Once an abandoned wreck at the corner of a city park, today it’s a thriving centre of Portsmouth’s creative arts community. Stuart Anderson visited the team at The Lodge to find out how they did it.
When muralist Mark Lewis first stepped into an old park gatekeeper’s lodge, he had one goal in mind – to create a new arts centre for Portsmouth that would become a hub of the community.
Looking back 14 years later, he couldn’t be happier with what he has achieved, despite there having been quite a few bumps along the way.
The Lodge arts centre, at a corner of Victoria Park in Landport, has a strong tradition of innovation.
As director of Art and Soul Traders, the group which runs the centre, Mark says this is set to continue.
He explains: ‘It’s an exciting new era for the place.
‘We’re going to repaint the interior and completely redesign over the winter.’
The Lodge has hosted thousands of events and exhibitions since Mark and his team transformed the once-derelict building.
He says: ‘I was looking for an arts centre before this for a few years, and this was my last go at starting a creative centre for Portsmouth.
‘ I knew that if you were trying to reach the community, what better place to go than the park?’
Mark and his group sourced £50,000 from a Single Regeneration Budget and a further £10,000 from Portsmouth City Council to restore the building.
He says they took it over on the condition that they reached 300 people within three years.
‘We did that in four or five months,’ he says.
‘Since then we’ve reached 55,000 people with workshops, courses, exhibitions, events and public murals.’
Mark says there have been a lot of workshops in the centre’s early years, covering everything from filmmaking and graphic design to mural painting.
He explains: ‘The workshops became a bit of a victim of their own success.
‘We had too many people wanting to sign up so we had to hire out another venue, which was a stuffy kind of community office.
‘People didn’t feel like they were coming to The Lodge.’
The arts centre also plays host to film nights, poetry sessions, concerts and is available for public hire.
But Mark says the ‘soul’ of the Art and Soul Traders group has always been painting public murals, the most famous of which is undoubtedly the Strand city mural in Southsea (see overleaf).
There has also been a continuing series of exhibitions in the cafe, and Mark says he thinks about 500 artists’ works have gone on show over the years.
He says: ‘I’m sure we’ve had most of the local artists on show here at some point.
‘In the future there’ll still be the opportunity to exhibit five or 10 paintings here.’
Mark says the centre relies on a network of volunteers and they were always looking for more.
He says: ‘At the moment we particularly need someone with website experience who can help us rebuild our website.’
Mark reckons the recession and alleged opposition from some people within Portsmouth City Council had sometimes made things difficult, but that was thankfully changing.
He explains: ‘Our case is part of the investigation into the bullying culture of the last Lib Dem administration.
‘There were probably about 10 or 20 people that we didn’t get along with at the council.
‘But we’re past that now, they’ve been kicked out and we’re growing again.
‘The recession will end sooner or later and there’ll be funding available and we can start doing workshops and courses again.’
Mark says Art and Soul Traders was in the process of changing its status from being a not-for-profit social enterprise into a community-interest company, which was a co-operative, member-based model.
He says: ‘Hopefully doing this will give us more opportunities to attract funding.
‘We also want to buy the building from the council through a community asset transfer to keep it in the community’s hands for generations to come.
‘As a CIC it will be guaranteed to always be in the ownership of the community.
‘We’ve already spent a quarter of a million pounds and done a lot of hard work on it, so the last thing we want to see is something like Starbucks coming in some time in the future and taking all that away.’
Grant Taylor, 34, from Southsea
‘I’ve been participating in events here for the past six or seven years.
‘I express myself in art, I DJ and play a lot of music around the city. Being involved in The Lodge is a great opportunity to be able to do something for a really good cause.
‘It’s a beautiful place to be able to express yourself in a creative way.
‘I’m self-employed as well.
‘I help out with the maintenance around here. Anything that comes up that I can do I’ll have a go at. Whether it’s sanding something down, or gardening, anything I can do to contribute.’
Alina Coverca, 31, from Southsea
‘I’m from Romania and I graduated in mural painting at the Bucharest National University of Arts.
‘I moved to Portsmouth about a month ago after my husband got a job here.
‘In the first week I contacted the arts centre after finding it on Google. I wanted to meet people and make friends as well because I didn’t know anyone here.
‘They were welcoming and it was very easy to get involved with, and I have been working on the mural at The Strand.
‘I enjoy working on murals because they have such an effect on the area.
‘Because you have such a big space there are a lot more things you can do than when you’re working on canvas.
‘And I like how you get to paint outside in the wind. ‘
A family home reborn
The gatekeeper’s lodge was built at the corner of Victoria Park in 1878 to house the man who looked after the park and his family.
It was abandoned in the early 1990s, and Mark Lewis says there had been calls for it to be converted into a cafe in the following years.
The building was used to house homeless people through a couple of winters, before it was declared off-limits and boarded up.
Mark says: ‘No-one was in here for a few years and kids were breaking into it and smashing things up and burning it out.’
He says he was thrilled to have had the chance to turn the venue into an arts centre, which happened after a lot of hard work.
‘It was amazing that I found it, but when I came through the front door I thought ‘‘what a shame’’.
‘It was all burnt out and caving in on itself and it needed a lot of work to get it back into a good condition.
‘It looked like it was going to take years to get back to normal, but we’ve done it.’
City brought to life
One of Art and Soul Traders’ projects has become something of a Portsmouth landmark in its own right.
A massive map mural, which covers one end of a block of council flats at the junction of Clarendon Road and Waverley Road, Southsea, is the group’s most famous project.
The mural there now is the second one Mark Lewis and his teamhave done – he painted the first map of Portsea Island at the spot in the late 1990s.
People can have themselves depicted on the mural by sponsoring the current project, which has been going about five years.
For example, having a tiny figure of yourself walking along a road or standing on the beach costs £50, while having a delivery van with your logo on the side costs £150.
Mark says the mural is an ongoing project which could take decades to completely fill out.
The mural features an ever-expanding cast of characters at its base.
Most of the life-sized figures have a historical link to Portsmouth.
Among them are:
- Romans – to represent the region’s connection to Roman Britain, which monuments such as Portchester Castle still bear witness to. - Oliver Cromwell – the 17th century ‘Lord Protector’ of the realm.
- A jester – from the days when kings kept court in style.
- Hannah Snell – a woman who dressed as a man and served for five years in the Royal Marines.
- Emmeline Pankhurst – the suffragette leader who stayed in Portsmouth after her release from prison.
- John the Painter – Portsmouth’s first ‘terrorist’, he was a Scot who tried to blow up the naval base in support of American independence.
- Richard Kempenfelt – a Rear Admiral and naval innovator who died when his ship, the HMS Royal George, accidentally sank off Portsmouth.
- Thomas Ellis Owen – an architect who designed many famous buildings around Southsea.
- Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens’ famous street urchin is there as a tip of the hat to the author’s connection to the city.
- Hertha Ayrton – a suffragette from Portsmouth who was the first woman in Britain to get a degree.
- Helen Duncan – who in 1944 became the last person in Britain tried for witchcraft.
- Agnes Weston – a philanthropist known for her work helping sailors.
- An airman – this Royal Air Force officer represents the region’s links to the armed forces
- Inspector Clouseau – the Pink Panther detective as played by Peter Sellers.
Lizzy Chapman, 45, from Southsea
‘I’ve been heavily involved in The Lodge since May.
‘I volunteer to help out with the admin, help run the bar and get involved with events.
‘I probably volunteer about 10 hours a week, and when I’m not doing this I have a full-time job as an IT project manager.
‘In my spare time I come down here to work and contribute wherever I can.
‘It’s a wonderful venue and I hate to think of it turning into something else.
‘We’ve had a few glitches recently with the licensing but we’ve put that to bed.
‘It provides a canvas for people. It’s not just about painting but it’s also about performing arts with things like comedy nights and drama.
‘It’s really varied and it brings a lot of happiness to a lot of people.’
Andy Rev, 37, from Eastney
‘I’ve been involved since I came back from Bristol in early July.
‘I drop down now and then and see what’s happening down here.
‘I’m an artist as well, and I first met Mark quite a few years ago.
‘I’ve worked on a couple of murals and helped out with a graffiti doodle sessions for kids that we put on here.
‘This is a really interesting place and I want to see it grow. It’s not-for-profit and Mark’s put years into turning it into a community hub. It’s an open-minded place and there are always new projects. This room has been the host of some really cool exhibitons. You can see more of andy’s work at andyrev.weebly.com.