Not all art is encased in gilt frames in galleries. An extraordinary arts collective has been developed in Ashington, Northumberland, where the Ashington Group - commonly known as the Pitmen Painters - worked in the 1930s. Michael Flynn and Julian Germain tell the story of how a remarkable photographic art project is helping a fomer mining community to rediscover its history and create new images of its contemporary social life.
Ashington is one of the largest towns in Northumberland. During the nineteenth century it became a centre for the coal mining industry, and at one time was the world's largest coal mining village.
In 1934 some of the Ashington miners enrolled in painting classes as an alternative pastime and began to produce paintings to sell at local markets to supplement their wages. They achieved unexpected success and approval from the art community and were given prestigious gallery exhibitions under the name 'The Pitmen Painters', although they are more properly known as the Ashington Group. Their story was subsequently made into a stage play by Lee Hall, of Billy Elliot fame.
The 1970's and 80's saw the rapid decline of the coal industry and the job losses had a significant effect on the community.
The Ashington District Star
It is against this background that the Ashington District Star started, in 2014. It is a group project which has produced photographic art, inspired by the Pitmen paintings. Just as the local miners observed and painted Ashington in the 1930s, so local people answered a call from the artist Julian Germain to once again produce lasting images of Ashington that would reflect the changes in the culture in the mining village.
Members of the Ashington District Star editorial group
The project took over a year to complete, and culminated in an exhibition at the Woodhorn museum. As well as the exhibition, the group produced four editions of a free paper named the Ashington District Star.
Ashington District Star Issue I, front and back covers
This paper was handed out in the streets of Ashington by the photographers, come rain or shine people were there explaining what the paper was all about.
Alien hands out Star, Ashington 2015
The paper and exhibition were only the end result of a lot of community input. Photographers were out and about following leads, going to people’s homes, clubs, places of work with in Ashington, allotments and smallholdings. We had photographers working on weddings, funerals, and children playing: the list was quite extensive.
Wedding Reception, Ashington, 2015
Some of the Pitmen paintings had a direct influence on the images produced by Julian and the group.
The Xmas Tree by the ADS 2014 and by Harry Wilson 1950
The project has been about art, but it’s a different kind of art, held in trust by everyone. Just like the Pitmen Painters, we wanted to record ordinary life in Ashington artistically, and develop the community's memories and images of itself.
Prom, Ashington, 2014
Here is the artist Julian Germain, answering questions about the project:
Q. What were you hoping for and what do you think you achieved in terms of community engagement, stimulating Ashington's cultural memory, and public appreciation of art?
A. For purely practical reasons, in order to make good documentary photography or film, you must of course deal with the people who are your subject. At the very least their agreement is required.
The Ashington Group paintings reflect something more interesting and it goes deeper, even if, on an individual basis, it's difficult to argue that the paintings are beautifully crafted works of art - the terms 'unprofessional' and 'amateur' were used at an early stage and not considered pejorative.
The power of the AG work is in the desire of people to explore their situation artistically and in the process of collective intent and effort that's reflected in the way they are exhibited at Woodhorn - as a 'group' of paintings produced by a 'group' of painters.
For me, the paintings are imbued with this co-operative spirit and therein lies their beauty. This spirit drew me in. It's the reason why I wanted to work with the paintings and the reason that the Ashington District Star came into existence, as a vehicle for connecting and collaborating with local people in the entire artistic process, from creation through to display and discourse about their community.
Q. What would you say about the social and political meanings of this kind of artistic intervention in community life?
The central issue is the philosophy of achievement through co-operation over the philosophy of competition and individualism that today's rapaciously consumerist society and its media is obsessed with. So much mainstream TV is about winners and losers, everything is turned into a competition, from baking to knitting to singing, dancing, even art! It drives me mad!
As for its meaning, I'm not sure, but it has brought people (including me) a great deal of pleasure, much of it in the form of conversations amongst the editorial group and with the public when we hand out the paper. I love it when passers-by already know about the paper and are looking out for the next issue. I'm proud that the Star has in a small way become part of the fabric of the community.
Ashington District Star Issue 2, 2015
Q. How does your own artistic practice relate to your political beliefs, visions or inspirations?
A. I avoid making work that is overtly political. A singular point of view or an obvious stance tends to simplify issues whereas reality is usually very messy and complicated. Also I think that if you start campaigning it often turns a lot of people off. I admire people like Renzo Martens and I appreciate his intention to make us all feel profoundly uncomfortable but even his process is riven with contradictions. My work tends to be pretty straightforward. I try to show people things in an interesting but non-judgemental way in the hope so that they will be encouraged to look and think.
Q. How do you think the past and present images work together?
A. They are a dialogue between past and present as well as between the nature of photography and painting. The paintings have been such an important element of the project. Many local people have been initially drawn to the paper by the AG paintings in the centrefold - so they have been really essential.
Bedside by the ADS 2015 and by George McLean 1940
I was especially pleased to be able to work with George McLean's extraordinary work Bedside. It depicts a dying or seriously ill woman in bed at home with her husband in a chair next to her. I couldn't imagine that this could be re-made as a photograph but one of the editorial group (Michael Flynn) works as a carer and he thought one of his bedridden clients might be prepared to participate in a photoshoot. Obviously the situation in our photograph is not the same but the visual connections between them are powerful, and placing them sided by side seems to enhance both narratives.
We shot our picture at a moment of controversy around care services and care workers. It is an underfunded system, increasingly privatised, staffed by minimum wage earners allotted insufficient time with patients and so on. The juxtaposition creates a fascinating range of thoughts and emotions.
The full exhibition will be on show in Newcastle upon Tyne in May 2016.