Helia, the lovely Phoenix

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Helia, the lovely Phoenix

Helia Phoenix © Gwion Thorpe

Helia Phoenix allegedly has trouble sleeping.  You’ll soon find out why.

Helia, in her own words, is a “100% English, Welsh, Iranian hybrid writerly type”.  I know her best as one of the clever, creative minds behind the wonderful We Are Cardiff community blog, which was recently voted “Best Blog” at the Wales Blog Awards 2012.  Whoop!

Helia was born in Cardiff, lived here until she was about five and then moved to a load of different places and countries and even lived on a boat for a while. Her university life started in London, but the big smoke didn’t agree with her, so she headed back to Cardiff and “from the second I stepped off the train I just fell in love with the city. After a very unfriendly time in a scary part of south London, Cardiff suited me much, much better”.  Whilst she may have left the bright lights of London behind her, Helia brought a valuable lesson along with her. “Being in London made me realise you have to work hard to get what you want, and I never forgot that.  The experience really made me realise you don’t get anything for nothing. You want to achieve things? You’ve got to do the hard work”.  You may think she looks like ‘another one of those arty types’ from the outside, but this lady is seriously determined and has got a suitcase full of energy and ideas.

Helia’s early career was spent as a journalist and editor at the now defunct music magazine Kruger. She went on to contribute to numerous newspapers and magazines and is now a web editor for the Welsh Government, which is where she met long-time collaborator Adam Chard. “One night in early 2010 Adam and I were chatting about how nice it would be if there were more cool things happening in Cardiff.  So, we bitched and moaned about it for a little while and then we just thought “well, we could just do stuff, let’s not wait for someone else to do it.”

That little conversation saw the creation of Hack/Flash, a collective that works on community art projects in Cardiff.  Their aim is to get everyday people involved with fun and collaborative art projects.  “Art is fun and it’s something that anyone can get involved with, anytime and anyplace.  We’re not trying to encourage people to be “more arty”, it’s about getting the community together and engaged in something fun and different”.  For a flavour of the kind of things they get up to check out their site and sign up to their mailing list.  Get / Involved as they say.

So, having got off their backsides to start doing more “cool things in Cardiff”, Helia and Adam came up with the idea of We Are Cardiff – a voluntary project that collects stories of people who live in the city.  “Whatever your story, however you ended up living here, whatever your job (or not), what you love (or hate) about the city, we want to hear it all”.  The concept is simple, you write a short story about what Cardiff means to you, they come and shoot a groovy photo of you and bingo, it’s up online for all to see.

“There was never really any end product in mind when we set up We Are Cardiff. To give people in the city a voice to express themselves?  To encourage people to have pride in the place that they live and engage with it more on that level?  To combat the lazy one-sided journalism we see in the newspapers about Cardiff whenever it’s mentioned?  All those things really.  But I wasn’t prepared for the amount of amazing people and things we were going to find out about and meet.  Like David Verso, for example, who’s just off the hook!”  What was a product of a lazy afternoon conversation has now turned into over a hundred posts by people from all walks of life and all corners of the city.

The success of We Are Cardiff has spawned another, more challenging idea. “At the moment we’re working towards making We Are Cardiff into a documentary film which covers a year in the city.  We want to showcase how wonderful, creative and supportive a place to live it can be.  We’re trying to cover alternative culture – the sorts of things you might do off the beaten track if you lived here and never really went on St Mary Street or in any of the chain pubs/clubs”.  To whet the appetite, a few short trailers have been released and the results look beautiful.  But to make sure the film reaches its conclusion they need our help.  “It’s got big ambitions but on a really small budget. We are currently crowdfunding, asking people who live in Cardiff to help us finish making the film by investing in it”. Click here to show them some love (any profits from the film will go to Llamau, a charity working to improve the lives of homeless young people and vulnerable women in south Wales).  I have the feeling that this film could be BIG.

But if that wasn’t enough, Helia’s love of writing and music means she has a few other things on the go.  “We are really excited to be curating our very own We Are Cardiff stage at Swn Festival this weekend.  We’ve done our darndest to bring together some of Cardiff’s brightest and most fun sounds”.  I’d urge you to rush down to Ten Feet Tall between 2pm-10pm this Saturday (20 October) to catch some of that. All details here.

“I’m also writing a novel but there’s not much to plug there at the moment.  Just hoping to have a first draft finished sometime over the next couple of months, but other things keep getting in the way!”  I bet sleep isn’t one of them.

Helia Phoenix does community art with these, runs this tumblr about her yarn obsession and more official/less random writer type stuff hereYou can follow We Are Cardiff on Facebook or twitter and if you’re interested in being featured on the site they’d love to hear from you via wearecardiff@gmail.com. You can also follow details of the film as it is made on the website




Dan Green, the BigLittle man

July 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

Dan Green © gwionthorpe

“It’s about time Cardiff had a museum about the City.  About time” says Dan, and I have to agree.  In fact, I’ve heard a lot of people say that recently.  But, although the new Cardiff Story Museum is good, what most people have actually been talking about is what’s been going on upstairs, above the museum.  An exhibition called BigLittleCity, which is the brain child of Dan Green (plus his best mate Marc Heatley).

Dan is a freelance photographer, born and bred in Cardiff.  Three years ago he started a photography project called Cardiff:Characters, which was all about capturing the unsung heroes of Cardiff – those familiar faces you see everyday. “After travelling in America for a bit I came back to Cardiff with a burning desire to do something.  I went into The Old Library, which is a stunning, stunning building in the heart of the city that has never been properly utilised and said to the manager ‘I want to do a photography project about the people of Cardiff and exhibit it here’. He said ‘ok, you’ve got three months’ and I shat myself”.  The project culminated in Dan’s first ever exhibition.  “It was so exciting.  The opening night was bootin’.  I manned the exhibition for six weeks.  Didn’t get paid for any of it but I was convinced that it would eventually pay off.  There was a certain naivety to it, but a good naivety”.

Cardiff:Characters was a big success and gained Dan a lot of coverage and plaudits, but it was one piece of constructive criticism that had the biggest impact on him.  “Someone came in and said ‘well done for doing this, but it doesn’t sum up my Cardiff.  This is just your perspective’.  That comment lingered for a long time until I eventually thought ‘ok, let’s do an exhibition where we put the call out and get different people’s perspective of the same thing”.  This idea transformed into BigLittleCity, an interactive art exhibition celebrating Cardiff, which ran for three months and ended with a big, creative bang on Friday 22 July.

The exhibition took almost two years to develop and was done for pretty much nothing.  “We managed to raise £4k from donations but in the grand scheme of things that is nothing.  I am more and more into the red with everything I’m doing but I have always, always wanted to do something like this and all the hard times pay off when there are hundreds of people here and the place is thumping.  That feels awesome.”

Dan clearly loves his City and wants to celebrate it.  “I was very conscious that I wanted work that reflected on the past as well as the future, as well as different viewpoints and backgrounds.  We wanted to show the true Cardiff”.  I would say that Dan has achieved his aims. I bet there are a lot of artists and creative types out there who are very grateful to Dan for giving them such a great platform to showcase their work.  “I have bent over backwards to get the right things in here.  There are certain people that I had to work with and show a new audience their work.  Charles Byrd and Mary Traynor are two good examples.  These are two people in their late eighties, early nineties who are incredible artists but their work isn’t being promoted.  Charles Byrd’s work has been in a basement, covered in bubble wrap for the past six years.  I paid my own money for the insurance to get them here.  I’m no connoisseur of art, but his work is class.  Proper impact, proper heritage.”

The passion with which Dan speaks about all the work on show is really powerful, it’s almost like a mother talking about her children.  “I am so much less precious about my own work now that I’ve done this.  I really admire other people’s work”.

Dan’s work is pretty good too.  His style of photography is incredibly vibrant and engaging and has a distinctive personality (much like himself).  “I specialise in photographing people and communities in their natural environment. A strong connection to my subject is vital and I relish the opportunity to get involved in the projects I document”.  This need to immerse himself in the subject has led Dan to all sorts of places, from Glastonbury to Ghana, and he is now The Safe Foundation’s resident photographer.

But now that BigLittleCity is over, what’s next?  “I am definitely going to pursue my photography and I want to visit the rest of the Safe Foundation countries; that has to be done. But having brought BLC this far it would be amazing to take it elsewhere and roll it out in other cities around the UK.  I’m very proud of what we’ve done.  We’ve been averaging 100 people a day, which is unheard of for this kind of thing, so it could definitely work elsewhere. If you work with the right people and get the right backing it can be a big success”.

Whatever happens next and wherever the BigLittleCity adventure may go, we should be extremely proud that it was here, in Cardiff, that it all started. Nice one Dan.

Dan Green is a freelance photographer based in Cardiff, South Wales. He specialises in photographing people and communities in their natural environment.  If you’re interested in hiring him visit his website

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