Walk into many of Clarendon Park’s independent shops, cafés and bars and you will see some sort of art on display. Examples range from the sinister wooden sculptures on the walls of Babelas, to the ever-changing display of local artists’ work on the walls of Fingerprints café. The most recent addition to Fingerprints’ little gallery is by local painter Ian Mitchell, whose illustration of the café itself hangs in pride of place just inside the front door.
The eccentric, bohemian nature of Clarendon Park also attracts artists themselves, with much activity centred around Ellerington Gallery, at the junction of Clarendon Park Road and Lytton Road. Within a stone’s throw of the gallery’s pretty art deco frontage is Eskimo Blue pottery studio, Charlotte Barker’s workshop and gallery in The Old Coach House on Clarendon Park Road. Charlotte’s ceramic art and her pottery courses have proved so popular she recently opened a second studio in Silver Arcade in the centre of Leicester. Also nearby, Soft Touch Arts is a charity which uses arts, media and music activities to inspire and engage young people. Their headquarters on Hartopp Road is home to a dedicated art and craft workshop, as well as facilities for aspiring musicians.
In addition to these very visible examples of artistic activity in Clarendon Park, there is a sizeable and tight-knit community of sculptors, ceramicists, jewellery makers, textile artists, painters and photographers living and working within its residential streets. It was to support and promote the work of these artists that Art House began eight years ago, with a handful of local creatives opening up their homes on a June weekend to give the public the opportunity to see “extraordinary art in ordinary houses”, and to meet the artists who create it.
This year’s Art House was the biggest yet, with over 50 artists exhibiting their work in one of 12 venues across Clarendon Park and Stoneygate. The Art House concept is essentially that of an art trail. People are encouraged to leave their car at home and either enjoy a leisurely stroll between the locations, or take advantage of the regular mini-bus service or one of the guided cycle rides organised by Ride Leicester and Sky Ride. Dutifully, I set off on foot mid-afternoon on Monday to visit the seven Clarendon Park venues. If I’d taken the most direct route between each I would have covered almost exactly one mile from beginning to end. However, the inevitable distractions of shops, bars and friends’ houses along the route, combined with an abysmal sense of direction, meant I covered at least twice this distance and the whole enjoyable enterprise lasted well into the evening.
A community of artists
My first stop was on Houlditch Road, where a huge green Art House banner ushered visitors into a sunny back garden scattered with big woven wicker sculptures. Inside the house, I was instantly attracted to the work of Sue Oldman, a textile artist who incorporates her colourful, fluid designs into both framed artworks and pieces of furniture. The cheerful, vibrant nature of the designs was particularly fitting to the casual setting and the warm spring evening. Sue began her artistic career as a glassmaker, and this is something that is evident in her current work, with the depth of the colours she uses and the luminous quality of the textiles reminiscent of stained glass.
Just a two-minute walk away on Raeburn Road, I was met at the door of an unassuming semi by Ian Mitchell, whose characterful illustrations of local houses and landmarks can be found displayed in homes and businesses across the county. His beautiful illustrated maps of Clarendon Park and Stoneygate are instantly recognisable and perfectly capture the offbeat nature of the areas they represent. Ian’s work also has a wider appeal, with his illustrations having appeared as far afield as in the New York Times and on a fleet of P&O ferries. As well as creating original artwork in his garden studio, Ian hosts regular watercolour workshops at local venues, offering aspiring artists the chance to enjoy being creative in a relaxed environment, and learn tips and techniques from a professional artist.
It was clear at many of the venues that the artists living and working in Clarendon Park and surrounding areas form a close-knit and mutually supportive community. There was a real feeling of camaraderie between the exhibitors and to a large extent it’s this which makes the Art House project such a success and so enjoyable for all those involved. Ian moved to Leicester after a decade living and working in London, and is quick to praise the “great community” of artists here and the support and encouragement he’s received from fellow creatives.
Pottery, printmaking and passion
Another of Clarendon Park’s established artists, ceramicist Charlotte Barker, was displaying her work in a little terraced property on Lytton Road, just across the street from her pottery workshop. Sharing this venue with her was Barry Bulsara, a printmaker who creates arresting fine art prints inspired by popular culture. Some of Barry’s work is reminiscent of Banksy, and draws on the graphic quality of street art, while other pieces have a strong science fiction influence. The juxtaposition of these two contrasting collections could have been jarring, but in fact only served to highlight the very different appeal of each approach.
My arrival at Ellerington Fine Art Gallery was accompanied by the beating of tribal drums from an informal jamming session taking place outside. This was perhaps a nod to ArtBeat, a community arts festival created to complement Art House and showcase performing arts talent in Clarendon Park. This year’s ArtBeat runs until Sunday 15 June 2014. ArtBeat is another project concocted and organised by a group of Clarendon Park residents who consider the area to be “awash with artistic talent” and are committed to promoting the work of creative local people. The festival is in its first year but judging by its popularity and the commitment of its founders it looks set to follow in the footsteps of Art House in becoming an established event on Leicester’s cultural calendar.
Inside, Ellerington Gallery is surprisingly spacious, and the exhibitors typically welcoming and keen to talk to visitors about their work. It is refreshing to visit an art gallery in the midst of this tour of residential venues, and offers the opportunity to appreciate what an honour it is to be able to view the work of an artist in their own home, as well as to reflect on the benefits of displaying art in the more controlled environment of a professional gallery.
Louise Ellerington set up her fine art gallery in September 2012 and has gone on to provide a friendly and accessible venue for local artists to exhibit their work. On her website she talks about the deeply personal nature of the pieces of work she displays: “Art affects us on a personal level,” she says, “What may be interpreted as disturbing to one person, may be beautiful to another. The piece of art we fall in love with is the one which touches our soul and is there when we need it most.”
Textural landscapes and mythical imagery
Charlotte Linder is a botanical artist whose work has won several awards at the RHS London Flower Shows. Her intricate, closely-studied paintings took on a slightly surreal edge against the everyday suburban background of a Portland Road residence, but were no less striking because of this. The other stand-out artist at this venue was Sally Vincent, a textile artist who uses felting and machine-stitched embellishments to create evocative landscapes. The depth and detail Sally manages to generate out of wool and thread is remarkable, and the number of the pieces which had a sold sticker on them was evidence of their popularity.
Pendene Road, off Avenue Road, is a quaint little cul-de-sac of large houses, two of which were hosting Art House exhibitions. I was immediately drawn to the work of another textile artist, Linda Gleave, whose panoramic landscapes made from strips of silk with minimal printed and sewn embellishments were eye-catching in their simplicity. The neutral colours and Linda’s delicate approach encourage the intricacies of the fabrics to come to the fore, resulting in a collection of quietly dramatic textural landscapes.
The boldly graphic work of printmaker Peter Rapp was a complete contrast. His linocut “The Rainbird”, one of a series inspired by The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, was a surreally beautiful picture. This primitive mythological bird figure, showering droplets of rainwater from its beak onto the surrounding parched land, filled with symbolism and rendered oddly haunting by the black and white linocut process, was the single most memorable image I encountered during my Art House experience.
The variety and quality of the art on show at this year’s Art House was an eye-opening demonstration of the breadth of artistic talent we have on our doorstep. Being given the opportunity to speak to artists about their work, sometimes in their own homes, was a real honour. It’s this personal quality which gives Art House its unique appeal and guarantees its continuing success and popularity.
Art House 2015 will run from 13-15 June, and its exponential growth to date suggests that next year’s event will the highest-profile and most popular yet. Visit the Art House website for details of past and future events, links to the work of the artists involved, and information for prospective exhibitors.