I met Kathryn Hodkinson when I first moved to Newcastle. She’s not from round here either, so when I was asked to curate this week on ‘A Wondrous Place’ I knew I wanted to chat to her about what made her stay.
Kathryn Hodgkinson: Newcastle has a particular relationship with the graduates that come up here to study and don’t leave again. There are strong courses, but as far as I can observe, people who’ve studied English and science and straight degrees, they do their degree and then go back to where they came from, or they’ll go and work in what’s perceived to be a more prosperous city. But up here people stay. And people stay when they don’t mean to stay like you did.
Degna Stone: I studied in Bristol and I felt completely disconnected from the art scene – I was vaguely aware of what was going on but I wasn’t really a part of it, it seemed more pushy and I had (and still do have) a massive inferiority complex and it seemed hard to make your way into it.
KH: There’s the whole street art movement kicked off by Banksy. It’s being part of a group, so it feels more like there’s a persona that goes with being that particular type of creative person. Whereas I genuinely think up here there’s more room for complete individuals and people that don’t fit into a gang. If you get off the train it’s not full of swanky, cool people. It’s not…Shoreditch is an extreme example, but Bristol’s got a bit of that going on. There’s a way to fit in and a way not to fit in. I think in Newcastle it’s okay not to fit in, it’s easier somehow to forge your way as a complete individual. There is quite an established network, because it’s so small it’s easy to get around and to have a relative overview. There’s a lot more people doing things in little pockets and maybe that is about affording that kind of individuality and not having to be cool and being able to concentrate on what you actually do rather than how you look. I’m quite interested in the extent of people that do stay up here. There are little things popping up all the time like Heart Attack and Vine.
My involvement with Cobalt happened because the price of property is cheaper up here, or it was. It’s probably changed a bit now. There was certainly a time when it was cheaper than anywhere else, even big northern cities, way cheaper, and it’s meant that we do have a lot of studio groups that again give people opportunities. Brickworks, Mushroom Works, Lime Street, there’s Cobalt and then there’s a whole load of students from Northumbria who stayed and have taken over a massive office building.
DS: When did you decide you were staying?
KH: My external moderator from my degree had suggested that I applied to The Royal College of Art. I think she was called Elizabeth Swinburne and she called me to one side and said you should apply for the RCA, you’ll do well there, it will stretch you and you’ve got a good degree and we’d be happy to see an application from you. The RCA is the absolute pinnacle of an art career in this country and a bit of me was absolutely fascinated by this idea she’d put in my head and also really drawn to it and really flattered that she thought I could apply for it. But then I had this other side that was really aware that if I went to London I’d have no quality of life and that my need to earn money to put myself through that course would really inhibit my creativity. I’d worked at World Headquarters the whole way through my course up here, I hadn’t had any extra help and the grant wasn’t enough to live off so I’d worked really hard. I just had this sense that if I went to London I’d be really deeply stuck in a rat race.
I was living with a friend of mine called Laura Mundy, who’s brilliant, she’s moved to Leeds since, but she was really exciting to live with. She had a studio at Fusion and so I was meeting lots of creative people through her, I suppose, and she was really just excited about life and creativity. And I was excited about the opportunities in reach up here because you could live off so little and be able to do your thing. I was really, really excited about staying actually and I did very consciously think about this London/Newcastle opportunity.
DS: That’s what it seemed like to me when I arrived, there were a lot of artists and musicians staying around, just being really creative..
KH: Kathryn Williams was really good friends with Laura and her career was just taking off. She was doing gigs at the North Terrace and we’d go and see her, and Cath Campbell was playing cello. In those very first eighteen months it was really exciting hearing them: Laura Mundy would play the flute, Kath would sing and play guitar and Cath Campbell would play cello and they were all artists. I’d quite often find myself at people’s houses where there was some jamming session going on, beautiful music being made and people talking about what they were doing. There were jobs that would give you just enough money to get by. You didn’t need so much money because rent was so cheap. Then I saw a house on Gainsborough Grove that was 32 grand and I thought if I bought that my mortgage would be cheaper than my rent and I’d have a house… so I suppose that’s when my roots really went down.
DS: I remember that, one of the first exhibitions I went to in Newcastle was at Holy Jesus Memorial Hospital when it was still derelict. It was really exciting that these people who I guess were my peers were just doing it and not waiting for things to happen for them.
KH: It’s funny you forget… thinking about it now I do recall this massive wave of excitement, a real ‘can do’. We can stay, we can set up galleries. Everybody was involved with VANE (Visual Arts North East) and that was a big deal. It’s great looking back on it; maybe you take it for granted or just stop thinking about it. Jo Coupe was doing amazing installations at the top of New Cross House, Tanya [Axford] was doing her green carpet, Paul and Miles were setting up Workplace, we were setting up Cobalt, Newcastle was going for Capital of Culture. And then the Baltic opened. I remember a fortnight just after it opened I was watching the bridge open and thinking something’s happened here. It felt like an international city. I do say to people, I live in this city where I can be on the beach in 20 minutes, I can be on Hadrian’s Wall in 15 minutes, my children can whoop in the hills as much as they want, we know a bunch of country folk living in yurts and living in cottages up in proper remote countryside and then we’ve got a world class, free, art gallery, and museums – The Discovery and The Hancock and The Sage. To have all those facilities in such a small city and to be able to access them all. People who don’t come up here don’t realise that. The one thing I do think is that our council don’t recognise what we’ve got at all.
DS: If we have this 100% cut to the arts which says “D’you know what, it’s nice, but we don’t really need it”, how are you going to keep the people from leaving now?
KH: My work is all in regeneration. I deliberately stopped working in gallery spaces, and my own creative practice is about public places. I have a really profound belief that the public places we create have a real deep impact on the whole community, and the reason public art interests me is because it is for everyone. It’s accessible because people just come across it. It’s absolutely vital that we have vibrant creative things happening right across cities – that includes all of the libraries and the art services. If you take that away you’re left with an empty shell. And in this city in particular, what they can’t see, that’s under their fucking noses, is a massive group of people that have committed to it and that are creative and that are fighting to give this city a touch of what Berlin’s got, a touch of what Bristol’s got and what London’s got. There’s an integrity to these people because it’s not a transient population, they stay here, they believe in this city. Around 2000, with the whole Capital of Culture and the NGI, there was a climate of recognition and that’s how Cobalt happened. There are masses of papers written about how artists regenerate areas. There’s lots of evidence of what the arts do for regeneration and for economies and they just don’t seem able to maximise on that. There’s something really special here.
Featured Image: Kathryn Hodkinson’s studio.