‘A new energy’: inside the ex-fighter jet HQ that’s part of Britain’s cultural rewilding
Amid rusted aircraft and giant hangars, a Suffolk creative hub is offering a £15-a-week haven for artists fleeing city rents. And this flourishing rural oasis, which boasts a Mercury prize winner, is just one of many in an artistic renaissance
The drought hit Suffolk hard last summer. At Bentwaters, a disused US military airbase, the grass was so parched it turned to dust. Deer crossed the silent runway through a heat haze. Yet behind the rusted old fighter jets and the aircraft hangars shaped like midwest prairie barns, fresh seeds were settling in among the weeds and a new branch of arts was taking root.
Old Jet, a creative hub, sits inside a former fighter-jet operations building. Like most rural hubs, it houses a unique mixture of people who live locally and need studio space: in this case, 35 musicians, artists, writers, photographers, fashion designers and more, ranging from early-career artists to established names such as Mercury prize winner Talvin Singh and artist Jelly Green.
Walk inside and you’ll hear two things: a playlist curated by musician and Old Jet founder Jesse Quin and residents chatting in the communal kitchen that looks and sounds like a cool Shoreditch cafe. But this isn’t London. Rent at Old Jet, for a shared space, starts at £15 a week and access is 24/7. So while it may look like the US midwest out of the window, if you’re an artist used to paying rocketing city studio rents, it’s at this point you’ll realise you’re not in Kansas any more.
Today, in the Old Jet kitchen, artist Jessie Oliver is discussing the benefits of linseed oil with Old Jet’s weekly artist in residence. Fashion designer Lydia Cooper is heading back to a studio covered in paintings of twisted trees, inspired by the Suffolk drought, as part of her new direction into film, art and set design. Artist Caroline Wright comes down for coffee to fuel the 80 drawings she is doing today for stop-frame animation work researching the eroding Suffolk coast.
Old Jet is one of six creative hubs in East Suffolk. There may be more but nobody knows. That’s because a hub, according to the British Council, can be anything from “a handful of people” to “a 3,000-strong tribe”. Regardless of size, their goal is defined as the same: to bring “enterprising people together who work in the creative and cultural industries”. The British Council considers creative hubs “integral to the sustainability and growth of the creative economy”, which was valued at £104bn in the UK in 2021. It even offers a free toolkit for setting one up.
Until recently, it has been large urban creative communities, such as Tileyard in King’s Cross, London, that have flourished, offering vast scope for networking, collaboration and training of the next generation. In comparison, small rural hubs have had a harder task. A talent drain to cities leaves gaps in expertise, while long distances between hubs, poor public transport and fierce competition for arts funding discourages the networking between hubs that can fill them.
Yet now, due to the pandemic and a faltering economy, the potential for rural hubs to take a larger role in the development of British arts is growing. Audrey Carlin is CEO of Wasps, an organisation running 20 creative hubs in Scotland, including the Inverness Creative Academy, opened in 2018 to create a community for artists working in isolation in the Highlands.
Post-lockdown, Carlin observed a dynamic shift in energy: “What has become more important is human interaction – overcoming the isolation of lockdown.” The hub is currently thriving with new collaborations, including growth in its darkroom collective – the first, Carlin believes, in the country. Glass artist Catherine Carr was instrumental in bringing the Scottish Glass Society’s annual exhibition to the Highlands in autumn, the first time it has left Glasgow. “Things like that expose people to skills, talent and experiences that they wouldn’t normally get,” says Carlin.
This energy has been ignited by the arrival of creative professionals escaping spiralling city rents, and joining the home-working revolution triggered by lockdown. Some are returning to their home regions. The result is a cultural rewilding, or re-seeding, of ideas and skills, as those gaps in rural arts ecosystems start to fill. “People moved here from Glasgow and Edinburgh, but also from cities abroad,” says Carlin.
Recently, she has met professionals from the worlds of film and TV production who returned home to family during lockdown, and are now planning to set up satellite companies in the Highlands, to take advantages of skills that have relocated to the area. Carlin believes this could have a significant impact on the region. “Currently, 2,500 young people are lost each year from the Highlands and Islands. They think, to have a creative career, you need to move down into the central belt of Scotland to find a supportive network, a community, places to experiment and collaborate. Now that’s changing.”
Kim Black, freelance fashion designer and co-founder of Vintage Sister, moved with her family out of London to Woodbridge in Suffolk shortly before lockdown. Her goal was a lifestyle change, and to spend more time with her teenager. Black, who has designed for 30 years for brands such as Monsoon and Coast, introduced herself at local independent vintage and design shops, which led to contact with Karen Meyers from Stitchworks, a local sewing and teaching studio. “Karen was working solo, and loved my experience,” says Black. “And she is unbelievable at sewing. We rub off each other’s energy.”
Between freelancing from her new home studio and commuting to London to plan collections with a design team, Black now runs a fashion club at Stitchworks, sharing her industry skills and ethical practice with local teenagers. One has gone on to fashion college in London. Another won an arts scholarship, and is described by Black as a “design star of the future”. She and Meyers now plan to expand into a sewing and design hub that will offer Suffolk teenagers more ways to explore creative careers.
And a few miles away, in the summer, Old Jet launched Airspace, a new arts programme that capitalises on the plentiful space it has on the airbase, and the experience of its studio residents – many of whom have trained, worked and exhibited in London – to support the next generation of Suffolk artists. Using repurposed donated shipping containers, it has set up a Community Interest Company (CIC) that will provide six months of free studio space alongside Old Jet for young artists and those living with social barriers.
The programme pairs applicants with mentors, both for the creative and business sides of their work. “We want to create meaningful connections for them in their industry, through galleries, record labels and other businesses,” says founder Jesse Quin. “We want to help build relationships they don’t have. We want to stay with them for the long run.”
Its own regular social lunches nearly always welcome newly arrived creatives who are finding their feet since moving to the area. “Engaging with professionals from London feels like an important part of the programme,” says Quin. “If you’re starting out as a writer in Suffolk and you meet someone who works at a publishing company, that feels mind-boggling. Any connections you can make feel so meaningful.”
Old Jet has recently joined with other thriving creative organisations in Suffolk including Snape Maltings, Asylum Studios and The Art Station to form a Local Cultural Education Partnership (LCEP) to investigate ways to support the arts departments of local schools and colleges.
The potential of Airspace has already been proven by the success of Old Jet’s youngest resident, Darren Lynde Mann. Two years ago – aged 18 and at a “difficult” time in his life – he was living in a caravan in rural Suffolk, painting canvases, supported by neighbours, who encouraged his ideas and lent him their shed. Beyond that, however, he struggled to find a creative community, and exhibited alone in his village pub. Quin recognised his talent and his situation and offered Lynde Mann a free studio space. “Coming to Old Jet was a massive surprise,” Lynde Mann says. “It’s so hidden away, and a different sort of community. People helped me and treated me as an artist.”
Quin’s instincts about the young artist’s talents proved right. Still only 21, Lynde Mann sold art worth £13,000 at an Old Jet exhibition this summer and went on to be included in Christie’s Emerging Artists exhibition in London. He now sells regularly to collectors and has been exhibiting in Brussels and Whitechapel.
If further proof were needed of the potential of rural hubs to discover and nurture talent where it grows, it is in interest from universities. At Wasps Inverness, the University of the Highlands and Islands rents a studio for its final-year students. “It gives them the opportunity to move into a building where professional practice is happening,” says Audrey Carlin. “They’re able to exhibit and meet artists who have a career in the Highlands, something they wouldn’t necessary have understood was possible. But also it inspires the established artists, having this vibrant emerging talent coming in.”
Back at Bentwaters Park, in his Old Jet studio, artist Adam Riches is collaborating with a poet, filming himself drawing as she reads the poem that inspired the work. In the office, Airspace manager Oliver Squirrell is preparing to launch this month’s first professional development programme for three young musicians in Old Jet’s music studios.
Georgiana van Walsum, who formerly worked in fashion in Italy and Paris, is pattern-cutting by a window with views she says have inspired her recent move into sunbleached, wild-dyed textiles and waxy, waterproofed textures. “I love Old Jet,” she says. “It feels somehow on the edge of things, in its own kind of wilderness – a raw open landscape that makes you feel you’re inside the weather.”
Certainly, the January rain has finally woken up the parched earth around the airbase, and there’s talk of planting new trees in spring. For now though, the winter nights are falling early. At sunset the prairie-barn hangars turn black against the big Suffolk sky. Old Jet disappears behind them, hidden again. Like many rural hubs, you wouldn’t know it was there unless someone told you. That’s about to change.