‘I think about my skills as an artist as a gift from God’

by AMY FORDE, marketing and communications assistant at Rotherham Open Arts Renaissance (ROAR)

RACHEL Lewis has been a member of ROAR for five years, and has made herself well known within the Rotherham arts scene.

She is currently president of Rotherham Society of Artists, a group who meet on Fridays at the Unity Centre, and also runs a weekly art class in Ravenfield which is well attended by those in the area.

She has also been involved with Wath Hall Limited, a charity campaign group who have been helping raise finance and creating a long-term plan for the historic Wath Hall building. Rachel curated exhibitions at the site to draw people in, another way that she met more artists in and around Rotherham. Rachel curated exhibitions at the site to draw people in, another way that she met more artists in and around Rotherham.

It surprises me then that she tells me she has had no formal art training and has spent most of her working life as a physiotherapist: “My art timeline, we can call it, started seven years ago when I had children. With sleep deprivation and post-natal depression, my focus strangely became painting. I knew I had an hour a day when they napped when I could devote myself to it.”

The piece that came out of this hour a day is called Honey Jars. When she later shows me the piece, knowing the back story I could see so much symbolism in those three jars of honey glistening against a stormy backdrop.

From this work it all spring-boarded. Her next collection focused on hands, something which happened organically as part of Open Studios weekend here at ROAR.

A lady, who was being photographed by a fellow ROAR member as part of the event, caught Rachel’s attention: “Whilst she sat there, this lady’s hands were just glowing through the light from the window and were just absolutely stunning. So I sneakily took a digital shot of her hands whilst her portrait was being done.”

Rachel has gone on to capture two different versions of this picture, one in oil and one in acrylic. The piece features as part of Rotherham’s Gallery Town, Rotherham’s open air art gallery.

Rachel says there is no set theme to her artwork, which somewhat mirrors how she talks about herself as someone who is always juggling a number of projects at once. She tells me “I am drawn to what I want to draw”, but hands are something she has captured more than once, most recently her vicar’s: “I had got quite a simple image of praying hands but we ended up doing one with the chalice, and with all the reflections in the chalice it was quite striking.” It currently sits comfortably on the church’s prayer table.

On this fascination with hands she explains: “I think they are people, not in a crazy sense. But I think they are really expressive.”

She also adds that it was this part of the body which she focused on when she was a physiotherapist, anatomically a fascinating area. The connection to hands has always been there.

Although never having formal training, like many of the artists she has always been creative. She tells me that aged three she once captured musician Gilbert O’Sullivan sat on a piano, a piece which went on to take pride of place in her headmistress’s office. She jokes: “You could call this interview from Gilbert O’Sullivan to God.”

Indeed her faith is something she has mentioned throughout our conversation. She has just taken on the role of church warden, and it seems that this is an important part of her artistic progression: “My faith is growing as is my confidence in my art. Part of that is because I think about my skills as an artist as a gift from God. That it is something I have been blessed with and I can use for other people and share with other people.”

Another important characteristic is her desire to learn and continue to grow and develop her skills. A lot of this has been aided by her work teaching, as she puts it: “I have to learn things thoroughly in order to be able to teach that topic.” Not only does it strike me that this is something she prides herself in, but is also crucial to this point in her creative journey.

As we look over her work at the end of the interview, there is a lot of exploration in both medium and theme. She admits she hasn’t quite found her niche yet, but that in itself is part of the process.

There is a real hunger to push her practice further, exhibit more and further promote herself and her work. She tells me that for a long time she didn’t call herself an artist, it “didn’t fit”, but I get the sense that this change in mindset has really helped: “What I would really like to do is organise myself to be more professional in how I market my work, and in particular how it’s presented. So my challenge here is to actually have a career development.”

A great ambition to have and one I am sure she will succeed in.

This way there be witches…

Pendle Heritage Centre


WHAT have religious nonconformity, witches, architecture and the first man to run a mile in four minutes Sir Roger Bannister got in common?

The answer is that they all form part of what’s on offer at a fascinating museum in the heart of Lancashire.

Pendle Heritage Cnetre, on the edge of Barrowford, offers a wealth of delights to anyone interested in architectural, social or local history.

There is even an art gallery, the chance to shop and the opportunity to take a walk along the river known as Pendle Water.

The Grade II-listed farm buildings and walled garden which make up Pendle Heritage Centre are an attraction for both the history buff but also families.

Traditional building skills have been utilised to redevelop the ancient farmhouse called Park Hill in which the museum is located.

The building is certainly an ancient one and dates from the fifteenth century, built up and adapted over the years as its owners saw fit and offering an insight into ancient building techniques and the way of life of our rural ancestors.

The house, as it stands now, shows remnants of its past for all to see and the centre has done well to bring visitors as close as possible to the fabric of the building. It is like taking a trip through time.

The museum, set within the old house, has a suitably historic atmosphere and covers a number of elements of history relating to the building itself and the wider goings-on across Lancashire.

Inevitably, perhaps, the Pendle Witch Trials is a topic covered in great detail, telling the grim story of the trial and persecution of the alleged witches in the early seventeenth century.

There is an interesting short film on the subject, and displays include a witch’s charm and posters and images from the time.

But religious non-conformity in a more Christian vein was also a feature of the area, as another exhibition reveals.

Baptists, Methodists, Quakers and others found a voice in this part of the world where clearly people liked to think for themselves and live their lives as they wanted.

You can learn about the history of the Bannister family who lived at Park Hill in the 1400s, as well as the Swinglehursts who took on the property later.

Sir Roger stemmed from this Bannister clan and a portrait of him can be found at the musuem.

The centre’s fine brick-walled garden is an eye-catching creation started in Georgian times. It has been restored.

The Cruck Frame Barn at the Heritage Centre dates from the 15th century and originally comes from the Burnley area.

A statue of one of the supposed witch

It was rescued in the 1980s and rebuilt to show off its early construction techniques.

Pendle Heritage Centre is also home to the Pendle Arts Gallery which feature changing exhibitions of art and crafts.

There is also a popular conference centre, The Parlour Shop and Tourist Information Centre.

And, ofoucrse, should all this culture and history enervate you somewhat, you can have a brew and a cake or sandwich at the Garden Tea Room.

Pendle Heritage Centre is a top attraction for your list if you happen to be in Lancashire.

Most people who hear the word Pendle will immediately think of witches.

TV shows like Most Haunted have highlighted the place’s supposed spooky character and thousands of words hve been written on the famous witch trials of the early seventeenth century.

A display showing a historic domestic scene

Driving through the area with its imposing hills, bleak upland lndscapes and, very often, grim and gloomy weather certainly creates an otherworldly sense.

The fact that nowadays most people would see the famous witch trials, along with those at Salem in Massachusetts and elsewhere, as nothing more than the results of ignorance and prejudice is neither here nor there. It remains a great tale from history.

The story is that in 1612 Halifax peddler John Law collapsed in the town of Colne after being cursed by Alison Device for not giving her some pins.

She was dragged before local magistrate Robert Nowell and was so bewildered that she confessed to the ‘crime’ of witchcraft and also named her grandmother, Demdike, and another local matriarch, Chattox.

The two old women were interrogated and came up with bizarre tales such as meeting the devil near Newchurch. Inevitably, this led to Demdike, Chattox, Alison and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearn, being committed for trial at Lancaster Castle.

However, the took on an even more bizarre twist when Demdike, her family and some neighbours held a Good Friday meeting at which they ate some stolen mutton. It was deemed by investigators as a witches’ sabbath, especially when human teeth taken from a graveyard were found.

Those attending were rounded up and imprisoned until the trial on August 17. After various fanciful offerings of evidence were given, the accused were found guilty and hung, except for Demdike who perished in prison.

Weird stories still remain today of spectral witches and weird goings-on, no doubt enhanced by paranormal investigators who flock to the area.

Such is the interest even today, that there are opportunities to take the Walking with Witches Trail, the Eastern and Western loops of which both begin at Barley car park.

The walks offer the chance to explore the rugged countryide that is the backdrop to the story and perhaps experience the isolation of this wild terrain.

You can almost step back in time to the lonely farmsteads of yesteryear and perhaps better understand why the supernatural was an everyday belief in times gone by, particularly in a country where even the monarch, King James I, was obsessed with the subject.

An old document on display

People believed in witchcraft and that the ills that befell them may well have been the devil’s work rather than their own stupidity or plain bad luck.

On the trail, the explorer can walk eastwards to Newchurch, Pendle, Faugh’s Delph Quarry, Drivers Height Farm and back down to Barley with views of Pendle Hill, or eastwards towards White Hough and Roughlee.

Both routes are between three and four miles in length.

On the trail, you will visit various spots important to the Pendle Witches story, such as Faugh’s Delph Quarry where Demdike claimed to have met the devil – so be careful! – and Saddlers Farm where her dwelling may have been.

An intriguing tale from a wild and wonderful part of the world. Explore the Walking with Witches Trail and fall under its strange Pendle spell.

Pendle Heritage Centre is open daily 10am to 5pm, with the museum and gallery open from 11am to 4pm.
Higherford Mill is open by appointment.
Address – Pendle Heritage Centre, Park Hill, Barrowford, Lancashire BB9 6JQ
Telephone – 01282 677152
Email – info@pendleheritagecentre.co.uk