tDrought hit Suffolk hard last summer. At Bentwaters, an abandoned US military air base, the grass was so dry it turned to dust. Deer crossed the silent runway through thermal haze. Yet behind the rusty old fighter planes and hangars resembling the prairie hangars of the Midwest, fresh seeds were settling among the weeds and a new branch of the arts was taking root.
Oldgate, a creative hub, located inside a former fighter jet operations building. Like most country hubs, it houses a unique mix of people who live local and need studio space: in this case, 35 musicians, artists, writers, photographers, stylists and more, from early-career artists to established names like Mercury Award winner and artist Talvin Singh. Jelly Green.
Walk inside and you’ll hear two things: a playlist curated by musician and Old Jet founder Jesse Quin and residents chatting in the communal kitchen that looks like a cool Shoreditch Café. But this is not London. Rent at Old Jet, for a shared space, starts from £15 per week and access is 24/7. So while the Midwestern United States may seem out the window, if you’re an artist used to skyrocketing city studio rents, you’ll realize at this point that you’re not in Kansas anymore..
Today, in the Old Jet kitchen, artist Jessie Oliver discusses the benefits of linseed oil with Old Jet’s weekly artist in residence. Costume designer Lydia Cooper is back in the studio covered in quirky tree paintings, inspired by the Suffolk drought, as part of her new direction in filmmaking, art and set design. Artist Caroline Wright brings coffee to feed the 80 drawings she’s doing today for a stop-frame animation that looks at the erosion of the Suffolk coast.
Old Jet is one of East Suffolk’s six creative hubs. There may be more but no one knows. That’s because a hub, according to the British Council, can be anything from a “handful of people” to a “3,000-strong tribe”. Regardless of size, their goal is defined as the same: to bring together “entrepreneurial people working in the creative and cultural industries”. The British Council considers creative hubs to be “integral to the sustainability and growth of the creative economy”, which will be worth £104 billion in the UK in 2021. They even offer a free toolkit to create one.
Until recently, it was the large urban creative communities, such as the Tileyard in King’s Cross, London, that thrived, providing ample scope for networking, collaboration and training for the next generation. By comparison, small rural hubs had a tougher task. The drain of talent into cities leaves gaps in expertise, while long distances between hubs, poor public transport and fierce competition for arts funding discourage networking between hubs that could fill them.
However, due to the pandemic and a faltering economy, the possibility of rural centers playing a greater role in the development of the British arts is increasing. Audrey Carlin is the CEO of Wasps, an organization that runs 20 creative hubs in Scotland, including the Inverness Creative Academy, that opened in 2018 to create a community for artists working in isolation in the Highlands.
After the lockdown, Carlin notes a dynamic shift in energy: “What has become more important is human interaction — overcoming the isolation of lockdown.” The center is currently thriving thanks to new collaborations, including growth in a darkroom suite — the first, Carlin believes, in the country. Glass artist Catherine Carr was instrumental in bringing the Scottish Glass Society’s annual exhibition to the Highlands in the autumn, the first time she had left Glasgow. “Things like this expose people to skills, talents and experiences that they wouldn’t normally have,” Carlin says.
This energy has been ignited by the arrival of creative professionals fleeing skyrocketing city rents, and joining the work-from-home revolution unleashed by lockdown. Some return to their areas of origin. The result is a cultural reconfiguration, or replanting of ideas and skills, whereby those gaps in rural arts ecosystems begin to fill. “People have moved here from Glasgow and Edinburgh, but also from cities abroad,” says Carlin.
Recently, I interviewed professionals from the world of film and TV production who returned home during lockdown, and are now planning to set up subsidiaries in the Highlands, to capitalize on the skills that have moved into the area. Carlin believes this could have a significant impact on the region. Currently, 2,500 young men are lost each year from the Highlands and Islands. For a creative career, they believe, you need to move to the central belt of Scotland to find a supportive network, community, and places to experiment and collaborate. Now that is changing.”
Kim Black, the independent fashion designer and co-founder of Vintage Sister, moved with her family out of London to Woodbridge in Suffolk shortly before lockdown. Her goal was to change her lifestyle and spend more time with her teens. Black, who has designed for 30 years for brands like Monsoon and Coast, has introduced herself at local independent vintage and design stores, which led to a call to Karen Myers of Stitchworks, a local sewing and teaching studio. “Karen was working on her own, and I loved my experience,” says Black. “And she’s incredible at sewing. We rub each other’s energy.”
Between freelancing from her new home studio and moving to London to plan collections with the design team, Black now runs a fashion club at Stitchworks, where she shares her industry skills and ethical practices with local teens. One of them went to the College of Fashion in London. Another won an arts scholarship, and Black described him as “the design star of the future.” Now she and Myers plan to expand into a sewing and design center that will give Suffolk teens more ways to explore creative careers.
And just a few miles away, in the summer, Old Jet launched Airspace, a new art program that takes advantage of the plentiful space on the airbase, and the experience of studio residents—many of whom train, work, and exhibit in London. – to support the next generation of Suffolk artists. Using donated shipping containers for other purposes, she has created a Community Interest Company (CIC) that will provide free studio space for six months alongside Old Jet to young artists and those living with social barriers.
The program brings together applicants and mentors, for both the creative and commercial aspects of their work. “We want to create meaningful connections for them in their industry, through galleries, record labels and other businesses,” says founder Jesse Quinn. “We want to help build relationships that they don’t have. We want to stay with them for the long term.”
Its regular social lunches always welcome newly arrived creatives who are finding their feet since moving to the area. “Working with professionals from London feels like an important part of the programme,” Quinn says. “If you start out as a writer in Suffolk and you meet someone who works for a publishing company, it feels overwhelming. Any connections you can make seem very meaningful.”
Old Jet has recently joined forces with other thriving creative organizations in Suffolk including Snape Maltings, Asylum Studios and The Art Station to form a Local Cultural Education Partnership (LCEP) to look at ways to support art departments in local schools and colleges.
The potential of the airspace has already been demonstrated by the success of Old Jet’s youngest resident, Darren Lindman. Two years earlier – aged 18 and at a ‘difficult’ time in his life – he had been living in a caravan in the Suffolk countryside, painting, with the support of neighbours, who encouraged his ideas and gave him their cottage. Furthermore, he struggled to find a creative community, and exhibited alone in his village pub. Quinn recognized his talent and situation and offered Lindy Man free studio space. “Coming to Old Gate was a huge surprise,” says Lindy Mann. “It’s very hidden, and a different kind of society. People helped me and treated me like an artist.”
Quinn’s instincts about the young artist’s talents proved correct. Lindy Mann, still just 21, sold £13,000 worth of artwork at the Old Jet gallery this summer and has gone on to have them listed at Christie’s Emerging Artists in London. He now sells regularly to collectors and exhibits in Brussels and Whitechapel.
If more evidence is needed of the potential of rural hubs to discover and nurture talent where it grows, it is of interest to universities. In Wasps Inverness the University of the Highlands and Islands rent a studio for final year students. “It gives them the opportunity to move into a building where the professional practice happens,” says Audrey Carlin. “They are able to showcase and meet artists who have a career in heights, something that didn’t have to be understood that was possible. But it also inspires well-established artists, which is where this vibrant emerging talent comes from.”
Back in Bentwaters Park, in his Old Jet studio, the artist Adam Riches She collaborates with a female poet, depicting herself painting as she recites the poem that inspired the work. In the office, Aerospace Director Oliver Squirrel prepares to launch this month’s first professional development program for three young musicians at Old Jet Music Studios.
Georgiana van Walsum, who previously worked as a fashion designer in Italy and Paris, cuts patterns next to a window with views that she says inspired her recent move to sun-bleached, wild-dyed, and waxy, waterproof textiles. “I love Old Gate,” she says. “You feel somehow on the edge of things, in their own kind of wilderness—an open landscape that makes you feel like you’re inside the weather.”
Sure, the January rain has finally awakened the parched earth around the air base, and there is talk of planting new trees in the spring. But winter nights are falling early right now. At sunset, the prairie barnyards turn black against the big Suffolk sky. Old Jet disappears behind them, and disappears again. Like many rural hubs, you wouldn’t know they were there unless someone told you. This is about to change.