MORE than two decades ago when Karen Williams established a small Arts project in Warwickshire, she didn’t dream it would evolve into the success story it has become today.
A passion for the arts alongside a sense of frustration at an increasing lack of creative resource in the community, inspired Escape Art’s co-founder to follow her dream – and today she is the driving force behind its continued growth and success.
Escape Arts became a charity in 2003, as a result of two local projects: Escape founded by ceramic artist Robin Wade in 1997 and Community Art in Action, founded by Karen in the same year. Their shared vision for a creative arts community group to aid health and wellbeing, quickly won hearts and minds and today it is recognised and respected on both sides of the county, where it operates out of two main hubs, in Stratford and Nuneaton.
News of the charity’s inspirational work quickly spread as requests for support and collaborations started to roll in, eventually attracting its first grants – including £500 received from a local community policeman – which funded the start of what became their flagship parents’ 12 year project in Studley, the popular Grow, Cook and Eat group which combined creative arts, health interventions, cooking and sourcing ingredients from their own community allotment.
More projects meant Escape Arts also needed more room to grow, and soon found themselves moving out of Robin’s garden studio and taking over five unoccupied shop units in Stratford’s town centre, transforming them into a vibrant gallery, youth music and film studio, office, home for Stratford Men In Sheds and a huge community arts space.
2014 marked the biggest milestone for the charity when it was awarded a share of a £1 million Community Funding Challenge led by Stratford Town Trust. Where to invest this money was instinctive – new premises – to be precise, a Grade II-listed former 15th-Century cobbler, Tudor pub and slaughterhouse now sitting derelict in Stratford! But if this was to become a reality it was going to take vision.
Karen said: “This was a really big deal. When I walked in I admit I was daunted but there was such an overwhelming response from people who fondly remembered Henson’s butchers and wanted to share their memories. There was a real vision for what it could look like. As a result we created this fantastic community-based arts and heritage hub and visitor centre celebrating local arts.
“There was nothing like this in Stratford. It was all Shakespeare, all the RSC. There was nothing about local people and we are all about local people. The whole focus is local people and local stories.
“And it meant for the first time, after having previously had quite a nomadic life, we had a proper home so we could really start focusing on the charity, what we do and who for.”
Following a year of renovation work, the grand opening of the new centre in May 2015 marked a hugely proud moment for the Escape team. The celebrations were made extra special on the day by the presence of VIP guests – the Henson’s family, employees from its time as a butchers’ shop – as well as veterans and community groups.
“I felt elated on that day – hugely relieved and extremely proud,” said Karen.
Around the same time – as a way to further extend the charity’s reach – Karen sought her opportunity to take their community work on the road. With the help of a Big Lottery grant, they rescued an old county council bus from the scrapheap and, fittingly for the charity, in Karen’s words ‘we took something people didn’t want and turned it into something beautiful.’
Housing arts materials, a fridge, media suite and even portable radio station, the bus is a regular fixture of local festivals and charity events.
Karen said: “The Escape model that we use is all about inclusion and integration, each project is supported by experienced link workers who support lots of different needs and help visiting artist ensure the creative activity is accessible for all. They are the glue that hold the whole thing together. This is the unique aspect we offer. A critical part of the work Escape does is to break down those access needs and makes sure everybody can be involved and included. If they need one-to-one support we can work with them and their families to help facilitate funding support for that.”
Successful partnerships over the years include other charities, such as Mencap, Turning Point and RISE as well as adult social care teams, schools and local businesses. But one of the most rewarding, says Karen, is the relationship established with Shakespeare Hospice Children’s and Young People’s Hub in Stratford.
“It’s all about bringing young people together, creating an activity where they can share and bond and grow and increase confidence in a safe place to explore some of those issues they’re struggling with.”
Over the course of the 22 years Escape has been ably supported by a loyal army of volunteers, now numbering more than 150 – the longest serving, Paul Mitchell, boasting 20 years with the charity, who now tends the heritage centre garden alongside supporting project activities.
And they can all reflect on the thousands of people whose lives they enhanced through a host of cultural and creative projects. These projects fall into one of three categories: Community Art, Children’s and Youth Programmes and Heritage.
Two words at the very heart of Escape’s ethos.
The diversity of their work is evident around practically every corner, from the In Stitches groups, Men’s Sheds, creative health interventions, artists’ workshops to volunteering and open days. But it’s the exhibitions which have most helped build its reputation as a community hub, exploring local histories, the changing landscape of the town and impact on local people’s lives.
One of their most recent – and popular – Call The Midwife, casts light on Stratford’s maternity and general health services from Victorian period to present day.
Never missing an opportunity to entertain and inform, even the visitor centre’s ‘smallest room’ gives us pause for thought with the charity’s permanent exhibition Lifting the Lid on Stratford’s Loos, exploring the historical links with one of the town’s oldest businesses Thomas Crapper!
But Karen is quick to point out: “We’re not simply an arts and crafts organisation. Our work is about using arts and culture to impact on health and wellbeing. That underpins everything we do.
She added: “We are a very inclusive organisation so we don’t just work with one particular client group. We have an established referral system where we work with lots of different organisations who signpost people into the project. What you end up with is a group of people coming together from all sorts of different backgrounds learning, sharing and creating together. That’s powerful. It doesn’t happen very often in a community.
“We’re very much health by stealth, you’re building friendships, you’re building social skills, you’re learning how to work in a very diverse group, and you’re valuing each other.
“We’re working with professional artists and practitioners so there’s a very high quality in what we’re doing. We find we’re often the stepping stones for people getting back involved in their community.
Children’s and Youth Programmes
One of the most rewarding aspects of the charity’s work is its development of young people.
Projects are vast and varied, including a youth café, radio station, Lego Animation workshops, birthday parties, after-school clubs, holiday camps and work experience.
One of their most successful is what they call their Legacy Project – working with partner organisations in the fields of behavioural difficulties, mental health, illness, bereavement and isolation.
Karen said: “The work is all geared around giving them ownership so they get involved in our projects, whether it’s interviewing war veterans or helping collate our press releases, it’s about them leaving something tangible. We’re turning the tables and giving them the responsibility to make an impact on other people, it’s not just about us making an impact on them.”
Celebrating the past is also a part of what has shaped the charity’s future.
Escape’s most innovative projects and exhibitions have left their mark on the local community. They include regular gatherings of VIPs (Veterans and Interesting Pensioners) such as birthdays and Christmas dinners; and a WWI centenary commemoration. One of the most talked about projects of last year was a two-day event to which eight of the original Warwickshire Land Girls were invited to help re-enact a WWII wedding.
Karen said: “Heritage is so important to us. It’s about valuing people and valuing their stories. It’s about ensuring they feel a sense of belonging in their communities and about enabling them to leave a legacy.”
The work of Escape Arts does not go unnoticed beyond the county walls either and, in December last year it was presented with a Queens Award for Voluntary Services.
But what next for a charity whose accomplishments try hard to keep a pace with its founders’ ambitions?
Look out for news of a new public art partnership with local hospitals as well as exciting plans for further growing its facilities in Nuneaton.
In the meantime Karen says: “Part of our role is about advocacy and about advocating the impact of arts and culture on health and wellbeing and really validating that across professions.
“I would like to see the work we’re doing continuing to grow in lots of different settings, in every hospital, in the playground. It would be nice for the arts to be validated in clinical settings and its importance prioritised in educational settings.”
“It’s been a difficult journey and there’s been some heartache on the way, a lot of difficult decisions but I think what we’ve got now is something everybody involved in Escape is extremely proud of.”
Escape Arts can be found at: www.escapearts.org.uk
The charity is only able to continue its good work through continued funding support. Any businesses who are interested in sponsoring or partnering with the charity are invited to contact firstname.lastname@example.org