'What are we without our community?' | Celebrating Bristol artists with Co.LABPosted on: 03 Dec 2019
We sit down with Bristol Co.LAB General Manager Liz Crawte to talk Bristol art, its creative scene and the importance of keeping your money in your community.
Since relocating to its current setup from Broadmead three years ago, Co.LAB has become an essential part of the independent landscape on Gloucester Road. Sat a stone's throw from St Andrew's park, the store is full of art, clothes, jewellery, posters, homeware, music and more made by artists from across Bristol (and beyond). It's a firm favourite with the locals.
One of many independent art stores and galleries across Bristol, joining the likes of Blaze, The Little Shop and the Upfest Gallery, Co.LAB doubles up as an events space and is home to a co-working studio situated above the store itself. The stock on the shelves is almost entirely sourced from Bristol, with rare exceptions happily made by owner Andrea Mahoney and General Manager Liz Crawte when something catches their eye.
Liz, a former events manager who joined the Co.LAB team almost two years ago, says she feels totally at home in Bristol and is "in awe" of how creative the city is. "I've loved getting to know so many different Bristol artists through working at Co.LAB," she tells me. There's certainly a big pool of artists for Liz to familiarise herself with, too, in a city famed for its creative scene and enthusiasm for the arts.
Bristol's community ethic is at the heart of Co.LAB's operation, and it's no surprise that they've fit right into a proudly independent area on Gloucester Road. Liz and Andrea are constantly on the lookout for new things to stock and new artists to celebrate, scouring Etsy and similar sites for the latest additions to the store.
While there is careful consideration of whether or not the art or artist fits the Co.LAB ethos, Liz tells me that, ultimately, it's all about promoting and celebrating the wonderful range of work coming out of the city. "It’s so important for us to promote local artists," she says. "It’s really special when you see something genuinely unique that has been created with such love, and I think that feeling should be harnessed and shared as much as possible."
Liz goes on to explain that customers are often surprised that such a high volume of the stock in-store is made by local artists, and attributes it to the eclectic range of products you're met with when you come through the door. On my visit, it's a delight to see sections of unmistakably Bristol-made products - think 'Techno' and 'Junglist' necklaces and a print of that infamous Johnson/Trump Stokes Croft street art - sat next to clothing and jewellery that look as though they could have come from anywhere in the world.
Right now, you'll find prints by illustrator Sophie Bass, work from the ever-popular Dixon Doodles and a range of products from new stockists Chimps Tea Party, as well as incoming festive bits including Bemmie's Bristol Advent Calendars and a range of great stocking fillers. With a steady stream of artists getting in touch with Co.LAB throughout the year to see if they can stock some of their work, I ask Liz if she ever struggles to control stock in a store so dedicated to promoting local work.
"It's particularly difficult because there are so many artists creating such wonderful things. We get so much interest, but at the end of the day we only have a limited amount of space. We keep saying we need a bigger shop!" she says. As you'd expect from a dedicated independent, there's no sense of competition or rivalry between stores, so Liz is more than happy to recommend other places if shoppers can't find what they're after at Co.LAB. "It's so important to keep supporting those around you who are trying their best to succeed, particularly in such difficult times in retail," she explains.
Mutual support is, of course, a pillar of Bristol's independent scene. It's easy to forget when you're not an artist, or you don't own a store or a business, that your money is vital in maintaining people's livelihoods and allowing them to do what they love. Your decision to shop locally rather than on sites like Amazon or at big city centre chain stores means a whole lot to the people who make and sell products in their own community.
"Bristol's community ethic is a perfect fit for a store like Co.LAB," Liz says. "All the artists I meet through working here are so lovely and so keen to help us make this work. As for the customer, when you're buying from an independent shop, you're not just supporting the makers - you're supporting a whole family or an individual behind the work who will be forever grateful for the support.
"It can be difficult to remember when you're not seeing eye-to-eye, but if we can all make a conscious effort to keep the local independent community thriving, we can make it through and people can continue to produce great work. After all, what are we without our community?"
As for the immediate future, and going into 2020, Liz says she's keen to host a lot more in-store events, adding to Co.LAB's current programme of open mic nights, Christmas events, spoken word performances and more. Word is spreading, and after a recent Guardian Labs feature in partnership with Visa's Great British High Street campaign, Liz and Andrea are hoping for another busy Christmas period for a store that plays such a vital part in celebrating Bristol art.
You can find Co.LAB at 123 Gloucester Road, Bristol BS7 8AX. For more information or to find out what's in stock, head to their website or meet the team in-store as they host a special festive edition of their monthly Open Mic Night on Thursday 5 December.
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Having moved to Bristol from Cornwall in 2015, Matt graduated from UWE with a degree in Journalism in 2018. He's keen on a wide variety of musical genres, as well as taking an interest in art and illustration, producing his own work in his spare time. Matt makes the most of Bristol's diverse nightlife and attends gigs and club nights regularly. Get in touch via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.