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Preston Caribbean Carnival artist talks costumes and community ahead of 50th anniversary event

Posted on - 19th May, 2024 - 6:00pm | Author - | Posted in - Arts, People, Preston News, What's On in Preston
Jane Blackburn in a flower-themed costume for Carnival
Jane Blackburn in a flower-themed costume for Carnival

It’s impossible to think about Preston Caribbean Carnival without imagining the wonderfully colourful and elaborate costumes that fill the city’s streets each late May bank holiday weekend.

Many hours of effort go into creating these costumes, with talented artists working particularly hard around the clock in the eight weeks leading up to Carnival.

One such artist is Jane Blackburn. Australia-born Jane arrived in Preston in 1979 having spent her childhood moving wherever her father’s RAF job took the family. After meeting her husband Ken and having twin girls, Jane decided to change career. She studied for five years, finishing up with a masters in design from UCLan.

Jane went into pottery and taught at colleges in Preston and Runshaw while also starting North West Contemporary Design Collective to create opportunities for artists in Preston. She worked with The Harris putting on exhibitions and workshops, plus with Preston City Council on celebratory events such as Chinese New Year, Egg Rolling and Mela.

In 1998, Jane was working on an exhibition at The Harris when she noticed a poster asking for artists to get in touch with the Carnival committee. With encouragement from Maxine Grant, Jane went along to a committee meeting and began to work in the Carnival workshops. She was soon helping to make costumes and props for the parade alongside Roberto Fontaine and other artists.

L-R: Emily Odudu, Jane Blackburn, Maxine Grant
Jane with Emily Odudu (left) and Maxine Grant, who encouraged her to get involved with Carnival

Over the years that followed, Jane became an integral part of the Carnival team, even travelling to Trinidad and Tobago to learn new skills to bring back to Preston. This year Jane has been helping to repair and resurrect some of the older costumes for the 50th anniversary Carnival, which promises to be the biggest, brightest and best yet.

Read more: Celebrating half a century of culture as Preston Caribbean Carnival gears up for 50th anniversary

Here we chat to Jane to find out more about her journey with Carnival, from the costumes to the community, and the challenge to keep it alive.

What are your favourite moments and memories of Carnival? 

I have loved creating costumes – I’ve had so much fun and learnt so much. In the lead up to each Carnival, people support each other and bring food into the workshops to share. We tend to work into the early hours with great music and vibes keeping us going. Then on the day it’s all about music, colour, dancing in the street and having fun. It’s great to feel a part of a real community with a rich history and share good times.

In addition, Carnival has taken me to so many places. I have had great fun taking people and costumes to be showcased at other events such as Bestival, Highest Point Festival and Boomtown, and many more parades around the UK.

Speaking of travelling, tell us about your trip to Trinidad and Tobago.

They say Trinidad and Tobago Carnival is the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. I was awarded an Arts Council of England fellowship in 2007 and I spent six weeks working with world class designers and makers, learning new skills to bring back to Preston. The costumes are amazing – the King and Queen pieces are elaborate and huge, with some measuring 60ft high and wide.

It was a fantastic time and when I returned we were able to develop the size and impact of the feature costumes for Preston, and started making bigger and better costumes. After that year I became workshop manager and lead artist, a role I alternated with Bob Heath who has also worked for Preston Carnival for many years.

Jane Blackburn's horse costume for Carnival
‘Charging through the snow’ King piece

How has your teaching background influenced your input to Carnival?

When I was Creative Director for the Carnival in 2002, we sorted out space at Oyston Mill for people to come in and work with professional artists. A year later, I wrote a training course in Carnival Arts. We had apprentices learning the skills and techniques used in costume making, along with the history and meaning behind Carnivals throughout the world.

Carnival is steeped in history and has a rich and valuable heritage. I hope I’ve managed to pass on skills and traditions that I have learnt over my years of involvement as a Carnival artist, and helped to create a foundation for the future.

Jane with a group at Carnival

We understand your daughter Sara is a designer too?

Yes, Sara first worked on Carnival around 2003, and she is now a prize-winning designer maker. She has created many winning pieces for Preston Carnival. Her hummingbird costume was the first ever-winning King piece from Preston in the prestigious Leeds Carnival King and Queen Costume Competition.

Sara Blackburn with her hummingbird costume for Leeds Carnival
Sara with her winning hummingbird

The 50th anniversary is set to be a big one! Which other anniversary events stand out to you?

In 2004 I designed themes around pearl, which is the gemstone for 30th celebrations, and presented these at a troupe meeting at the Town Hall. We had dragons chasing pearls, mother of pearl, pearls of wisdom, jewels in the crown, pearly kings and queens, and oysters under the sea, and we had 13 different groups taking part.

What are the most challenging aspects of Carnival? 

Working in an old mill in dirty, cold and damp conditions with time restraints meaning that the whole Carnival has to be created in eight weeks. It would be beneficial if a modern and clean Carnival centre could be created in Preston, like those in other major cities.

The voluntary committee members work so hard to keep Preston Carnival alive, but funding has always been a huge challenge. This is despite a study that showed the benefits of Carnival – it makes people feel better about themselves, their city and each other; it’s highly regarded by business, local people and visitors alike; and it’s good for business and the city, adding at least £55k to the local economy.

Why should Prestonians support Carnival?

Preston Carnival is the second oldest carnival in the UK. It represents what a city should be in the 21st century. It welcomes everyone to join in and is diverse, vibrant and exciting. It also has great economic value in regards to tourism and the local economy.

It is a real community when communities seem to be fragmenting, and offers so much to all ages in regards to their health and wellbeing. Many of the Preston groups meet for dance practice every week which offers encouragement to young people and a feeling of belonging.

With its dedicated committee and 50-year history, Preston should value and support the Carnival going forward, both financially and logistically.

You can go along to see Jane and some of the amazing costumes she’s created at the Preston Caribbean Carnival parade, which starts in Moor Park at 12pm on Sunday 26 May.

Follow Jane at Jane Blackburn Arts on Facebook and Sara at Wonder Made Wild on Facebook.

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This story was made possible by support from you, our readers, and a host of organisations in the city, through our Crowdfund Lancashire appeal, which unlocked support from the Lancashire Culture and Sport Fund provided by Lancashire County Council. You can see all our coverage and, if you know of an arts project or event in the city we should be covering, send details to contactus@blogpreston.co.uk.

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