You can never tell where a good idea is going to come from, or when a lightbulb moment could hit. For Liam Heeley and Keenan Bettany, it was about 12PM on a weekday afternoon over fried chicken at Ancoats eatery Peck & Yard.
The pair recall the conversation vividly when we meet. That’s unsurprising: it wasn’t that long ago they came up with a plan for HEADS — a celebration of 30 renowned creatives that call our city home. This comes in the form of a glossy magazine profiling those practitioners, and two-day exhibition at Native, Ducie Street Warehouse, on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd July. It’s here we find them, on the terrace, beneath an overcast white sky on a warm summer evening.
“I’ve known Liam around five years, and we’d had a few interactions. We rekindled our friendship when I was selling a pair of Yeezies online and he was going to America for a photography job,” Bettany explains. “I was going to an event in town and my friend cancelled, flaked on me. I thought about who to ask and thought about Liam. We went and got talking, realised how much we had in common and that we had some cool ideas. We started to meet over the next couple of weeks, one thing led to another and decided to move in together.”
If that sounds like things moved fast, the pace quickened once HEADS was tabled. Understanding the devastating impact of the pandemic not just on creative economies, but the mental health and head space of creative professionals, the concept for this event-cum-publication — originally supposed to “just be a cute little zine” — was born from a desire to shine a light on people for who the last two years have been problematic, if not impossible.
“We saw the potential in it as the project grew,” says Heeley, telling Finest that the process to get here has only taken around three months. Not bad when that involves investing in a sizeable wardrobe of high fashion — from Louis Vuitton to Balenciaga — with which Bettany styled the 30 protagonists, each with an incredibly busy calendar, for Heeley to shoot in their home studio. And the production and print of a 60-page publication, exhibition development, mastering Instagram’s editing suite, learning Photoshop, and sound engineering skills
In and among all that they also found time to secure the biggest reveal imaginable. On the evening of Wednesday 29th June, their images and branding will be splashed on Europe’s second largest LED billboard, at Victoria Warehouse in Trafford Park, for one hour.
“At first, it was pretty easy for us to put a list of 30 people together. We pretty much just wrote down names in our combined networks,” Heeley explains. “But that list started to change when people weren’t replying or they said no. So we built the initial list purely off the top of our heads: we knew these people were doing great things in Manchester.
“Later, we had to think outside the box and the list has become so much more diverse,” he continues. “Now we have graphic designers, music artists, editors-in-chief, every type of creative you could imagine… And the support from some of these people has been incredible, and we’ve had so much reassurance from people that this is a great project, it’s worthwhile, and is helping to reignite the creative spark in the city.”
Diverse is certainly an apt. On the list are platinum-selling record producer WhyJay, footwear designer Junior Clint, Aurelia magazine founder Kya Buller (chosen by Finest as one of the Manchester’s women creating change in 2022), partnership director at “creative company with a social mission” Thirty Pound Gentleman, Danny Fahey, digital artist Numan Khan, and artist, filmmaker and photographer Alina Akbar. Not to mention Finest’s own creative director, Steven Pankhurst.
“I think the best thing about this entire project is how it really allowed me to just go off instinct. And I think that’s what a lot of people should remember, whenever you get a feeling, there’s a reason why you’ve got that feeling,” Bettany replies when we ask what he has taken from HEADS. “If we came up with these ideas alone, obviously you’ve got to find room for it, pick yourself up and do it. This has made us realise the importance of working together,” adds Heeley.
“With creative stuff, it’s easy to feel dumbed-down, it’s easy to feel like you’re not being recognised. And when you’re in that mindset, it’s hard to get out of the hole,” he continues. “But the journey we’ve been on is indescribable. I’m just so proud of us both for getting into this position and the progression in terms of our confidence and mindset… we literally kept each other going every single day. Whenever something seemed impossible, we just reassured ourselves we could do it, and got it done.”
It’s hard not to pick up on how poignant that point is. In their ambitious efforts to shine a light on talent in the city at a point in time when creativity has been forced to fight for legitimacy, and prove value solely on monetary terms, Bettany and Heeley have proven their own work has merit extending beyond revenue.
In turn, this has clearly increased their self-belief when it comes to embracing new challenges. Those looking for evidence only need to consider what happens when the first edition of HEADS hits shops, and the exhibition closes.
“We’ve got a plan to take this overseas. We’ve got a vision and a plan, and, to be honest, we’ve made this happen so anything seems possible,” says Heeley. “This one was obviously on the creative scene, but for the next we’re looking at the LGBTQ+ scene. And we’d love to have this as a touring project, instead of just focusing on Manchester. So maybe the music scene in this city, or that place, with a magazine and exhibition. The ideas are there, it’s just a case of putting the work in now.”
The HEADS exhibition takes place at the Atrium, Native Manchester, Ducie Street Warehouse, on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd July. 30 Greater Manchester creatives feature. £5 tickets are available.
HEADS magazine’s ‘Manneh Edition’ will go on sale at UNITOM and Village Books, and through the official HEADS website. Copies are priced at £20, and will also be available to buy at the exhibition.