“Its a chicken and egg situation”says Michael Mayhew of Furnace Performance Art Company. “Which comes first? The gallery where art is displayed or the space in which the art is made in the first place?”

Its an interesting question. There are hundreds of spaces where art can be seen, but there are very few which are dedicated to housing working artists. Mayhew’s solution was to establish as artistic colony in the idyllic setting of the buildings and grounds of a former mental hospital in the Ribble Valley in Lancashire.

The project, entitled My House and Your House, set -up shop in Brockhall Village on the outskirts of Blackburn in 1994. Originally built in 1902 to house ‘inebriated women’, Brockhall eventually closed in the 80’s, and now the administration block of the old hospital houses a thriving community of artists working in different disciplines. Since the days of the Dadaists and Futurists, artists have grouped together and such ‘colonies’ as Brockhall are commonplace in France and the USA, says Mayhew.

“If you put a group of artists together, something should happen” he argues. “Living and working in one place enables me to focus on my work with no distractions. I wake uo in the morning and get on with it. Its intense, but its productive. Promoters and gallery owners get together all the time to discuss the future of the arts in this country, but artists never seem ti talk to each other. Here, theres a cross-fertilisation of ideas. There are welders, painters, film-makers, sculptors, performance artists like myself, all working together.”

Mayhew points to his current collaborative project with Helen Sargeant (Scenes from the Asylum Wall, left) as an example of what is possible.

As time passes and Brockhall seems less and less like an old asylum, Mayhew is keen that the current residents remember their equally visionary forebears. A 35ft-long sculpture of a reclining figure made from the hospital’s olde floor tiles adorns one of the house’s lawns, in memory of the people who once walked the wards , and later in the year the community will present Touched , a performance based on the reactions of artists living in an old asylum building. Mayhew believes the best is yet to come.

“We’re at the threshold of something really exciting here Brockhall is unique. The work produced here is raw and unspoilt. We’re breaking the rules, and it feels great.” SS