INTERPLAY INTRODUCES… James Gray
Growing up in the Yorkshire countryside, James is a local lad who will happily roll up his own sleeves to make the much anticipated change happen himself. As a creative practitioner he has developed a ceaseless sense of can-do, valuing “the real hard graft”, as he calls it. Motivated by his own struggles with mental health, he started Graft Collaborative CIC in the heart of Armley, where he found a strong support network. With his community organisation he aims to encourage emerging creatives, giving them a platform to express themselves and to make arts and culture more accessible. We caught up with James to talk about pop-up cafés, the community spirit in Armley and his latest project at Interplay.
The rockery in our backyard looks amazing and now, that the weather is starting to get nicer again, it’s lovely to just see there and let the mind wander. What is the idea behind it?
The rockery came into my mind from a few places. In New York, there is a place called Hart Island. It’s a site where many who cannot afford funerals and burials were and are still placed. The plots are marked with plain number stones, around which many lay flowers, objects and stones from the nearby pebble shores, to remember their loved ones. Recently this site has become the final resting place for many who have died from Covid-19. This sense of communal loss and the way people leave memorials for those they loved really touched me. I also discovered the amazing Leeds West Rocks group on Facebook, where people paint stones and hide them around the area, and across the world in some cases, for people to find and rehide.
My mind put the two together, and I decided I wanted to create a public space where people could leave painted stones to memorialise lost loves, messages of support and find information about local mental health services. My hope is that it becomes a space for all to retreat from the busy city, take a rest on the bench, and focus on their well-being mindfully, and pay their respects to those we’ve lost and those we are grateful for in our lives. I also hope this tackles some of the isolation people face here in Armley and provides a space for the community to come together with positivity, love and compassion for each other.
If someone gave you half a million pounds for your next community project, what would you use it for?
I think one of the conversations we should be having in our city is how do we use abandoned spaces. In Armley there are a number of vacant sites or very poorly used sites. If someone gave me half a million pounds, I would look at trying to establish a support scheme to creatives to hire, rent or maybe even purchase spaces, to turn them into pop-ups.
Imagine if a shop on Town Street suddenly became an indoor craft market selling local produce, or a performance space with busking, artwork on the walls, a bar with plenty of conversation to be had. It could be a one-off yoga class, or a messy play for kids, maybe a cookery workshop or choir, could even be a cinema or a cafe. Just randomly popping up in disused shops, old warehouses or barren plot. Working with the council, local businesses, charities and organisations in bringing together all the many independent businesses, groups, collectives and creatives across Leeds, right here to Armley, even if only for the day!
“If someone gave me half a million pounds, I would look at trying to establish a support scheme to creatives to hire, rent or maybe even purchase spaces, to turn them into pop-ups.”
There’s no denying that Armley has had a poor reputation across Leeds. How do you perceive the neighbourhood? How can Armley grow culturally in your opinion?
Armley has a lot of problems. If it was one big one we could all rally together and fix it, but I think a lot of people have become so disheartened by all these little issues here and there that many have just given up trying. In that way we are very disconnected and it’s led to a lot of misguided hate towards people in our community. I don’t think the issues are unsolvable. I actually think there are a lot of very practical things we can all be doing to help make Armley feel a lot more inviting and safe to live in. But before any of that stuff happens, we have to change the conversation and our attitude first.
“I actually think there are a lot of very practical things we can all be doing to help make Armley feel a lot more inviting and safe to live in.”
If there is a space filled with litter and mess, can we do something about it? Can we roll up our sleeves and make a vibrant community space out of it? If there is graffiti, can we join forces with Leeds Street Gallery and turn it into a legal site so artists can do something decent and worth looking at? If there is anti-social behaviour, can we create an event in that area to bring people together, like a street party or a football match? Positive civic action with clear results, all from our own sweat, ‘graft’ and Yorkshire spirit!
No one ever achieved anything by staying at home and moaning about the world on social media; all it does is depress us, make us feel excluded and generally drive us up the wall with anger and sadness. Trust me, I know! I hope if lockdown has taught us anything it’s that we are all capable of rising to the challenge and adapting to change, especially when we come together. That’s my hope for Armley, and I will do anything and everything I can to help be part of that change, and support those who want to achieve the same. So thank you to Interplay Theatre for recognising me and helping me on this journey.