recently in the gallery, we will of course have a celebratory private view on Saturday afternoon. Finally, on Sunday we will be hosting a kids club for all children where Peter Rabbit masks can be made to encourage play and performance.
One and all are welcome to join us!
Images L-R: Work by workshop leaders for The Big Draw Festival events: Nigel Hubbard (L), Jenny Bell (centre) and NO Collective (R)
BD: Why did you select Beatrix Potter as the inspiration for your Big Draw events?
NB: Beatrix Potter has always been in the back of my mind one of the most powerful female artists of her time. Not only did she face adversity for the sheer fact she was a woman, but also as a practitioner - author and illustrator - she created her works in the way she believed they should be, rather than to follow trend; for example, deciding that her books should be A6 while creating stories specifically for children. But more so, she also had a very separate profession, she was an environmentalist with an academic knowledge of botany. I like to think that she is an example that creativity is not just for artists, it also comes from unpredictable places and is great for business.
BD: This year, The Big Draw Festival is celebrating the power of Play in the creative process and its role in innovation, well-being and development. What is the role of play when planning your events at The Mercury and in your work life at large?
NB: We are big believers that creativity, play and fun are the key to a great event, and having fun at work is also good for morale. I am secretly a performance artist (from The NO Collective) and our centre manager, Spencer is an undercover film maker (one feature, Death Walks, was filmed in The Mercury, shown at Leicester Square). The beginning of our year started with myself and our maintenance man, Martin, building and painting a giant light-up wheel of fortune out of reclaimed wood so that we could pretend to be TV show hosts for the day. Members of the public loved being part of the ‘show’ and the tenants loved to watch. We like to think about the things that can’t be done, and then we do them. Last week, Gemma, our marketing manager curated the largest Allergy, Gluten Free and Vegan Show in Essex. It is all a very healthy game.
As well as the fun stuff, it’s probably worth mentioning that we do all have a hand in the serious business stuff too. The creative process is key when making positive change in any industry, and is becoming increasingly powerful in innovating ours; whether that is through strategising events plans, reconfiguring finances, changing spaces, altering lighting, filling empty units or staffing. If you can see new answers to old questions your mind is very valuable indeed.
Images L - R: Detail of the wonderful 'Wheel of Fortune' creation, still from work by NO Collective, Mercury's Maintenance Maestro, Martin, and his creation!
BD: This is your first year taking part in The Big Draw Festival (welcome!), do you have any advice for organisations thinking about getting involved?
NB: I think it can be daunting as a ‘non-art’ specific industry to initially try doing something that would be ‘culturally valid’. What happens if people think their drawings are no good? What if I can’t aid people to draw? I’m not an artist, how do I arrange something like this?
I would advise not to worry about that as it is always better to be doing something than nothing. The great thing about being part of The Big Draw Festival is that it is a truly accessible campaign, and all you have to do is draw. It doesn’t matter how well or how much, just that you are doing it and encouraging others. That is good enough.
BD: Do you have any other news or scoops you'd like to let our audience know about happening at The Mercury this year?
NB: As well as cultural activity playing a huge part in our year of events with The Romford International Film Festival seeing its second year in the Centre this May, we will also be celebrating all things Tech, including some top of the range ’Home-Tech’ events, the start of a brand new gaming league, an augmented reality summer campaign and the install of a top secret ‘first for Europe’ in participatory and sustainable energy generation.
Images L-R: Centre Management with Luke Goss and Robert Davi at Your Move World Premier in The Mercury, Romford Film Festival 2018 promotional material, Scene from 'Death Walks' (filmed on site, starring Mercury's Contract Manager, Jon).
BD: We believe drawing can be life changing, it's an amazing tool for communication, invention and expression. What role does drawing play in your life?
NB: For me at the moment, drawing is all about communication - during work I draw when I can’t explain things and the very practical people around me also communicate to me with drawings when I look blankly at their explanations. I draw diagrams on post-it notes to describe measurements and I draw pictures during com-calls as I speak. I draw plans for where things will sit in events or how I want things to be built, I draw concepts of how developments or graphics within the centre will look. I have one office drawer dedicated to sharpie pens. The best thing about drawing at work is that it always feels like I’m cheating - that for some reason I shouldn’t be drawing at work because it’s too much fun.
Thank you for the interview and we can’t wait to get involved with some other events as part of The Big Draw Festival this year once ours is over!
BD: Thank you Natalie! It's been a pleasure.
Mercury Mall are a Big Draw Festival Sponsor-Partner 2018.
Take a look at all their free events taking place 02 - 08 April 2018 as part of The Big Draw Festival: Play. All are welcome to take part!
Inspired by Natalie's words of wisdom?