They met at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in Margaret Street while studying for masters degrees in fine art.

Now Chris Poolman and partner Elizabeth Rowe are doing extra homework. Literally.

For three months from this weekend they are going to try to turn their own inner city area of Balsall Heath into a giant canvas for art and culture.

A quarter of a century ago, the area made headlines for its crime rate and prostitution.

Now, the couple hope that one of the city’s most ethnically diverse districts can become a community united through art.

And so confident are they of making friends and influencing people, Chris and Liz are even going to turn their Eastwood Road home into a gallery that anyone will be able to walk into.

For now, there’s the last of their 28-page, newspaper-style brochures to deliver to 6,000 homes, the Balsall Heath Carnival to attend this Saturday and dozens more events, talks, workshops, stunts and competitions to fine-tune throughout the next three months.

If they were running a structured organisation, like the old Birmingham International Film and Television Festival, their ambitious programme would be impressive.

The fact they’ve done much of it off their own bat with the support of Arts Council England and Birmingham City Council is inspirational.

Even West Midlands Police has chipped in £1,000 worth of help.

Chris, who is still working on a PhD after four years, says: “That money came from the proceeds of crime. Not ‘police crime!’ It was money they raise from selling off things that have been confiscated.”

The couple first developed the idea for a Biennale in the autumn of 2011 and much of their spare time since has been devoted to winning support and developing a programme designed to appeal to all ages and ethnicities.

And, primarily, anybody who lives and works in Balsall Heath.

Liz moved to Birmingham from her Leicester birthplace in 2004 and she’s the current artist in residence at Dudmaston National Trust in Quatt near Bridgnorth, as well as being involved with an arts project at Worcester council estate Dines Green.

Chris left Oxford six years ago and was the first to latch on to Balsall Heath in 2008 as a handy and interesting place to live.

“Using the skills we’ve been trained in we’re opening doors for others,’’ says Liz.

“A lot of people don’t find art school that accessible and at school you don’t get the time to explore the more difficult ideas.

“This is our first really big project, so it’s important it goes well for us.

“But there is a real sense of neighbourliness and community here.”

Even if the Biennale somehow fails to be a success, other things are happening in Balsall Heath to help the district to grow.

It’s the first area in the country to be given the potential chance to redirect itself via a mixture of self-governed neighbourhood planning and budgeting measures, though their implementation is still some way off.

One assumes that if the festival takes off, Chris and Liz will become increasingly familiar faces. Mini ‘celebrities’ even.

Are they prepared for that?

“That people begin to recognise you is already happening,” says Chris.

“One of our many objectives was to get to know people more and with that comes a certain responsibility.

“Balsall Heath can be really vibrant, but it can also be a place where you don’t necessarily need to get to know your neighbours.

“A few weeks ago we threw a street party on our road and it was a great day.

A street party in Eastwood Road, organised earlier this year by artists Elizabeth Rowe and Chris Poolman
A street party in Eastwood Road, organised earlier this year by artists Elizabeth Rowe and Chris Poolman
 

“I like the fact that all of the children on our road still play out on the street.”

So far, so good then. But what’s the worst thing about Balsall Heath today?

Unhesitatingly, Liz says it’s the litter.

“But it’s not just a problem in Balsall Heath,” she says quite rightly.

“I think it’s a national problem, yet other cities in Europe can be spotless.’’

Liz adds: “One of the women who lives near me leaves litter around. I don’t know why she does it. She puts her bin bags out too early and the cats rip the bags open.”

“Balsall Heath has a large number of strays,” says Chris.

To which Liz adds: “One of our events will be a talk by Chris called Stray Cats of Balsall Heath: Origins, history and usage.”

Other events will include a soccer-free Balsall Heath World Cup, based on a series of craft challenges including satellite dish kite making, number plate carving and flag making, and a decorate your house and garden competition.

There will also be a Free Art School, with teachers including Chris and Liz, plus special guests.

The 11-session course will run on Thursday evenings and Saturdays.

Places are limited but all applicants will be interviewed and Art School will be offered free in exchange for participants’ volunteering their time to help out on other aspects of the Biennale.

Other events the couple are excited about include the International Open Submission Art Competition, with four prominent judges deciding who wins.

And children will create street galleries by colouring in posters to stick in their own front windows.

To make sure everyone knows what is going on, Chris and Liz are even creating a Balsall Heath Tourist Information Centre.

The unfamiliar art world term of Biennale was chosen for the cover of their newspaper brochure only after much discussion. For those in the know, it’s an Italian term for an arts event held every other year and is more likely to be associated with cities like Venice and Paris than inner city Britain.

“It has two meanings for us,” says Liz. “Yes, it’s an art biennale, but it’s also about your life skill and your engagement with Balsall Heath.”

Pun-loving Chris likes my idea for a third... If participants find the culture thirst-inducing they could always “Buy An Ale” in Balsall Heath.

* The first Balsall Heath Biennale will run from July to September. This Saturday’s noon-4pm Balsall Heath Carnival will be based in Pickwick Park, St Paul’s Road.

Email: info@balsallheathbiennale.com. Website: www.balsallheathbiennale.com . Twitter: @BH_Biennale. Facebook: /balsallheathbiennale. Telephone: 0776 9530557/0779 2736125.