East Street Arts’ story began when Karen Watson and Jon Wakeman met at Harrogate College in 1989, where Karen was working as a Ceramic Technician and Jon was studying on the BTEC Ceramics course heading into his last term and final show.
Their love of art, activism and football (although they support different teams) would form the relationship at the heart of what would become East Street Arts.
Karen had previously studied Ceramics at the then South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education (now part of Cardiff University) after a foundation course in Wakefield. During this time she also joined WWDA, an independent print-making artist space based in the pre-gentrification dock area of Cardiff, one of neglected wasteland, mudflats, decaying industrial buildings and dying industry. This can be seen as an early indicator of how art would be used by East Street Arts to transform neglected areas and communities.
After Harrogate College, Jon was accepted on the Glass and Ceramics course at Sunderland, with Karen joining him for his final year. Back in Leeds they were keen to find space to work and develop their own practice.
During this time they made contact with two Meanwood based spaces Oblong Studios and Third Floor Studios, and started to meet fellow artists. After finding their feet it was decided they didn’t want to simply take space in an already functioning studio, they wanted to create something of their own – DIY.
Where did this drive come from? The roots could be found in the political turmoil of the 1980s and the sense of optimism as the 1990s began. After Karen’s father was made redundant following the Miner’s Strike, her parents set up a space in Kinsley, the small mining village next to the one she grew up in. They convinced Wakefield Council to give them three terraced houses that were transformed into a venue where people, especially miners, could learn new skills in the crafts, or just pop in for a cup of tea and a chat.
Jon’s own upbringing as a Quaker added to the inevitably that they were always going to create something that was self-led and positive in a wider context.
The earliest incarnation of East Street Arts came into being in June 1993 when Karen and Jon leased a 2,000 square foot top floor of East Street Mills with the intention of providing workspace for themselves and other like minded artists.
The rest, as they say, is history.