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

 

 

 

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Steve Garrett, the riverside market man

September 22, 2011 § 6 Comments

Steve Garrett © gwionthorpe

There are a few things that make Cardiff extra special. The Riverside Market is one of those things.  Every Sunday morning, for a few hours, a stretch of pavement opposite the Millenium Stadium is transformed into a bustling local food market, selling all sorts of lovely stuff, from fresh apple juice, award-winning meats, awesome coffee, French patisserie, proper veg with mud still attached and probably the best hangover-cure ever, Kimi’s curry van.  It really is a lovely experience and Steve Garrett is the man we have to thank for it.

Born in Wrexham, North Wales, Steve was educated in Liverpool before leaving for Canada, where he lived for fourteen years.  It was here that he found his inspiration. “I felt a real kind of freedom in Canada to do exactly what I wanted.  I lived on a communal farm for a while and got in to growing food, working on alternative energy schemes and actually trying to build a different type of life model. I got really involved in farmers markets and I was drawn to the whole idea of bypassing the big supermarkets and seeing local farmers sell directly to local people.  I loved the atmosphere, it was really social, and I thought “I really want to set one of those up when I get back to the UK”.  And that’s exactly what he did.

In the mid-nineties, Steve returned to Wales and settled in Cardiff where he got involved, voluntarily, in two things at roughly the same time – the Riverside Festival and setting up the Riverside Market.  Both of these have now become a key part of the City’s cultural make-up.  “The market was originally just ten stores in the little park at the end of the road (Despenser Gardens), trading no more than once a month. It was one of those things that I thought I’d never make a living out of it but I was determined to make it work. I never expected it to become something that totally took over my life”. Cardiff’s Riverside Market is now the oldest and, arguably, the most successful farmers market in Wales.  It attracts hundreds of visitors each week, from all backgrounds and ages, and it has quite deservedly won numerous awards.

There are now five farmers markets operating across Cardiff, all run by the Riverside Community Market Association (RCMA), of which Steve is a Director.  The newest of these markets, which started in August, is perhaps the most exciting development yet.  It is situated right in the heart of the City, on High Street, opposite the Castle and is running for an initial 12-week trial period until mid November, every Thursday between 11am-3pm.  The initial signs are good.  “It really works. It’s a lovely social space there and the market is creating a kind of piazza. We’re hoping to work closely with Cardiff Market to create a proper market quarter in the center of town.  The potential is definitely there”.

On the back of his hard work and success with the RCMA and other projects, Steve is now an influential and respected voice on local food and sustainability issues in Wales.  He also uses his knowledge and experiences to help other groups start their own projects and is keen to see more encouragement and support for budding entrepreneurs.  “We should really be trying to encourage people to start things.   If you try to nail it all down and try to make it all safe you hinder creativity.  But I know that Cardiff is really promoting itself as a can-do City, it says it wants to be helpful to people with ideas”.

Further afield, Steve has recently become involved with a group of women, all HIV widows, in Western Zimbabwe, helping them set up a local food cooperative.  “The first time I spoke to them about my ideas I felt a bit embarrassed.  I didn’t think I’d have anything to teach people who invented the whole notion of markets. But the cooperative model seems to be something that could really take off and be quite a life changer for them”.  You can watch a video documenting Steve’s work in Zimbabwe here.

Steve clearly has a love of food, people and community but his other big passion is music.  “I have always been well into music.  My alter ego at the moment is Stainless Steve.  I sing and play guitar with a little band and write songs.  It’s just for fun but it’s a bit more than a hobby.  It’s always a lovely feeling when you perform something you’ve created from nothing and people like it, and they laugh, which I particularly like. I’m trying not to be taken too seriously”.  Through his company, Cultural Concerns, Steve also aims to “provide practical activities, advice and support to community artists, funders and policy-makers to support the development of better links between the arts, personal development and community regeneration”.

How does he find the time to do all this? “I do move a bit fast, but you’ve got to learn to manage it because there are endless things you could be doing every day.  I try and savour each day and spend it with people I like”.  But Steve is not one for too much reflection or self-congratulation.  “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking back about what I’ve done or achieved.  Pride doesn’t really come into it.  I spend more time thinking about where I want to go.  It’s good to know that I can put effort into things and it bears fruit. That’s a good feeling”.

Steve explained that when he moved to Canada it felt like he was breaking away from all the expectations in Britain that he had to have a certain type of job or a certain type of career.  Looking back, he now admits “I’ve completely failed to have any kind of career in the normal sense, but the consolation of that is that I’ve done a lot of interesting things”.  If Steve Garrett is an example of what you can achieve if you don’t conform to expectations, then it is a practice that should be heavily encouraged.  See you on Sunday!

Steve Garrett is Founding Director of the Riverside Community Market Association (RCMA) and a Director of RCMA Social Enterprise Ltd. He is also the founder of Cultural Concerns, a small company focusing on culture and the arts as a means of empowering individuals and communities.  Stainless Steve performs original and wryly observant songs about the ‘big issues’ of our times at venues across the country and can be booked via his agent.

Neil Cocker, the lucky man

June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

“At the age of fifteen I thought I was going to be a Marketing Manager for some big organisation, work my way up the ladder and by the time I was forty do some sort of senior management buy-out, have a top of the range Volvo and 2.4 children”.  Not what most teenagers dream about perhaps, but thankfully, things didn’t quite work out that way for Neil Cocker.

Neil’s first business was Plastic Raygun records, set up with friends soon after graduating. He spent the next few years travelling the world as one half of Phantom Beats. “I finished University and went and did what everyone else did and got a job in a call centre. But at the same time I was doing some DJing and making a few beats with friends and the next thing you know I’m waking up in a jacuzzi in Miami, playing gigs all over the World, and getting a phone call saying we’ve got a top ten hit”. Bonkers.

Neil never really earned any money from his time in the music industry but, more importantly perhaps, he realised what he wanted out of life. “That was my driver. To do more of that. To get that sense of achievement, do exciting stuff and meet interesting people. I also knew that I couldn’t go back to a desk job”.  And boy has he stuck true to that.

In 2007, after a rather depressing experience in a business network meeting, Neil founded NOCCI – a global network of creative, entrepreneurial people. “I was in this room with lots of white, middle aged men in suits thrusting business cards at each other and I thought there has got to be a better way to do this?  So, he set up a Facebook group and within two days had over 150 people queuing up to be involved. “Things like Facebook events make it easy to dip your toe in the water without making an arse of yourself”.

Alongside Claire Scantlebury, Neil also runs Ignite Cardiff, “a regular informal community event that encourages people to share their ideas, passions and thoughts in five minute rapid-fire talks”. They also jointly-run TEDxCardiff, an event that brings world-class speakers to Cardiff in order to “inspire, inform and entertain”. Both events are free and are organised voluntarily.  “I like bringing creative people together from lots of different disciplines. It’s a well-proven psychological phenomenon that the decision-making ability of a group is in direct relation to its diversity. So, give a bunch of 35-year old ad executives a problem and they’ll crack on and solve it. But put a truck driver, an old woman, my girlfriend and a school kid together and they’ll come up with better, quicker or more interesting solutions. It’s all about different perspectives”.

Neil is also a “creative industries consultant”, working with lots of organisations, including the Welsh Assembly Government, helping them engage with creative people, and he also sits on the board of directors for the Welsh Music Foundation, “helping it represent, support and develop the commercially viable music sector in Wales”.  But Neil’s big project is Dizzyjam. A brand new merchandising service for the independent music industry. It is essentially a t-shirt printing company that works with bands to create merchandise to sell to their fans. “It allows bands to have their own online merchandise store that doesn’t require any outlay. This makes it easy for them to sell their stuff without having to spend loads of cash up front”.

You could be tempted to describe Neil as a bit of an ideas man, but he doesn’t share that view. “The reason I’ve ended up having a reasonably creative, entrepreneurial career is by accident rather than design. I don’t believe in that strict sectioning off of people who are ideas people or doing people. I genuinely believe that everyone can do it. It’s just the way you’re bred to think. I wasn’t one of those people selling sweets in the schoolyard at the age of seven or earning £400 from my paper round. It has been a natural mix of luck and talent of the people involved”.

However he got to where he is, he is satisfied with how things are turning out. “I enjoy what I do to make money. For me, entrepreneurship has never been about great wealth. I’ve never really wanted the mansion, the yacht or the pool or whatever. I would quite like an Aston Martin but that would be the bonus. For me, it’s about waking up on Monday morning and going ‘yes, I love what I do’. I don’t want to die having not had an amazing time and having done interesting stuff”.

During our conversation, Neil kept using one word time and again – lucky.  I think Neil’s success is down to a lot more than luck though. He’s definitely earned his success. He is clearly very talented, very hard working and is interested in everything and everyone. He is easily one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He may not have been born here but Neil calls Cardiff home. I think we should count ourselves lucky to have him.

Neil is an entrepreneur, creative industries consultant, and music industry survivor.  After many successful years in the music industry, Neil founded the creative industries network NOCCI, set up Dizzyjam.com, and is the co-founder of TEDxCardiff and Ignite Cardiff. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Welsh Music Foundation and is currently training for his first triathlon.  You can contact him via neilcocker.com

Marc Thomas, Mr. Plastik fantastic

May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

Marc Thomas © gwionthorpe

Marc Thomas is working on a dream.  “When we’re young we dream of doing something great. Most people dream of being famous, but then they go to university, live off of mouldy pasta for 4 or 5 years and at the end decide they prefer the security of a full time job”.  But, unlike many of his peers, Marc has chosen a different path.  He’s going it alone.

Marc is editor and owner of Plastik Magazine (formerly Journal of Plastik), an “on-line magazine of culture and things relating to creative culture”.  The aim of the magazine is to “represent the creative atmosphere of one of the world’s most vibrant cities – Cardiff.  The city is up and coming and producing a vast amount of incredible creative talent.  Plastik Magazine exists to document the flux of the city”.

Marc acted on impulse when the idea for the magazine came up.  Instead of thinking through a web strategy or developing a business plan he decided to be reckless and just do it.  “Personally, I feel uneasy with the idea of just getting a job out of comfort.  If I were working for a magazine or newspaper I would seldom get the chance to work on a project like this. I’d be constrained to writing features that might not be all that interesting.  This might be the only opportunity I will ever have to be so free in journalism and business – If I don’t take it now, I’ll probably end up feeling bitter and ruing the day I took the easy way out”.  Wise words, but also quite brave for a 22 year old fresh out of journalism school.

Plastik Magazine has gained a loyal readership in a short space of time, but over the past few weeks, with the end of his University days fast approaching, Marc has been focused on turning Plastik Magazine from a journalism project into a fully-fledged business.  “I’ve been working hard on building revenue streams into the website and creating new ways to build community at the same time. There’s a big problem of how to make online journalism profitable and not sell out. Plastik Magazine wants to help local businesses, culture and customers connect and also continue to be able to afford to provide our readers with brilliant content”.

It is this dilemma that has led to Marc’s most recent venture – the Plastik Pass.  The pass is a discount card, which costs £5, lasts six months and gives lots of unique offers and discounts at local, independent businesses throughout the City.  “The Plastik Pass is my proudest achievement to date. It’s a cord of three strands: community, revenue and culture”. Marc’s hope is that by buying a Plastik Pass you’re doing two things. “Firstly, you’re saving a whole bunch of money, and secondly, you’re supporting loads of great local businesses and helping to promote our unique culture, which is something you can’t really put a price on”.

Marc’s creative juices are clearly is constant flow.  So much so he has developed a post-it system to capture and prioritise his ideas.  “If there’s something that needs doing I get very excited about the blank page in front of me”.  However, he stresses that one thing he’s learning is that it’s very difficult to come up with a brand new idea.  “Originality is hard to come by.  These days, to get to the front of a crowd, you just need to be better at walking through gaps”.  Similarly, Marc realises the importance of a good support network.  “There’s a lot you can do on your own, but you can’t do everything.  At some point you have to listen”.

Marc is not a native.  He moved here five years ago, like many others, to study at University. But his love for Cardiff is clear and there is no doubt that he has worked hard to become part of the community.  I wish I had contributed as much during my student days.

Marc didn’t quite fit the picture I had in my head of someone who is deep into the music scene, an entrepreneur, promoter, and journalist.  I’m not sure what I expected, but he wasn’t it.  Marc was so much nicer.  In fact, you’d have trouble meeting a nicer bloke.  They say nice people don’t get very far in business, but I have a funny feeling this one will.  Best of luck Marc.

Marc is an editor, journalist, writer and song-and-dance man.  He is currently the editor of culture e-zine Plastik Magazine, the brains behind Plastik Pass, a regular blogger and lover of sensual print layouts. He is tweetable on @iammarcthomas and would love to hear from you.

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