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With delicious irony, the spirit of Wat Tyler has been stirred in Basildon’s creative communities by the way in which Basildon Council dumped Dave Chapple’s Woodsman Poacher sculpture at the park that bears Tyler’s name. I am sure Wat Tyler, who led a peasant army in revolt against financial dictats from the King (a poll tax, actually), would smile at the way Basildon artists are speaking out in opposition to local politicians who are quite happily rake in our taxes, but appear to have no respect for what the community actually wants.

Yesterday, The Echo reported how on Monday “More than 50 painters, sculptors, performers, heritage bosses, and other members of the arts community gathered for their inaugral meeting.” Liz Grant, who worked with other local artists to convene the meeting, describes it brilliantly:

“We had lots of people from across the arts spectum, which is fantastic for a first meeting.

“The Woodsman has been the catalyst for the group’s formation.

“We see it as a symbol of how the artistic community and the public feel about how the arts are being dealt with by Basildon’s current council and the previous one.

“It’s a symbol of all that’s wrong with how the council is operating.”

To my mind it is quite incredible how the plight of a single wooden statue has brought together Basildon’s creative communities in a way nothing else has. Steve Waters is one of the artists behind Old Man Stan, and his quote in The Echo captures succinctly the way in which the treatment of Dave Chapple’s creation has caused people to take a stand:

“We now have one united voice for the arts community in Basildon.

“The Woodman is what has brought us all together.

“We don’t want it to happen again, or ever be forgotten.”

Too damn right we don’t.

There was unanimous agreement on a motion of no confidence in the way that the Council currently engages those involved in the arts – and the way it looks after Basildon’s valuable collection of public art. As someone who has blogged variously about The Woodsman, public art in Basildon, the Wat Tyler sculpture trail and the Motorboat Museum, it was truly heartening to learn that all these issues were discussed.

What is particuarly exciting about this venture is that it is professionals and amateurs alike who are involved. Quite simply, it’s local people saying they want to have a say in how their public spaces look – and how their interests are supported – in just the same way that sport and other leisure activities are supported.

Politicians might think they can shrug this off. I don’t think they can.

Many of those who enjoy participating in the arts – creating things, making things, acting things, singing things, watching things, listening to things – get fed up with being treated as the Cinderella sector, left to sweep up the crumbs whilst the ugly homogeneous stepsisters “Sport” and “Leisure” receive the funding and the attention.

My own view, as someone involved in local politics and the local art scene, is that we attempt to tell people what they want at our peril. For me it comes back to the “raucous, unpredictable capacity of people” that lends our communities power and vibrancy and which, when untied in a single shout, demands attention as the voice of local people that help pay the Council’s way.

Being involved in the arts, involved in Basildon’s creative communities, is about being involved with each other, in all its glorious messiness.

Some things we’ll love.

Some things we’ll hate.

Some things we’ll think are pointless.

And some things we’ll disagree on.

But some things – like The Woodsman Poacher – will make us realise that we have much more in common than we think.

If you want to get involved, the next meeting is on Monday 22nd March at 7.00pm, St Martin’s Church Hall. Please call Elizabeth Grant on 07939 122864 for further details.

If you think Basildon deserves better than bulldozers and excuses, come along.

And finally, for those politicians who still think that all this really doesn’t matter, there’s a salutory lesson on Facebook.

Friends for the The Woodsman Poacher? 1,651.

Friends on the campaign page of Basildon’s Tory candidate? 150.

The Woodsman Poacher rests his case…

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At last night’s Council Meeting I moved the following motion (see item 13):

“The Council welcomes the demonstration of public support for reinstating The Woodsman in St Martin’s Square, recognises the talent and generosity of Dave Chapple in giving “The Woodsman” to the people of Basildon, and commits to its restoration and reinstatement in St Martin’s Square at the earliest practical opportunity.”

I regretted that no administration had looked after “The Woodsman”. However, I pointed out that “The Woodsman’s continuing neglect, taken together with what they had done to other pieces of public art and Cllr Tony Ball’s comments on the funding of “Progression”, showed that the Conservative Party in Basildon (not nationally) had a clear position: they are not supportive of public art. I said that this seemed inconsistent with their Conservative colleagues at County Hall, their own press release and survey – and the public response on Facebook to “The Woodsman”. (I pointed out that “The Woodsman” had more than ten times more friends on Facebook than Stephen Metcalfe, the Conservative PPC, on his campaign page – and that the page for “The Woodsman” had only been running for a few weeks.)

The public survey is very interesting.

As you can see, response was low.  220 people offered an opinion. (I’ll state it again, despite the Council saying this survey had wide coverage, I saw nothing and so didn’t take part.) However, whilst it does show that 74% of people thought “The Woodsman” should be replaced, it also showed that a majority of people wanted a piece of public art in St Martin’s Square: either “The Woodsman”, another piece by Dave or a newly commissioned piece of public art. Just to be clear, I say a majority as if you take the totals for “The Woodsman”, “King Edgar’s Head” and a new piece of public art you get 130. That is 59% of 220 – a majority. Sadly, though, I suspect this survey was just another cynical manipulation of figures to present the result they wanted: “The Woodsman” gone and purple squid lights installed instead. (They are actually going to be putting the Town Clock where “The Woodsman” used to be. It’s a marvellous and unique piece of engineering, as Cllr Horgan said, but surely it should be put back in the Town Centre – where it was designed to be?)

Whatever people’s views on public art in general, I made the argument that “The Woodsman” was different: made from material from Basildon, made in Basildon, by an artist from Basildon, in front of people from Basildon and then handed over to Basildon – for free.

Finally, earlier in the meeting, Cllr Ball, talking on another item, had said that his Conservative Council was a listening administration and that they would hear what the people wanted and then deliver. I concluded by reminding the Council of what he had said, pointing out that 162 people had said take “The Woodsman” down in their consultation – but more than 1500 people were now asking for it to be put back. The people would be waiting for him to listen and deliver.

The Conservative Councillors commended Dave Chapple on his work. However, during the meeting I was accused of electioneering, making politics out of “The Woodsman”, and was told that the Conservative administration would take no lessons on support for public art as they had repaired the “Mother and Child” fountain.  I was also told that that Dave had always wanted to see “The Woodsman” in Wat Tyler. They had consulted the public – and the public had asked for it to be taken down (all 162 of them).

The motion was defeated with every single Conservative Councillor present voting against – the three Liberal Democrats and the Labour Councillors present voting for.

I am a little wrung out with it all now to be honest. How sad to think that we are in this mess because no-one could be bothered to put a bit of teak oil on “The Woodsman” as Dave had requested.

I didn’t know Dave and I don’t know his family. I know one or two of his friends, but not very well. I simply want to see the “The Woodsman” repaired and restored and put back on display, either in St Martin’s Square or a suitable location that is actually in the town, not tucked away like some unofficial sculpture museum (graveyard?).

Let’s hope that the years of neglect have not left it damaged beyond repair.

And if they are not going to put him back, at least listen to what the majority of respondents were telling the Council in that survey: they want a piece of public art there.

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Exciting news from Basildon’s artistic community.

The first “Basildon Arts Forum” is to be held at St Martin’s Church Hall, Basildon Town Centre on Monday 1st March at 7pm. Anyone interested in seeing a thriving artistic community in Basildon is welcome. As spaces have to be limited for health and safety reasons please drop an email to Liz Grant if you are intending to come: lizzy_grant@btopenworld.com.

Also, in the best traditions of anti-establishment art, the irreverent Old Man Stan has decided to share his views on the fate of “The Woodsman”. He really is the most incredible creation, sort of like Alf Garnett crossed with Statler and Waldorf and “Grandad Trotter”. I hope that those it lampoons remember that satire in Britain has a handsome pedigree – and take it in the spirit of Fousgasse and Hogarth.

Or at least Spitting Image.

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Those who are interested in “The Woodsman” may wish to know that at the next Council meeting (18 February 2010 at 6pm) I will be moving the following motion for discussion:

“The Council welcomes the demonstration of public support for reinstating The Woodsman in St Martin’s Square, recognises the talent and generosity of Dave Chapple in giving The Woodsman to the people of Basildon, and commits to its restoration and reinstatement in St Martin’s Square at the earliest practical opportunity.”

It is the last item on the meeting’s agenda – and the agenda is a very long one as it will also deal with setting the level of Council Tax (there is therefore a danger that it might not be reached).

The Council meets in the St George’s Suite and it is a meeting open to the public (public question time is the first item on the agenda – questions have to be submitted in writing three days before (the deadline is usually regarded as 10am on Monday).

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On December 15 2008 Nick Clegg delivered a speech to the think tank Demos entitled “Why I am a Liberal”. It was both passionate and philosophical, a very personal evocation of liberalism that captures the essence of political empowerment:

“A Liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives… A Liberal believes a progressive society is distinguished by aspiration, creativity and non-conformity.”

Today, Don Foster MP, the Liberal Democrats Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, launched “The Power of Creativity” – a vision document for the arts that translates Liberal ideals into political commitments, policies and aspirations.

As the document highlights, the first Chairman of the Arts Council was John Maynard Keynes, the noted economist and lifelong member of the Liberal Party. He set out a clear mission for the Arts Council:

“The purpose of the Arts Council of Great Britain is to create an environment, to breed a spirit, to cultivate an opinion, to offer a stimulus to such purpose that the artist and the public can each sustain and live on the other in that union which has occasionally existed in the past at the great ages of a communal civilised life.”

In the current political and economic climate, funding, innovation, local support and creative risk-taking are all in jeopardy.  Our own experience in Basildon, with “The Woodsman”, “Progression” and The Wat Tyler Sculpture Trail are testimony to the low priority that the arts receive in terms of support from local government, particularly where politicans are obsessed with enormous capital projects to cement their political legacy. Foster’s paper seeks to sustain Keyne’s original and Liberal vision for the arts in these more uncertain times.

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A reader has been in touch to explain that the “Basildon Community Video Club” produced a video recording the story of the tree which was used by Dave Chapple to produce his sculpture “The Woodsman”. Filmed during 1995, the 20 minute documentary shows Dave Chapple at work creating the statue of “The Woodsman” from the trunk of a fallen tree from Langdon Hills.

The Essex Media Workshop based in Parkside, Pitsea, has now transferred the original VHS tape onto DVD. I have been in touch with them and those who would like to see the story of how “The Woodsman” was made can purchase a copy. The Essex Media Workshop are a registered charity in England and Wales that specialises in helping charity groups and disabled organisations realise their video projects. Any proceeds from the DVD will help them continue the valuable work they do with all manner of vountary groups.

The video of “The Woodsman” being carved is available from: Essex Media Workshop, Parkside, Basildon, SS13 1NL.

The price is £4 (or £5 inclusive of post and packing).

Please order via Andy Alexander at the Essex Media Workshop, Tel. 01268 555 771 or via e-mail at andy@essexmediaworkshop.co.uk

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Following my post on “Progression” and “The Woodsman” I made contact with the artist Michael Condron, the sculptor commissioned by Basildon Council to make “Progression”. I thought it courteous to draw his attention to the fact I was blogging about his work. His response – which he is happy for me to share – is an extraordinary and depressing indictment of the lack of courtesy and general ignorance of Basildon Council (and by extension its Conservative administration) in its dealings with artists and issues of public art:

“The attitude Basildon DC has shown towards it’s public art is pretty extraordinary, and fortunately not the kind of behaviour I’ve come across elsewhere.

The relocation of my Progression sculpture was not something I was consulted on.  Whilst I’m not entirely happy with the new situation, it is better than the artwork rotting in a storage yard somewhere.

You mentioned NYC’s percent for art programme in the blog, and I wonder if you’re aware that Essex County Council also has a percent for art policy.  Many commissions have been funded by developers through “section 106” planning requirements, including my recent Life Cycle installation at Hanningfield reservoir.

Generally speaking public art is vibrant in Essex!”

What is particularly depressing is that, whilst Basildon’s Conservatives neglect and rip out our public art, the record of Essex County Council, another Conservative administration, is a national leader when it comes to supporting public art. As Condron notes, Essex does indeed operate a percent policy for art. Art in the Open singles out Essex as its case study for best practice in “embedding public art within Council-led capital projects”. The page on commissioning guidance states:

“Essex County Council (ECC) has been commissioning art in the public realm as part of its Capital Development Programme and Essex Design Initiative for many years.  It was the first County Council to develop and adopt the principle of a public art policy in the late 1980s.  In 2002 it adopted a Percent for Art policy and, more recently, has developed a central budgeting process to create a new fund, the Public Art Common Fund, that draws money directly from ECC’s capital programmes budget, enabling the public arts team to plan longer term.  This has lead to the development of a three-year programme of more substantial commissions under the banner of ‘Genius Loci’ (‘Spirit of Place’).  These commissions are predominantly permanent but also include some temporary work to help highlight and pave the way for the permanent.”

What’s more, Essex demonstrates that it truly understands the purpose of public art:

“ECC seeks to commission art in the public realm to:

  • Improve the aesthetics of the built environment
  • Enhance a sense of community and place
  • Foster community pride and ownership
  • Celebrate artistic achievement
  • Reflect a ‘spirit of place’”

To demonstrate how serious Essex is about supporting public art, Art in the Open explains how the County Council organises the staff that support public art:

“ECC believes in an embedded and informed approach to commissioning art in the public realm.  It runs workshops and organises study trips to support internal development and understanding; the public art team sits within the built environment department, ensuring a close working relationship across planning and development teams; a Public Art Strategy Group, chaired by a cabinet member and including officers from across the council, helps keep an informed overview; occasionally, external organisations are brought in to provide additional commissioning support.”

And the big question in local government is always the money:

“Funding streams:

  • Percent for Art: up to 1 per cent of almost all capital builds across the council. This has been consolidated for 2007-2010 as the Public Art Common Fund where 0.74 per cent, £2.14 million, has been designate for Genius Loci. The continuation of the Common Fund beyond 2010 is subject to approval by the Council and is depended on a successful bid from the Public Art Team.
  • Money can also be brought in through section 106 (however, this mechanism is dependent on the policy of the local planning authority not the County Council).”

To be honest, it is a pretty extraordinary commitment from a local authority and I applaud Essex’s seriousness in making public art accessible and relevant – not shoved away in corners as museum pieces to be visited.

So why is it, with such a leading example so politically and geographically close to home, that Basildon’s Conservative Party acts like a Neanderthal collective when it comes to  public art? I can’t answer that. However, I can only think that the “pretty extraordinary” attitude identified by Condron was a principal contributing factor to the appalling ruin of “The Woodsman”.

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