I’m standing on the chilly street listening to the sound of a piano waltz slightly muffled behind the closed door to a ceramic studio in the Northern Quarter. At opportune moments, when the waltz softens, I think about pressing the buzzer to announce my presence at the door but the music fires up again before I can get my hands out of my pockets. I listen and smile at the closed door as if, to the row of faces watching me from behind the cafe opposite, I find closed doors to be entertainment of the highest order. Eventually I announce my presence and I am taken upstairs to the studio by owner Liam Curtin. "That was the aurevoir waltz” Liam announced with a big smile on his face. Sometimes he carries his piano down the stairs onto the street and plays outside.
There’s something promising about a meeting where the only things on the table are whiskey, coffee, Oreos and Bourbons. The cups were made in the kiln in the corner of the room, and the biscuits remind Liam about the time he tried to have a biscuit commissioned as a piece of art. Both he and business partner Wendy Jones become animated pondering the possibilities of firing up some ceramic tiles inspired by the Bourbons surface patterns.
In 1992 Liam Curtin became Manchester City Council’s Artist in Residence, and his brief was to cover the ‘Stevenson Square/Oldham Street Area’. As part of this role Curtin founded a board of like-minded artists, businessmen, and community members who operated as The Eastside Association. Their collective mission was to draft a report of suitable locations for public art around the northeasterly part of the city in order to create a buzz about the creativity and DIY nature of the existing businesses such as the cultish Afflecks Palace. What had really given the Eastside Association legs was the audacious decision of Tony Wilson to open a bar on Oldham Street three years earlier. That move had given hope (to those who held the purse strings) that there was potential for real investment in this side of the city.
When Tony Wilson pointed out that the area in the brief wasn’t even in the east (to which Liam remarked “well everywhere is east of somewhere”) the Northern Quarter Association was born.
Curtin’s role was to tap into the potential creativity bubbling away in the area but he also saw his chance to address the depravity of a geographically-prime city-centre location in exchange for his artistic brush stroke. The poems in the pavement, the blue and white ceramic street signs, the giant glowing tower on top of the NCP car park, were all commissioned or made by Curtin.