Art lover Amanda Galbraith has made a big splash with Pebbles, as David Whetstone reports
FEW projects are born on such a wave of goodwill as the Pebbles Gallery & Art Café in Allendale. This becomes abundantly clear when you quiz the Pebbles founder – and self-styled project leader – Amanda Galbraith. She’s out the back serving cake when I arrive. At one of the tables in the front, there’s a contented customer with a plate of cake in front of her and a paperback in her hands. She looks as though she’s been there for hours, maybe days – for Pebbles is open seven days a week.
There is art everywhere – prints, jewellery, paintings, ceramic plates and vessels. And there are more café tables at the back.
In truth, it is a little hard at Pebbles to see where the boundary lies between café and gallery and also between private and public areas.
After handing me a coffee, Amanda smiles broadly and says this is just the way it was meant to be. Isn’t this the best job in the world?” she says brightly.
“I’m surrounded by all this art and all these artists and I get to eat cake and drink coffee when I come to work. It’s just fab.”
Amanda’s enthusiasm is infectious, which maybe explains why so many supported her plan to open an art centre in the Pennine village.
Canvassing local people, she was bowled over by their enthusiasm. Local businesses supported her to the hilt, offering free paint and turps to decorate the premises, hanging baskets to brighten the front and even to pay her phone bill.
Just before the grand opening last year, it suddenly struck her that something was missing. “I’d forgotten a till. One of the artists said I should use a wicker basket but the next day Chris from the tea rooms appeared with a till.”
Since the Allendale tea rooms were the local business most likely to feel threatened by the arrival of a café, this was altruism at its most potent. But Amanda says the services they offer are carefully delineated so neither steps on the other’s toes.
If Amanda is lucky, then she has made her own luck. Born in South Shields, she lived just over the border in Cumbria for 22 years, bringing up her three boys, before moving to nearby Catton eight years ago. Eighteen months ago she set up as Bewitching Jewellery, designing and making her own pieces for sale.
Then her eye fell on the stone building which had been a butcher’s shop and then a restaurant and was now locked up, cold and empty. She approached the owner who had plans to turn it into residential accommodation. “Once I explained what I wanted to do, he just said, ‘Please do that. But please could you have a café as part of the plan’?”
Enthused like all the rest, he offered a month’s free rent so Amanda could get the place up and running.
“I said I didn’t know anything about coffee shops, but it has worked well. People will come in and have a coffee, look at the art and spend hours reading,” says Amanda.
Having raised £10,000 in eight weeks, and enlisted the help of a small army (including her husband, an electrician), Pebbles threw open its doors for the first time last September.
In structure and ambition, it is rather more complex than a normal art gallery or café, as Amanda explains.
Firstly there is a core group of 15 artist members – all representing different disciplines – who pay £10 a week. For this, they can work in Pebbles for two days a month and display their work. “When they sell anything, there’s no commission and that supports their business.
“The advantage to Pebbles is that the customers meet the artists and the artists meet the customers. The artists get a key and come and go, and they can run workshops here.”
In addition to these are the independent artists who exhibit in the upstairs gallery or pay £40 a day to run a Pebbles workshop.
So who serves the coffee and cake? “I do,” says Amanda. “I’m in here every day. My husband has been very supportive. He said it would take a year to get it going.”
Artists and customers have beat a path to Pebbles’ door since the place opened, so clearly Amanda is satisfying a demand.
“It’s not just a demand for space,” she explains. “It’s people wanting to be part of something. We all help each other. There are so many artists and musicians in this area and this is a place where they can come.”
Among those who have supported the Pebbles project are Tynedale Council, Business Link in Hexham, the North Pennines Partnership and the Aurora Project, set up by Northumberland County Council to nurture creative businesses. It seems Amanda was pushing at an open door, but she has let none of these backers down.
“I’m supporting 15 businesses here and that’s not including the independent artists,” she says.
Also present while I’m drinking Amanda’s coffee and admiring the pictures are Pebbles members Jane Cowley, a Hexham-based ceramicist who is currently studying at Newcastle College, and Christine Kennedy Doxford. “She plays the harp and makes paper from plants, which she embeds seeds into,” says Amanda, adding with wonder: “You can plant Christine’s cards and they’ll grow.”
The year has seen Pebbles entered on a shortlist of 15 for a prestigious Social Enterprise Award, alongside businesses with a turnover of £50m. Amanda couldn’t get to the awards ceremony in London but says the judges asked her pointedly to come back to them next year.
This weekend, Pebbles celebrates its first birthday with an exhibition featuring all the artists who have exhibited there during the past year. Among the 36 exhibitors will be Maria Cooper, Rosie Villiers-Stuart, Joanne Wishart, David B. Robson, Iain Duncan and Mark Rowney.
It is to be such a big show that it has spilled over into the nearby St Cuthbert’s Church. The vicar, Rev John Russell, has been a big supporter, even securing a £100 grant from church funds when Amanda launched her highly-successful Pebbles youth project (artwork by pupils from Shaftoe Trust First School, Haydon Bridge, adorn one wall of the workshop area).
Like Christine’s seed cards, Pebbles seems set to grow. A loft space is to be done out to create a studio for Jane but you just wonder how long all this activity can be accommodated in such cosy premises. For the time being, it’s the church to the rescue.
All are welcome to the twin exhibitions tomorrow and on Saturday, from 10am to 5pm, and on Sunday from 12.30pm to 5pm. Folk duo Landermason will perform in Pebbles on Sunday and Christine Kennedy Doxford will play her harp in the church all weekend. Added attractions are “specialist coffee, tea, meals and dangerous cakes... all served by the artists themselves.”
For more details tel. (01434) 683975 or visit www.pebblesartcafe.com