The QT

Wednesday 22 May 2024

How Helix Arts makes lives better

In Newcastle, North Shields and across the region one arts charity is known for doing things differently, as David Whetstone reports
Cheryl Gavin, director of Helix Arts, now based in North Shields

Goodness only knows how many lives have been improved, however minutely, by Helix Arts during its 40-year history of working with artists and communities.

The value of its work was acknowledged in December when the National Lottery Heritage Fund granted nearly £100,000 for an archive project called Re:Visits.

There’s a wealth of material to be sifted and sorted. An archivist is to be recruited (closing date for applications: May 17).

The arts charity was founded in 1983 by the late Lucy Fairley under the name Artists’ Agency. Originally it was based in Sunderland.

Lucy died in 2016 and there was further sadness when her long-time co-director, Esther Salamon, passed away just days before December’s lottery announcement.

In the Helix hot seat now, and since the month before the first Covid lockdown in 2020 (“That was fun,” she says ironically), is director Cheryl Gavin who will soon have been with Helix for 10 years.

If force of personality alone could keep an organisation going, Helix Arts — Artists’ Agency having been renamed in 2000 — should have no worries.

Cheryl, who grew up in Wallsend and stayed in the North East for university, is an inspirational speaker with a record of making things happen.

Summing up what Helix Arts does, she says: “It’s all about making sure everyone gets a fair turn at taking part in the arts and benefiting from that thing called culture.

“We do that by working with artists and communities.

“The communities we work with are typically those that get fewer chances due to health inequalities and various vulnerabilities… but we’re aware that people don’t always feel that’s their story.

“A lot of our work looks at what matters for those people, whether it’s dance, drama, animation or whatever. Then we knuckle down, collaborate and find ways for them to feel better about themselves.”

Looking back over her early life with its potential pitfalls, she can recognise the ‘sliding doors moments’ that worked in her favour. Discovering dance was one major positive. So often in life, she says, ‘you need good people to catch you in their net’.

The archive will contain many examples of Helix Arts and its forerunner, Artists’ Agency, providing that net.

Recently the organisation moved into bigger premises at North Tyneside Business Centre on Saville Street, having relocated from Newcastle to North Shields about seven years ago.

This puts it at the heart of the new North Shields Cultural Quarter.

Kema Kay was one of the artists working with people on Helix Arts’ #Never project

A recent Helix Arts project called #Never arose out of concern about drugs misuse among young people in the borough.

Commissioned by North Tyneside Council and involving a host of other partners, Helix Arts worked with schools, community centres and youth organisations.

More than 40 sessions involving 415 young participants resulted in candid discussions around the realities of drug misuse.

Artists were employed to work on the project, including Kema Kay, rapper and star of the film I, Daniel Blake, who helped some of the young people to create a track called It’s all on you, reflecting their feelings.

The project culminated in an event at Helix Arts HQ with the insights of the young participants conveyed through music, spoken word, graphic art, poetry and animation.

Cheryl says Helix’s innovative approach enabled them to express themselves freely and honestly.

“By fostering informed dialogue, #Never not only empowered youth with knowledge but also fostered understanding among carers and caregivers.”

The council was impressed.

It’s all about making sure everyone gets a fair turn at taking part in the arts and benefiting from that thing called culture.

Cheryl Gavin, Helix Arts

Behnam Khazaeli, head of public health commissioning, said: “I knew Helix Arts did things differently, taking high quality, creative and unusual approaches to understand what’s going on with communities.

“I was blown away when we started hearing from young people, especially when I heard It’s all on you.”

In keeping with its original name, Helix Arts also functions as an artist development agency, helping artists across all media to develop their careers and skill sets in order to inspire others.

A programme commissioned by Creative Central: NCL (the Newcastle equivalent of the North Shields Cultural Quarter) is coming to fruition with work made by artists and participants from various communities.

“We branded it Artists’ Agency as a nod to the past,” says Cheryl.

Twelve artists were accepted onto a 12-week training programme during which they learned how to put together and run a project involving other people.

Detail of the Newborn Parents quilt at Tyne Theatre & Opera House

Each received a £500 bursary and an invitation to pitch for one of four £5,000 commissions to make a public artwork with community participants to be displayed in Creative Central: NCL whose footprint covers an area to the west of the city centre including Clayton Road and Westgate Road.

The four successful projects were subsequently chosen by Cheryl and Helix Arts creative producer Megan Todman.

Rachael Brien led a quilting project called Newborn Parents, working with the mothers of newborn babies over six sessions.

She engaged writer Amanda Quinn to open up a discourse around parenthood and then embroidered some of the resulting words onto a cot-sized quilt which was installed in a window of the Tyne Theatre & Opera House on Westgate Road.

You can see it there now.

Creative Central NCL’s Artists’ Agency project

“It was a beautiful project and felt like the beginning of something special that will hopefully continue in the future,” says Rachael.

Eden Chapman-Maurice initiated a ceramics project called Clay in the City, working with members of home educating families in a series of workshops designed to show what can be done with the material.

The results were displayed in a Grainger Market shop unit.

The Newborn Parents quilt displayed in Creative Central NCL

Daniel Goodman and the artist who goes simply as Haley co-created NE1 4 NE1, organising two community walks in the postcode area designed to fuel participants with information and inspiration.

They then asked them to submit their contributions, ‘photos, drawings, rubbings etc etc’, to be incorporated into a public artwork that’s due to appear soon in Charlotte Square, Newcastle.

“There’s no selection process,” they promised. “We’ll work it in somehow!”

Also operating as a team, Sofia Barton and Lindsay Nicholson worked with members of various Newcastle groups to create a participatory community mural representing diversity and hope.

The Younity mural, as it is known, is also to be displayed in the Grainger Market. 

Helix Arts director Cheryl Gavin with a display from the archive

Helix Arts is simultaneously running a parallel, though rather different, Artists’ Agency programme in North Shields.

Both Creative Central: NCL and the North Shields Cultural Quarter were established with funding from the respective local authority, Newcastle City Council and North Tyneside Council, and from the North of Tyne Combined Authority.

“We want to see a city centre that is brought to life by artists and creatives, where their skills, practice and experience is a cornerstone of what makes the city attractive and unique,” say Creative Central: NCL.

The Cultural Quarter, meanwhile, ‘is part of North Tyneside Council’s ambitious plans for North Shields, enhancing and growing the cultural economy’ — among other things.

Helix Arts, as so often in the past, is doing its bit — and often, as has been said, doing it differently, bringing artists and communities together in a bid to make life a bit brighter and better.

Ultimately, everyone benefits from that.


Leave a Comment


We want to hear what you think of The QT – especially if it’s good!


Is there something you think we should know or investigate?


It’s all you need to know.

Sign up for our free Newsletter

Scroll to Top