A women speaking to pupils

Art, a journey around the world, a kitchen, a non-profit organisation, and a construction company. Julie and Gemma’s story: A lifetime in the making. 

Julie and Gemma, Art4Space, London, UK 
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“Art saved me,” Julie remarks.

Julie grew up in a challenging and unsettling environment. Aged 13, she discovered art. A calming presence, it became a tool for her to deal with difficult home life. Looking back, it’s this love for art and a passion for helping others – rooted in her hardships – that led Julie to co-found non-profit Art4Space in 1999.

Establishing the non-profit wasn’t easy. There was a noticeable lack of money, but Julie persisted, bringing two friends on board as co-founders. Early days saw Art4Space running out of a Hackney flat.

Twenty-five years later and with premises in Lambeth, the non-profit continues to hit new heights. Team member Gemma is “thankful to be working for such a fantastic organisation”. Her story rooted in teenage years caring for a sick mother – using art as a means of expressionism and escape.

But there was a problem. Lambeth Council wanted local non-profits to extend their services, with provision rules set to change. Art4Space would lose essential funding unless it found a way to provide hot food alongside art and exercise for children. Fortunately, Julie had connections with Richy Walker, senior technical services manager at ISG at the time.

Julie needed a kitchen, and ISG knew a thing or two about fit out.

A journey around the world and a non-profit in Lambeth

When Julie left her Yorkshire home, aged 17, she headed south to the Big Smoke. Alone in London, she wasn’t sure what to do next. College and university were off the cards, not from a lack of education, but from a lack of guidance. Fortunately, Julie wasn’t one for giving up.

Determined to make the most out of a bad situation, she decided to see the world. With only a tote bag and a few belongings to her name, she travelled to South America, India, Africa and Asia for almost 10 years – working where she could to make ends meet. Her experiences were wholly unique, but one common aspect began to emerge. In each community, she was drawn to local folk art, rekindling that passion from her childhood. Julie explains: “These communities put a huge importance on folk art. It was a way to celebrate their culture and religion. A way to express themselves.”

During these years, Julie also became increasingly interested in giving back to local communities. Julie comments: “I wasn’t happy sitting on a beach and sunbathing in my own time. I wanted to be doing something, rather than travelling for travel’s sake. I got really involved. In Nepal, I set up a school. In India, I set up an arts club. In Mexico, I ran a programme with children.”

A teacher speaking to pupils
Julie engages with her team during a workshop.

After 10 years, she returned to London, where she completed a degree and PGCE in community arts and education. Subsequent years saw Julie work with a global clientele of arts organisations, demonstrating her wealth of knowledge and experience. Julie was ready for a job where she could help people through art, and so that’s what she did. Julie identified a need for support alongside co-founders Elinor Seath and Danielle-Lees Smith. Together, they created charity Art4Space. The idea to deliver art and creativity as a therapeutic tool harks back to Julie’s childhood and her experiences with indigenous tribes.

Without government funding, setting up a charity wasn’t easy. Julie’s experience in running charitable schemes was pivotal in the early days – a time when Art4Space HQ was a Hackney flat. Then, after running a standout mosaic workshop in Kingston, Art4Space received its first funding: A small grant of £500. The rest is history. 

Fixing a problem by fitting a kitchen

Twenty-three years on, it’s 2021, and Art4Space’s impact has reached far and wide, with over 40,000+ direct beneficiaries since opening. But there was a problem. Lambeth Council asked Art4Space to expand its services as part of a wider change in the area. The council wanted the non-profit to provide more for children and young people, including nutrition and cooking classes, and the provision of a hot meal.

Richy Walker, now a non-executive director at Art4Space and ISG senior technical services manager at the time, encountered Julie through several community partnerships. A Lambeth resident himself, Richy was always impressed by Art4Space’s work, leading him to put the non-profit in touch with ISG. ISG’s first collaboration with Art4Space saw them run two workshops for Ukrainian refugees. It was during these workshops that Richy and Jason Lashley, social value advisor at ISG, learned about Art4Space’s problem: It needed a kitchen.

Eager to help, Richy and Jason sourced sponsors and donations, gathering support from 8Build, Gloster and MSK. Everyone chipped in – and not just with money. Manpower from each organisation joined ISG’s team in fitting out a brand-new kitchen for Art4Space. The best bit? It came at zero cost to Art4Space.

“I’m thankful to be working for such a fantastic organisation. We truly are a team. Julie has provided all staff with fantastic opportunities. She trusts us with responsibility, enabling us to run with autonomy, trust and flair.”

Gemma, Peer Support Manager, Art4Space

Thanks to the new kitchen, Art4Space met the council’s requests, but that’s not all. It enabled the non-profit to receive more funding than ever before, which meant they could support more people . Before the refit, Art4Space was caring for 350 kids / people a week. Now, they’re caring for over 600.

The kitchen also allows Julie and the team to open doors after dark. This means they can run evening and weekend workshops, as well as popular events for the community . In addition to the new cooking facilities, Art4Space recently opened a pocket garden for food growth. This was the result of new seed funding, which helps the non-profit offer even more to Lambeth locals. For example, young people under the creative pathways training scheme can not only express themselves through art, but learn to cook, grow food, and more.

Talking in a classroom
Gemma speaks with a member of her peer group.

As the week of the kitchen fit out came to a close, Richy, relaxing at home, received a call from Julie out of the blue. Answering the phone, she tearfully remarked: “I’m looking at the kitchen for the first time and I’m overwhelmed because it’s so beautiful.” Looking back, Richy comments: “It’s one of the best social value exercises we’ve ever done.”

Art4Space today – the creative heart of Lambeth

Gemma, a member of the Art4Space team, has lived in Lambeth all her life. With a background in teaching, specifically education for individuals with special needs, she’s always wanted to help nurture and educate people. When she first encountered Art4Space, Gemma knew it was the place for her. A perfect blend of education and arts, something she’s loved since a young age. When Gemma was a teenager, her mum became unwell. Gemma took a central caring role and turned to art as a creative home outlet. It was a way for her to be expressive and care for her mum simultaneously.

Keen to use art to help others, Gemma created a peer support service with the help of Julie. Together, they submitted a bid to the Lambeth Wellbeing Fund, with Art4Space being the host organisation for Gemma. One of many services on offer at the charity, the peer support service runs across five local GPs to offer 10 weeks of art therapeutic connection – a form of social prescribing. Gemma describes: “It’s an alternative to modern medicine. You might bring it in before a prescription if someone’s struggling. Perhaps they need someone to talk to; an outlet.” Like many of Art4Space’s services, there’s no care funding . It’s only through Gemma and Julie’s sheer graft that the peer support exists.  

People working on an art project
Gemma supports a member of her peer group. 

Other thriving schemes include a children’s programme in the holidays, which was made possible by the new hot food provision, commission projects around the world, and their ever-successful outreach activities, including workshops. Their work doesn’t only help younger generations. Schemes for every age group are an offer. Gemma’s oldest participant? An 84-year-old lady.

Art4Space has grown so much since opening the kitchen, which enhances everything the staff do. In January 2024, they decided to expand by acquiring two new adjacent units. This comes at a critical time for the community, with demand increasing with every day. 

“I’m looking at the kitchen for the first time and I'm overwhelmed because it’s so beautiful.” 

Julie Norburn, CEO, ArtSpace

While planning her succession, Julie reflects on the past 25 years: “It takes a team. I have to thank my co-workers Ellie and Danny, who have now moved on. Throughout this whole journey, it’s always been about the staff and the team. I want to thank every single person who’s come through this door and helped to shape our services. It’s a shared passion and a shared accomplishment.”

For Gemma, there’s nothing but gratitude for Julie and the team, commenting: “I’m thankful to be working for such a fantastic organisation. We truly are a team. Julie has provided all staff with fantastic opportunities. She trusts us with responsibility, enabling us to run with autonomy, trust and flair”. 

With the new extended units on the way, Art4Space’s story doesn’t end here. The non-profit strives to become the leading arts centre in South London. Julie says: “We’re dedicated to providing mental health support for learning and life as we move forward together.” Collaboration between ISG and Art4Space is only getting started, too. More collaborative projects in the pipeline, this story – a lifetime in the making – has many chapters yet to come. 

Working on art projects

Gemma helps two peers with their craft. 

Art4Space’s ultimate aim is to promote sustainable change through the power of art. The team operates out of its local community arts centre in Lambeth and further afield – engaging in outreach services on a regular basis. Art4Space believes in content that connects, moves and engages individuals through diverse workshops, training schemes and projects. Award winners for its cost-fee community programmes, Art4Space provides a unique blend of design thinking, green skills and a holistic wellness model to empower and develop creative skills, problem-solving abilities, and resilience. These disciplines are taught by experienced artists and teachers, with specialisms in textiles, mosaics and ceramics, including traditional craftsmanship for sustainable practice.

You can learn more about Art4Space by heading to its website – simply follow the link.

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