The Paperbird of Bradford Project 2012-2021

It seems hard to believe now, but back in 2012 there was little in the way of Bradford themed gifts or souvenirs available anywhere.

The Council-run visitor information shop stocked ‘leaving gifts’ such as engraved tankards and glasses for retiring councillors and dignitaries. They also had a few local postcards and some nice framed photographs but at that time there certainly wasn’t a contemporary and attractive range of products across an attractive range of price points. (It’s better now – there’s a good range in the Visitor Info shop in Broadway). It seemed to me, in 2012, Bradfordians didn’t believe for one minute that anyone would choose to visit their city, let alone buy a ‘souvenir’! But I was relatively new to the area (an ‘off-comer’ so the chance of offending was pretty high); I felt that there was a huge, and to be honest, a very melancholy gap. Curiosity and the desire to make a difference made me explore why, and as I began to ask questions I realised that I’d have some pioneering work to do to convince the locals that things might actually be better than they seemed. Fortunately I also found that I wasn’t alone.

Bradford’s rich heritage provides a deep seam for mining proverbial nuggets of gold. I delved into the local studies section of the city library and gathered together as much material as I could find. I began to find potential reasons for the melancholia I’d sensed around town. Conversations confirmed that many people saw the city as only a shadow of its former self and were actually still grieving for the grand, important place they’d known in their youth or been brought up on stories of. Many of the majestic Victorian buildings and eminent, elegant figures that they fondly recalled and associated with their families and home city were long gone. They’d been replaced with mid-century concrete blocks and faceless, post-1972, Local Government Act Bradford Metropolitan District Councillors. And there was a spiritual element too – a medieval ghost story from the English Civil War had left a mark and an infamous watchword: “Pity Poor Bradford.”

As soon as I saw the grief and embedded resignation, I knew what I wanted to do. An idea began to form in my mind of creating a fun range of themed gifts and souvenirs for ‘Poor Bradford’. It would have to be ‘artist-led’ because I’m an artist, so I started chatting to other creatives about what I was learning and sounding them out to see if they might be potential collaborators. Over several more months of mapping the city streets I uncovered more and more of the heritage and character of my adopted, neglected home city.

Working in a city centre, pop-up art gallery and craft shop turned out to be the perfect base to develop my product range and meet the right people. I pitched my idea to a funder who I’d met in the city and, amazingly, I was granted a wodge of start up cash to get my project off the ground. I gathered together my eclectic range of makers and producers and together we designed and made a range which included ceramics, perspex clocks, various pins and badges, notebooks, painted stones, knitted scarves and hats, cufflinks and keyrings. Some of these items came in short supply but the whole offering was anchored by my own railwayana-inspired range of travel posters, greetings cards, fridge magnets, tshirts, tea-towels and bags.

Three consecutive years of funding from The Seedbed Trust enabled me to buy my own stock and set up my stall with professional signage and promotional material. It also meant I could pay stall fees to event organisers without worrying too much about takings. Although it never hurt to make a small profit on the day, the main point of the project was to be out there, starting conversations. The highlight of the project was setting up stall in Bradford’s brand new, unique and award winning, City Park which opened the same year.

Since then much has changed in Bradford, and after what seemed like years in the doldrums when we didn’t even have a shopping centre, the city is coming alive again and is vibrant with talent. It’s a delight to see The Brick Box establishing their base here and working to transform more neglected spaces, bringing people together through their live art experiences. Cecil Green Arts is another impressive arts group – they’ve taken over a large temporary space for the creation of spectacular puppets, lanterns and street entertainment. Wur Bradford is a grassroots arts project, originally based in the market, which explores how we can make our city and our world better through imagination and collective action. Many other individual artists and creatives are busy working to make a real difference with their imaginative and transformative work. In the past few years we have welcomed new music venues, bars, restaurants, co-working spaces and events. A Print Fair was established in 2016. There’s also a new industry-led BID team, and soon the redeveloped New Victoria Theatre (or old Odeon) will open as a new music venue called ‘Bradford Live’.

Bradford also has a very young and very active Civic Society, which is currently working in collaboration with the council and BID team to honour the city’s past with a new blue plaque scheme, amongst other ongoing projects.

Bradford, the Great Wool City, really can inspire the best of human endeavour for change. Its origins and success lie in its geography and topography – Bradford, or the ‘broad ford’ is the place where, in the old days, you would have to cross the river, or ‘Beck’. The Beck is under the city these days, flowing through spectacular Victorian culverts, but you can trace its route through the city via marker stones placed by the Friends of Bradford Beck.

If you’re willing to take a chance, maybe let go of the old sadness and shake off those old ghosts, then Bradford can still help to facilitate that most important crossing – from an old frame of mind to a new one.

Souvenir stall in City Park in collaboration with Irregular Arts at 'Echoes of Oz'

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