At Home in the Community: The North West photographer taking portraits and giving back

Words: Hannah Molyneux

As the country begins to close its doors once more, it seems strange to think that, for so many weeks, our worlds have ended on our doorsteps. This year so far has been fraught with unease and uncertainty for many of us, with the ‘stay at home’ message changing our lives overnight. But that’s not to say that 2020 hasn’t also had its moments of joy, a realisation that Warrington-based photographer Kate Hennessey came to when she began her doorstep portraits back in May.

With lockdown and days spent at home becoming a reality for both of us, Kate spent time in her local community, documenting daily life in a pandemic. “It began with requests from local friends and clients,” she tells me, “marking and celebrating occasions like weddings that had been postponed.” Over the course of the month, Kate would go on to visit and photograph over 200 families on their doorsteps. “Overwhelmed doesn’t come close, and I have never been prouder to call myself Warringtonian,” says Kate. It was a real labour of love, with hours spent not only photographing and editing but also travelling around the area. “It was inclusive across the whole of Warrington. I visited so many streets that I’ve never been to before and planned so many routes – I could be a taxi driver now!” Kate laughs.

The subjects are all different, but the warmth that shines out of each photograph is just the same. Candid, unposed – each photo captures the real emotion in the lives of ordinary families finding reasons to smile through uncertain times. Kate reflects how, for lots of the people she photographed as part of this campaign, their doorstep portrait shoot was a welcome opportunity to shake off their pyjamas and sweatpants and embrace the idea of hair and makeup for the first time in weeks.

“It felt like quite a traditional thing to do, something that previous generations might have done,” says Kate. “Especially the newborn pictures – introducing them to the world on the doorstep of their home.” Kate’s doorstep portraits offer a glimpse into daily life during a global pandemic – the smiling faces of children missing their school friends but staying cheerful; the flags and bunting of VE Day celebrations. Some reflect the reality of the time: “I’ve had a lot of requests from doctors and nurses, and you could tell they were physically shattered.”

With requests for portraits flooding in, Kate realised that, by photographing the community, she could give something back to that same community. Each shoot took place in exchange for a donation to Warrington Foodbank, totalling an amazing £4000 from an original target of £250. “What is usually a space for community members to come and receive advice” – the foodbank runs a full range of services including facilities like debt counselling – “is now a sea of welfare packages. They have had to scale back volunteer support due to COVID guidelines, yet they are far more inundated than they have ever been before. The funds we have collectively raised will go a long way and are hugely appreciated. They are raring to get back to some sort of normality and support those who need it most, not just with food parcels but with a safe place to go to chat to a friendly face.”

I ask Kate what it is that she will take away from the doorstep portraits she has taken and the families she has met. “Solidarity and community. I’ve never felt so much of it.”

Find more of Kate’s work on Instagram @clickedbykate and clickedbykate.com.

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“Nice girls can make it” – filling the North with colour with Myro Doodles

Words: Hannah Molyneux

If you’ve spent any time in Manchester or the surrounding towns, then you’ve probably seen some Myro Doodles artwork. In fact, it seems that there are few pockets of the North West that haven’t had the Myro Doodles touch. Myro Coates is the illustrator and window artist whose doodles have graced the windows of Paperchase, John Lewis, and M&S, the wards of North Manchester General Hospital, and the boardrooms of Bruntwood. Her art radiates joy and positivity in a myriad of colours that shine out of the grey Mancunian landscape. 

The same joy and positivity beams from Myro herself when we meet at one of her favourite Prestwich spots. She speaks with a real love for her craft that goes back to her childhood. “I was the kid that always had to make the poster; I was the kid that drew on the paper tablecloth at the restaurant. I’ve got no background in art really, but on the other hand it’s something I’ve been doing almost every day for my whole life.” Perhaps this is why Myro is still so humble about her work and its place in the world. “It’s mind-blowing that people want my work for their weddings, for their kids’ bedrooms, as a gift… That’s real trust. I’ve seen some customers through lots of milestones in their lives: I meet them as boyfriend and girlfriend when they ask for a Valentine’s card, then they’re getting married and they ask me to do their stationery. Next they’re pregnant and they come back to me again… I’ve seen some couples all the way through and become part of their lives.”

“Whatever I’m doing, a bit of me gets left behind in it.”

There is a little bit of Myro all over Prestwich. She laughs, “My husband calls me the mayor of Prestwich because we can’t go anywhere without someone stopping me to ask if I’m the lady that does the drawing!” Myro’s art is ubiquitous in this north Manchester town, bringing a pop of colour to shop windows up and down the high street. It’s fitting that she should be so well represented here, as the town holds a special place in her heart. “Prestwich will always be home; it’s where the more public part of my work started.”

“While I was working at a local community shop, they found out I could draw and soon I was doing all of the labels and signage – I think there’s still some doodles of mine on their A-board! The windows were always empty, and one day someone handed me a pack of chalk pens and asked me to draw on the window. And I remember being horrified – ‘you want me to draw on the glass?!’ I was gobsmacked that you could even do it. My first design left a lot to be desired but it wasn’t awful – and people loved it. I didn’t invent window art, but there wasn’t really anything like that around here before. People started to look forward to the next designs – it was a labour of love, but it became a real feature.”

And what began as doodling on the job quickly became a job in itself. “Over time, other local businesses started to come in and offer to pay me to do theirs. And it grew and grew. I did more in Manchester and Altrincham, and then in Cheshire and the Midlands. Suddenly, I found myself with a job live drawing for Chambord at an event at Kensington Olympia in London, and that came about because someone had been out for a drink in Prestwich, seen my artwork, and looked me up on Instagram. It was a real wow moment.”

One of Myro’s most special projects, however, came about in 2018, in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing. Wanting to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy while raising money for the charity set up to help those affected, Myro launched the 22 Bees Project, which aimed to see 22 bees – one for each of the victims of the bombing – doodled in the windows of local businesses. The urge to do something to commemorate the anniversary came from Myro’s great love of the city itself, and its people. “I think, in some other places, belonging is to do with being born there or living on the right postcode – but in Manchester, whether you were born here or you arrived six months ago, you’re in. You don’t have to have the accent, wear a parka, or eat gravy, but you’re part of the community. I think it’s very rare to find an identity like that, that’s so precious but also so welcoming and inclusive.”

It’s a Mancunian identity and community that has strengthened the wake of the attack. “I didn’t know anyone directly affected by the bombing,” she tells me. “But at the same time, I felt like I knew everyone. So often, in big cities where these things have happened before, there’s a massive focus on keeping calm and carrying on – I’m thinking of images like the man walking down Tower Bridge with a pint in his hand. And I understand the need to do that. But here, it seemed to hit everyone. The next day, it felt like everyone was in mourning – it was the saddest day.”

It wasn’t long before the bee – the long-time emblem of Manchester inspired by its industrial past – became a symbol of hope and togetherness. Completing the 22 Bees Project, with help from two other local illustrators, Myro tells me how real that hope felt. “On the day we did the 22 Bees Project – the first anniversary of the bombing – I had the privilege of being in Manchester all day. I was expecting it to be sad and horrible, but it was one of the most uplifting experiences of my life. In a city of millions of people, it felt like everyone was a friend.” The 22 Bees Project ultimately included over 200 bees around Manchester and the surrounding towns, raising almost £10,000 for the charity Forever Manchester

From charity work, to local businesses, to big brands, Myro’s distinctive style shines through in all of her work. It’s bold and colourful, with swirling text and floral nods to her Ukrainian heritage. This style is what gives every Myro Doodles piece – be it a shop window or a wedding invitation – a truly personal feel, one that Myro is rightly proud and protective of.

“Sometimes I get a commission and it’s not really my style, but I know that it would be a great fit for someone else. So I put them in touch – or it works the other way round, and someone will put a client in touch with me. I’m part of a collective with two other local illustrators and this works really well for us.” It’s refreshing to hear about small business owners that are collaborative rather than competitive, bettering themselves while building up others. Myro is a vocal advocate for creative women, and often uses her social media space to champion other female business owners. “The world is competitive enough without us adding to that!” she says. “Bitchiness is almost expected when women work together, there’s a definite stereotype there. And that’s a problem.” It’s a stereotype that Myro is keen to overcome. “There used to be a business narrative of the ‘boss bitch’ but I think that’s over now. I’d like to be able to prove that you don’t have to be like that, that nice girls can make it.”

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