Ashby de la Zouch Arts Festival

PUBLISHED: 10:50 14 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:29 20 February 2013

Ashby de la Zouch Arts Festival

Ashby de la Zouch Arts Festival

Ashley Franklin finds the annual arts festival at Ashby de la Zouch a great incentive to explore this lively and appealing area

The arts festival season is upon us and Derbyshire, as ever, has rich pickings for culture vultures, notably in Buxton, Ashbourne, Wirksworth and Melbourne. However, as art has no boundaries, why not fly just over the Derbyshire border to Ashby de la Zouch?

This attractive North Leicestershire market town is within a paint pots throw from Derbyshire and has an arts festival from 27th May to 6th June which has grown and developed year upon year to a point where this years fest, the towns seventh, is generating enough buzz to light up the local grid.

It also makes the town a brighter and more colourful place quite literally. What distinguishes this festival, and possibly makes it unique in this country, is its very public art exhibition whereby eight by four foot artworks appear on walls, shop fronts and railings all over the town. As well as galvanising artists in the area, the Outdoor Art Gallery is an ingenious, upfront way of promoting a festival which, along with visual art, showcases music, dance, drama, literature, crafts and photography.

In a sense, Ashby has Derbyshire to thank for this festival or, more precisely, Wirksworth, and the artist Helen Joyce who runs a studio in Ashby. Having lived in Wirksworth, Helen witnessed the burgeoning of the towns arts festival there. When I moved to Ashby, I thought it a lovely town, says Helen, but with something missing, namely an arts festival!

Helen thought a festival would be a great focus in the town, not only in showcasing local artists work but also as an occasion for traders, organisations and individuals to get together and promote their businesses, their interests and the town itself.

The spark for the festival came from enthusiastic artists who saw the benefits of art being shared and enjoyed, recalls the festivals Vice Chair Lorna Brease. We still have the wonderful core of the Outdoor Art Gallery along with the fantastic exhibitions and the open art and photography exhibitions but, after a few years, the festival began to embrace a wider spectrum of the arts. This comes out of listening to what local people want. I love the fact that the festival is very much shaped by the townsfolk, which is why last year we introduced more dance elements.

This year the emphasis is on live music. Fittingly, the festival opens with a concert featuring Lucy Ward, the Derbyshire singer who recently won Best Newcomer at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. For budding newcomers, there is an Open Mic event unusually in the open air during daytime a night of dance to Jump Jive music, an Under 16s Rockschool and a massive event in a 1,500 capacity marquee with live, local and original music alongside competitions, workshops, and a food and drink fair organised by Food Gusto, promoting local businesses like Charnwood Chilli, Staffordshire Savoury Eggs and Melbourne Sweet s &Treats along with producers of Red Leicester cheese, rare breed meats, honey, chocolate, beers, English wines, cider, sloes and liqueurs.

Also in the festival line-up is a literary supper, street theatre, a Dancing in the Street event, a Venture Theatre Open Day, an exhibition of experimental and abstract art by students of Ivanhoe College, a night of Lindy and Charleston dance, a hat decorating competition, and workshops in photography, painting, felting, rosette making, and painting.

One competition invites you to paint a Diamond Jubilee Plate. With the festival coinciding with the Queens 60 year reign and happening just ahead of the Olympics, the theme for the art boards in this festival is, appropriately, Celebrate in Red, White and Blue.

One of the reasons the Ashby Festival celebrates its distinctive Outdoor Art Gallery is, ironically, due to a lack of indoor exhibition spaces in the town. One bright spark in Ashbys artistic community suggested using empty buildings an early artwork by Helen Joyce and Phil Redford resourcefully utilised the broken windows of a closed Woolworths store and this led to another artist pointing to the many walls of shops and offices, occupied or not, that could display artwork.

Martin Vaughan, an artist who pioneered the art boards project, explains the fruition of this singular concept: We were quick to realise the beauty and brilliance of this idea in that we would be putting art in front of people who wouldnt normally go near an art gallery. We also found businesses more than willing to adorn their exterior wall space with our art boards. Its an irresistible idea when you think of it; there is no cost to the businesses and the art boards brighten up their premises and make them more attractive to shoppers and visitors. I feel we ought to patent this concept. After all, what town or city wouldnt want to do the same as us?

The boards idea has enhanced the festival and brightened up the town, declares Barbara Royds, the current Visual Arts Coordinator. The Town Council so loves what were doing that it requested we put up more boards and keep them up for four weeks rather than the usual two of the festival.

Furthermore, Barbara reveals that seven new artists have come on board this year and the youngsters are now joining in: for the first time there will be a childrens gallery, and local schools are producing their own boards which will be displayed on school railings.

All the artists I spoke with were tremendously enthusiastic about the art boards. Some admit to being daunted by tackling 32 square feet of plywood board canvas and the recommendation that they apply emulsion or acrylic paint rather than oils or watercolour. Jay Dubya, who has painted three boards, said: I was a bit apprehensive at first but I actually find it easier to paint big as there is no fiddling involved.

I had never painted with emulsion before this, admits Pam Ripley, so it was a very adventurous challenge, but I really enjoyed it. Pam has produced a painting of a goal celebration in the stands where the crowds faces resemble the wartime Chad cartoon.

Working on these boards means you feel you have contributed in a big way, literally and figuratively, remarks Irene Boddington who has painted a celebratory release of balloons I wanted to paint something big, bold and striking.

Also big, bold and striking is Jump For Joy by Larry South, a local photographer he won the festivals Open Photo competition last year who has been inspired by the art boards to have a go at painting himself.

The art boards have encouraged and inspired artists of all kinds, states Martin Vaughan.

One of the three dozen art boards will be displayed on the brick wall adjacent to the florists Holywell Petals, run by Kathryn Ramsell. We are all about colour and beauty so its perfect for us to be associated with the Outdoor Gallery, enthuses Kathryn. Whats more, we are a little bit out of town and so its pleasing to have seen visitors, even residents, wandering down our way and popping in, saying "I didnt know you were here."

Another retailer, Peter Jarvis of Just Bikes, is displaying an art board for the first time. I think the idea is wonderful and as I have some space outside, like most shops, I thought "why not?" remarks Peter. Other premises belonging to Boots, W H Smiths, New Look, Derbyshire Building Society, Manor House School and many others, continue to support the project.

The Outdoor Gallery has a new main sponsor, too, in local electrical contractors Homebrook, who didnt even need asking for funding help, as their General Manager Jane Walker reveals: We installed the boards for the festival several years ago when our offices were in the heart of Ashby. Even though we have moved out of town, our team so love the Outdoor Gallery idea that we contacted the Festival to offer our support. We think its brilliant the way the festival has made art so accessible to everyone by showcasing the artists work in such an unconventional and exciting way. It shows the great community spirit of the towns people and its businesses.

Homebrook has supplied the boards, delivered them to the artists, collected them for varnishing (through its associates DW Commercial Refinishers) so they are waterproof, and will then both install and remove them. The company has even produced its own artwork on a board. We hope to be involved for some years to come, says Jane.

The Outdoor Gallery and the festival generally has undoubtedly helped bring additional visitors and tourists into the town, reveals festival co-organiser Maxine Silk, and whats satisfying to hear is that residents are increasingly inviting family and friends to stay during the festival so they can attend lots of events.

While taking in the festival, youll find Ashby an attraction all to itself, not least for its historic castle and other fine buildings such as the striking Catholic church Our Lady of Lourdes, itself adjacent to the stately and imposing Loudon Memorial. There are also handsome Georgian buildings lining Market Street where in and around this main thoroughfare is an impressive number of independent shops. Ashby is also bucking the trend with several new shops either opening in recent years, including Country Sports of Ashby Ltd, or expanding, like Black & Blossom, the sophisticated florists and gift shop which now has a classy delicatessen at its Bath Street premises. The Beauty Room, regarded as one of the premier salons in the area, has just moved to Bath Street, where youll also find two elegant fashion houses in The Dressing Room and Rebecca @ No.10, with more fashion to be found in Rebellion around the corner in Market Street.

Also on Market Street, Grace & Co is a contemporary jewellers with a wide spectrum of brands, which has just opened an accessories store a few doors away selling Modalu (Pippa Middletons favourite), Martine Wester, Carrie Elspeth, Fiorelli, Nica and many others.

Along with the contemporary is the age-old, with Shellbrook Toys selling defiantly traditional fayre like wooden jigsaws, hula hoops, puppets, marbles, kites and board games. Also, Ashby Bears is home to over 500 cuddly varieties of bears and other animals, with a specialisation in Stieff from dolls house figures to six-foot bears.

Its a shame the Ashby Arts Festival doesnt coincide with the Farmers Market, so make it a further visit to the town as this is reputed to be the finest market of its kind in the Midlands, offering a wide, selective and surprising range of produce from patisserie to wines, mushrooms to eels, smoked salmon to handmade dog biscuits. It is also in the splendid grounds of Manor House School. The next market is on 16th June.

Outside of Ashby, there is the Bluebell Arboretum, just inside Derbyshire in Smisby, a 12-acre nursery described as a tree lovers Eden with 1,500 choice species, many of them rare and unusual; and there is the giant arboretum known as The National Forest where just under eight million trees have been planted in over 400 attractive woodland sites, which include many nature reserves along with the recently-opened National Forest Cycle Centre, Snibston Discovery Park, the interactive discovery centre Conkers, and Moira Furnace. Then Sharpes Pottery Museum set in the fascinating old bottle kiln at Swadlincote has a beautiful new coffee shop.

So, enjoy the festival and much more. And watch as the festival expands, promises Vice Chair Lorna: The Ashby Arts Festival has become renowned for being different, quirky and fun and also a celebration of amazing local talent. Whats more, the cultural scene in the town seems to improve with every subsequent festival. Two years ago, for example, I introduced a film day, and this led to the formation of regular community film nights. The Rockschool this year will hopefully boost the town as the extra dance elements did last year. I am sure we can also build on the great work we have done this year in getting the schools involved. Its all very exciting.

Ashby may appear to be a small quiet market town but we run a very dynamic festival. Were already looking forward to 2013!

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