'Our Story'

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History  of Dowlais Visual Art Group

Dowlais Visual Arts Group follows in the footsteps of a long and varied history of creative groups, art societies and educational organisations that have been present in the South Wales Valleys for many years.

From the beginning of time Wales was a mainly rural country comprising of small pockets of village communities renowned for their sense of support for each other;  tight-knit living, with strong close bonds.  People have an ability to come together through local churches, chapels, libraries, museums, schools, colleges, village halls, workingman/social clubs, etc.

In the height of the Industrial Revolution, in the early 1800's, tens of thousands of people came to the area seeking the work opportunities that came along with the iron works, coal industries, etc. 

Following WW1 and the Great Depression a change in prosperity and the resulting social decline meant that by 1920's the good times had come to an end; charities, funders and organisations such as; The Quakers, Coal Mining Institute, Workers Education Association, Rowntree Charitable Trust, amongst others, felt the need to re-dress the balance of social injustice, by setting up Educational Settlements in the South Wales Valleys amongst other similar locations within Britain.

Educational Settlements were started up in Rhondda, Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil, Bargoed and elsewhere.  Members of The Quakers (Friends) were encouraged to set up centres to provide opportunities for adults to learn new skills, develop self esteem, make new friends and provide support for the unemployed.

London sculptor - John Dennithorne - being a Quaker, ended up being instrumental in the setting up of the Dowlais Settlement in the late 1920's, which went from strength to strength.

Throughout the decades, classes, clubs and societies have all grown in numbers and with the Welsh Development Agency in the 1970's and the European Social Fund in the 2000's, assisting by playing a major role in the regeneration and training opportunities with in the local areas, the economy and standards of living have improved.

In the early 2000's, with major changes in the support network, the focus of Community Education Classes and Welsh Education Association Classes were cut back to provide just the basic skills; Reading, Writing, Numeracy and I.T.  This meant that so called 'soft' skills such as: painting, flower arranging, ceramics, etc., were no longer provided.  This was as a direct result of changes to the political governance of Britain & Wales in particular, funding again plays a part in shaping the future of creative learning; this is the point where The Dowlais Visual Art Group comes into the picture.

In 2014 following changes to Adult Education provision in Merthyr Tydfil, Dowlais Library was approached by a group of friends - Christine, Liz and Alan who had met during various art courses in Merthyr Tydfil. The art courses were no longer running, and the group had decided to find a meeting place and arrange tuition for themselves and have a regular place to get together and chat. The Dowlais Librarian - Sian helped the group to apply for a funding grant from the Trecatti Trust to buy art materials, and the group held its’ first session on the 24th September 2014.

The group decided on 'The Dowlais Visual Art Group' as their name, as the group members expressed their interest and creativity in all forms of visual art. During this period creativity flowed and friendships blossomed.

Following their formation the group have taken part in many community Arts Projects, developed strong links with Chris Parry at Cyfarthfa Castle, Museum & Gallery and have exhibited artworks at a variety of venues;  Alan & Joe played a major role in creating a permanent display of artworks that can still be viewed today at the Orbit Business Centre Merthyr Tydfil.            

In the early 2020’s Klara and Nick from Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales), wanted to hear our story through, ‘The Valley’s Re-told Project’.  The group were introduced to the Collection held at the museum and given the opportunity to see many of the artworks that had been created in the South Wales Valleys in the past. The group set about interpreting paintings and sharing their stories.  In particular, Artist Heinz Koppel created a painting, ‘Merthyr Blues’, whilst he was teaching in Dowlais in 1950’s.  This artwork provided the inspiration for the group to create a collection of works of their own.  The group worked with collage, lino-cut, oils, watercolours, acrylics, photography, screen printing, textiles and poetry.  This collection was put together to the very highest of standards, with works that the group had created being exhibited in the Dowlais Library & The Engine House, Dowlais, along with a fantastic 'Talk and Walk' session led by local Historian - Huw Williams. Huw brought the information and facts about the Arts in the Valleys to life and provided a fantastic insight into the history of Dowlais, the Development of the Art Scene and the local places where it all continues to take place.

The museum and the group worked in partnership during the project with the culmination of the exhibitions resulting in a rare event, whereby original artworks that are held within the collection of Amgueddfa Cymru were brought up to Dowlais to be exhibited along with the groups work:  'Merthyr Blues' by Heinz Koppel (1956); was the star of the show with Heinz Koppel's daughter Wendy attending the event and sharing memories with the artists in the group.  The events were a huge success with further artworks being interpreted the artists linked their knowledge and experiences resulting in a deeper understanding of art in the Valleys of the past and the present.  The photographs in the collection give a snap-shot into the activities and events that took place along with some examples of artworks being created.