SOUTHEND life is on display as part of an outside exhibition to celebrate the renovation of Chalkwell Hall.

The Grade II listed house at the centre of Chalkwell Park is being renovated for the arts organisation Metal for art, events and community use. Work to bring it back into use began last week.

Metal was founded in 2002 by artist Jude Kelly, who identified the need for an organisation to champion continual investment in artistic investigation, innovation and creation.

The Grade II building in Westcliff is being transformed to create the first environmentally-friendly artists’ studio and exhibition space in the town, aiming to have no carbon footprint.

To celebrate the work starting, Metal commissioned photographer Benedict Johnson to work with 16 local people to create a series of portraits of Southend people, reflecting how they feel about the culture in their town.

Photographer and artist Benedict has worked in the industry for 20 years. He started out in the music scene taking pictures of indie bands Travis, Coldplay, Elbow and the Charlatans and going on tour with bands like the Kaiser Chiefs.

Benedict has also worked in the film industry shooting portraits of artists such as Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as well as photography for the new Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film.

Sean McLoughlin, programme development manager for Metal, explains: “Metal, in partnership with Benedict, located and invited 16 members of the community to participate in the project.

“Benedict met with each of them for an initial conversation to ask their thoughts, ideas, hopes and concerns around the future of their community.

“He then photographed each person with objects and in environments they believed expressed with their personality, concerns or hopes for the future.

“From this process we were able to capture a quote from each participant, which in turn is shown on each hoarding image.”

Benedict found the project a learning experience. He says: “I really enjoyed taking all the pictures and learning about all the places I would never have found, like under the pier and the stables.

“It was a really enjoyable way of seeing some of the excitement and energy you can find in this area.”

Southend Council’s executive councillor for culture, Derek Jarvis, says: “This is a very exciting way to mark the start of building work to transform Chalkwell Hall.

“This portrait project involves Southend people fully at each stage, and illustrates how much the arts organisation, Metal, is rooted in the community where it is based.

“We are sure the pictures will spark a great deal of interest and debate.”

The portraits have been re-produced on large format, 1m x 1.5m boards, and put up on the hall hoardings.

Among those whose images appear are performers, musicians, a doctor and youngsters from Chalkwell School, including nine-year-old Harry Raffen.

He says: “The reason I chose the picture of me on the horse is because I really like riding.

“The things I like most about Southend is that I love my home, my family, my friends and my town.”

For carnival performer Paul Kraffer, taking part in the project was an extension to the community art work he already does.

“I’m a founder member of Art of the Village,” he explains.

“We’re a local community arts group primarily involved in carnival arts. We’ve been going for about five or six years, and involve members of the local community who have a passion for art.

“It doesn’t matter how skilled or unskilled people are, we’re all part of a group, we’re a community who do very, very colourful costumes in carnival.”

Although not a native Southender, Czech artist Damien Robinson is proud to call it home and was delighted to be photographed by Benedict. “The reason I chose my picture is because Southend has the most amazing stories,” she says.

“If you live somewhere like London you can never see the horizon or the scenes you have looking at the sea. It’s just wonderful here.”

The hoarding exhibition run until June.

Sean says: “The house will be used for a wide range of creative activities.

“Metal will invite the best international artists and thinkers from all disciplines to come together at Chalkwell Hall.

“We believe a shared building like this, with a commitment to great art alongside a belief in its power to unite, provoke and inspire, in the heart of a vibrant community, can provide inspiration, promote understanding and make a contribution in all areas of civil life.”

The hall is being restored by Metal, in partnership with Southend Council, Arts Council England East and the East of England Development Agency.

Chalkwell Hall, which was built around 1830, was formerly used by Southend Council as a base for its park services Dawn Giles, visual arts officer for Arts Council England East says: “Metal has achieved considerable success since it began six years ago. In the past year alone it has reached a staggering 25,000 people through its work with local communities.

“The refurbished Chalkwell Hall will provide an even greater platform for Metal to continue its work at a local and global level, ensuring creativity and innovation are at the heart of communities undergoing major change.”

Colette Bailey, managing director at Metal, says: “It’s fantastic to see the building work begin.

“It marks a real milestone in our journey to bring the house back to life.

“We have had great support from the Southend creative community and we are really looking forward to sharing the house with them, and artists from around the world, when the work is completed in June.”