Interview: Alison Bartram Of The Heart Gallery, Hebden Bridge
The Heart Gallery
Anyone strolling through the bohemian delights of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire is likely to benefit from the palpable, resolutely resilient creative energy which connects its denizens with each other. A vibrant array of local businesses crowd together, each amplifying the unique essence of this culturally diverse crucible of inclusivity, community spirit and non-judgemental tolerance, all grounded in good old Yorkshire grit.
To establish herself with those she hoped to support. "Some were cautious, some were brave – all of them put their trust in me! That was the scary bit to be honest, knowing that all these artists had placed their faith in me and my gallery...
As with our own physiology, the heart must pump life-giving blood through the corporeal fabric of our bodies, if we are to survive and prosper. The aptly named Heart Gallery situated on Hebden’s high street inside a former Baptist chapel, performs this essential role within a community not made of cells, but people. It does so with self-conscious elan, and affectionate humility, all rooted in the compassion, care and indefatigable courage of its owner Alison Bartram.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Alison for our readers, but where to begin? E.M. Forster tells us in Howards End
that bricks and mortar exude the energy of their inhabitants, rather like the grooves of the Akashic Records; my words not his! It seemed apposite to delve into Alison’s background and the forces forming her psyche, if I was to understand the Heart Gallery and its totemic power.
"I was working at Bradford College in the Yorkshire Craft Centre and I’d been there since 2002. I finally felt that I had married my clerical skills in a creative environment; something I had been searching for for quite a number of years. I had run an alternative/punk shop in the eighties and early nineties with my first husband, and after we had split I really couldn’t settle into a job.
"My sister, Rachel, kept telling me I should open something again. I wasn’t sure what that could be, or when or where it would be, but I did have a feeling that she was right. After struggling with her mental wellbeing since early adulthood, Rachel took her own life in January 2005. I’d sadly lost my Mum to cancer in 1996, and now my sister was no longer with me either, so it was a bit of a wake-up call! I realised that nothing in life is certain and we have no idea what is around the corner, so I quit my job and took a part-time position in an organic café in Hebden Bridge whilst I thought about what was important in my life.
"I used my free time to put some plans together, building on the experience I had thoroughly enjoyed working with local artists. Working in the café gave me an insight into life in Hebden Bridge and I had an ear to the ground too looking for the perfect property for my new venture.
"My Dad flew the family to Tenerife on what would have been Rachel’s 40th Birthday April 2006. When we returned home the building next to Organic House, which had always looked closed and cold, was beginning to spring to life with workmen inside …so one morning we decided to venture through the door to see what was happening.
"The owner had decided it was time to rent it out … the rest as they say is history! Heart Gallery was named after working for myself again…that had been close to Rachel’s heart; something she had quietly encouraged me to do."
So, having ventured forth on her adventure, Alison told me about those first uncertain steps: "The first 3 or 4 years at Heart Gallery were very difficult to be fair! I was on a mission to try to change people’s shopping habits, and think about the provenance of what they spent their hard earned pennies on. I think this was because I was brought up to buy once/buy well, or to enjoy the regular jumble sales at the local church and recycle/repurpose!
"I vividly remember having a conversation with a plumber when he thought I had put the decimal point in the wrong place on a ceramic piece! I had to make him see the value of this piece by asking him how much he charged per hour for his services, and how long he thought it had taken that artist to produce that finished piece!
"Working with local and UK artists from graduates to those that have been honing their craft for many years is a joy for us at Heart Gallery. That relationship is so important, and our customers understand that. They know that we have done all the hard work sourcing quality work for them with a story that we can tell – they hear the provenance of a piece and engage with it."
Having found her calling, Alison wanted to establish herself with those she hoped to support. "Some were cautious, some were brave – all of them put their trust in me! That was the scary bit to be honest, knowing that all these artists had placed their faith in me and my gallery to showcase their work and talk to customers about them, their processes, their inspiration was daunting! As time went on, and the gallery expanded to taking in more artists/designers and makers, my reputation reached further around the UK."
Alongside her passion for art and its makers lay a deep-seated love of Hebden per se: "Hebden Bridge is such a unique place. My Dad has lived in Mytholmroyd for nearly 30 years, so I have seen the changes in the town over that time. I have watched brave business owners open up new and exciting independent shops and food establishments to help to turn it into the vibrant town that it is today.
Hebden Bridge canal
"Working for yourself is not easy. Far too many people think that it is and fail at the first hurdle sadly, but most of the businesses in Hebden Bridge are owned by really passionate people. We are not only passionate about our own businesses but also about the town our businesses are in – it’s all about working together and that feeds my soul."
Storm Eva had wreaked havoc upon Hebden on Boxing Day 2016. Ciara and Dennis had not been any less destructive. Resilience born of community spirit and unflinching individual tenacity seemed to be the key to survival for both the Heart Gallery, and Hebden. Alison’s story is testimony to this plucky truth.
"Heart Gallery had been on Market Street for 15 years and after the 2012 floods our landlord decided he wanted to sell, giving us first refusal to buy the building. This was so much extra pressure on my husband and I, and we really didn’t think we would be able to manage. I spent a week walking round the town in a daze looking for other suitable buildings for Heart Gallery but … there really wasn’t an alternative!
Heart Gallery was a dream turned into a reality.
"Heart Gallery belonged where it was so had to stay. We re-mortgaged our home and went for it. I am so glad we did. Because we owned the property, we just had to stitch ourselves back together properly – something a landlord probably wouldn’t have done! We were closed for 6 months but it felt so joyous when we re-opened at the end of June 2016. The support of friends and strangers after those Boxing Day floods will never be forgotten.
"Offers of help came pouring in to Hebden Bridge from all over the UK too. It was incredible to be part of something that had been so devastating to the businesses and residents, but at the same time felt like a big warm blanket wrapped around us to keep us safe and to give us the courage to get through it."
In addition to battling repeated flooding and the inevitable disruptive aftermath of such disasters, the Heart Gallery had another threat to face, if it was to continue beating. Covid-19 and its Lockdowns. "I’ve called it a Corona-coaster and we are still on it to be honest! Not knowing what was happening from one day to the next was really stressful and it still feels a little like that even now, 20 months later!
"The challenges have been immense, and it has to be the biggest one faced yet … even bigger than the Boxing Day floods. Why? Because it is such an unknown. We are ’used’ to floods in this valley now and have made ourselves resilient against them – flood gates on the doors, systems in place internally to get the stock moved up, ceramic floor, render on the walls etc. However, this has been so different with all the twists and turns to navigate and has taken its toll on so many.
"The support once we were allowed to re-open was just all-enveloping. We had all been on this horrendous journey together and although it was still early days, and systems had been put in place to keep everyone safe, (including ourselves), it was such a relief to be back in the gallery.
"All in all I think we have done a great job and I couldn’t have got through this without my trusty Vanessa - just the two of us managed everything initially as we lost 2 staff through Covid-changing life decisions – and the support and love of my husband and family."
Alison concluded our exchange with reflections upon the spirit behind the Heart Gallery: "Heart Gallery was a dream turned into a reality. A positive from a negative after Rachel died, so it’s my baby until I decide to retire! I will continue to enjoy every day, and every day is so different… it’s wonderful."
‘Art is a wound turned into light’, so said Georges Braque. I for one hope that the Heart Gallery continues to shine its light long into the night.