THE name Green Door Studios is synonymous with outstanding contemporary art.

For the past two decades members of the highly regarded South Lakeland artists’ co-operative have produced some of the best group shows that you’re likely to find in any gallery throughout in the land as well as umpteen impressive solo exhibitions.

This year Green Door celebrates its 20th anniversary with a major exhibition at Kendal Museum; Sense of Place runs until September 26 and will be part of C-Art during September.

One of the leading lights of GDS is Jill Pemberton, a founder member, who is one of the region's most well respected artists.

For GDS, it all started way back in the winter of 1995, when Jill, Fiona Clucas, Donna Campbell, Catherine MacDiarmid, and Trish Adcock were all struggling to find a place to develop their art.

“When I moved to Kendal in 1992 with my sons and partner, I tried to set up a small working space at home but there were too many distractions,” explains Jill.

“I asked Lene Bragger, who was the visual arts officer at the Brewery at the time, if I could rent a space there to work in. Lene suggested I find some like minded people and start a studio group in Kendal. There were three of us initially who met together and started the search for premises. It was Cat (Macdiarmid) and Lena who found the space at 24 Highgate and, armed with hammers, saws, lengths of wood and panelling, pots of white paint and many volunteers we built the first six spaces in the former meeting rooms of Westmorland and Lonsdale Conservative Association who were our landlords.”

They also had help and advice from Sophie Henderson and Sue Houghton who became the first associate members as they had their own studios. Richard Light, Thuline de Cock, Hilary Fell, Angie Mitchell and Erica Flint followed soon after.

They didn't know it at the time but the foundations of a remarkable community arts group had been laid.

Jill says GDS was conceived as a way for practicing and emerging professional artists to have affordable space to make work.

“Originally the associate membership was set up to bring a bit of extra income into the group and was made up mostly of non artists - mainly members of the public who wanted to support the idea of an artist studio group in a Kendal.

“At Highgate we had 13 spaces and a communal area, office and kitchen at our busiest period. We wrote out our 'charter', rules etc and formed a committee. The first Open Studios attracted many more associate members who were practicing artists with their own studios from all over south Cumbria and Lancashire.

“This became an annual event which helped make Kendal a vibrant centre for the visual arts."

Among the many strengths of GDS is involving its artists in community projects with a variety of groups and schools. In 2007 they picked up a prestigious Drawing Inspiration Award, in recognition of the success of their On Your Marks, an outreach project, which was part of the nationwide The Big Draw. The award presented by Quentin Blake at a ceremony at the British Museum in London.

And its Millennium Mural project, which had literally hundreds of local people joining in to help plan and execute the huge mural and is permanently on display in a Kendal Library, earned GDS praise far and wide.

However, GDS was knock sideways in 2010 when a fire swept through its Highgate home.

"The fire was devastating,” remembers Jill. “It started in the offices at the back of the studios and spread through the building destroying artists work and equipment. The top floor of the building caved in so those with studios on that level lost everything. We had recently had our workshop space refurbished as a printmaking area with a press, silk screens, sinks etc. We lost all our computers and sadly all our records and photographs of past studio members and their achievements.

"For me personally, the loss of 30 years of sketch books and folders of drawings was the worst blow. But as the fire started in the early hours of the morning, no one was in the premises and so thankfully no one was hurt.

"But, as they say 'out of the ashes...'"

Green Door Rising was the name of the campaign to raise money to rehouse the artists in new studios.

"We were offered temporary premises at Staveley Mill Yard and Kendal College. And a fundraising day was held at the Brewery Arts Centre, which included a very successful art auction which was supported by many national and international artists after an appeal went out on Radio 2 by Mark Radcliffe. Many artists took studio spaces out at Holme Mills and other places until the new studios opened a few years ago with seven artists, an super chairman in Keith Shorrocks, a tireless steering group and an excellent administrator in Janice Benson. There are more than 90 members of GDS and once again Green Door has a heart in Kendal."

Jill was born in Manchester and lived in and around the city and later on the Fylde coast for the first 20 years of her life.

She moved to Cumbria in 1974 after living and working in Spain, finally, settling in Kendal in 1992.

Her art training began at Birmingham College of Art and then at Brighton University where she did a BA in fine art and later an MA in art education at Manchester Metropolitan University.

"I was always painting and drawing from an early age and I had a daily discipline of working in my sketchbooks/ journals which I continue to this day. However, the need to raise two sons on my own created a personal conflict. I knew my way and style of painting was not commercial and I wasn't prepared to compromise so, as my children's welfare was paramount, I retrained as a primary teacher which was a job that fitted in with the children's early needs and school holidays. I was later recruited by the University of Cumbria and taught there part time until 2009 when I retired.

Jill says she enjoyed teaching all ages over the last 30 years and the rewards on a personal level were huge: “I have great memories of cognitive and artistic 'breakthroughs' by struggling students which give me great pleasure. Seeing students achieve happiness and success in their lives is a wonderful feeling.

“But teaching as a profession has changed and as imagination and creativity are hard to qualify in levels and SATS, they become of less 'value' to successive governments in terms of political 'kudos'. That is so short sighted and it frustrates and saddens me. We need creative people who have the ability to think 'outside the box' to generate innovation in all areas of work. I find all the paper work involved in formal teaching these days both unnecessary and energy depleting and, where as I have nothing but admiration for teachers these days, I am glad to be now out of it.

"Since, I've returned to full time work in my studio in Kendal and teach the odd courses at the Brewery Art Centre. I developed the ability to separate my teaching work from my studio work but I have never stopped trying to explore and advance my own practice.

"I have had a couple of rough years with losing both my parents which has knocked the focus out of my work and life, but that is slowly returning and I am quite pleased with the new work that is emerging. I have no solo exhibitions planned for this year and hope to travel again next year which will hopefully give me a raft of sketchbooks and stimulation and may provide enough work for another big exhibition when I return.

Out of the artistic spotlight, Jill is a devoted grandmother.

"My two year old grandson gets my undivided attention when ever he needs it and I am privileged to be able to go up to Carlisle where he lives and look after him for a day or so each week to help out his mum and dad. (He shows great promise with the finger painting). Sadly I don't see as much of my granddaughter who lives in Dartmouth but I go down a few times a year for short visits and that puts me on.

"I don't really have other pastimes but enjoy theatre, dance, live music and reading in the brief times I allow myself spells away from my studio.”

Jill’s Through a Glass Darkly is one of the standout pieces in Sense of Place: “It reflects on my struggle to find a place of peace in a world which I find increasingly chaotic and confusing,” adds Jill. “One follows pathways, only to find false turnings and abrupt endings." Another is Jill’s McQueen, which she painted after visiting an exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s work at the V&A earlier this year: “It was also the first piece I was able to make a year after my mum’s death. McQueen is about endings and the drawing down of soft veils over a beautiful life.”

Jill says her walk along the river to her studio on the corner of Castle Street is a daily pleasure.

"I pick up milk and an apple for lunch, unlock the door, climb the stairs, put on my paint soaked apron, brew a cup of Earl Grey, watch out for those elusive otters from the window, tune into Radio 4 Extra and I am in heaven and I can start work.

"I am so privileged.”