The weird, the wonderful and the WickED

Source Magazine, spring 2015. Original article.

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The weird, the wonderful, the Hackney WickED
The Hackney WickED festival is a three-day explosion of the creativity of London’s most brilliant arts hub. But the community that’s the beating heart of Hackney Wick keeps the spirit alive all year round.

Hackney Wick doesn’t feel like the rest of London – actually it doesn’t even feel like the rest of Hackney. Coming off the Overground you immediately see the larger-than-life red letters on the wall: ‘HW’ they read, setting it in stone. And further along a more modest scrawl: ‘Welcome to the Wick’. This is a place by artists and for artists, but you’re welcome to come stay a while: linger in the galleries, study the artful graffiti, have a drink at The Hackney Pearl.

The biggest influx of visitors happens during the Hackney WickED festival. Last summer 35,000 people came for a peek behind the industrial facades as artists opened their studio doors. Not to mention all the gallery exhibitions, tours and workshops hosted during the festival, along with music, food and drink. “It’s amazing we’ve been able to run this festival for seven years with so little money,” says Anna Maloney, festival director at Hackney WickED. “We’re a volunteer-run arts organisation, so it’s based mostly on goodwill.”

The first studios opened in 2001 as artists came to the Wick in search of affordable spaces to work and live. The Hackney WickED festival came along in 2008 to celebrate and promote the art and community. “A main aim of Hackney WickED is to bring the artists together, to work together more closely and celebrate what we have here,” says Maloney, who estimates the Wick has near a thousand studios.

The feeling of community is the reason artists come and stay in the Wick: “I was looking for a large space where I could make noise and dust and be messy,” says Lee Borthwick, an artist at TM Studios. “I wanted to be in a more professional environment, and around people a bit further ahead in their practice so I could learn from them. The community in Hackney Wick has been far beyond my expectations.”

TM Studios is one of many who welcome visitors during the Hackney WickED festival. “You get people who’re interested in seeing the work and have a conversation with you,” says Borthwick. “People were buying work, which was lovely. That happened more the second year I opened, as people have to see you a few times to know you’re a professional, to get to know what you’re doing.”

Hackney WickED is currently working on become more of a sustainable, year-round presence in the Wick. “There’s so much change in the area” says Maloney, pointing to the concerns weighing heavy on the heart of every artist working in the Wick right now: several studios have been given notice to vacate, as the popularity of the area has led to increasing outside pressure. Hackney WickED was in part established to protect the artist community in the face of change, which has escalated since the Olympics. “First of all we’re an art organisation with an annual art festival, but we’re also a network of artists and a community working together. The festival wouldn’t happen without the participation of the people in the community,” says Maloney. “It’s a fine balance.”

Joanna Hughes, director at Mother Studios, believes Hackney WickED has been crucial to the success of the area: “The lasting legacy of Hackney WickED is how it’s pooled the community and made it stronger. […] Being an artist can be a solitary life, so you need your peers in the art world to help you on your way.” Hughes was among the first artists to come to the Wick, and feels strongly that the arts hub needs protection in order to continue thriving: “When I opened Mother Studios I had a waiting list immediately, and I’ve never lost it. There are twice as many artists as artist studios in London.”

Daisy Bentley, part of the Tunnel Studios artist collective, recently lost her studio space in the Wick. “I’m hoping I’ll find a new one in time for this summer’s Hackney WickED. If not, I’ll definitely be getting involved in events.” Working in the Wick for three years has done more for her art practice than a decade of arts education, says Bentley: “People tend to shut themselves away in their studios, so Hackney WickED is an invaluable opportunity for everyone to share and open up to potential collaborations.”

While she prefers to keep a closed door to get work done, Nina Fowler appreciates the opportunity to get to know her neighbours during Hackney WickED. “I usually decide near the time if I’ll open my door during the festival, as it depends on what I’m working on and how accommodating my studio is to guests,” says Fowler, who works at Wallis Studios. Last year, festivalgoers could take part in her ‘Polaroid Portrait’ photo booth. “The festival reminds us there’s a large and thriving creative community in the area, and this is something to be celebrated.”

It’s a long time since Hackney Wick was “a mudpatch in the middle of nowhere”, as Doctor Who said in 1976. Even so, during the first Hackney WickED festival in 2008 there were no bars or restaurants in the area, and the organisers would sell drinks out of a caravan. Today, people come to the Wick to shop and eat all year round, indulging in the smoked salmon at Forman’s or a microbrew at whatever pop-up bar is attracting crowds that week. Even though it’s still geographically isolated between a major road and the canal, the Overground has made the area much more accessible. All the while, artists are busy at work in the warehouses lining every street, building the creative energy that’s unique to the Wick and thoroughly infectious.

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Published by Jessica Furseth

Journalist; Londoner.