Culture venue putting on major exhibition of work by local artists

The Turnpike in Leigh is presenting These Lancashire Women Are Witches In Politics by Wigan-based creative Anna FC Smith and Helen Mather, who is originally from Leigh but now lives in Manchester.

Friday, 4th June 2021, 4:45 am
Updated Friday, 4th June 2021, 9:25 am
Anna FC Smith and Helen Mather outside The Turnpike in Leigh

The project takes a look at satirical portrayals of female political reformers from the Leigh area in the 19th century as witches or beasts and asks questions about their continuing contemporary relevance.

Anna and Helen were welcomed back to the gallery in May 2021 as artists in residence at the gallery, which is currently awaiting the return of residents and communities who have had to get their creative fix remotely in lockdown.

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Helen Mather and Anna FC Smith in the gallery at The Turnpike

These Lancashire Women Are Witches in Politics is being presented as part of The Turnpike’s Activations programme, where artists come together to experiment, create work alongside local communities and test new approaches towards social impact.

The idea is for artwork to be co-created with people from across Leigh through participatory workshops, talks and events.

Anna and Helen’s project was forced to adapt considerably due to the restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Material was distributed to people so they could contribute at home, online meetings and talks were arranged and outdoor foraging sessions were held when regulations allowed.

The artists ran Zoom workshops every other Friday with a group of 27 people who had everything they needed to take part sent out to them.

They made hundreds of embroideries, tassels, sigils and ceramics that will become costumes, banners and emblems exploring ideas of resilience and agency.

The project unites the vision of children, with primary school pupils involved in creating the original designs based on the originals from the 1800s, with the creative skills which exist in Leigh’s communities.

The artwork also explores the magical energy of nature and the radical heritage of the town.

The artists said the virtual approach to working which was dictated by necessity turned out to be highly successful.

“It’s such a calming hour,” said Helen. “Each week the group looks at a bit of the history of the reformers and has a go at making.

“We have been creating more tassels, medals and plaques.

“All these things are part of the pageantry of the Leigh Female Reformers but they are also items that demonstrate power; the power of the people who make them, to be creative and to be together.”

In the exhibition at The Turnpike the items created through the online workshops have been turned into objects from folklore, with banners and pikes now filling the gallery space.

In the spirit of the reform movements which inspired them, Anna and Helen now plan to make the project even more interactive in the coming months.

A series of hustings inviting public debate will be held in the town and the whole thing will culminate in a celebratory performance in Civic Square in August.

During lockdown the artists held events which they had hoped to hold in-person at the gallery online, with the programme now available to watch on YouTube.

They hosted two talks about the Leigh Female Reformers, one by local historian Yvonne Eckersley and another by the Blackburn academic Ruth Mather, as well as music by London artist Rachael Finney, poetry by Wigan artist Louise Fazackerley and an in-conversation event with Leigh LGBTQ+ campaigner Jess Eastoe.

Anna said: “It has been incredible to see how our art project has brought people together and given them some solace and fun during lockdown.

“We have built up a community of people who are coming together over a shared love of creating and history.

“Through Zoom conversations, to little messages and notes, everyone has expressed how much it has meant to them to be a part of this and it means the world to us.

“It demonstrates how important art is in the everyday.”

Helen Stalker, director of The Turnpike, said: “It has been brilliant to see how this project has evolved through Helen and Anna’s innovation. It’s amazing to see how much wonderful work has been made by people engaging with it, even in periods of lockdown.

“As well as the workshops, the online talks and performances have been a really positive way to unite the community around the themes of their project.

“We can’t wait to welcome everyone back to The Turnpike to bring the project to full fruition and celebrate these lovely outcomes.”

Visits to meet the artists at The Turnpike can now be booked every Friday between 11am and 2pm from June 4 to August 13.

Find out more or book at

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