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Portland Arts Centre in Dorset

13:01 22 January 2010

Samantha  and Katherine at the old laundry in Fortuneswell which they have turned into an arts centre for Portland.

Samantha and Katherine at the old laundry in Fortuneswell which they have turned into an arts centre for Portland.

David Murdoch meets two dynamic young artists Samantha Polley and Katherine Bryan-Merret whose dream of creating an arts centre for the island has finally been realised.

David Murdoch meets two dynamic young artists Samantha Polley and Katherine Bryan-Merret whose dream of creating an arts centre for the island has finally been realised.

Portland is an island of contrasts. The landscape is dramatic; sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful, often changing entirely in the space of a few hours or a few hundred yards. Its just the sort of inspirational place that you would expect to find visual artists. In fact, the island is home to plenty of painters, sculptors and other creative talents but finding them has never been straightforward, because the island has never really had a point of focus for the arts.

But all that is about to change with the creation of the Portland Arts Centre, an old red brick building in Fortuneswell, which started life as a Victorian steam laundry. This has now become an artistic hub for the island, providing working space for 36 artists, as well as room for exhibitions, events and teaching sessions.

This is the ambitious project of two young artists who, knowing that Portland lacked the arts facility it deserved, decided that they would provide it. The speed at which their idea has become reality has been as remarkable as the scale of their ambition.

It was just over a year ago when portrait artist Katherine Bryan-Merret met photographer Samantha Polley when she came to photograph her work. Soon their discussion turned to the lack of studio and project space for artists working on the island. Talking about an arts centre was easy, but how could they actually make it happen.

Fortune took a hand when someone pointed out that the Old Laundry in Brymers Avenue, Fortuneswell, where they both lived, was lying empty. Over the years it had been used for various industrial purposes, and most recently as the home of a defence contractor to the Royal Navy.
Kit Glaisyer, the well-known Bridport painter, tracked down the owners of the building for us, says Katherine. I dont think they took us too seriously at first, but over a period of months we were able to convince them, and in the end we were able to get a 12-year lease.

Undaunted by the fact that they had no funds to get the project off the ground, but hopeful that in the future they may get some funding from the Arts Council or the local authority, the girls decided to push ahead on the basis that the income from studio and teaching space would cover the centres running costs.

In October, having confirmed their lease on the building, they turned their attention to organising a fundraising exhibition and black-tie party in December to meet the costs of getting the building ready for its opening in January 2010. An appeal for artists to get involved by entering their work drew a response from around 60, all of whom agreed to donate 40% of whatever money they received from sales at the show.

Weve been overwhelmed with the amount of support we have received from the local community and by the number of people who put in hard work helping us with the cleaning, painting and renovation of the building before the fundraising exhibition, says Samantha. Were also massively grateful to Dominic Tambling of Creative Dorset, and to Alan Rogers, the Arts Development Officer for Weymouth and Portland, for all the help they have given us.

It was an exhausting time for Katherine and Samantha, both of whom have part time jobs Katherine at the local pub, the Royal Portland Arms, and Samantha as a teaching assistant at Southwell Primary School.
At times I was hardly sleeping at all, what with my job, painting commissions and all the hours we have been putting into the project. Fortunately Sam and I get on really well and the things we are good at seem to be complementary.

The response they have had from artists who want space, well-wishers and volunteers has proved that there belief that Portland needed a focus for its artistic community was right.

There is even more demand for it than we had first thought, reveals Katherine. The arts centre and studios will really help to bring the arts community together, giving people the right sort of space to work in and help get their work noticed.

One of the first people to sign up for studio space was potter David Archer. His Hundred-Aker-Wood Pottery is at Chickerell, just outside Weymouth, but he is also an enthusiastic teacher. I have craved for an affordable workshop in the right location for my classes, and this is like a gift from heaven, he laughs. I will be running sessions at the centre four nights a week, and also organising holidays where people come and learn to make pots.

Portland Arts Centres first exhibition in December raised just over 5,000 but there is still a further 8,000 to raise for the deposit. Luckily the landlords gave us the go ahead on the little we have already raised, says Katherine. They also need to sort out a functioning heating system, so with that in mind they are holding another exhibition entitled Fire & Ice to raise funds towards putting in a new heating system.

Its open for anybody to enter, using any medium, explains Sam. We are going to divide the arts centre into fire-themed and ice-themed space and would like to include dance, music, fashion, textiles, sculpture and much more. Visitors will be transported to a magical winter wonderland, or a burning inferno!

No doubt the January snows will have provided some inspiration for some. So if you would like to get involved, contribute a piece or help with this exhibition, Katherine and Sam would love to hear from you.

Were well on our way now, and who knows how things will have developed in a year or two from now?

Information Box

Fire & Ice Exhibition
Private view by ticket only 27th February. Exhibition open to the public from 28th February to 28th March

Remit for Fire & Ice exhibitors:
10 entry fee + 25% commission on all sales
Up to three pieces of any size. Label all pieces with title, name of artist and price, including commission
Please provide your artist statement to be displayed with your work. Entries to be delivered to the centre from 6-13 February between 10am-4pm. Contact them as soon as possible to put your name down.

If you are an artist seeking studio space, would like to use the centre for workshops or events, or would like to get involved as a supporter of the Portland Arts Centre, The Old Laundry, Top of Brymers Avenue, Portland, Dorset DT5 1JS, contact Katherine or Samantha on 07518 346310 or visit


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