Susan Clarke Meets REBEL

Leah Hamer || July 13th

On Thursday morning, I stepped into wonderland. Outside I waited by garage doors, peering through misty windows to see dark silhouettes and no sign of life, until a jolly woman with flecks of flour on her cheeks, hair pulled back, and sleeves rolled up, greeted me with a motherly hug and a glowing smile. This was my first encounter with the woman that is fighting against the odds to make our home a better, safer, and happier place, Susan Clarke.

Our morning begins with a brief tour of B-Arts, her gigantic workspace that is an art gallery, theatre, workshop and bakery all in one refurbished warehouse. Enormous papier Mache creatures, splatters of paint, layers of boxes and crates hidden with treasures- my brain did not have the capacity to understand it all at seven in the morning. A benefit of my sunrise interview, however, was witnessing the baking in action at Bread In Common. Susan gets her hands into a batch of all natural focaccia, I rest my elbows on the counter and listen to her soothing voice.

B-Arts began as a contemporary circus that struck down the barriers of performance and restrictions of work and education, bringing the theatre to the street. ‘It was about a notion of playfulness and imagining the world to be different.’ Amongst her many achievements since creating B-Arts over thirty years ago, Susan is now focusing her attention on Stoke-On-Trent’s bid for the UK City of Culture 2021.

Imagination is a quality that Susan has in an abundance. The idea to back the bid was formed amongst her and a group of like-minded souls several years ago. ‘We always think of crazy things we can do- and one time we thought of getting Stoke to be the European City of Culture. And we were like nahh, never going to happen. Then we thought how about the UK City of Culture…and here we are.’

As someone who begun her life with the arts in 1985, Susan has watched this city undergo an enormous transformation. B-Arts was the first of its kind in our area, as most individuals clung tightly to our heritage and tradition when choosing their career path- pottery. As our industry has declined over the years, Susan has witnessed a struggle of identity amongst our locals. ‘I think people suffered from low level anxiety. They are tired…but people just want to be happy and anyone is capable of overcoming anything.’

There is an unwelcomed sense of negativity surrounding Stoke from the outside. I laugh with Susan that according to vicious stereotypes, as a twenty-year-old female, living in a council house in a fairly rough estate, I should have given birth to at least three children by now and I should be raking in the benefits. ‘There’s so much othering from the outside and it means that a lot of young people feel the need to move away to places like Manchester.’

At times it can feel like there is a long way to go in order for Stoke to be positively recognised on the map. ‘I think we have buttons to reset…We don’t have Air B’n’B, we don’t have Uber, we don’t have a film festival. Why can’t we? How can we accelerate towards that?’

Yet this city has grown tremendously within recent years, with a revival of independent shops, cafes, and restaurants like Hounds, Pilgrims Pit, Tsp and Klay, our thriving music scene supported by venues like The Exchange and The Sugarmill, recording studios like Riff Factory and Field Street and businesses like The Sound Savage, and our expanding arts scene with B-Arts leading the way. ‘You can feel the buzz.’

It is time for Stoke to become the city that others envy, it is time for people across the UK to hear about the incredible opportunities that we have in these six towns, it is time for other people to say ‘Stoke have one of those, why don’t we?’, ‘Stoke has done this, why haven’t we?’ The time is very much now. ‘We have never had a supporting regime behind us until now. We have given the council a story to stand behind. We need to focus and get ourselves together and get behind it.’

Winning the bid, is not just a title, but a key road to success that will lead to different investments that can regenerate our economy. Improvements in our transportation, our hotels, our signage and funding for our arts are all aspects that this can entail in 2021. Yet for Susan it is more important for us to picture where we see ourselves after 2021, ‘Think of where you want to be after the bid and then do it.’

Talking to Susan that morning was utterly inspirational. I left the bakery filled with an untameable sense of possibility and pride in my home. ‘I want people to feel unstoppable…If you imagine yourself extraordinary, you will be.’

This is the mantra that rests behind our UK City of Culture bid. Believe that Stoke is an extraordinary place, and we will be unstoppable.