Ways of Making looks to generate new work in a space where making typically happens behind closed doors – in Yorkshire Artspace’s many studio spaces. From its pool of studio holders and the wider Sheffield scene, six artists were selected to show their work and their ways of working over a two-year programme. The premise is simple: the artists are invited to create, develop or reveal their work or their working methods in public, via the street-level, glass-fronted gallery space during each six-week exhibition period. As an audience, we see the mechanics of their practice, and the processes behind exhibition making.
Roanna Wells and Peter Griffiths were the first to exhibit in June and September of 2017. Wells’ Tracing Process invited the audience to participate in ‘subtle and repetitive mark-making’, contributing to an expanding mural of brushstrokes, each colour minutely transferred from the previous. Griffiths’ The Plant Room combined digital drawing with hand-pulled screen printing to represent natural plant forms. Griffiths selected three city gardens as inspiration for the work and made sure these community spaces were represented fully in the gallery space during the exhibition.
In the third and current instalment, Catherine Dee continues to explore flora. Her Parliament of Trees is a study of shifting, considered, incomplete things. As a lecturer of landscape architecture, her work is academically precise, but the methods she uses are simple and primitive. From the detritus of her day job, she whittles sculptures from waste twigs, a conscious nod to Arte Povera. In the 1960s and 70s in Italy, a radical movement saw artists putting everyday objects and materials through unusual processes in order to disrupt the conventional model of commercial galleries. For them, ‘poor art’ came from everyday, abundant materials such as rags, twigs, soil and terracotta.
Dee’s work has parallels with Arte Povera’s exploration of found, natural materials and the idea of quotidian ‘field work’. In particular, Giuseppe Penone’s tree sculptures provide a reference point for her twig work; in both, carving uncovers new layers and trees within trees. Digging down through bark helps establish points of connection between humans and nature. With Dee’s work, the term ‘sculpture’ comes with a caveat. The peeling back of layers reveals the shades of black, white and grey of her natural materials, which means they also come to resemble sketched line drawings. She plays with scale, from large pieces of brushwood which intersect at pressure points where the wood has split, to the balanced twig forms which project from the gallery walls at impossibly delicate tangents.
The floor space is populated with what Dee calls ‘living tree maquettes’, miniature landscaped gardens-in-waiting. The designs are neatly geometric in their infancy, and with a little guidance, will retain their order as they grow. The exhibition comes with a collection of appendices and sketches on her subject. One such drawing is captioned ‘Wilderness for One’. Her moments of wilderness are singular and stripped back, like the bark figures.
The living pieces are to be ‘transplanted’ out at the end of the exhibition to local non-profit organisations, reflecting Dee’s belief in the work having a life beyond the exhibition. She’s also offering her design consultancy services for free to any community group or project who might want them. For Dee, place-making is about putting landscape at the centre of conversations: “You make places by adapting what’s already there and adding new layers and forms… manipulating topography”. Dee has brought her Parliament into session at a time when trees are a political matter in Sheffield. The council’s decision to fell thousands of very old trees along residential streets in ‘Europe’s greenest city’ has provoked local outrage and protests from activists and academics, gaining national press coverage. A timely intervention, Dee’s work reminds us that our ancient relationship with trees is a force that can bring communities together, very much at odds with urban planning remits and commercial contracts (the tree felling has been outsourced by the private company Amey, as part of the council’s ‘Streets Ahead’ upgrade programme).
From 15 May, Andrew Hunt will take over the gallery space with his interpretation of the Ways of Making brief, Portraits from the Market. On first inspection, his large-scale portraits appear to be in opposition to Dee’s miniature landscapes, however, both are undeniably interested in what place can tell us about people, and vice versa. Hunt’s subjects are the patrons of Sheffield’s Moor Market. Unadvertised, he set up a photo booth amongst the traders to document a cross-section of shoppers. The photos and sketches captured during these sessions will feed into his paintings. He scales the images up, breaking up the image using a grid, and then square-by-square, meticulously recreates the image in paint on his large scale canvases.
Hunt says of his approach, “Not everyone is open to the more challenging concepts of contemporary art so I am trying to create something with depth that has a broader appeal”. The Moor Market is a perfect microcosm of everyday rituals, and can tell us much about Northern towns and cities. Hunt’s work is all about mirroring and reflecting as a form of celebration, a way to represent his local Sheffield community “and as a consequence, say something about our society in modern Britain”. Hunt’s process is a controlled experiment in minimising variables and faithfully capturing something of the real. By laying his process bare in the exhibition space, not a single brush stroke (his paintings are 1.5 metres across) will have anywhere to hide.
For both Parliament of Trees and Portraits from the Market, unpicking the question ‘how is it made?’ is central. Whilst Dee looks to ancient processes to create new formal arrangements, Hunt’s approach uses the immediacy of subjects and location. Instead of foregrounding the artist’s hand, he lets the subject do all the talking, retelling, with painstaking accuracy, the findings of his research. For both artists, though, it’s the bustle of community spaces where the real making occurs.
As the programme continues, the exhibitions will look to the public realm and natural phenomena. In September, Mir Jansen’s At Your Service will document European nationals working in the fraught environment of the NHS – Sheffield Teaching Hospitals to be precise – through portraiture. In February, Penny Withers will show her large, geologically-inspired ceramic pieces alongside the unfired waste output, which will be submerged and set to dissolve over the duration of the exhibition. It’s interesting that the artists selected for the Ways of Making programme have such distinct practices yet circle back to the same things: points of collaboration, communities under threat, ‘waste’ materials and natural forms. Thinking about making, perhaps, prompts reflection upon the processes we use and the subjects we implicate.
The Ways of Making exhibition programme forms part of Making Ways, a new programme supported by Sheffield Culture Consortium through Arts Council England to showcase, celebrate and develop the exceptional contemporary visual art produced in the city. Catherine Dee’s Parliament of Trees is on at Yorkshire Artspace until 24 March, followed by Andrew Hunt, 15 May – 23 June 2018.
Lucy Holt is a copywriter, journalist and poet based in Sheffield.