It was free cake Friday at Big Red’s House. The marrow cake was proving especially popular with the dozen or so visitors in the coffee shop. It felt rather like the front room of a family home. Homely furniture and artwork offered splashes of colour. One visitor attempted to complete an unusual jigsaw puzzle while another told me how she loved ‘the atmosphere of the place…. So relaxing’.
Christian, one of the founders of Big Red’s House, offered me a slice of the cake. ‘People live their lives in a rush. They don’t look left or right. Everyone is in such a hurry’.
Big Red’s House is tucked inconspicuously in Victoria Yard, just off the High Street in Whitchurch, Shropshire. It is a former blacksmith’s building, which has gone through several re-inventions. It was taken over by Christian and friend Simon during late 2012. Now it is an art workshop, gallery and coffee room. However, both men have a vision for their enterprise in which Big Reds House becomes a community hub. Christian explains that BRH is a community interest company. On the one hand it is an art shop and gallery for young artists who are looking for an inexpensive way to become noticed. On the other, it is meant as a creative space for people suffering depression and trauma who seek ways of coming to terms with their issues. The two activities are linked. The sales side helps to pay for the workshop facilities upstairs.
Both Christian and Simon are no strangers to tragedy. Christian’s twin brother took his own life at a young age. It was a devastating blow for Christian and was a key motivation in the creation of the Big Red project. Its very name was one of his brother’s nicknames. “Simon and I decided we wanted to do something. The suicide rate in this area and nationally has gone up. We wanted a space where people could come and learn ways of dealing with their feelings.’ Christian’s brother, Clifford, had turned to conventional counselling help before his death but it had not helped him at all. Both Simon and Christian believe that many young people can work through difficult times in their lives by using art as a means of understanding their issues.
Christian takes me upstairs to the workshop. It is a multimedia space with wall painting, musical instruments and art materials available. There are many types of art on show including photography. ‘We wanted to embrace a lot of old ways but also recognise the new ways too.’ The space has a deep sense of calm. It touches you immediately.
The downstairs galleries exhibit a lot of items up-cycled from other discarded objects. Christian points to a cube stool made by Simon. At first glance it looks like a designer leather stool but Christian then shows me that it is in fact made from a pair of motorcycle jackets stitched together. A set of chairs nearby, have been saved from a chip shop and have been recovered in sections of denim jeans. Discarded vinyl LP records are reborn as clocks and wall art. All these items are the products of several artisans who use Red House facilities. Exhibition space is charged at a modest £25 per month, which enables many struggling artists an opportunity to be noticed.
Big Red’s House is also offered as a venue for conferences and meetings. Although the enterprise is non-denominational, church groups have met there recently. Artists who use the facilities are often holding art classes during the evenings so that anyone can come and learn a new skill. Simon also runs writing competitions.
One of the most striking things is how the community have embraced the project. The coffee shop visitors are a mix of senior citizens and shoppers who enjoy the unique atmosphere of the place. On occasions, a Victorian style barrow organ is wheeled into the courtyard and plays tunes in the square. There is no doubt that Big Red’s House is definitely a place to come and abandon the rush and bustle of life for a while. Even more impressive is the deep sense of social purpose held by Christian and Simon. One hopes that their vision, born of personal tragedy, will go someway to preventing other families facing the same tragedy.