The Old Rock Factory is down an alley, first time visitors are told. Off Abingdon Street. Look for Brighthouse, the “UK’s largest weekly payment retailer,” and the Christian book shop and you’re there.
Venture off the beaten track at Lower Deansgate and the resort’s own Diagon Alley awaits – more of a Designgate in truth.
As all Harry Potter fans know Diagon Alley is lined with Dickensian shops and traders never quite what they seem.
In Blackpool’s version there is graffiti on a surreal scale and by some of the biggest international street artists. It all offers the illusion of space in the narrow confines. The art is a legacy of the now annual Sand Sea and Spray urban art festival which will return for the third time this summer.
The festival was created by former DJ Robin Ross who worked in the radio industry for more than 25 years before turning his hand to arts after a lifelong interest in images and style. In 2003 Robin developed the idea of the Art in the Park exhibition in Blackpool, which featured rock stars, photographers, colour blind artists and painters on silk. Two years ago he followed through with the first Sand Sea and Spray festival – which had success writ large upon it.
He has since opened The Old Rock Factory as photography and screen printing centre, art school, community organisation, helped by business partner, Linzi Cason, a leading local photographer.
It is turning into an arty space where creatives can crash on whatever floor, wall, seat or space they can find. Some areas are still up for grabs.
Venture up the narrow stairs to the sprawl of studios above, some full of light and art equipment, others bedecked with drapes and blackout curtains and photographer’s kit, and there’s a surprise at every turn.
The first is a knitted bike. Courtesy of award winning community arts group Auntie Social. The second surprise is the fact it really was an old rock factory. The 1911 census reveals the Higgins family ran the company. It’s solidly built, great metallic pillars underpinning the structure, capable of bearing the weight of the heavy machines acquired via eBay and skips and closed down printworks for the seaside screen printing process.
Owner Robin is delighted with his find. “Many cities have art centres in buildings associated with products once synonymous with them. It had to be rock for Blackpool.”
Robin has rescued and restored the building, with a view to running workshops and sharing the space with others. Two taster workshops are being held next week for people associated with the resort’s cultural scene.
Next month workshops open to the public, with 10am to 3pm workshops on four dates in March, and four more, from 3pm-8pm in April. The fee’s around £55 and throws in photography tour with Linzi, with an eye to what will work as a screen print. Trainees will then learn how to transfer and transform their images into black and white screen prints.
The results are so beautiful early visitors have been clamouring to buy the oiled transfer sheets – one of the first steps in the process. Robin is already working on limited edition prints of the locality – with a stunning series of prints of the Grand Theatre.
The logo of the Old Rock Factory appears throughout – a screen printed vintage camera from Linzi’s cherished collection. The pair have a passion for “changing Blackpool for the better,” as Robin puts it. Linzi adds: “Nowhere else in the North West offers this opportunity – the workshops are unique in their approach, style and setting.”
As with heritage tourism change is apace on the art scene. Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery battled alone for years, finally breaking free from the heavy portraiture and ivory netsuke of old to present contemporary offerings, some way over the head of some of us, others a bit too “arty” for Blackpool’s own good, but most winning new followers.
The Great Promenade Art Show was a cultural Marmite – the Mirror Ball rapidly acquiring cult status but other features castigated.
By contrast Robin’s street art festival caught on faster than you can spray Banksie on a wall. Today Blackpool’s a hot bed of creativity. Other galleries have moved in, opened up. Newcomers can count on support from FY Creatives, up the road on Church Street, the first dedicated business development centre for new and growing creative companies on the Fylde Coast.
To Robin and Linzi, Blackpool’s still a blank canvas. “If we play our cards right we could be at the start and heart of another cultural revolution,” adds Robin. “When you watch art being created it is amazing because you really appreciate the skills required and how jawdroppingly good the results can be. But what we’re offering demystifies the process and makes it accessible for all – if they’re prepared to take that first step.”
n Follow The Old Rock Factory on Facebook and Twitter, or call Robin on 07715 047777