Assembly House is the creative space in Armley that is empowering and uplifting Leeds’ creatives through commission projects, open calls and unwavering support.
Mike Winnard was one of a small group of graduates who founded Assembly House back in 2014. After finding the space in Armley and essentially building it from the ground up, Winnard and his crew were determined to curate a new, accessible and inclusive space for creatives in Leeds. With its many studios and forever-welcoming atmosphere, Assembly House stands today as the backbone of independent creativity in the city.
“We just rolled our sleeves up and put it together,” Mike humbly say as he reflects on the beginning of the space. “Electrics, plugs, floors, windows… There was nothing when we got here.” Whilst Mike admits that the space has gotten a more put-together since then, the aim of Assembly House remains the same as it did when it first opened: to provide affordable studio spaces and a place for exhibition opportunities. Having hosted over 100 studio holders and 140 exhibitions to date - covering everything from more academic, conceptual art all the way to tattoo and skate culture - Assembly House continues to provide an important hub for upcoming artists in Leeds.
Taking on a role “Somewhere between curator and caretaker”, Mike is at the helm of the Assembly House ship with fellow producer Alice Boulton-Breeze (“The nuts and bolts of the place”). Mike explains how Assembly House is currently restructuring itself so that some of the existing studio holders are now moving into key roles in the organisation, creating a small team who split share control of the space.
“We just rolled our sleeves up and put it together...”
2020 has been a time where the city’s culture and artists needed support more than ever. Refusing to turn their backs on the creative community they’ve formed, Assembly House decided to remain open over lockdown. Whilst sadly having to pull the plug on sixth months of planned programming, Assembly House threw caution to the wind and launched their 2020 digital programme. This included several commissioned online projects, the most recent of which is an interactive map of Armley set to launch in October.
Despite not being able to create face-to-face communities, Mike explains how, like many creative organisations, the team at Assembly House has been live-streaming classes and workshops as a means to foster the collaborative space that lies at the core of their operation. They are also continuing their unwavering support for artists by offering free residencies to six selected artists in the gallery space, as well as helping to write emergency funding bids for creatives.
In a time where motivation and inspiration have been especially difficult for many to come by, the support Assembly House has been able to provide goes beyond just financial help, as Mike explains: “Even though the commissions that we’ve been able to offer aren’t going to pay rent for a month, it’s an incentive for people to keep working and to keep in touch with their creativity.”
One of the standout projects from the digital programme is the Black Joy Matters print commission, which came out of a want to ‘Help in a way that was more utopian and hopeful’. The project provided opportunities for Black artists in Leeds to submit designs to be Riso printed and sold online, with all proceeds split between the artist and a charity of their choice, plus a £150 fee paid upfront to the artist. As Assembly House stated in their open call, the Black Joy Matters print commission ‘Isn’t an attempt to gloss over the very real and life-threatening issues facing people of colour here and abroad’, but rather provide a ‘Chance for radical joy in the face of hate’, a chance to, as Mike describes: ‘Celebrate Blackness in its best ways’.
To make the project as accessible as possible, the open call application didn’t rely on experience and only asked a couple of questions to get an indication of how each artist would approach the commission. Two prints were directly commissioned - one by Sondliwe Pamisa (@sondliwe) and another by Luci Pina (@luc.ipina) - as well as a sticker edition to be sent out with each print. This sticker edition came from Kevin Chege (@norfnorfnoir), an artist and filmmaker with a particular interest in sound and moving images. Chege has performed at Leeds Museums and Galleries and has recently had a documentary commissioned. His sticker design is based on the House of York and House of Lancaster rose symbol, but with the colours changed to represent the Pan-African flag. Chege describes how the symbol is inspired by African heritage and critical Black thinkers, intended to represent young Black youth growing up in Yorkshire. The design explores the movement and migration of Black people to Yorkshire and the surrounding areas, as well as both the connection and alienation of Black bodies and Black critical thinking in these places.
Assembly House also commissioned a fourth artist, textile designer Olga Motema (@olgaprints_), to do a crossover bag collaboration to be released in the coming weeks. Whilst celebrating Black artists in Leeds, the Black Joy Matters project has been a great way to meet new people and expand Assembly House’s creative community: one of the artists involved is now a studio holder, one is on a free residency, and another is now working as the organisation’s Communications Intern. To date, the prints commissioned for the project have raised nearly £600 for the nominated causes.
Assembly House also launched a mindfulness programme at the end of summer, commissioning Sophie Hutchinson - a local artist, dancer and yoga teacher - to create a series of wellness resources that are available to anyone online. Moving beyond what Mike describes as the standard bedroom “Skinny-white-girl-yoga-videos” that have become so popular in lockdown, this creative wellness programme is more outdoors based and aims to help relieve stress and enhance creativity with its focus on mindfulness. As Mike explains: ‘This is a time where a lot of people are struggling with their mental health and anxiety; there’s a lot of uncertainty for creatives around the meaning of life and purpose when there are no obvious things to be working on. We felt that mindfulness, having a connection to your body and self-care are really important foundations to build creatively off of’.
The first part of the series, which embraces Hatha yoga to focus on “Establishing a personal presence and connection to the body that’s not reliant on any religion” invites participants to explore the principles of mindfulness. With two more parts set to be released, this creative wellness programme demonstrates how Assembly House continues to serve as not only an important space for Leeds artists during the pandemic, but a place where the wider Leeds community can foster their own creativity.
For more information about Assembly House and their ongoing projects, visit www.assemblyhouse.art.
Words by Hannah Stokes