Inside The Caravan Gallery: Exploring Overlooked England
"A lot of people write off places they don't even know about," says Jan Williams, "They'll think, 'that area's rough' or 'that area's posh' – we want to challenge those lazy stereotypes."
Canon's spirit of adventure and exploration, their cameras which capture said pursuits and their PIXMA Inkjet Printers, which print photographs to professional quality, inspired us to reach out to Jan and her partner Chris Teasdale, who together run The Caravan Gallery.
As the name belies, it's run out of a little yellow caravan, which they park up in the kind of towns that rarely attract national acclaim. In 15 years, their 'Pride of Place Projects' have allowed them to explore a sizable chunk of the country.
"It was only going to be for a weekend," she says. "For the millennium, there was a call-out for ideas for public-domain art projects. At the time, I was making a lot of work about the British at leisure, so we got hold of this ridiculous 1960s caravan and stripped out the inside so it looked like a proper art gallery. We went down the seafront in Southsea and people loved it."
The caravan became central to Jan and Chris' work. Recognising that traditional galleries often fail to attract a cross-section of society, they use the vehicle as an alternative art space that sits in more familiar locations – such as the middle of a high street or a supermarket car park.
"It's about letting people know that this is for them as well," says Jan. "And photography is brilliant at being accessible because you don't need to know about the history of photography, you just look at the picture. You could have a Big Issue vendor and an international curator looking at the same picture and they could have a conversation sharing different ideas. It's a point of connection."
But the main aim of the Pride of Place Projects is to gather information from the locals. In each town, the duo opens a pop-up gallery, often in a disused shop, and a conventional gallery exhibition, alongside the aging caravan (which was recently saved from the brink of ruin by the English Caravan Company). People are encouraged to drop in and contribute photographs, souvenirs, drawings – anything that grants insight into their hometown.
"In Sunderland, we had a girl bring in an artwork and we couldn't quite figure out what it was," says Chris. "It was a sculpture-type thing, a 3D piece containing lots of different materials. We asked: "What's this got to do with Sunderland?" She said: "If you look in the middle, there are my granny's ashes..."
Back in Sunderland, two quintessentially mackem artefacts intersected when local legend Dave the Rave consumed a stottie filled with pease pudding and ham – a Wearside delicacy.
Collecting words and memories is just as important. "We start off with a big map on the wall, then ask people to put in all sorts of weird and wonderful things. It could be ghost sightings, where they had their first snog, or favourite kebab shops," explains Jan. "It's about bringing a place to life, offering different perspectives, so it's not just a sanitised, tourist-board view."
Jan and Chris are also compiling collections of local lexicon everywhere they go, picking up words like "bizzies" (police) in Merseyside, to "ket" (sweets) in the North East.
Encouraging people to share knowledge of their locality with an outsider puts them in the position of an expert, and can be very empowering. "People appreciate the opportunity to express themselves," says Jan. "Very often they feel frustrated because no one listens to them – they just feel a bit disenfranchised."
They've found that a strong sense of regional identity often correlates with a strong sense of community. Even when people are identifying flaws with their local area, those strong sentiments ensure there's a sense of togetherness. One contribution summed this up as: "It might be a shithole, but it's our shithole."
"People can be slagging off where they live, but if someone from outside criticises it, often they suddenly become really proud," says Jan. "There were an awful lot of people in Sunderland moaning about the council, but there was a feeling that at a grass-roots level, people are doing really good stuff."
At the end of a project, Jan and Chris gather everything they've collected and learned, including their own photographs, which they take with frequency, and compile a "commemorative publication". "It's nice to be able to say to those who've been to the exhibitions that their comments and items might make their way into the book," Jan says.
But the publication of each book isn't the end; Chris and Jan often return to towns to document how things have changed.
And what about the artists' personal pride of place? Jan's from Birkenhead in Merseyside, and definitely feels it about her hometown: "I think it's really easy with somewhere like Liverpool and Merseyside because it has such a strong sense of local identity," she says. "There's things like girls walking around with rollers in their hair, getting ready for a big night out, that you just don't see in other places. That's really typical. The sense of humour is really strong too – cheeky, irreverent – it's a very Scouse thing."
Chris, originally from Cambridge, describes himself as "a European". Although all the time spent with Jan in Merseyside has left its mark: "We tend to end up in Liverpool a lot... I'm probably more of an adopted Scouser than anything."
Words by Rachael Healy.