Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance (ROAR) chief executive SHARON GILL talks to artist Angie Hardwick
MEXBOROUGH born and bred, Angie Hardwick is a well-known face to many community groups, schools and in social care settings across our region, working hard as a creative professional, helping people tell their stories through making.
Not every artist has the skills or indeed the inclination to work with people and communities. That takes a special sort of individual who genuinely enjoys the company of other people, has extraordinary listening abilities and can gain inspiration from the life experiences of others.
Talking to Angie it is abundantly clear this is the area of her work that brings her a sense of fulfilment, over and beyond the end product or artwork.
Angie’s family background is not obviously creative, although her grandad did make high quality teddy bears, which must have brought joy to many children. Her mum, now working in healthcare settings, recalls being offered an exhibition opportunity in her younger days at a London gallery, but this was frowned upon by her own parents and never came to pass. You might remember those pin pictures on black velvet made with metallic string — this was a favoured pastime of Angie’s dad. So there were definitely creative seeds in her childhood.
School days are usually quite significant in determining life choices, for good or bad. Art classes Angie recalls being enjoyable, but she was generally fed up and eager to leave school as soon as possible. This itchy feet situation features regularly in this interview. Also in an unusual sense Angie had a very clear goal in mind (she can see the focus on a goal in her own daughter now) to be an art technician in a school, most definitely NOT a teacher however. This she puts down to having much more productive and engaging relationships with technicians than tutors in her art education, preferring the less formal and practical learning.
The educational environment appealed to her, perhaps early recognition of the social benefits and rewards found in knowledge exchange.
This began at Church View College in Doncaster where Angie studied for a GNVQ in Art and Design, which was a modular course delivering a variety of media options in six week blocks, and included a GCSE in photography and an A-level in Art. It was here that Angie had her first experience working in ceramics, her pervading specialist medium.
Continuing on to Bretton Hall to study ceramics on a Fine Art degree, Angie decided to stay at home and commute in. Now known as the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, it remains a favourite place of Angie’s, where you can see large-scale sculptures up close.
While studying there Angie started to explore her relationship with objects that she owned which she had strong feelings about. Her Volkswagen Beetle featured greatly in her college work, with ceramic pieces as big as the car bonnet. Exactly the sort of work you might expect to find there now.
Like so many other young people who have been through the school system and continued with their education, you need a break at the end. Those itchy feet appear and ceramics takes a definitive backseat (pun intended) as Angie embarks on a new direction working in ‘visual merchandising’ for Debenhams. That means dressing the windows and displays, which does require some creative sensitivities. It’s a job I have been a little mesmerised by, imagining creative flair and freedom to create those amazing Regent Street store seasonal windows, perhaps an over-romanticised interpretation. Angie does recall the position involved some travel as the Meadowhall store was a flagship, and the team would visit other stores to share best practice, and one time that meant a visit to Prague.
This was not enough to stop her itchy feet.
Hello Greece! I know you are all thinking about Mamma Mia now, and an endless summer of fun and love. Not sure working in a bar for six months was quite the same filmic experience. On her return Angie discovered that Debenhams had kept her job open for her, and she stayed for a further year. It does seem remarkable for a large corporation to do that, but I have learnt that Angie is quite humble regarding her talent and career trajectory, and does not have the confidence you would expect from someone who makes a living through her creative practice. This is all testament to her approachability and success working with communities.
Scratching those feet again, Angie was looking around for other opportunities when she landed the job of her school daydreams. Yes, she got a job as a school art technician!
Now in a position where she could help young people with the less formal but practical support and knowledge, offering an alternative form of support to the class teacher, Angie excelled. The Doncaster school recognised the creative talents and offered a split position of art technician and unqualified teacher which enabled Angie to teach photography and on the A-level curriculum.
As happens to many of us, Angie started a family. While on maternity, the world kept moving and changes occurred at the school. A staff reshuffle meant the position of community art co-ordinator was the position Angie returned to. This provided amazing opportunities to bring the school community and the outside world together through a range of imaginative and impactful creative projects.
One sought to address the fears of some of the more elderly residents who would cross the road to avoid walking in front of the secondary school with the rambunctious youth. Angie arranged for these residents to come into the school and meet with some of the young people, and then took some of the more challenging art students to visit residential homes. They behaved impeccably, once taken out of their comfort zone. Such successes saw an expansion of the initiative for a period of time.
Baby number two meant Angie was not present when yet another reshuffle, possibly the ninth restructure in response to government expectations around schooling, led to the art department being reduced to minimal functionality, and saw the end of Angie’s 12 years employment with the school.
“I was gutted for a day,” says Angie, until she decided to go freelance. The school went over and beyond to support Angie, and gave her redundant resources and letters of recommendation, and so she started her new business.
Many of the teachers who had worked with Angie and moved up to other schools were eager to engage her talents, and with such exemplary experience she was able to secure all manner of workshop commissions.
It was at this point I realised that Angie managed to have it all! A loving husband with two children, a house being made into a home with an art studio in the basement including a kiln, and a growing self-employed creative business.
She has the flexibility to work around her family, to manage her work commitments to choose the more engaging or lucrative offers, with greater financial remuneration than her previous employment.
But for someone with itchy feet, who is rarely satisfied for a long time, Angie continues to have creative ambition.
We talk a little about her personal work, as opposed to the work that is co-produced in workshop settings.
Moving on from her beloved Beetle, Angie turned to another owned item, her house, and to explore what it meant to be domestic. She incorporated old fashioned sayings with lace imprints and, as children arrived, looked to using Lego figures to represent what meant most in her life.
Angie reflects on her failed attempts to sell her work at different craft fairs, and how people are really buying a piece of you, and want a relationship with you and that requires commitment to sell in that way.
There came the realisation that no personal work had been produced in maybe the last four years, and that must mean the need and drive artists feel to make work must be getting met elsewhere.
Participatory Arts — or socially engaged arts — is where Angie has found her forte. As one of the artists to work with the organisation Crisis, who tackle homelessness, Angie has experienced working with social care environments and associated groups, excluding prison, although she has worked with ex-offenders. These projects are more often than not quite short in duration. You may work with a group of asylum seekers or trafficked women and girls once a week for six weeks to engage in a creative process, all very worthwhile.
Angie has recognised that the positive impact the arts can have on the transformation of someone’s life is much stronger through a sustained relationship.
For example, a recent project involved working with women around their experiences of domestic abuse for the Festival of the Mind in Sheffield, which needed to be delivered against a deadline during Covid lockdown restrictions. This meant there were no face-to-face sessions and all the feedback and exchanges were digital. The work still has an impactful legacy, but the value of the process to the participants was diminished.
Angie is now facing perhaps one of her biggest career challenges: to move from the successful community artist to become a socially engaged artist working in the public realm. How do you get the experience and win the commission without experience? How do you take your work from a domestic scale to public sculpture scale? You will not be surprised to learn that Angie is approaching the task head on.
She has delivered one such cohesion project for South Yorkshire Housing Association, Fancy A Brew, to bring the new residents together over a four-month period. Angie has also reached out and made contact with the arts organisation BEAM (aka Public Arts) who are currently looking at how to address that very issue, and she is seeking an experienced artist mentor to learn from and shadow throughout a live project.
In the meantime, Angie continues to deliver projects for Rotherham and South Yorkshire-wide communities, the latest being the Kindness Project, commissioned by REMA (Rotherham Ethnic Minorities Association), funded by Reaching Communities, to help bring some joy and kindness to those who are struggling in these extraordinary times.