Interview with Gayle Rogers, co-curator of The Workers’ Gallery

The All is not Well project has been very honoured to be able to exhibit a selection of stories from the first part of the project at The Workers’ Gallery, in Ynyshir.

Part of the second component of the project is about understanding the impact of Covid on local communities and in connection with the exhibition, we are including as a blog post this edited version of a longer interview with Gayle Rogers, the co-founder and co-curator of the gallery.

The interview touched on the innovative ways in which the gallery continued to create a space for creativity and imagination during Covid. It also gives a sense of how, often in unexpected ways, artistic spaces can play a role in supporting community cohesion. Against a backdrop of cuts and closures to social services, we look for friendly faces, and gestures of generosity, support and kindness, wherever we can find them.

The gallery, and the local community’s response to radical and ground-breaking exhibitions, also challenge preconceptions about where to find an openness to, and acceptance of, new ideas and representations of marginal identities.

Interview carried out by Dr Ryan Prout, Cardiff University, co-organiser of the All Is Not Well 2.0 project.
RP: To start off, I want to ask you about the history of the Workers Gallery…
GR: We go back to 2014, when the austerity-driven budget cuts came in that would eventually close fourteen libraries in the local authority [Rhondda Cynon Taf]. One of those libraries happened to be next door to my husband’s workshop – Ynyshir Library. We went on marches with local people to try and save it, but we weren’t successful. The library shut and a few weeks later we found that it was going to be sold off at auction.
We asked the Council if they would rent it to us as a gallery, but they said no. By this time, the auction was three weeks away, and the Council said: “Here’s all the things you’ve got to do in three weeks, get those done and we’ll take your proposal to cabinet and make a decision.” I had to sell my car to pay for a survey of the building. They wouldn’t let us take the building on as a charity or as a collective – it had to be a business. We would need a full-liability five-year lease and we’d have to pay for the survey, for the legal costs, for contracts, solicitors – it was a lot of expense.
Luckily, we got the business plan in! We got help from Business Wales and from our local MS [then Leighton Andrews AM], as well as letters of support from local people. The Council eventually said yes, though we had to wait another six months before we got the keys. By that time the building had started to deteriorate inside – we knew we had to work fast.
RP: And how did the local community play a role in getting the project off the ground?
GR: Well people just started turning up! On the first Sunday, the vicar knocked on the door with two plated-up Sunday roasts for us. I told him we didn’t have a microwave, so we’d have them when we got home. He just said “leave that with me” and a few minutes later somebody showed up with a microwave, followed by someone else with a fridge! They could see we were struggling to paint the ceiling too, so somebody arrived with a ladder on their mate’s van. We would get there some days and there’d be a big bucket of emulsion outside that someone had donated. People were coming in with painting rollers – a couple of Swansea artists and local people. Everything pulled together really quickly.
It was important then to start getting work up on the wall and to build trust with local people and artists. We made a conscious decision not to call it the ‘Rogers Gallery’ – we wanted to use it as an opportunity to show people that artists are workers, that it was a job like any other. That art was accessible and attainable. There are loads of people who make a living out of creativity, and that’s what I wanted the ethos of the Workers Gallery to be.
There are a lot of challenges when you just open the door and invite everybody in. But it really helped to be on a high street – the greengrocers had recently opened, a bakery had been established, we had little corner shops and back then a pub opposite us too. Visitors would come to us and then go and buy a custard slice, or go to the greengrocers and then come round to buy something for their wall!
RP: Could you tell me more about your own background as an artist and curator and how that informs the way the gallery has taken shape?
GR: I was lucky enough to do a fine art degree at Exeter College of Art and Design – I specialised in metalwork and became a blacksmith’s apprentice. I liked Devon and moved to Plymouth when I graduated. As I had an interest in furniture, I started volunteering with a furniture charity in Plymouth while also working part-time in a pharmacy. So, I guess I’ve always had this sort of eclectic mix – balancing what I need to do to survive while also trying to find the time to do the things that make life worth living.
The charity I worked with was set up in response to lots of medical institutions being closed during the shift towards care in the community. People were moving into their own flats but there was never any furniture in them. In 1996 the legislation for selling second-hand furniture changed to stop people selling anything foam-filled that predated that year – inhaling the fumes, if it caught fire, would probably kill you. So, the charity took this old furniture, stripped the combustible material off, re-upholstered it and then gave it to people who were moving back into the community. Furniture became this amazing skill to have because you were creating things that people were going to use in their house: you were making stuff that made a difference to people’s lives.
It didn’t matter that it wasn’t fine art. I picked up some fantastic skills. I had a lot of support from Prince’s Trust, where I met people who worked in business and accountancy, and I eventually set up my own business within the charity. The charity ran a ‘rent a bench’ scheme, where they would let me rent a workbench and all the tools, but if a new volunteer came in then I would help them. I liked that reciprocal arrangement – it wasn’t formalised, but it helped me understand that I had skills I could give to other people and that they had different skills they could give to me.
I also did chairs in people’s houses. People who didn’t have much money would come to me with a lovely armchair where the arms had worn away. I figured out that you could take the back of a settee off and use the fabric on the arms. It was a bit make do and mend and I really liked that. Bizarrely, that led me into theatre design and making props for a small local theatre, and then I moved straight over into community art. It was a very stop-start journey – you wouldn’t expect somebody with a fine art degree to end up reupholstering furniture!
RP: Could you tell me more about how you’re preserving the legacy of the original Ynyshir Library?
GR: I guess photocopying has been the big thing. When we initially opened, people started coming in thinking we were still a library – some still do. Back then, we had this clunky A4 printer that had a scanner on the top, so we could copy documents even though it wasn’t a photocopier. At the beginning there were a lot of death certificates, but we’ve done all sorts. I came in one day and found Chris, my husband, and one of the volunteers standing round a guy who was stripped down to his waist. He had photocopied a tattoo design and they’d been working out how to invert it, cut it out and try it on him!
I’ve done people’s kitchen plans, benefit claims, insurance claims. You soon start getting asked to help people read these things and understand them, and you realise that some people can’t read and write as well as you. One woman couldn’t even write her husband’s name. It shocked me as I hadn’t really understood that you could go through life without learning to read and write. I was shocked at the number of people who hated school, stopped going after twelve or thirteen but then managed to carry on and have a good life. I guess I feel like they’re missing out on all these wonderful things that people have written and all the knowledge that’s been shared. I’ve recently become a governor at a local school, so I’m hoping I can actually do some tangible good at that level.
RP: During lockdown the gallery carried on drawing people’s interest by displaying work in the window – could you tell us more about this and how the gallery has continued to operate over the pandemic?
GR: 1 April 2020 was the launch of our Cold War Steve show. Despite lockdown we still wanted to go ahead, so we decided to exhibit it in the window. Then Cold War Steve himself made his images free to access on his website, so you could download them and print them off. It was his way of giving his artwork out to people and making it possible to hold exhibitions anywhere. After the success of putting work in the window we ran a Cold War Steve exhibition the following year, by which point we were able to hold it indoors. We were the only gallery in Wales showing his work at the time.
While you could download Steve’s art yourself, everybody was telling us that going with others to see it displayed on the wall was part of enjoying it. We’d have groups of primary school children coming in – one of them would see these funny pictures and then he’d go to the park and get his mates. One morning they were all queued up outside the gallery with their little scooters and bikes. They just thought it was hysterical – pictures of Boris Johnson with his trousers round his ankles, politicians doing things that they shouldn’t. They would roar with laughter and then would hang around the gallery afterwards, reading the graphic novels in our little library.
But it wasn’t just the public who were in lockdown – it was the artists too. Siôn Llewellyn, the love spoon maker, had had very serious Swine Flu a few years ago and nearly died. He had to self-isolate in a flat above his workshop here in the Valleys. We could see that the window exhibition was working well over lockdown so, while he was isolating, we ran an online ‘Design a Love Spoon’ competition. About twelve people took part, then Siôn looked at the designs and actually made three or four of them. We displayed those in the window, with the designs.
We also had these two big windows at the far end of the gallery that were badly blown when we arrived. We used the Covid grant to replace them with new glass and turned them into picture windows. We called them the ‘Art Pane Relief’ windows, because we love our puns. The windows are now a bookable space that artists can hire for two to four weeks. They bring lots of people in, including those who wouldn’t normally visit the Workers Gallery. We had a football feature – the Bluebirds exhibition by Bartosz Nowicki – which gathered a lot of interest from football fans who wouldn’t normally dream of visiting the gallery. That’s a legacy from lockdown that I think we’ll carry on, because there will always be people who don’t feel that a gallery is a space for them.
RP: Are there any limits to what you’ll display?
We have a moratorium on pitheads. No happy miners. It’s probably not very popular, but it became apparent at the beginning when someone might say ‘I’d love to have a solo show’ and we’d take them on because they’d usually paint beautiful landscapes. Then they’d turn up with paintings that were all pitheads and miners.
This happened about five or six times. In the end we just started asking people: ‘Instead of pitheads, have you thought about a wind farm?’ This valley has one of the largest inshore windfarms in Europe – I was up there one day when they were building it and ended up working for four years as a sort of artist-in-residence in their old education hut. I guess it’s all about changing people’s mind set. Yes, there is a legacy left over from the coal industry, which we’re suffering now with the landslips. But there’s also beautiful landscapes. There are windfarms. There are places where you can walk and cycle. We’re right on the edge of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains aren’t far away. When I moved here my impetus was to show what the Valleys really look like, not what people think they look like.
I feel like we’re turning a corner now. I think people are less tolerant of that kind of nostalgic view of the Valleys. Whether that’s out of necessity or whether it’s a generational change, I’m not sure. But we want to be at the front of it. We could very easily be selling Valleys landscapes. I know, because we’ve done that. We could have the miners and the mineshaft pictures. But it feels like a missed opportunity.
RP: That leads nicely onto the matter of a clash you had on social media with a local – well, national – politician. Can you tell me what happened, and how it has influenced your activity as an artist and curator?
GR: I didn’t realise that opening a gallery in the Valleys would be such a political act! One day I was taking some tea to the guys working next door when I saw that this car had pulled up and was dealing drugs. When we first started out, I remember picking up needles most mornings in the back lane. And here I was now just standing there with cups of tea on a tray staring at this guy and he’s looking at me and there’s a queue of people all up the lane waiting. I just thought this was awful. It made me think about why people end up in that situation, how they get exploited and the knock-on effects it has on the community.
When I got back, I saw that my local MP was tweeting something about going to the theatre and seeing Nicole Kidman. I was enraged. I looked back at his tweets and I couldn’t see anything about the Rhondda. It was all about London. So, I dropped him a message to say that I was disappointed that I’d seen this happen in my community while he was going on about having a lovely time at the theatre. Well, he wasn’t very happy with me. He took it to mean that I was being parochial and that I expected him to be too. His quote was: ‘Parochialism is the death of humanity’. I felt I needed to do something.
At that time I’d got an exhibition of my plein air drawings coming up at Cynon Valley Museum, so I changed the title to ‘The Parochial Artist’. I put some cartoons up about him alongside my landscapes. And I told him. I also did some cartoons about how women were represented in politics and about the Labour Party at the time. I guess he did me a favour really because he made me realise that I could use my art to give myself a voice.
I’m sure it didn’t make any difference to him, but it did to me. That was the start of me doing political cartoons and I did a lot through lockdown. Later on, a group of us from Laydeez do Comics got together around the case of Wenjing Lin, a girl from Treherbert who was killed in March 2021 by a family friend, around the same time as the murder of Sarah Everard. In connection with Violence Against Women, I suggested the group do a fundraiser, making cartoons about violence suffered by women. We produced an e-comic called Listen to Your Daughters, Educate Your Sons, which came from a slogan that someone had painted on a t shirt. We raised funds for women’s organisations, which was quite empowering. I had never intended to do that when I started drawing comics.
RP: The Workers Gallery itself is also no stranger to controversy. Could you tell me about some of the more provocative artwork exhibited here?
GR: Our more provocative art often gets a different reaction to what we expect. For example, we did an exhibition that looked at fetish. It was called Taboo, and it looked at things like women having periods, female genital mutilation, human puppy fetish masks… At one point we had the knitting group come in and I wondered what they would say when they saw these masks that made the wearer look like a puppy – one photograph is of a man naked to the waist with leather trousers and a big leather schnauzer mask! But these women were just saying ‘Oh! Look at that – the stitching on that is beautiful!’ You realise that Rhondda women have seen it all. There’s nothing you can show them that they haven’t already seen.
We also did an LGBTQ+ themed exhibition, called ‘Terrified and Curious’, which received a lot of fallout from the church community. The photographer Dale Evans had made a lovely set up called where we had light boxes to show his photographs taken in ‘dark rooms’ in gay bars. You came into the room, shut the door, it was pitch black and you had these light boxes and the sounds of material rubbing. It was meant to give you an understanding of why someone would want to go into that place and what it would feel like. Some were of men having sex, though you couldn’t see anything. It was more like a portrait or headshot. It was a safe space – not a threatening space. Dozens of people came in to have a look. But there were also some who said it was pornographic. My response was that we’re lucky to have such diversity in our community and we should celebrate every part of that.
In the window we had pictures of the Cardiff Cabaret by Lorna Cabble. Initially we were stressing over which pictures were acceptable to put in the window. I remember having a long discussion about one of a man in full make-up with two big gold nipple tassels. I was so enraged that people had been saying that we were showing pornography in the gallery that I said ‘sod it’ and put the picture—against everyone’s advice – in the window. I guess I wanted them to come, to show them that it wasn’t pornography.
We’ve had protestors. I’ve been punched. I’ve been held by the throat at the door by an artist because I said their artwork wasn’t what we were looking for at the time and they took it badly. I’ve had lots of abuse online. Every two or three months there’s something. Recently, we had Daryl Cunningham’s graphic novel Putin’s Russia: The Rise of a Dictator in the window. Someone came in screaming at me, telling me to take it out of the window because Putin’s a horrible man. I tried explaining to them that I knew he was, but then they sent their friends in to scream at me as well. Someone came in just yesterday and said they were going to put it in the bin.
I put it on Twitter and Daryl thanked me for supporting his book. People suggested I put a sticker on it to explain that the book is about Putin being bad. I wondered whether to do that – all the time you’re thinking ‘Have I gone too far this time? Have I overstepped the mark?’ If you’re trying to push for change, you will meet a certain amount of resistance. I’ve always got some self-doubt at the back of my mind, but when I am pulled up on something – whereas once I might have retreated – I now push back.
RP: Lastly, how are things looking for the future of the Workers Gallery?
GR: In five years’ time me and Chris want someone else to be running it. It’s a legacy to pass on. The building has a covenant on it so it can only ever be sold or run as a gallery now – it can’t just be turned into a tanning salon. That’s the idea: we find people who’ve got the same sense of belief that you can make a change. They can take it on and we can go and do something else. We’ll see. We’ve got some big ideas. We’re talking to some big people right now and if that comes off then the future of the gallery will be secured. Fingers crossed.

Edited, by Sam Young, from a recording of a longer interview, transcribed by Sam Young and Ryan Prout.

July 4, 2022