Erica was one of the first people to contact me via the Masters of Many website, something that now happens regularly as people start to read and follow the content, and realise that they, or someone they know qualifies as a 'Master'. I was intrigued by what Erica has built up over time, having infused a sense of pride in her home town of Bedford through a series of events, a publication that celebrates creativity in the area, 'The Bedford Clanger'... and much more. I caught up with her to find out about her journey to date.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and your journey to this point..
I gave up work in 2008 when my twins were born. The plan had always been that my husband would be the breadwinner and I was very happy with that. I used to work in PR and marketing and my aim was to carry on with that at some point in the future.
In 2010, a mutual friend of mine on Facebook, Kayte Pippett, posted that she was really depressed about the number of empty shops and pubs in Bedford. I messaged her and said that I had been thinking about the idea of an arts festival in empty shops, but didn't know where to start. We had a blind date in the pub, ended up getting really drunk, and came up with a plan.
She was a fellow of the RSA and they give seed grants to people to empower them. We met on the Monday, she wrote up the proposal, and sent it off for the deadline on the Friday of that week. We got the grant of £1500 and the plan was to create a one-day acoustic busking festival in the old Evans Outsize shop. We couldn't get the venue agreed with the landlord, so we contacted the council to see if they could help. There was an amazing girl in the Economic Development who helped us. She couldn't help us with that venue, but did offer us seven empty shops that the council owned in one area of town that we could use for a weekend for free.
The area is called Castle Quay and it was a barren area in the town, opened in 2009 at the exact point of the recession. It's a mix of residential flats above shops, and everyone who had bought off plan then had negative equity. The remaining shops were getting next to no footfall and the museum was closed for a £7m refurbishment, which would have been the only other reason people would have gone there.
We were obviously quite daunted by the idea of this many shops, but we came up with an idea of a loose umbrella organisation called 'We are Bedford'. The ethos was to work with the council, existing cultural organisations and members of the public to make things happen. The name came from the idea that a town isn't made up of bricks and mortar, it's the people who shape the dynamics. We called the event itself the Castle Quay Weekender. It was scheduled for the 19th and 20th March 2011.
We came up with a plan for the weekend, and contacted John Hegley, the comedian from Bedford and he confirmed that he'd be part of it. That was the point that we realised we actually had to do the event! We went to The Creative Bedfordshire Network, an organisation that was funded by the council, and pitched it to them, and they just got it and lots of them came forward to be involved.
We were like the Anna Wintour's of grass roots community arts, following her policy of half hour meetings only. My twins were 3 years old, Kate had a 4 year old, and was working and doing a masters at the same time! It was a perfect storm. I had no childcare, and so had to go to meetings and take the children with me. Our other mantra was 'help or f**k off'. We were so time poor (and poor in all senses of the word) that we had to be like that. All of these amazing people came on board, businesses donated time and resources and there was amazing generosity of spirit.
It caused a paradigm shift in the town, making people realise that you don't have to wait for permission, that you can do stuff yourselves, and that you don't need that much money. If you don't mind not getting paid, and you can sustain it, then almost anything is possible. I think that money can stifle creativity, even if you're quite a well known fine artist, you still have bills!
That all happened five years ago. Then I decided to start a newspaper - 'The Bedford Clanger' - as you do! I've always written as part of the jobs I've done - internal magazines, press releases etc. I just felt that we had discovered this sub strata of amazing people and things that were happening in Bedford that no-body knew about on a wider scale. The local press didn't have the space or resources to cover it, so I felt it was the obvious things to do. The idea was that it was a free arts and culture newspaper giving a platform to those making exciting things happen in the town - 'read it, love it, pass it on' was our strap-line.
I was aware of a website called the Newspaper Club, an online newspaper publisher that prints every Tuesday and Thursday. I contacted them, worked out the logistics, found a designer, and between the two of us we put together an 8-page paper. I was doing everything apart from laying it out, and Marissa, our designer, was teaching herself as she went along too. I think back to it now and it was crackers! I was selling advertising and interviewing as well, and we had a photographer too called Shaun Armstrong who was amazing and worked for us for free.
We had a launch party at a cafe near my house. It was hugely exciting, but then I sat down afterwards and realised that we'd have to do it all again as we were printing monthly.
At the same time, we established the We are Bedford facebook group. The group and The Bedford Clanger were focused on an ethos of positivity, wanting to make people in Bedford feel proud that they lived there. I believe that if you're constantly telling people that where they live is shit, they'll believe it. We're counter balancing that and sometimes holding the local press to account for inaccuracies or if we feel that they're doing Bedford a disservice.
We are Bedford carried on with pop up events, one of which was a thing called a 'Drawing a Day'. It was a gallery exhibition for an artist called David Lichfield who had been doing this on Tumblr and amassing lots of followers. Last week he won the Waterstone's Children Illustrators of the year awards, but at this point he was teaching design at Bedford College and doing this project for self-improvement.
We used a shop that was still empty, and asked people to donate frames. We hung as many as we could and the others were displayed in portfolios. It was a beautiful thing. I don' think we can take any credit for David's ascendance to stardom, but I like to feel like we were a part of it.
We also did pop up Christmas shops as a platform for makers, craftsmen and designers. In 2013 we pitched to be a Portas Pilot town, building the bid based on the work that we'd undertaken, as 'We are Bedford'. We won the bid, and were one of the original 12 towns. We pitched for £51k, and one of the aims was to take a pop up shop and make it a space where things could happen, like workshops and events. However, it didn't end up happening. Kate had a baby and wanted to explore new avenues, and 'We are Bedford' ceased active delivery, although the facebook presence remained.
I then set up Bedpop, with the ethos of being an umbrella brand for pop up activity. We started off by taking over the tourist information office for a day. We commissioned artists to create really nice Bedford souvenirs and that kick started the pop up shop for the Portas Pilot.
Just before the end of 2013, I contacted a lettings agency to see if they had anything available. We had a concept ready to go, with everyone on board. They had the biggest shop on the high street and it had been empty for 6 years. It was 3 stories, on the corner of a Victorian arcade, with plain glass windows. Upstairs was this amazing room with Victorian coving that had never been used and above that it was a bit like The Shining. There were rooms with handprints, the toilets were ripped out and it was pretty derelict.
We took it with a plan for it to shut 7 weeks later. It was beautiful. We got a table from free cycle and bought in lots of our own furniture. At the front we had a lovely shop, which was manned by all of the artists, and beyond that we had an art gallery. We had a pop up cinema upstairs, until we had a pop up flood! These are the things they don't tell you in the pop up shop guides.
We started to clear out at the end of our term, but the landlord got in touch to see if wanted to stay on rent and rate free until one of us decided that it wasn't working anymore. It became an on-going arts venue and we held 19 events in there in the run up to June 2014. We ran a pop up record shop, we had a bar, live music and dj's all day, we had a children’s arts festival, a final year art exhibition from the design students at the college. We held a national Portas town team conference there. It was totally unplanned and a bit crazy. It became the Bedford clanger HQ as well.
Bed Pop has now evolved into a not for profit community group. We run 3 pop up record shops a year, we run fun palaces in October, and pop up science labs in march, and this summer we're reviving the Castle Quay weekender, with the aim of that become an annual thing. We'll do a Christmas shop as well. We made it for a not for profit organisation because it enables us to attract grants and funding and sits better with the philosophy of it, which is to create high quality community events.
What made you take the leap to do all of this?
It was total happenstance. My twins were 2 1/2, so it wasn't like I needed something to do. It just felt like an exciting opportunity to make something happen. I just did it as a one off, and then it snowballed.
How have you managed to make it all commercially viable?
The tipping point was when I joined forces with a lady called Julia Crofts. She came on board as a commercial manager at The Clanger. It was at crisis point in 2013 / 14 and it was unsustainable to carry on doing everything. I needed someone to take on the commercial side and she had contacted me when we'd first started to ask if we could work together, but I didn't have the vision then to realise I needed that person. Her main strength is her love of spreadsheets! She then became part of Bedpop and really she and I now are the team that drives it - she's the head and I'm the heart. I couldn't do anything without her now.
How often did you feel like ‘it’ wasn’t going to work?
You start something and have an insane adrenaline rush, convinced it's the best idea you've had. Then you question what you've done, but you get the work, manage to deliver it, and you get the euphoria again. Because the clanger is monthly, I'm on that rollercoaster every month. But now 5 years down the line, I understand the creative process more. It's been a huge learning curve for myself mentally to understand how I work. Now I can manage myself a lot better. I also stopped drinking 3 1/2 years ago and that was a profound change.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple jobs?
I'm a terrible procrastinator, so deadlines are difficult. Especially when I get paid work in (I'm also a freelance copywriter and journalist). I should really focus on that as it pays the bills, but I'm getting better at managing my time and deadlines.
What do you do to spur yourself on when you get the fear?
I talk to people. Whereas before I would have bottled it up, now I will tell people if I don't think something is going to work and we'll find a solution.
What makes you feel good / powerful?
Making things happen. I forget that lots of people I don't know read The Clanger now (we print 3,000 and another 1,000 read it online), and when someone tells me they read it, it makes me feel good that they like it.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
Enjoying the moment as I love the adrenaline hit. Legacy hadn't really occurred to me until recently, but now it's shifting to that. We've made a real difference. Bedford is a better place for it - not just because of what we've done, but the stuff that has happened since then. There's a 'can do' attitude in Bedford now.
How do you define success now?
Happiness and contentment. Being able to choose my own destiny. I'll never work for anyone else again.
Where would you like it to get to?
I think Bedpop has plateaued with what we can manage in our team, as there are only so many hours in the day. The Clanger can be expanded, and we have ideas, but a lot of it comes down to money.
How do you start your day?
I get the children up and dressed, and out of the door, with quite a lot of shouting of 'shoes' / 'teeth'! When I get home, I get the house sorted because I work at my kitchen table, unless I have meetings. I stop work at 3 to get the children, get tea and then do work when everyone has gone to bed in the evening. I find it works really well and it doesn't really feel like work anyway.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to do visual merchandising or journalism, but I didn't think I could be a journalist because I went to a poly, not a university and didn't think I was worthy.
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
We've just said to do whatever makes them happy. My husband is a civil engineer and has a very traditional structure to his job, which they can see the benefits to. However, they can also see the benefits of how I work because I'm around. We don't do an edition of The Clanger in Sept or Jan, so I don't work during the holidays.
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
Probably Kate coming up with the help or f**k off mantra. It makes it a two way thing as people repay generosity of spirit.
To see more of Erica's work, check out the following links:
Video of the first Castle Quay Weekender in 2011.
A video of last year's BedPop Fun Palaces weekend: