I moved into my new studio at the start of the summer. It’s part of an old warehouse building in the east end of Glasgow in an area called The Barras. The Barras is a market place that’s been there for almost 100 years; a collection of warehouses and giant sheds that used to be full of stalls and shops and at the centre sits an iconic music venue called the Barrowlands Ballroom where David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Amy Winehouse, The Smiths, Iggy Pop, The Clash and too many other amazing musicians to mention have played over the last six decades.
The Barras translates into The Barrows, as in wheel barrows that traders would sell things from at the market in the 1920s. Glasgow has a habit of naming places after one single aspect of what happens there. For example, in Glasgow a night club is called The Dancing. Not a specific venue, just any place where people go to dance – The Dancing. In Glasgow people don’t go to a watch a football game they go to The Football. A park is The Swings. Bizarrely, grocery shopping is called Going for Messages, but that’s another conversation altogether.
The Barras has always been one of my favourite parts of Glasgow. My parents used to take me there when I was a little girl and it was like a live action, bustling, human version of what Amazon is now, but, you know, with a soul. It sold everything, although not necessarily all on the same weekend, and market traders would put on a show before selling whatever they had on that particular day. You couldn’t just go up and buy whatever was on the stall, you had to gather in a crowd and watch the stall holder work everyone up into a frenzy before finally, after ten of fifteen minutes of banter and showmanship, you’d get to buy a set of dishtowels for a bargain price, but you couldn’t choose the colour, you just had to take what you were given.
I remember the butcher had a microphone and a whole team of guys handing out bags of sausages to people in the crowd, which at the time seemed really well organised and professional. You could buy a bag of six freshly made donuts for £1. When I went with my parents we would buy shellfish to take to my grandfather who would eat them with a pin from a paper bag. The seafood cafes would have queues out of the door and around the corner as the deliveries of shellfish would arrive from Loch Fyne on the West coast.
I could go on and on about how great it used to be, but the sad truth is that in the 1990s the market began to decline, crime took over, then Ebay took over, then Amazon, then in the last decade the place ground almost to a halt. Most Saturdays there are just a handful of stall holders and men hanging around offering to sell cigarettes and viagra to whoever walks past. The donut stall is still there, and the seafood cafes seem busy but the bustling and the banter and the life of the place seems to have ebbed.
It’s not completely gone though, there are still a few pockets where some new things are brewing and some old things are finding new ways to reach new people. The antique market started having early morning “Pound Sales”, (that’s pound sterling £) where the stall holders fill tables with bits and bobs, the occasional bicycle or bit of vintage furniture, and a crowd gathers just before 9am on a Saturday morning to grab a bargain. The sales have brought in a whole new group of patrons to the place who didn’t even know that the market existed a year ago.
As well as this, like a lot of big cities, artists and designers and musicians have moved into the cheap unused spaces and there’s now a sense of something else waking up in the Barras. I’m not a fan of gentrification, lets just get that straight. I don’t like rent hikes and modernisation that drives out existing communities to make room for coffee shop chains and concept bars. What I do like are communities that can build on top of the most positive remains of their past and their heritage. I have hope for this area simply because despite being stripped to it’s bare bones, the Barras still has the cheeky, friendly, machine gun fire wit of it’s locals. Seriously, just try being pretentious in the Barras and I give you a maximum of two minutes before a local shuts you down with one line that will make your knees buckle.
Every day on my way to work people say hello to me. Just last week I was walking around taking photos and the guy who owns the antique market smiled and said hello, then invited me into the empty (they were officially closed for the day) antiques hall to take photos. He asked if I worked in the area and I told him I was a doll maker. “Me too!” he replied. Andy Randall, owner of Randalls Antique Market, and a Facebook hero in Glasgow, makes his own dolls, although he tells me they are his “Babies” and that he wouldn’t sell them for the world. He just displays them around the market. So it turns out that I am not the only doll artist in the east end!
The studio itself still feels a bit too clean and tidy and white. For the first month I was literally sitting at a desk in the corner, not sure of how to expand out into the rest of the room. I’m slowly bringing in furniture and plants and making a bit of mess and it’s starting to feel like mine. The strangest thing about being back in a studio environment is working alongside other people again. I haven’t done that, at least with my artwork, for about fifteen years. I’ve been on my own, working on my own for so long now that it feels strange to be able to chat while I work or to be able to invite friends over.
It’s kind of made me kind of self conscious about my work now that it’s connected daily with the rest of the world. Before I would literally lock myself in a little room listening to David Bowie or the Cocteau Twins or Kate Bush and I would lose track of time and the world around me. Now I have cups of tea brought in by my neighbour over the wall and visitors popping in to say hello. It’s made me aware of how much I need solitude but also how much I’ve missed the human race.
I’m organising life drawing classes for the studio holders in the complex, I might even bring my dog along to model for at least one. He’s very lean and muscly and basically just sleeps for most of the day so he’s very good at being a life model.
The studio manager is organising group meditation sessions. There’s an open day in September where there will be music workshops, food stalls, art exhibitions, films.
I feel like I’m part of a community for the first time in a long time. I don’t even know how long. To be honest, even at art school I felt like a misfit. Art school was the place I thought I would go to and connect with people like me but the reality was pretty much like high school except that everyone was good at art. With the exception of a few very special people that I was close to, art school was a time when I felt very disconnected. In fact, I usually feel disconnected in most things.
That’s why where I am now feels so unusual. I don’t feel that way when I go into work now. As I write this, it’s Sunday night and I’m looking forward to going into work in the morning. I’m looking forward to picking up a coffee at the Polish deli on the way to the studio and seeing my neighbours and asking about their weekends.
I can feel that it’s starting to feed into my work. The ideas I have and the pieces I’m working on feel less insular and more …. I don’t know, expansive. Before my dolls were almost like little companions, little votives or poppets to help connect myself with the rest of the world. Now the new work I’m making feels more sure of itself, like it has a place and a voice.
Everything’s a self portrait after all.