A risk that paid off – Under the Arches

Public art workshops are, I have learned, risky. You can plan what you are going to get the group to do, but they are going to do whatever they darn well please once they get there. They will go off on tangents. They will do things the materials were not meant to do. They will have crazy interpretations of the brief. Which is fine. In fact, it’s more fun that several boxes of crayons and a space hopper. But, if it’s the kind of project where you are commissioned to do something with the results, something you are happy to put your name to for ever and ever, amen, well, as I say, that’s where it gets risky.

Under the Arches – commissioned by Manchester Histories (1 m x 2 m)

Today, however, I am celebrating a job well done. Which is saying a lot as I am never totally happy with anything I do. But this piece for the Picture Stockport project? Yeah, I’m happy. Not least because I figured out a fabulous easy way to photograph grids of art work in a studio with no room to hang them. I’ll tell you about that in the next post. Because I am a tease. Sorry. For now though, let me tell you the story of Under the Arches.

Stockport, for the benefit of my international readers, lies just to the south of Manchester, not far from the airport. The tall viaduct, which carries the mainline rail track from London to Manchester dominates the town. It is the largest Brick structure in the United Kingdom, and , at the time of construction in 1840, the largest viaduct in the world. This lithograph of it by LS Lowry is owned by the Tate.

owry The Viaduct, Stockport
LS Lowry, The Viaduct, Stockport

When Manchester Histories and Stockport Council decided to fund a public art project called Picture Stockport, they drew from their archives a number of pictures of Stockport. Most but not all featured the viaduct. However, a clever eight year old girl who attended my  first workshop pointed out that all the others had arches too – just look at the eyebrows in this picture of Dame Dorothy!

The public voted on their favourite of about twenty images and then workshops were held, run by artists using various media, to allow the public to respond to the chosen shortlist. The resulting works will be hung with the originals at Stockport War Memorial Art Gallery  between 23rd June and 14th July 2017 I had the privilege of working with two groups in the basement of the Central Library on two Saturday mornings. I took some fabric, pre-painted with the colours drawn from the Stockport  images, a big bag of paint, brushes, credit card scrapers, graffiti markets, stamps and stencils and let them loose. In the first groups I had a five year old, Tom,  who was extremely excited to be unexpectedly playing with paint – he only came in to change his library books with his Mum! However, he and his eight year old sister were the ones who set this project on its tracks. When the group was looking at the chosen images they  were talking about all the walks their Mum took them on around the places illustrated. With their Mum surprisingly willing, we took to painting the children’s feet to make foot prints. The adults then wanted to join in! I confess, when I let slip at my day job that I spent my weekend brushing acrylic on to the soles of strangers the dining table fell ominously quiet!

One adult participant, Emily, works as a fabric designer and her talent showed as she picked up a marker and began to make wonderful gestural figures reminiscent of, but in my view, more evocative, than the ‘matchstick, men LS Lowry used to paint in Stockport. I made stencils from her paintings and the second group added them to fabric.

The next group focused  more on the making of textual fabrics. I had a young man, Ben, with learning difficulties and his career and he simply picked up a marker and designed a tag of his name which was fluid and interesting and remains the favourite fabric I had to work with. The groups added references to Strawberry Recording Studios, the Hatters (football team – Stockport has  a famous hat industry), bus numbers and place names.

One of my favourite moments was when the group had made a good few pieces of fabric but was starting to get despondent with their work. They were getting doubtful that it was ‘any use’ or that it was ‘good enough’. Despite having seen examples of my art, they were struggling to imagine how it might work when cut into fragments and combined. I set a few pieces together in the table, snapped this shot and showed them the photo. Cries of “Oooh!’ And ‘Aaah!’ Filled the room. It never ceased to amaze me how effective is the trick of placing something in a frame is to give it a different effect. They were instantly reenergised and carried on making more fabric.

Which left me with an, um, ‘interesting’ collection to work with. Originally I was going to make one big piece but the fragments of fabric had too much energy. Too much clashing and noise. I needed a way to let the eye rest. The viaduct was the obvious device to use. The panels are 40 cm x 100 cm each, painted cotton, appliquéd onto a cotton base and stretched over fabric. Scattered throughout the panels are the graffiti tags or initial stamps used by the participants to sign their name to the work.

The first public workshop I did entirely unexpectedly inspired my photographic graffiti collages which are now on sale at the Levantine Gallery in Jerusalem. I already have some thoughts about another series of arch based works. Roll on the next opportunity to do a public collaboration!

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