What's #KurbArt all about? 

Well, if you walk around Kelham Island these days, you'll notice a number of construction hoardings. No one wants to see that. You know what, when we first started, we were guilty of this too. 

We had boring poster boards all along the 200-meter wall that forms the boundary of Little Kelham. No one wants to walk for 200 meters on their way to work, reading about amazing 1-4 bedroom homes for sale. 

We knew we could do a whole lot better. We owed it to Kelham Island because this place has such amazing history, culture and heritage. 

So, we went to the Kelham Island Arts Collective (K.I.A.C), and we said 'we've got a 200-meter brick wall in Kelham Island. Can you create something amazing that captures what Kelham Island is all about, and what it means to the people living there'.

That's when KurbArt was born. It stands for the Kelham Urban Art Gallery. 

We talked to John Wilkinson, the project lead and one of the artists about their plans for the art and the inspiration behind it.   

First of all, what’s K.I.A.C? 

KIAC is Kelham Island Arts Collective Ltd, which is an artist-led complex of studios, a gallery and an arts education space on the top floor of a ramshackle factory in Kelham Island. We stage group and solo shows in our gallery, an annual Open Studios event, and regularly set our stall out at events from Ball Street Deli to Art In the Gardens. Members run life drawing, sculpture and clay working sessions in the education space. We have 20 studios, and we have sculptors, painters, textile artists and craft workers occupying them. We’ve been around for 6 years, developing to the point where we can now undertake collaborative projects like the Little Kelham project. 

What will you be creating at Little Kelham? 

Essentially the idea is to bring the gallery outdoors, showing large-scale works hung on the long wall of the Little Kelham development, each accompanied by a title/artist card. There will be 13 separate works by 5 different artists, and they range in size from 3m x 5m to 3m x 20m. 

How will all the different murals fit together? 

The murals draw on common themes, but through 5 different sets of eyes, and sparking 5 different responses. The murals will differ in shape, colour palette, material and style, but will be hung sympathetically to each other, complementing rather than cohering. In adopting the urban art gallery approach, we recognised that indoor galleries have work by many different artists jostling for position, so there was no need for homogeneity. 

Tell us about the artists involved in the project – how did they come to be part of K.I.A.C, and what inspired them to work on this particular project? 

Simon Wigglesworth Baker is the founder member of the collective, a local resident, and a sculptor, who is very keen on large scale pieces. Simon principally works in birch ply, creating sculptures abstracted from objects as diverse as scissors and bicycles, and he has also produced murals along the Don River wall at Bridgehouses. Simon is also one of the artists who has painted a utility cabinet for the KICA project. 

Tony Caunce has been with us for nearly 4 years now, and is used to working on very large canvasses, and paints in watercolour, acrylic and oil. Tony develops his paintings from images he has digitally created, and enjoys the challenge of resolving the shift in medium. 

Joanna Whittle joined us in June last year after moving up to Sheffield. She creates miniature oil paintings drawn from a variety of landscapes. One of her pieces is a 3m x 5m painting drawn from her miniatures. Her other work is a mosaic of tiles that will be fitted around the ventilation slots for the parking area, 

James Croft is our newest member, and came into the project whilst on the waiting list for a studio. James was one of the artists working on the Elephant project in 2016, and has since completed a number of public artworks in his unique and vibrant style, including one of the Kelham Utility cabinets for KICA. 

I (John Wilkinson) joined KIAC in May 2012, probably the best move I’ve ever made as an artist. Moving from working in my back bedroom to a 4m x 6m studio gave me the space to develop, and as an industrial artist working in an old factory seems suitably appropriate. I got into the project at an early stage, and have oversight of the project for KIAC. I’ve always been interested in how my approach would translate to murals, as I worked on a community murals project in London in the late 80’s, and enjoy working to large scale. My work tends to focus on the untold or forgotten stories of the industrial communities, and is often derived from the remnants of deindustrialisation. My latest body of work is focused on the story of merchant sailors on the Arctic Convoy runs of WW2, and is currently on show at Kelham Island Industrial Museum. I paint with a palette knife, quite a challenge on a 3m x 7m piece, but essential to my style. I have put paintings on 2 of the Kelham Island utility cabinets for a community alliance (KICA) project, also a challenge with a painting knife. It’s not the only challenge I’ve had in undertaking the murals, and that is my other reason for working on the project, it is good to be pushed as an artist. 

What do you think it is about Kelham Island that’s made it such a creative hub? 

Kelham has lots of creative businesses because originally the area was cheap to rent business, rehearsal and studio space in. As development occurred the new residents have shown themselves to be very receptive to the work of the cultural and creative industries, which has improved sustainability and helped create links between the businesses and local community. 

What themes will the artists be drawing on for the KurbArt at Little Kelham? 

The themes are all brand values of Citu, who have commissioned and sponsored the project. Design, sustainability, innovation and technology. 

Can you give us a sneak peek at what the artists have planned? 

Simon is producing a 3M x 19.5M shaped mural, and abstract that uses simple & precise forms and a limited but bright colour palette. The work reflects the rooflines of the area past and present, as the sun rises on the new and sets on the old, with the river as the ever-present element. The photo shows about a third of the total piece. 

Tony has proposed 2 murals, both 3m x 5m. One is a free-flowing landscape, the other an abstract. The first references the environment, the second the technological building blocks that underpin the modern world. The photo below shows the completed first mural.


James Croft’s work is a 3m x 6m mural focusing on the river as the heart of community and environment. The below photo shows Tony and James at work on, with Tony’s first piece looming over them. 

Joanna Whittle has produced 2 designs. The first is a 3M x 5M mural reflecting both the industrial and natural heritage of the site and its repurposing; this work also plays with the sense of an island community and utilises the two rivers to emphasise the fact. 

Jo’s second piece is a mosaic of handmade tiles, some slip glazed, and some with raised elements, that will be laid out around and between the ventilation bricks for the little Kelham car park. The tiles will refer both to the site and to the wildlife flourishing along the river. The mosaic will be highlighted with luminescent paint, which will create an alternative vision at night. The photos show some of the tiles in production, there will be 133 in total. 

John Wilkinson is working on 7 murals for the project. 2 of these are 3m x 5m and 3m x 7m murals, one a landscape showing the new development rising from inside the unzipped jacket of the original site, and the other a street scene from within the development, with all the people cut out, so that all that will be seen is bare brick. Born from a recognition that places are about people, the empty spaces are designed to encourage the viewer to put themselves in the scene. The photos show the initial designs only, to give a sense of style and colour palette. 

John has also developed 4 shaped pieces that he calls Figurescapes. All reference the elements, though Air has been replaced with Space. 2 will sit either side of the large shuttered gate in the centre of the wall, and depict a boy (Space) and a Girl (Earth) playing football with the world. The other 2 are figures emerging from or entering holes in the wall, and depict Fire and Water. Collectively the works show people as the elements, playful, thoughtful and thoughtless, far-reaching and driven, and also reference the shift in the area from an industrial to residential base, and the re-emergence of the river ecology. 

Johns final piece will be a composite of abstract slices of landscape, and this will be constructed along the new brick section terminating in the Gatehouse. 

What are your hopes for what the art will do for the community and impress upon all who visit? 

Firstly, I hope to encourage a recognition that art has a place in people’s lives, and in their environments. I also hope that it fosters a sense of respect for, and pride in, place amongst the local community. Green Lane had a lot of old, decaying buildings for a long time, and the KurbArt gallery wall will have a big visual impact, livening up and brightening up the road. Long walls are sombre things, when left bare. I also like the fact that it dovetails nicely with the KICA developed Utilities Cabinet project, a preponderance of public art can never be a bad thing. For visitors I hope it becomes a draw, and I hope they stay to explore the many other places worth visiting on the island, contributing to community stability. 

The first pieces of art are now up on the walls. You can see more on the KurbArt site, which is being built alongside the art being installed. Why not pop down at see it being installed over the next two weeks. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do. 

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