Painting the Town Red

Textile art - brown and grey patchwork pieces screen printed with maps of St. Helens  overpainted with red graffiti
Painting the Town Red by Helen L Conway
55×30 inches

This is the first completed piece for an intended body of work inspired by my home town of St. Helens. Which is, to be frank, going to be tricky, because St.Helens is a post industrial, economically depressed, grey place and I spend much of my time dreaming of better places to visit! I do not find it visually inspiring so I decided to be true to myself and make art around the stories the town, and in particular, my family, that inspired me and to use my signature red graffiti to cheer things up a bit.

My paternal grandparents lived in a terraced house in  Napier Street in St.Helens until the mid-seventies when it was subject to a compulsory purchase order for slum clearance and the area rebuilt with more modern housing. I recently found these photos on a local history library of these houses a little further down the street to give you an idea of how they looked.

photograph of old terraced house in Napier Street
Houses in Napier Street, St.Helens 1970’s
photograph of old terraced house in Napier Street
Houses ready for demolition, Napier Street, St.Helens, 1970’s

I only have a scattering of memories of the house – I remember the outside toilet and I remember I was frightened of the staircase because my Uncle Philip told me there were rats under there. ( There weren’t of course!) I also remember my Uncle Barry coming home from Australia for a year and staying in a house a few doors away which had originally been that of my great-grandparents. I remember going upstairs there to see my new-born cousin.

I actually begin by making a piece about my Uncle Barry’s story and that remains a work in progress because at some point I disliked it, folded it up, saw the inspiration for this quilt and jumped ahead. Some of the ‘city blocks’ in the piece are old maps of the area as it was, representing my heritage. Others are my painted graffiti fabrics as an expression that the town as it now is, is how my generation created it. When I look around St.Helens I see grey and dull and a sad, dying town centre, which as been decimated by the proximity of vibrant city shopping centres like Liverpool One. I am guilty of contributing to its demise as I too shop online, in Liverpool or other cities.

I have often said that the concept of local town centres is gone and the way forward for St.Helens is not to try to generate a retail centre but to start again and make the hub of the town about arts and entertainment and food. St.Helens has so many ex industrial sites and so many youth in need of activity that it would make a great base for legal graffiti and street art. Similarly, people with low incomes do not need regenerated shops, they need community theatre and places to dance and places to learn craft and art.  They need ways to congregate in the evening for a good time, without it always revolving around alcohol, junk food and sometimes, sadly, drugs. Poverty is not just about lack of money and work, it can also be about lack of joy, creativity and hope.

This art work uses my method of expression – my signature drips and graffiti inspired marks – to reclaim my town for my generation and to invite people to use art to, literally and figuratively, paint the town red.



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