E17 Art Trail co-founder Laura Kerry talks to Shelly Berry about this year’s event, and its place in Waltham Forest’s art scene
It’s hard to live in Walthamstow and not know about the E17 Art Trail; I discovered it within weeks of moving to the area three years ago when a large banner outside St Saviour’s Church enticed me in.
By then, the trail was well established in the diaries of local art lovers. Laura Kerry and her then-partner came up with the idea back in 2003 in response to the lack of space to show work in the area. After two years spent gathering support, the trail launched in 2005 with 50 exhibitions.
“From then it kind of runs us, and becomes bigger each time,” she jokes – and with more than 4,000 school children, artists and businesses getting involved in the last trail in 2015, she probably has a point.
As someone who has just signed up to participate, I appreciate the E17 Art Trail’s inclusivity and absence of bias towards larger venues and more established artists – something it took local people time to understand.
“It’s a very specifically open-ended invitation. As soon as people worked that out then things suddenly felt possible,” remembers Laura.
She agrees that there is “something in the DNA of Walthamstow” that inspires creativity, and not just the legacy of William Morris and the former Walthamstow College of Art.
“There’s something about the geography of it. It’s like we’re surrounded by nature with the marshes, the forest and the wetlands. You can still be connected to the excitement and buzz of the city and yet get out really quickly into a more natural environment.”
Like many other cultural events, the E17 Art Trail has been hit by funding cuts and, while a lot of local businesses still want to support it, sponsorship has also gone down. Laura welcomes the rise of other arts festivals in the area, but admits this has created the “lovely but difficult complication” that there is now more competition for funding. Despite the challenges to the budget, she is keen to make the trail more accessible to visitors and to increase exposure – in a way that is in keeping with its ethos.
“We’d want it to be more handmade rather than billboards or bus advertising. It would be nice to be able to commission artists to make banners that go all the way down the street, something really stunning. The other bit is supporting audiences. We do things like artist-led walks that are really popular, but there’s so much more we can do to help the audience decide where on Earth to start.”
One of the things that keeps Laura going are the moments when she sees the impact the trail has on someone – whether it be the “accidental audience” who comes across a sculpture at a bus stop, a young person for whom the trail has become an integral part of their childhood, or a resident who admits feeling safer when the festival is on.
“That something as simple [as the trail] makes it feel safer to come home from work in the evenings, that is pretty profound. There’s always a little anecdotal story every year that is really memorable.”
Laura admits that her motivation to do the trail has changed over the years, as have the other priorities in her life. “I’ve grown up, and my family have grown up, with the art trail. It’s much more now about making where we live feel really special.”
When I ask her about her own art practice, Laura admits this has fallen by the wayside – but that her interest in this years’ trail theme of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) has been fulfilling her “personal creative side”. The theme also appears to have inspired many other artists in the area.
“I’ve been really surprised to find people responding to the theme and how many people are responding to mathematics,” Laura reflects. “I’ve been talking to people about mathematics and geometry in choreography and new mathematics in crochet. I shouldn’t really be surprised any more, but just reading through what people are proposing to do is always such a total joy.”
Enthusiasm for STEAM has also been reflected in the success of the ‘Ideas Sparks’ series of talks by artists who incorporate the sciences into their work, the first two of which were fully booked. If she can find the extra funding, Laura is keen to develop the talks, along with hands-on workshops.
“Each of the talks had an extra element, an interactive side. There was art you could eat at one talk, drawing with compasses, and the last one, bringing all of their artefacts to the talk, we could have spent the day working with those. That practical side of the talks made them quite special.”
Another feature of this year’s trail is ‘1000 Swifts’ – a project which hopes to see 1,000 residents creating a swift to display in their window, celebrating nature. “It can be as straight forward or as elaborate as you want it to be,” Laura says.
“Art trail enthusiasts who do not make art themselves can also volunteer as guides. It’s always great to have people that are out on the art trail who are armed with the programme and information on what they have seen. That works really well, these personal recommendations that are passed on.”
Walthamstow’s enthusiasm for the trail is clearly something that still amazes Laura. “It’s very much a can-do attitude with the art trail, everyone pulls out all the stops. I think people get more and more ambitious every year, that’s what the thrill of it is.
“Thanks for sticking with it.” It’s a sentiment I’m sure the residents of Walthamstow would like to say in return.
The E17 Art Trail runs 3rd-18th June. For more information: