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People power is shaping the story of the River Tees

“The river has so many stories. We want to tell them all – especially the new ones.”

For many people, the River Tees is everything.

It’s the lifeblood of Middlesbrough, the natural asset which supported the industrial ‘Infant Hercules’ as our town boomed in the 1800s.

It links the land to the sea and opens us up to the entire world, still responsible for livelihoods and thriving businesses.

It’s a vital link to nature, a hub for recreation and relaxation, and a source of myth and stories.

But for some in Middlesbrough, it’s hidden from view, only glimpsed from the car or the football stadium, something at the back of the mind.

Claire Pounder, Learning Curator at Mima, intends to change that.

As she shows Middlesbrough News round the ground floor gallery which is now home to People Powered: Stories from the River Tees, a brand new exhibition at Mima, storytelling is something she comes back to again and again.

“People have shared what the River Tees means to them,” continued Claire.

“All of the work is about the river, they’re all local commissions, which is what drives us.

“We’ve worked with local schools and had people from the community come in and contribute to the work on display.

“I’m from Middlesbrough, and people I love have used their skills to put this on. It’s the reason why I get up and come to work, I can’t wait to get in on a morning. I can’t wait for people to come and experience it.”

Among the most striking pieces in the exhibition – which is a partnership between Mima and the National Portrait Gallery – are 35 stunning portraits of people who have a connection to the Tees, created with photographer and story catcher Gilmar Ribeiro.

(Front) St Mary's pupils Gabriella, 9, Neve, 10, Nicole, 10 and Kasey, 9 (Back) St Mary's teacher Nina Rowling and executive headteacher Anna McClurey, with Claire Pounder, Learning Curator at Mima

(Front) St Mary’s pupils Gabriella, 9, Neve, 10, Nicole, 10 and Kasey, 9
(Back) St Mary’s teacher Nina Rowling and executive headteacher Anna McClurey, with Claire Pounder, Learning Curator at Mima

Children from St Mary’s Primary School, in Grangetown, also worked with artist Diane Watson to help produce work on display.

Some of the children attended the exhibition’s opening with teachers and parents and delivered a presentation to guests about what they had learned.

“I didn’t ever really think about the river or what was there, but I learned so much,” said nine-year-old pupil Gabriella.

Neve, 10, agreed: “I didn’t know whether I’d be good at art but it was so much fun.”

If young people engaging with art is a good thing, it’s also encouraging to meet 91-year-old Marion Crockley and Trish Irvine, 76.

Members of The Club, a group of elders who meet weekly to produce new artwork, they’ve contributed ideas and time to works being displayed – including some intricately embroidered chairs.

Marion, who lives in Linthorpe, said she was looking to join a group but only found out about The Club by chance, as a neighbour of hers is an artist.

Marion Crockley and Trish Irvine (R)

Marion Crockley and Trish Irvine (R)

“I think it’s marvellous, it’s a group that’s about friendship but I get a remarkable amount from it,” said Marion.

“We went on a boat trip on the Tees as part of this, and it’s been such a long time since I’d been anywhere near the river. I think that alone (reconnecting with the river) is a good reason for visitors to come along to see this exhibition.”

Trish, from Acklam, said: “It has been eye-opening, being part of this. A wonderful experience.

“There were things we learned about the river that I’d either forgotten about a long time ago, or didn’t know at all.”

Artist Bobby Benjamin, who runs and curates art space Pineapple Black in the Hillstreet Centre alongside fellow artist Stephen Irving, has a piece on display as part of the exhibition.

And through the National Saturday Club, an art group for teenagers ran from Mima, he has helped young people contribute ideas and work – remember, the exhibition is called ‘People Powered’.

“We focused a lot of things, especially the myths around the river including Peg Powler – a folklore figure who supposedly inhabits the Tees,” said Bobby.

Artist Bobby Benjamin with the new River Tees exhibition at Mima

Artist Bobby Benjamin with the new River Tees exhibition at Mima

“What we found is that a lot of the young people didn’t have any real links to the river, despite us all living so close to it we found that it was really closed off to a lot of us.

“So we tried to find ways to reconnect – whether that was through the myths, poetry or music.

“They created some really cool comic books which really displayed the mythology of the river.”

The exhibition, made possible with funding from The National Heritage Lottery Fund and Art Fund, is at Mima now until January 2024.