PMSA Education's partnership at Harlow

Corrina Dunlea, who works for Harlow Art Trust (HAT) and curates the town’s Gibberd Gallery discusses STAIR, the Trust’s exciting new artist-in-residence programme run with partnerships which include the Royal College of Art (RCA) and the PMSA. Corrina and RCA artist, Finn Thomson, the first STAIR artist-in-residence, talk to PMSA about his residency with Harlow Art Trust, which culminated in his solo exhibition at the Gibberd Gallery ‘If it starts to fall, move out of the way’ in December 2017.

The PMSA is partnering HAT on an outreach programme for STAIR, which involves educational workshops for local schoolchildren, which will be expanded to include tours of Harlow’s public sculpture. Finn Thomson ran the first of these workshops with Year 5 children from St. Mary’s School in Stansted Mountfitchet. Their work was displayed in an exhibition ‘Harlow Hopscotch’ which was held simultaneously with his solo show at the Gibberd Gallery.

Can you outline the significance of Harlow for post-war public art? 

Corrina Dunlea: I am very proud to live in Harlow, which is a highly important town for post-war public sculpture. It is the UK’s only Sculpture Town and has an impressive collection of over 90 works, three of which are new commissions which have been added in the last two years. The formation of this collection is fascinating and integral to the town’s cultural story and heritage. Harlow was the second of the ‘new towns’, which emerged in the period of utopian post-war reconstruction and was designed by the pioneering architect and master planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd. Public art was an intrinsic part of his vision for the town and he was a founding member of the Harlow Art Trust. In 1953 together with HAT Chairman, Sir Philip Hendy, who at the time was also Director of the National Gallery in London, Gibberd began securing major works by artists such as Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ralph Brown, Elizabeth Frink and Auguste Rodin for the town’s residents.

How did the idea for an artist in residence programme evolve and how do you feel it can enhance the legacy of Sir Frederick Gibberd?

CD: The idea of a residency programme came out of a one day conference, ‘Harlow Creates’, which we held in 2015. James Smith, one of the present trustees of HAT, spoke about how inward-looking we tended to be as a town. He challenged us by pointing out that if the UK’s Sculpture Town was not leading the way by engaging with emerging artists – who would enable that work to happen?

For graduates there are complex issues involved with setting up a sculpture practice such as casting, materials and a space to exhibit. Looking to the future, it became clear that a residency programme could help support these artists and at the same time represent the vision of the HAT by building on the important legacy of its sculpture collection. It was felt that a residency would give a new impetus to the Trust, with the artists responding to the collection and generating fresh insights that would appeal to the public in a relevant and accessible way.

Why was the programme called STAIR?

CD: STAIR stands for Sculpture Town Artist-in-Residence, which directly references our heritage. The acronym has a distinctive implication, the idea of rising, as the artist-in-residence begins to establish and progress in his or her career.

Can you explain the roles of the partners in the STAIR programme

CD: The residency is funded by Pearson Education which has been based in Harlow for many years. Pearson Education provides the artist-in-residence with a studio space in the town, access to the collection, local contacts, mentoring sessions and support with a solo winter exhibition in the Gibberd Gallery. Our other partner ACAVA are an artists’ network of studios with premises in Harlow town centre. They offer the STAIR artist studio space for the year of their residency.

The partnership with RCA came about through links with our trustee, James Smith. Their role is pivotal in guiding HAT towards selection of each STAIR artist, which is based on the students’ work in their Summer degree show. The RCA help HAT to shortlist candidates for the residency.

Our partnership with PMSA is centred on funding children’s workshops, tours and a follow up exhibition of their art at the Gibberd Gallery. These lively workshops are led by the STAIR artist, who introduces the children to the public art in Harlow in a fun and accessible way.

What is the role and benefit of the PMSA children’s workshop and exhibition for the STAIRresidency programme?

CD: I think the workshops and exhibition play an important role in the residency, because we want the next generation to engage with the historical significance of the HAT public art collection through the conduit of an emerging artist, who is brimming with fresh ideas. Encouraging children and engaging them is fundamental to the vision of the Trust, because it gives them a sense of aspiration. Suddenly they realise, ‘I could do that’ and just as importantly, ‘I could find out about that’, firing their imagination to create and developing a critical facility to look at art. Their work is then displayed in a dedicated childrens’ gallery at Gibberd Gallery like that by actual artists – which is a great boost to their confidence.

How will the residency impact on the vision of Harlow Art Trust as a sculpture park?

CD: Our vision is that HAT will produce a plan for a Harlow Sculpture Park and tourist attraction for 2020 framing our collection through guided or self-directed walks and tours. We want to make this process very transparent for visitors to the town. Our plan is to treat the town like a canvas in much the same way that Sir Frederick Gibberd did, by guiding people towards the major public art works. The STAIR programme is a vital part of this, because it will add twenty-first-century works to the park by incorporating a new work by emerging STAIR artists every year for the next ten years. The Trust have acquired Finn’s installation piece MOORE WAITING ROOM for the collection; a set of concrete benches and large sign next to the Family Group by Henry Moore in the Civic Centre, this truly reinvigorates the space and enhances the collection. STAIR can become the first step in these young artists’ careers and we are proud to be able to encourage and support them at this fundamental early stage.

How did you begin the selection process and decide on the first STAIR residency artist Finn Thomson?

CD: This was based on visits to the Show RCA in 2016, and from here a panel of sculptors, educators and trustees made a shortlist and then began the interview process. There was such a wealth of talent at the RCA it was hard to decide! We chose Finn because his practice responded to real elements within a specific context – a fire station and fire tower. His response was direct and refreshing and his conceptual thinking was intellectual, yet appealing and relatable.

And Finn, what was your initial response to Harlow, had you heard of Harlow Art Trust and its important collection?

Finn Thomson: Not really, and I had never been to a place that had been built mostly at one time, usually towns are a mish-mash of different periods, but Harlow immediately struck me as a single idea in physical form. Walking around the town for the first time, the spaces were so distinctive and the public art was given such prominence, that I felt this was very fertile ground for my practice. My father is an architect and my great-grandfather is Sir Basil Spence, who I later discovered had known Sir Frederick Gibberd very well, but initially I had no idea of this.

How has your experience in Harlow affected your practice?

FT: There were some issues I had been working through before STAIR that are inherent to my practice whereas others emerged as a result of my period as artist-in-residence. Barriers and how objects affect the way we move is an idea I apply to my work all the time. When I arrived in Harlow, on the walk from the station to my studio I had to go through a bush! I realised this was about town planning and that a visitor should be able to walk to the centre undisrupted – yet all the paths seemed to be going in the wrong direction. I began to think about space and to see the town as a design, and to realise how the future can be misconceived, because the planners thought everyone would have a car and so there are big roads cutting off the centre. Yet when you walk in the parks your movement is seamless, they are so well-planned with a series of interconnected spaces linked by walkways. That is how I arrived at the idea of the Desire Lines in my exhibition, and that is where the idea of the film which I made for it came from. The film is set in the future where sculptures can move, and I had the idea of an object moving around a park which ignores all the suggestion lines like paths and roads.

Which of the iconic public art works in Harlow did you most respond to?

FT: I love the Elisabeth Frink, her sense of scale is so fascinating, and the Boar is such a revelation. Everyone sees boars as fat, chunky oversized creatures, yet Frink gave it such lightness – with those small spindly legs. I find the decision making process interesting, the way Frink decided to draw attention to the work in this public arena with those spindly contact points an d the way the sculpture almost floats on the water.

When I went to see Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms at Glebelands Estate in Harlow, it inspired me to examine the relationship between people, the council and architects and the particularly harmonious position of the sculpture within its setting. Although a commanding form, it is a perfect scale for the surrounding houses. The sculpture isn’t so high that you can see it over the rooftops, yet it is well-proportioned to contend with the architecture. The form doesn’t overwhelm, it is integral to its location and yet still makes a statement.

Can you discuss some of the major works in your residency exhibition ‘If it starts to fall, move out of the way ?

FT: I am intrigued by stolen sculptures. The Barbara Hepworth, Two Forms (DividedCircle) that was stolen from Dulwich Park was replaced by Three Perpetual Chords, three sculptures in cast iron by Conrad Shawcross. This threw up an interesting debate for me about the nature of metal in public use. Cast iron is a material used in drains, light fittings and benches which has a high melting point and is heavy and hard wearing. It also does not have much resale value and is therefore not regarded as precious. This inspired me to use the material in a very contradictory way, I wanted to make a portrait bust of an art thief, although usually I don’t make classic sculpture – this seemed to me to fit the subject. I found out about the notorious art thief, Jimmy Johnson, who has been in prison for over twenty-five years, through a BBCdocumentary called ‘Summer with the Johnsons’. Here, Johnson speaks profoundly about being sidelined by society and therefore he feels he has the right to steal any art in the public realm – as a sort of levelling. He also stole precious artefacts and jewels from wealthy families; for me this became about a relationship with materials and their value.

What is the significance of the spear?

FT: I created a series of different spears, including plaster ones, which a juggler used in a performance at the opening of the exhibition. The spears broke, of course, when he dropped them. The object breaks down as well, which this symbolised. I like the idea of singling out a bronze spear from its multiple, as there are railings made up of many spears – but no one really notices them because they are merely decorative. Yet in front of houses or around parks there are these very primitive, threatening and vicious objects, but they are used in an everyday way in a municipal, urban setting – so we have become desensitized to them. Therefore by singling out one spear, I hope to make it feel like a weapon again, giving the spear back its original function – and it has been sharpened as well! The use of bronze is important here to reference the material of public sculpture and interestingly the spear defends more space than it is taking up.

Can you explain how you transformed the space around the iconic Henry Moore FamilyGroup in the Civic Centre beneath the Gibberd Gallery?

FT: Family Group represents an ordinary family as a focal point for public sculpture – it is a very socially engaging piece. The group is relatable, robust and seems to invite children to climb it and adults to touch it. Archive images show the work in its original place outside, surrounded by paving slabs, but now it is located inside facing the window in the lobby next to the waiting room of the Civic Centre and the entrance to the Gallery. I wanted to create the feeling of sitting on the floor around the sculpture, but also reference the bench the family are sitting on in the sculpture. So I raised the paving slabs and made benches to try to activate the space around the sculpture. I have also installed a sign saying ‘MOORE WAITING ROOM’ above the benches to create an alternative space to wait, sit and look.

What was your vision for the PMSAchildren’s workshop? What did you want to achieve?

FT: The workshop was about trying to get the children to think about sculpture in various different ways. Firstly as an image, because there are so many images around us that we get used to them, and so when you see a real sculpture you can be blind to it and not look closely. I had the idea of a relay race, where the children would have images of three iconic Harlow public art works, Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms, Auguste Rodin’s Eve and Frink’s Boar – all taped to their chests. In the relay race the children only had a couple of seconds to look at the image, I wanted them to see the photos of the sculptures really quickly, in almost a panicked state – but look at them as hard as they could. I remember being restless at school, so when people asked me to move I was happy! I realised action would be a good way to engage the children and also make them focus, because if they are doing something fun – concentrating will become effortless and instinctive.

How did you translate this into the children producing artwork themselves?

I addressed the idea of interpretation, so the children had to draw and paint the sculptures from memory, because I was interested to see what they had assimilated and what they felt was striking about each sculpture. I soon realised how important context and setting were to them, and how they were instinctively attuned to this. In fact in one drawing of Rodin’s Eve, the ‘Pizza Hut’ sign was the first thing the child drew. The children’s responses were so varied, and they fed off each other critically, which was fascinating. One child would look at another’s drawing and then they would question each other’s representation. I was also intrigued to see how they worked as groups sitting together at the table, as well as individuals – because public art has a collective meaning as well as a singular one. They concentrated so hard on the image in such a short space of time, without any preconceptions of why, that by the end of the workshop one boy came up to me and said ‘I can’t get that image out of my head’. There is a sense of real engagement when you take a child out of their everyday routine and trigger their brain into another way of thinking – it was exciting to see them so absorbed. 

How did the children describe their experiences of the sculpture relay?

FT: After the workshop, Sydney Mackay told me how the sculptures had captured her imagination in the relay, especially Rodin’s Eve. She said ‘We were shown the images in such a short space of time, but that made me look even closer. I imagined the figure surrounded by clouds and I used the feathers for texture. I wasn’t sure if it was a boy or a girl, so I tried to show it could be both. I like the way the sculpture is unique, it is based on real things, but then made in its own way – so it’s not real’.

Jake Easley said that the context had inspired him: ‘I did the writing to help me remember the setting all around her, and art is not just about drawing, it is also writing. The extra details were also important, like the bricks – I clocked those right away’.

For Sophia Allen, the plinth drew her attention, she explained ‘Some of my friends only did the body, but I wanted to do the whole sculpture, as she [Rodin’s Eve] is standing on that thing and it is a part of her and makes her stand high. She is inspiring and I love her movement. It made me wonder how can you make something seem to move from the inside -when it is just a solid lump’.

How did you come up with the theme of hopscotch to convey your ideas about public art and public space in an accessible way for the children?

FT: I liked the idea of putting an object into a square and following it, to make them think about the gridding of space and how you move in relation to objects, whether to follow them, move away or towards them. I explained that when you grid up space it is important to look at movement, not just the position of the sculpture in the space – but your movement around it. The children understood about pavements and paving slabs doing the same thing too, and they found this an easy way to think about space because it relates to maths too. Quite unconsciously, the children were engaging with notions of public space and town planning.

Is that why it was important actually to play the game of hopscotch in the workshop?

FT: Yes, hopscotch had to be actually played, so the children could experience moving and relating to space and objects in that particular way. I knew it would be more powerful for the children to bring ‘Harlow Hopscotch’ to life by playing the game rather than just talking about it and drawing it. Rebecca Trapmore told me after the workshop, ‘The hopscotch game made me think about how I moved around the town. I had never thought of the town like that, but in the game you had to take different routes to get to different numbers – if you didn’t take the right route you would not get there’.

How did they respond to designing the actual hopscotch courts?

When making the hopscotch courts, interpretation was the spur, as the children worked in teams to create the best design – resulting in many stunning details of flowers and lettering. I encouraged them to be big and bold with scale when creating the courts, there was plenty of room because we had a large space for the workshop. Their imaginations flourished when devising the hopscotch instructions for each number, such as ‘Don’t Stress’ or ‘Do a gymnastics move’. Sydney Mackay related her idea of putting skydiving in as an instruction – just to see how her friends would interpret it! In preparation, the children made individual smaller hopscotch drawings with an extraordinarily imaginative variety of designs and concepts, such as Jake Easley’s bold Super Mario snake and Rebecca Trapmore’s poetic tree with the numbers on the branches. Rebecca told me ‘I wanted to be creative about the hopscotch design so I imagined it as a tree. I chose a bird so it was more colourful and he looks funny perched there, I wanted to make him noticeable’.

Why did the children make the sculpture ‘cubes’ ?

FT: I wanted the children to create three dimensional objects, which we made in cast plaster, so that they could use them as if they were chalk, to draw the hopscotch game itself on large sheets of black paper. The cubes could then be thrown, becoming the ‘shooter’or ‘lucky’ in the game – which would dictate where they would jump. The children loved making the cubes and personalising them with their own initials and decorative patterns, indeed they were so taken with them that some refused to give them up for the exhibition! I encouraged them to see the cubes in the round, so they often covered every side. The cubes were therefore beautiful objects, but were also functional. Jake Easley later told me ’I liked the way we made the cubes unique, we could do our own thing and decorate them however we wanted. I may look at sculpture more now you explained how they are all personal with unusual details –just like our cubes.’

What was your experience of the workshop Corrina?

CD: It was inspiring to see the children allowed the freedom to create in such a stimulating environment. Boundaries were swept away as some children just lay on the floor, pen in hand drawing a Barbara Hepworth – a million miles away from traditional art teaching! Finn’s themes were the catalyst for the different activities, and he involved the children in so many different media – making the cubes, painting, drawing, creating the massive long hopscotch courts and playing the game. Art is about looking, and he inspired them to scrutinize the sculptures closely, as we saw with the children huddled round the photos and then bursting into dance moves to imitate the pose of Rodin’s Eve!

Were the children aware of the public art in Harlow Corrina?

CD: They were a new audience for us, because the school is just outside the town. Some of the children had heard of Henry Moore because he is in their curriculum, but they were unaware there was such an abundance of public art in Harlow. Some had visited the town, but had not noticed the sculpture. I think the workshop gave them a flavour of what was all around them in Harlow, in a very engaging way.

Corrina can you talk about the exhibition ‘Harlow Hopscotch’ at the Gibberd Gallery that resulted from the workshop – how did the children respond to seeing their work exhibited?

The children’s art from the workshop was displayed in our special area for children’s exhibitions known as the Hideway Gallery. It is a great space overlooking the Elisabeth Frink Boar in the Water Gardens below and is flooded with natural light. The Hideaway Gallery runs alongside the main gallery space where the STAIR artist Finn Thomson had his solo exhibition.

Many of children and their families attended the opening of ‘Harlow Hopscotch’ and Finn’s show. They were excited about seeing their work curated in the beautiful gallery space, where it was presented like an actual artist’s. Hartley–Anne Langley told me ‘I am so proud to be in an exhibition like a proper grown up artist’. It meant so much to them, and was such a boost to their confidence.

The children also saw Finn’s work for the first time with his dramatic installations dominating the main gallery space. One of the children, Rebecca Trapmore was amazed by Scales, and pointing to the hanging feet she confided ‘He’s not just that normal guy who did our workshop – I can’t believe I know a real artist!’

Who judged the children’s competition?

The judges were Keir McGuinness, Vice-Chairman of the PMSA, and Chris Scott, Chairman of Harlow Art Trust. The judges had a real challenge selecting works from the Harlow Hopscotch exhibition because the standard was so high. Indeed Keir McGuinness quipped ‘I was a judge at the Turner prize – but this is much harder!’ The children were so proud to step up and get their prizes from the judges.

Who curated the ‘Harlow Hopscotch’exhibition and what is the Young Curators scheme?

CD: Three young curators who had finished their Silver Arts Award curated the exhibition It is a tricky space with lots of corners and light, but they did very well in creating a vibrant exciting display. Bristy Chowdry, one of the Young Curators explained to me ‘‘We tried to do justice to each aspect of the children’s work. Mirrors were used to reveal the backs of the detailed sculpture cubes, and we hung the long hopscotch court drawings from the ceiling to showcase the children’s intricate patterns and decorative lettering. We displayed their superb interpretations of public sculpture against this dramatic yellow background, so their images would ‘pop’. The didactic panels were important in the exhibition, as we wanted to create a narrative using photographs of the children’s workshop, to bring the works in the exhibition to life by giving them a context. We were keen to make the exhibition accessible to the children themselves, so we hung some of the drawings on a chicken wire frame. This has a playground and craft vibe, but also me of a football net!

What happened when the children visited the actual sculptures they had seen in the workshop?

CD: It was so rewarding to see how much the workshop had affected them. After the exhibition, I went down into the Water Gardens in front of the Civic Centre with some the children, and they were thrilled to see Rodin’s Eve having studied her in the workshop. Sophia Allen commented ‘It is really great to see the sculpture after the workshop, because when you are drawing it you don’t realise how good it is, but in real life it is so much more detailed than I expected’. Jake Easley, however, was perplexed ’It is so odd to see her after the workshop. Her arms are much further away from her face than I thought…I like the front view as her face is really buried in her hands’. He then instinctively wrapped his hands completely around his face to demonstrate his interpretation of her pose. Meanwhile Sydney Mackay, Sophia Allen and Rebecca Trapmore were excited ‘Look, she is dabbing!’ they exclaimed as they immediately took up the pose.

I know you found Hartley-Anne’s comments particularly revealing, can you explain..

When talking to Hartley-Anne Langley about the Boar, I naturally told her it was by Elisabeth Frink, she was shocked to hear there were women artists, because she assumed all artists were men, as you can hear from the recording below Hartley-Anne Langley: ‘.. . I did not expect that, I thought all artists were men…it’s good to know as I might want to be an artist’.

To conclude, Finn how important has the STAIR residency been for you?

FT: I take a while to make work, and most importantly I require thinking time because I am quite reflective. I need mental freedom and atmosphere to create. I am experimental and the materials need to be right for the concept, that usually involves using loads of different types of processes to come up with the correct solution. Therefore one day I would be trying out a drone for the film, and the next I would be finding out about casting in iron and welding in cast iron, and as I am not a master of any of these methods, there is a lot of self-teaching involved. That is the nature of my ideas led practice, so having a year and a half with this flexibility, consistency and focus has been very beneficial.

Main image: PMSA Vice-Chairman, Keir McGuinness, judging the children’s artwork 
(photo: Leonie Summers)

Aurora Corio