When we wanted to create something amazing on the huge heritage wall running along Green Lane on the Southern edge of Little Kelham, we turned to the Kelham Island Arts Collective (KIAC). 

Five different artists from KIAC created amazing pieces of art for the project - but John Wilkinson saw the whole project through to fruition- and created 7 of the 13 different pieces in the KurbArt gallery.  

We spoke to John about what he's created for the KurbArt project. 

You’ve created 7 murals for the KurbArt project. That must have been quite a challenge. Can you tell us a little about how you created each mural, and the idea behind it?

A challenge indeed, though of course I had a brief to work from, and it didn’t take long to come up with a vision for the works. Proceeding from there to the A3paperworks design stage was simple, but that is only the starting point for a 3m tall mural. Scaling up leaves large open areas that then require activating in order to ensure that there are enough points of interest in the image to engage. I develop these as the painting progresses, taking regular photos so that I can consider the work in its entirety (hard to step back from a 3m x 7m mural when its being painted in 2 halves in a 4m x 6m studio). 

Of course, just to make the job harder, I have kept to my normal technique. All my murals have mostly been painted with a No 2 (3 1/4" long) palette knife.

The first design I produced was ‘Emerging’ – which contrasts the industrial history and residential repurposing of the site. I was very keen in this (and indeed all the murals) to avoid using figurative elements that could be identified by anything other than Gender. The aim has been to encourage the viewer to put themselves in the scene.  In developing it I included changes to the site that had occurred since I designed it, such as the Boules court, and also elements from my main body of work - the figure and dog in the foreground are repeated in most of my currently developing Pathways Series, and there are 2 of my Icons shapes, representing production, on the left centre horizon.

‘On the edge of everything’ is my most ambitious piece. At 3 x 7m it’s also the largest. The original design concentrated on the relationship between the architecture of Little Kelham and the natural landscape and geography that so defines Sheffield. As the work progressed I also realized that the rooftops could reflect the industrial architecture of the area, and resolved a couple of composition issues that had not been apparent at the design stage. To add interest I played around with perspective a bit, introducing a slight surrealism with the inclusion of a ladder form the foreground to the Peak District landscape behind, and used a scraffito technique to encourage a sculptural feel to the Burnt Sienna figures in the left foreground. I added a hint at the water that forms the island, and a large rusty pipe terminating in an Icon to emphasise the industrial history that surrounds the development. Finally, I cut out the right foreground figures, so that when hung the mural will show bare brick forming the figures. I hope this will encourage people to recognise that it is people that make places, and to place themselves in the picture.

Broken World, the final piece, is developed from a landscape I painted a couple of years ago – Till Birnam Wood remove to Dunsinane – that reflects on the mobility of people. It is chopped into sections, and interspersed with elements of environmental and industrial decay, to hint at some of the impacts of unsustainable development.

You created four figurescapes for KurbArt. What inspired you to create these, and what visual impact did you imagine them having?

The figurescapes arose from a desire to avoid figurative elements that the viewer could identify themselves in. I first came up with a Landscape and Starscape shaped as a boy and girl playing football as a pair of welcoming figures either side of Gate 2. In developing these I made the football into the globe, to suggest that we play games with the planet. The Seascape is derived from one of my larger paintings (Wave) and is shown entering the space. This is a nod to the reemergence of the river environment following the large-scale deindustrialization of the area since the mid 80’s. Conversely, Fire is shown leaving the building as a reference to the decline of industry on the Island.  

I see the figures as fun things, and unusual. I hoped that the visual impact would be to make people smile, and possibly think. They are bright and colourful, which should help open out the street, and perspective based, encouraging a feeling that there is something beyond the wall. Finally, in their size, shape and the fact that they reach the ground, they should help punctuate the wall, breaking up the bottom line of the rectangular landscapes that proceed down it.    

A lot of your murals draw on the theme of places being about people- what led to this revelation, and how have you explored that idea in your art?  

I first came to the realization when I was trying to get a typical, moody, black & white photo of Castlerigg stone circle in the Lakes. I couldn’t, as other tourists kept wandering into shot. After a while I concluded that it was what I was aiming at that was wrong, that the site had been built by people for people, and showing it without them was to show dead space. As my paintings developed this recognition has stayed with me, as well as the understanding that it is people that give places meaning. I made use of this recently, carrying out a 50-day residency at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, painting in full view of the public (which was great fun), and painting pictures that explored what the site was like when it was a Scythe Works. The site has been beautifully restored, and the images I created suggested the lives that had been lived there, adding relevance for the visitors. 

Your work has focused on the untold stories of industrial communities, can you talk us through why that is and how you’ve brought that to the Kurbart project?

My focus on working-class history is in recognition that we live in and walk upon, and take for granted, an infrastructure that has been built for us; often at the time by people that we would not allow in our villages and towns. We are encouraged to see history as Kings and Queens, States and battles, Leaders both inspirational and not. We are as blind to the relevance of the lives of ordinary people as we are to their works, and as such are not encouraged to see our individual selves as relevant to the world. Making those stories the subject or inspiration for art achieves two things. Firstly, it seeks to redress a balance, to stress the contribution to all of our lives made by people we will never meet, and in some of my works a recognition that there is a human cost at both personal and community levels to progress, and the results are not necessarily beneficial to all. Secondly, it seeks to encourage a recognition among people who feel who do not engage with art that art can have relevance to them and their lives.

In KurbArt I make only passing reference to that. Murals depict the shift from production to living, and in doing so contain figurative elements to the lives that went on before (i.e the man & his dog, looking through the passage to Green Lane Works, and the long line of figures, always on the move, in Broken World). However, they are but passing references, as they are neither principal subject nor inspiration for the KurbArt murals.

You’ve been involved in the KurbArt project from the start, and have managed the project all the way through. In what ways has KurbArt changed or evolved from how you originally envisaged it?

The original project proposal was submitted in August 2017, and the project was estimated to take 5 months to complete. The production was timed to use dead space in the gallery over Autumn/Winter, and built around the other commitments of the participant artists. It was also based on Citu supplying the boards on which the murals would be painted. Since the proposal submission a number of changes have happened, some due to artistic development, and some due to a slower start to the project than was envisaged (in my naivety).

From a management view, the biggest changes have resulted in it taking longer to approve the project than I had assumed would be the case. The impact of this was that I had to source and purchase the boards (which did not arrive until February 16th), and condense the production timetable in order to fit around other organisational commitments. The biggest management headache on the project has been installation, as the time slippage at the start has meant that there has not been enough labour, and putting the boards up is more weather dependent than I had anticipated. The participating artists have been fantastic in managing to fit 5 months production into 3, we have had many long days, and our gallery looked amazing as an art factory in late Feb – early April.   

Artistically the project has changed in a number of ways. Firstly through the replacement of a 3d tree form weaving through the bricks of the garage vents with a tile mosaic, which arose as the artist who was to produce the tree had to leave Sheffield in late November. Fortunately one of our other artists, Jo Whittle, was able to step in with a replacement design.  

Both Simon and I have developed our murals from their original designs as we have addressed the scaling up of the work. All the artists have been very conscious that this project showcases our work in the most public way, and their commitment to realising their concepts has produced fantastic results.  

The other major change has been concerned with the overall placing of the murals. Originally Simon wanted to run his from floor to wall top, but careful profiling of the pavement line showed how difficult this would be to achieve. Now all the landscape aspect murals have a common bottom line the wall has a more cohesive feel, with only the figurescapes touching the pavement, punctuating the flow. The addition of wall plaques lends a more gallery feel to the wall as well.

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