Derry~Londonderry's London Street Gallery Opens

Dominic Kearney visits Derry~Londonderry's newest art space, part of the city's exciting new 'cultural corridor'

Bernie Murphy worked in Derry~Londonderry’s shirt industry. She was one of many. Sewing, stitching, dyeing – attaching zips, buttons, clasps – working with different fabrics and materials. On the factory floor, she learned the intricacies of garment construction, and developed her understanding as she rose in the industry.

After 21-years of hard graft, Murphy was made redundant. She wasn’t the only one, of course. There were hundreds, maybe thousands like her. Yet Murphy reinvented herself. Using the skills she had learned in the manufacturing business, and taking inspiration from the colours and the landscape of her native Donegal, she created textural pieces of style and elegance – part garment, part sculpture – and called them 'wearable art'.

Murphy’s journey has taken her from factory to redundancy to night classes to college courses and qualifications, her desire to create growing stronger by the day. 'For the first time I see myself as an artist,' she admits. 'I’m going to embrace the opportunity of being here in Derry~Londonderry.'

Bernie Murphy

 

Murphy's work took its place in the first exhibition at Derry’s newest art space, the London Street Gallery, when it opened Saturday, April 20. Murphy showed in one of the gallery’s five rooms. In other rooms could be seen prize-winning work by local fashion students, as well as by established artists such as Helen Heron, Louise Walsh, Anne Patterson, Tom Agnew and Margret Crabtree.

The title of the exhibition was Off the Cuff, and contributors were all asked to produce pieces reflecting Derry’s shirt-making history. (A stand-out piece was Tom Agnew’s ceramic figure covered in labels and adverts for products created in the city.) It was a launching board for an artist like Bernie Murphy, and could, quite possibly, lead on to bigger and better things.

Along with a number of volunteers, the London Street Gallery is run by Noelle McAlinden, seconded from the Culture Company. The gallery, located in the oldest part of the city near the central Diamond, was gifted by the Inner City Trust. In many ways, it is intended as a short-lived experiment during Derry’s year as UK City of Culture.

The gallery is due to remain open only until December 31, 2013. However, McAlinden – who is incredibly passionate and vocal in her promotion of the arts in Derry – is looking way beyond then, and is determined that the gallery will become an integral part of the city’s artistic scene. 'We’re here for the long haul,' she asserts.

McAlinden is enthusiastic about the gallery and what it can offer. 'We aim to promote both emerging and established artists,' she says. The vision extends from the walls of the gallery to the streets beyond. McAlinden sees the gallery as drawing together the creative arts and the cultural life of the city in whatever form it takes.

And the gallery, she declares, must also have an uplifting social role. 'We aim to make people leave feeling better than when they came in' – which isn’t something you hear from a gallery manager every day of the week.

A driving sense of purpose and responsibility is palpable when visiting the London Street Gallery, and talking to the staff there. For a start, they feel that a gallery of its type is needed in Derry.  'There are two cutting edge galleries in Derry – Void, and the Centre for Contemporary Arts,' says Stephen Lewis, who describes himself as the man who signs the cheques, 'but nothing catering for the mainstream. This gallery can do that.'

London Street Gallery

 

In addition, the London Street Gallery is seen as a key part of the regeneration of the city. If Bernie Murphy can be considered as an embodiment of Derry's emerging arts scene, then the London Street building is a bricks and mortar symbol. An elegant, understated edifice, its offices once bustled with activity. After falling into disuse, it now lives again, harnessing and projecting the creative energies of Derry in the 21st century city.

It sits in Derry's own Cathedral Quarter, a few yards from St Columb’s Cathedral. Walk along from Bishop Street, down London Street to the cathedral, and turn left into Pump Street. There is a thriving antiques and crafts centre on the corner, opposite the Gordon Gallery, a long-established commercial art gallery.

The owner, Richard Gordon, is due to open 15 studios for artists on Pump Street. Behind the gallery a courtyard space is being opened up, where Creative Village Arts operate four more studios and a fine art printers. Go beyond Pump Street and you come to Artillery Street, home to the Playhouse and the Centre for Contemporary Arts.

McAlinden describes this route as a 'cultural corridor', which will prove integral to the ongoing regeneration of Derry – creativity, culture, education, enterprise and tourism all wrapped up in three streets. Around 250 people attended the opening night of Off the Cuff, with roughly 30 – 40 people visiting daily since then. '1,000 people through the door so far,' McAlinden adds.

The second exhibition at the London Street Gallery opened on May 11. Entitled Emerge + See, 60 artists were invited to contribute a piece. In addition, Portrait of the Artist will be a monthly profile of a local artist. The Gifted Project is another initiative planned, with artists asked to gift some of their work to display in local hospitals. The gallery aims both to draw in and to reach out.

It is organic, fluid, and rooted. Just like the flowing, cascading pieces created by Bernie Murphy for the gallery's opening exhibition. Artist Maurice Harron, patron of London Street Gallery, says that the space is 'not just a gallery. It’s a movement.' The passion of all concerned suggests that its doors won't close come New Year’s Day.

Emerge + See runs in London Street Gallery until June 5, 2013.