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18th Sep, 2021

Stratford arts charity founder reflects on flourishing success

MORE than two decades ago when Karen Williams established a small arts project she didn’t dream it would evolve into the success story it has become.

A passion for the arts alongside a sense of frustration at an increasing lack of creative resource in the community, inspired Escape Arts’ co-founder to follow her dream – and today she is the driving force behind its continued growth and success.

Escape Arts became a charity in 2003, as a result of two local projects – Escape founded by ceramic artist Robin Wade in 1997 and Community Art in Action, founded by Karen in the same year.

Their shared vision for a creative arts community group to aid health and wellbeing, quickly won hearts and minds and it is now recognised and respected on both sides of the county, where it operates out of two main hubs, in Stratford and Nuneaton.

News of the charity’s inspirational work quickly spread as requests for support and collaborations started to roll in, eventually attracting its first grants – including £500 received from a local community policeman – which funded the start of what became their flagship parents’ 12 year project in Studley, the popular Grow, Cook and Eat group which combined creative arts, health interventions, cooking and sourcing ingredients from their own community allotment.

More projects meant Escape Arts also needed more room to grow, and soon found themselves moving out of Robin’s garden studio and taking over five unoccupied shop units in Stratford town centre, transforming them into a gallery, youth music and film studio, office, home for Stratford Men In Sheds and a community arts space.

In 2014 the charity was awarded a share of a £1million Community Funding Challenge led by Stratford Town Trust, which was invested in new premises – a grade II-listed former Tudor pub and slaughterhouse then sitting derelict off Sheep Street in Stratford town centre.

Karen said: “This was a really big deal. When I walked in I admit I was daunted but there was such an overwhelming response from people who fondly remembered Henson’s butchers and wanted to share their memories. There was a real vision for what it could look like. As a result we created this fantastic community-based arts and heritage hub and visitor centre celebrating local arts.

“There was nothing like this in Stratford. It was all Shakespeare, all the RSC. There was nothing about local people and we are all about local people. The whole focus is local people and local stories.

“And it meant for the first time, after having previously had quite a nomadic life, we had a proper home so we could really start focusing on the charity, what we do and who for.”

Following a year of renovation work, the grand opening of the new centre in May 2015 marked a hugely proud moment for the Escape team.

Around the same time – as a way to further extend the charity’s reach – Karen sought her opportunity to take their community work on the road. With the help of a Big Lottery grant, they rescued an old county council bus from the scrapheap and, fittingly for the charity, in Karen’s words ‘we took something people didn’t want and turned it into something beautiful.’

Housing arts materials, a fridge, media suite and even portable radio station, the bus is a regular fixture of local festivals and charity events.

Karen said: “The Escape model that we use is all about inclusion and integration, each project is supported by experienced link workers who support lots of different needs and help visiting artist ensure the creative activity is accessible for all. They are the glue that hold the whole thing together. This is the unique aspect we offer. A critical part of the work Escape does is to break down those access needs and makes sure everybody can be involved and included. If they need one-to-one support we can work with them and their families to help facilitate funding support for that.”

Successful partnerships over the years include other charities, such as Mencap, Turning Point and RISE as well as adult social care teams, schools and local businesses.

But one of the most rewarding, says Karen, is the relationship established with Shakespeare Hospice Children’s and Young People’s Hub in Stratford.

“It’s all about bringing young people together, creating an activity where they can share and bond and grow and increase confidence in a safe place to explore some of those issues they’re struggling with.”

Over the course of the 22 years Escape has been ably supported by a loyal army of volunteers, now numbering more than 150 – the longest serving, Paul Mitchell, boasting 20 years with the charity, who now tends the heritage centre garden alongside supporting project activities.

And they can all reflect on the thousands of people whose lives they enhanced through a host of cultural and creative projects, from community art to heritage projects and children and youth programmes.

The work of Escape Arts does not go unnoticed beyond the county walls either and, in December last year it was presented with a Queens Award for Voluntary Services.

And the charity is looking to the future.

Karen said: “I would like to see the work we’re doing continuing to grow in lots of different settings.

“It’s been a difficult journey and there’s been some heartache on the way, a lot of difficult decisions but I think what we’ve got now is something everybody involved in Escape is extremely proud of.”

Visit www.escapearts.org.uk for further details.

* The charity is only able to continue its work through continued funding support. Any businesses interested in sponsoring or partnering with the charity can email karenwilliams@escapearts.org.uk

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