Deconstructing roles

An arts group is inspiring women in some of the most deprived parts of the North West

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At the back of a women’s institute in St Helens town centre, a workshop is home to an old Land Rover Defender. The bonnet has been removed, leaving the engine exposed, and where the seats were once fitted there’s an empty space, with seat belts lying forlorn on the car floor. It might look like a lost cause, but the good news is the car hasn’t been written off in an accident. Instead, it has been taken apart by a group of women keen to learn more about mechanics.

I am attending a workshop run by artist Dina Rončević. As an aspiring mechanic growing up in Croatia she was told she could never make it in the industry because of her gender, and during an apprenticeship with a leading car manufacturer she was instructed to sweep the floors and hold up a torch while her male colleagues did the work.

Now, to encourage more women to get acquainted with the inner workings of their vehicles, Rončević has amalgamated her interest in mechanics with art, and works with women and girls to deconstruct old cars and turn them into pieces of artwork.

Before I attend, previous sessions have explored basic car maintenance, such as changing oil and tyres and learning about the four-stroke engine. Today’s session is attended by three women.

Rončević works with women and girls to deconstruct old cars and turn them into art

“We are just conditioned to never even try to attempt mechanics,” says Gina Rouse, a mother of two grown-up sons. “We just think that a man is going to be able to do it better than us. This class has taught me that we’re just as capable as men – we’re just often not given the chance to try it out because we feel like someone would be watching over us and waiting for us to get it wrong.

“I’ve always just waited for a man to come and help sort things, but this has given me the confidence to try and solve problems myself.”

As we pull on our overalls and study the car there is an eagerness to crack on and learn. Tonight’s session involves Rouse and fellow student Sheri Jones demonstrating some of the skills they have learned in previous workshops to newcomer Debbie Williams. Together the women successfully lift the vehicle up using a jack and change the tyre under the watchful eye of Rončević, who is keen to let the women guide themselves. In future weeks the women will shift bolts and heave ratchets until the body, chassis and components come completely apart, and the plan is to weld materials to transform the former 4×4 into a dystopian survival vehicle.

“This is a playground that we as women have often not had access to,” says Rončević. “From a young age boys are invited into these spaces and allowed to experiment and make mistakes. Whenever you grab a tool as a woman you will be watched and observed. The eyes of the world will be on you, so you have to get used to feeling comfortable within yourself.”

During her first project with girls aged 10-13 Rončević was pleasantly surprised at how resourceful the participants were.

“I was terrified because I had never deconstructed a car,” she says. “But the girls just started playing with it and using their bodies to do things that they needed to do. It was a case of showing them that these are ratchets and these are sockets and this is how you do this and they just went on. They didn’t need me at all. They couldn’t care less about me and it was a wonderful thing to see.”

Rončević’s weekly sessions are free and open to all women. The project is one of many arranged by arts group Idle Women, whose founders Rachel Anderson and Cis O’Boyle hope the women who attend will acquire the skills to help with a renovation of its centre.

Anderson says: “Our Bricks and Mortar project will allow women to build the skills to add underfloor heating, stained glass windows, rewire plugs, take cladding off the walls and put up a moveable partition wall in our centre. We are working with the understanding that we may not have the initial skills, but we know that women have the potential.”

“It is about making spaces that cannot be taken away by government cuts or the council,” adds O’Boyle. “All the spaces that we build are in trust to women and girls’ future.”

Above: Newcomer Debbie Williams proves a natural. Main image: artist and mechanic Dina Rončević

Idle Women works in the most deprived parts of the region but O’Boyle says: “Impoverishment is not necessarily statistical. There are areas of impoverishment in Manchester, Liverpool and London, but you can walk to a museum. The Arts Council talk about it as ‘places of lowest arts engagement’ but for us it is areas of low provision. It’s not about engagement. Folk engage – it’s just that there is nothing there.”

Back in the workshop two of the participants are underneath the car, studying the parts many of us don’t care to look at. Williams, although new to the class, has proven herself to be a natural after years of renovating houses.

“For years I have just let my husband check the oil and water and the windscreen wipers,” she says. “It is nice to know that I am capable of doing it myself.”

After three hours of quietly taking notes and managing not to get my hands dirty, Rončević invites me to have a go at changing the tyre myself. I am not the most practical person and the thought of DIY or the sight of any B&Q outlet can force me into a minor meltdown, but under the watchful eyes of Rončević and her students I can’t say no. Williams, Rouse and Jones supportively stand over me as I lug the giant tyre off the wheel and sink under its weight.

“You have to line the holes up,” instructs Williams. It sounds simple enough but when you’re trying to lift a tyre the size of a baby elephant there isn’t a chance to bend down and see where you are aiming. After a few attempts it starts to get embarrassing and I’m ready to give up and drive home with my tail between my legs. Williams tells me to push the tyre towards the car using my knees for support before lifting it up and hooking it on to the hub. My arms are still aching from yesterday’s circuits class, and it dawns on me that exercise classes are a frivolous pursuit if you are still unable to carry out everyday and necessary tasks. I decide to give it one last go, mustering all my strength and focus, and to my elation the tyre goes on.

There are cheers of celebration, probably because the women were starting to feel quite sorry for me, but as I tighten the nuts I feel quite proud and probably wouldn’t shy away from trying again in future.

“It would be wonderful if women could go away from the workshops with confidence in terms of not allowing any external thing to influence their desires,” says Rončević. “In a speech in 2016 Madonna said that the most controversial thing she ever did was stick around, and that is the thing. It’s about having the confidence that allows you to go through shit and to keep your place, keep your position and not to be told what to do and what not to do.”

Plotting the next stage

Idle Women collaborates with refuges and women’s groups across the North West. Ongoing projects include a weekly women’s group as well as a tour of their narrowboat-cum-arts centre, named after Lancashire suffragist Selina Cooper, the Independent Labour Party’s first female representative.

Idle Women is a response to cuts to services and the loss of space for women, says co-founder Rachel Anderson.

“We were seeing women’s centres being closed and day centres and shelters closing. We know that when things are cut it is women who suffer first and more brutally.

“As arts practitioners and as women you can stand around being angry and think who is going to sort it out, and then you think what can we all do to help change it and to challenge it. If there are no spaces and we are mourning them being shut we have to open them. “

Idle Women is crowdfunding to buy a plot of land to develop the UK’s first physic garden dedicated to women and girls’ health.

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