Sunday , June 4 2023

Pillow and a palette: Leeds’ Art Hostel is a creative’s dream

In one room, tiny sheep tiptoe above a bunk bed and there are hoof-prints across the cement floor. In the room next door, carrier bags have been twisted into a light fixture in the fashion of a Hindu flower garland. Down the hall, lost mementoes including holiday postcards, bingo tickets and grainy photos decorate a glitter- and confetti-strewn resin floor.

Welcome to what is claimed to be the UK’s first Art Hostel – a social enterprise project that has given artists free rein to design every inch of its premises from the ground up, in an effort to showcase grassroots creative talent from the UK and abroad. It’s the brainchild of East Street Arts, a charitable organisation that works with artists and residents in local communities. And the hostel isn’t in a hip enclave of east London, as you might expect, but in a deprived central suburb of Leeds.

Art hostel Leeds
Ewe’ll love it … a tiny upside down sheep on a bunk. Photograph: Lorna Parks

While there are several art-led hostels and hotels in Europe, and the legendary Carlton Arms art hotel in New York, this is the first in the UK to actually make the spaces themselves function as works of art. And the result is nothing less than magical – a symphony of imagination let loose on a grand scale. The hostel’s blank canvas is a building completed in 1894 that was once the presbytery for the old St Patrick’s church in Leeds’ Mabgate area. (The church itself is today used for storage by Opera North and Leeds Playhouse.) There are 12 rooms, each one grappling creatively with themes such as politics, history, environmental commentary and nostalgia.

Staying the night here is like wandering through a dream. Given the freedom of the empty hostel as it prepared to open, I sneak into The Common(ing) (room 8) and wind up the handmade music box to hear it sing. I squint at the marine pollution maps created out of photos of washed-up footballs in Ocean Galaxy (room 6). I lie on the floor to take in the full glory of the interlocking fabric ceiling in The Wooly Ewe (room 9), which pays homage to sheep as a symbol of Leeds’ wool manufacturing heritage.

The Ocean Galaxy double room by Mandy Barker.
The Ocean Galaxy double room by Mandy Barker. Photograph: Hannah Platt/Art Hostel Leeds

The Art Hostel represents all that is shining in the Leeds creative scene right now, where grassroots organisations and entrepreneurs are passionate about creating a leading centre for the arts in the north of England. Profits from the hostel will be used to support other East Street Arts projects, in Leeds and beyond.

“For the original 17 commissions available we had 218 applicants, and all of them were really great. It blew us away,” says Art Hostel general manager Rhian Aitken. In the end, they settled on 20, which included all the bedrooms, the kitchen, a commission for the volunteer staff quarters, a film-making project for the central stairwell and a motion-sensor-driven installation with reclaimed car headlights that mimics the sounds of insects climbing a wall.

A landing reveals no clues about the designs within the rooms.
A landing reveals no clues about the designs within the rooms. Photograph: Lorna Parks

The Art Hostel started life as a pop-up on Kirkgate in 2016. Curious to see if such a concept could take off, East Street Arts initially intended to run the hostel for three years as an experiment. A disagreement with its landlord forced the hostel to close its doors in 2018. But in fewer than three years of operation it had taken 10,000 bookings. The business model had been vindicated, the travel demand was there, and so East Street Arts was encouraged to seek a forever home for the hostel. That was in 2019, but Brexit-related delays thwarted progress, and then Covid hit. Only recently, at the end of February 2022, has the Art Hostel finally managed to open.

Recycling and ecology are at the heart of the project. “A lot of the old hostel stuff has been reused and recycled,” says Aitken. “One of the rooms is completely made from reclaimed wood, and even the flooring in the lounge and some of the bedrooms comes from a gym in Poland.” There’s also hot composting and a wormery; butts to conserve water; a landscaped garden designed to reduce traffic noise (the hostel is right next to the A64 ring road) and eco-friendly Earthborn Claypaints are used throughout.

The Rainbow Lodge is an eight-bed dorm designed by artists ViDa.
The Rainbow Lodge is an eight-bed dorm designed by artists ViDa. Photograph: Hannah Platt/Art Hostel Leeds

The fact that the hostel has found a permanent home in Mabgate makes perfect sense. This neighbourhood rubs shoulders with the Leeds Playhouse, BBC Radio offices and the Northern Ballet headquarters. And next door there’s East Street Arts’ Convention House, which started life as a nunnery but is now a multipurpose creative space with studios, residency accommodation for artists, and tech facilities including an ecological darkroom that acts as a research facility for sustainable photography practices.

“For a lot of years there wasn’t any funding [for the arts],” says Aitken. “So Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman [East Street Arts’ founders] got together and created a space with a communal area, so everyone could get together, show work and mix with each other, and have that social aspect as well as having their own studios. And that was unique.”

Aitken says the reason East Street Arts and the Art Hostel have flourished is because of the Leeds “DIY attitude” to the arts. “This whole area has become a community hub for creatives,” says Aitken. Down the road there are now photo labs and more art and dance studios. At the bottom of the hill there’s MAP (Music and Arts Production) Charity, an alternative education provider working with young people who are unable to access mainstream schooling.

Many of the hostel’s furnishings are recycled.
Many of the hostel’s furnishings are recycled. Photograph: Lorna Parks

“Mabgate and Lincoln Green was one of the most deprived areas in Europe at one point. But it’s got this wonderfully diverse community,” says Aitken. East Street Arts is now involved in creating an artist-led community neighbourhood plan for Mabgate, which will be the first of its kind in the country. The plan will help give local residents, businesses, schools, community groups and charities a say in how the area develops and regenerates – with a dose of creative input. “It’s not about gentrification. It’s not about the artists coming in and making things pretty; it’s about actually giving the people a voice and helping them make decisions about what’s happening to them and their families,” she says.

And the hostel itself is also a community effort: one of the rooms, the Ziggy Wingle (room 2), was a collaboration between Leeds artist Alison Smith and local Shakespeare Primary School, resulting in splashes of primary colours, children’s drawings embedded in the window architraves and a huge, playful wall of movable parts.

Plans are already afoot to take the Art Hostel concept to other cities in the UK. “There are lots of emerging artists, but also lots of jobbing artists who are there every day just doing their thing, making their creative lives, and it’s great that we can feature them and give them the opportunity to do something really, really visual,” says Aitken.

The Art Hostel has 12 rooms, consisting of doubles, twins and bunk rooms bookable for groups of six to eight, starting at £50 per room per night, including breakfast

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