“It’s not just me,” insists Sarah Harris. “The whole thing’s been a team effort, as these things always are.
“This Free Art Friday thing has been going for 10 years or so, and I first heard of it two or three years ago. It’s quite big in Bristol and big in Gloucester and so on, and I’m lucky enough to have been the beneficiary of it because I found art at the other events.
“It got to the point that I wanted to start giving something back.
“I started putting feelers out about doing something in Swindon, but I didn’t know the artistic community in Swindon that well, so I wasn’t really getting anywhere.
“So it was a chat with my friend Jaye Rose, who owns the Jackrabbit shop and gallery in Crombey Street.
“I was saying I’d like to do it but didn’t know how to get started, and she was saying, ‘We’d like to do it but we don’t have the time – we’re running a shop!’.
“I said, ‘If I’m doing the admin and you’ve got a lot of contacts with the urban artists, then maybe you can get me in touch and between us we can get this working.’”
The initial target was 50 works; at the last count there were 250 lined up.
Sarah gives special credit to Jaye for making it possible, along with Jackrabbit manager Jamie McGurk and artists Rumpelstiltskin and Jacob Gambol. Jacob is also organising an exhibition called Smoke and Mirrors at Jackrabbit from July 25 to 27.
Sarah was born Sarah Mason in Woodford, Essex. Her father was in the import-export business and her late mother was a legal secretary. Older sister Ann works for an arts charity.
Sarah remembers an early ambition. “I wanted to be a marine biologist. I wanted to swim with whales!
“Then I realised it was really boring and you ended up spending most of your life looking at plankton.
“I think I thought I’d be Jacques Cousteau [famous French diver and 1970s TV personality], but as soon I realised the reality of the profession I lost interest.”
There was another fascination, though.
“I loved art as a child. Absolutely adored it, to the extent that when all the other children were out playing in the street on a nice sunny day I’d be inside painting, and my mum would have to physically eject me from the house.
“I used to do lots of paintings of fantasy figures like fairies and stuff like that – forest kings. I always signed them ‘Sarah Mason Esquire’ because I’d heard of people signing their name ‘Esquire’ and I thought it sounded very posh, and nobody quite had the heart to tell me that it meant you were a man. When I finally found out I went through my paintings, crossing it out...”
“But my parents didn’t really see the monetary value in art, so I was strongly encouraged to lose interest in it as I got older.“ Loughton County High School for Girls was followed by a maths degree at Warwick University and a successful career as a statistician in marketing, which she still maintains.
For many years, artistic urges were directed into photography, painting band pictures on friends’ jackets and flags for festivals, co-running a punk record label with her ex-husband and promoting gigs.
The move back into art proper came about a dozen years ago during a stint working for WH Smith, when a boss asked her to help promote sales of art and craft supplies.
He suggested she look at scrapbooking, whose devotees preserve photos and other ephemera in decorative ways.
“I went to this little scrapbooking shop in Old Town, spent 70 quid on random stuff – I had no idea what I was doing. I glued it to the page and it looked awful. But I played around with it, quite enjoyed it and then through that I joined a couple of local craft clubs.
“I’d not long had a baby, I wasn’t back at work yet and I had a bit of spare time. I didn’t stay scrapbooking for long. It awakened a creative urge in me but it wasn’t the exact thing that I wanted to be doing.
“So after that I went through a sort of frenzy of trying every art and craft I could, to see which one was for me.”
She felt most drawn to painting and collage, and gives work away to family and friends.
Asking her if she’d consider selling art elicits an indifferent shrug. “I’ve never had an interest in selling. I do art just for fun, so Free Art Friday is a fantastic fit for me.
“It’s two things. From the artists’ point of view it’s a way for them to create whatever they want to create, free from commercial constraints.
“Usually commercial artists are painting what they think will sell. This way they can paint whatever’s in their heart and they need to get out. They can just put it out in the universe and forget about it.
“From the finders’ point of view? We just want to put smiles on people’s faces.
“We want people to pick something up, realise it’s for nothing, realise there’s absolutely no strings attached, and if they love it and it speaks to them they can take it home or pass it on to a friend they think will like it.”