“Progression” and “The Woodsman”: A Tale of Two Sculptures (Or: Basildon’s Tories and Public Art)

"Progression" - Michael Condron

“Progression” – Michael Condron

It is sobering to realise how quickly things fade from the memory.

The controversy surrounding “The Woodsman” and an emailed comment from a friend in Basildon Choral Society has reminded me of the fate of “Progression”, the sculpture created by another exciting Essex artist. Ten years ago, Rochford-born sculptor Michael Condron was commissioned by the Council to create a piece of work to celebrate Basildon’s journey into the new Millennium. The general nature of Condron’s work  is summarised well on the website of Chelmsford Borough Council:

“Michael Condron is a sculptor whose principal aim is to make artwork that belongs to its place. A common theme running throughout his work is a sense of fun and discovery. His sculptures can be interactive, responding to the viewer’s presence with sound, movement, light and even bubbles!”

From even that brief description it is clear that his creations are intended to be touched not just looked at. His installations are almost performance pieces, challenging young and old to explore their physicality as well as admire their lines and designs. That this was intended for “Progression” is borne out by the detailed design information that is available on Condron’s website:

“The sculpture will require little maintenance beyond routine inspection, being robust enough to withstand vandalism, people climbing, etc. Any dirt/graffiti can easily be cleaned by Basildon District Council’s normal maintenance contractors. As the sculptures are set at ground level, the surrounding grass will need to be cut with care. A nylon cord strimmer should be used close to the sculpture to prevent damage.”

Interestingly, the issue of health and safety, the reason so often cited for its removal, was addressed throughout:

“The Artist liaised with Basildon District Council to ensure that any Health and Safety concerns over the design were addressed, including edges, projecting parts, trip and slip hazards.”

The biggest controversy surrounding “Progression” centred on its cost. The Conservative opposition said that spending £25,000 of public money on public art was a waste of money. Instead, Cllr Tony Ball said that the money should be spent on Wickford Citizen’s Advice Bureau and Billericay Citizen’s Advice Bureau who, at the time, faced a cash funding crisis.

Thankfully, they are both still there doing a very important job.

“Progression” is not.

In the story linked above, Cllr Ball makes the following comment:

“We are not against the art – but the cash should be from private sponsorship.”

Personally, I disagree. I believe that public art fulfils an important purpose, in the same way other facilities do. Public art makes the places we live in less severe, breaking up their harsh anonymous lines. It helps create a unique sense of identity.

Other places have been far more welcoming of publicly-commissioned art installed in public spaces. Sticking with Condron, in Woking, his “Martian” has been hailed by visitors as a masterpiece and draws on the local heritage of H. G. Wells. In Slough, he worked with Beechwood School to mark its relocation, creating “Moving On” from pieces of steel cut according to outline drawings of pupils’ feet.

Elsewhere in Essex, his “Timeline” was the result of a commission from the Essex Records Office. The Colchester and Tendering Hospital Arts Project commissioned him to create “Tube Figures”, a series of sculpted figures installed around their hospital sites.  Even the County Council commissioned Condron – after “Progression” was installed.

Elsewhere, the importance of public art is recognised in law. In New York, that bastion of socialism, there is a 1% rule:

“In 1982, the Percent for Art law was initiated by Mayor Edward I. Koch and passed by the Council of the City of New York requiring that one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for City facilities.”

In Norway, which also has statutory funding requirements in respect of public buildings, the government has a professional body for public art (KORO) with a clear statement of purpose:

“Art expresses human creativity and originality. Through art, reality is adapted in order to convey new experiences, new understandings and new insights. Producing art for public spaces is a way of expressing a democratic idea that upholds the right of every person to experience art.”

In the course of my professional work I have had reason to visit Norway and have held discussions with senior public figures regarding the role of public art in promoting health and well-being. I had the good fortune to be shown around a new hospital being built, in which each room was carefully decorated and the communal spaces were filled with beautiful works of public art. The feeling of peaceful recuperation was palpable. (There was even a piano, regularly tuned and maintained, for patients, visitors or staff to play.)

In its own small way, “The Woodsman” did just that. It broke up the harsh lines of the commercial space around it and reminded us of softer, greener and older places – and reminded us that we each have the right to experience art. Experience is an important word, too. It is not about ‘liking’, though many of us loved “The Woodsman”. ‘Dislike’ is important in creating a discussion, getting us engaged in the debate about how our environment should look.

Where is that discussion in Basildon?

Ten years’ on from “Progression”, public art produced in Basildon, for Basildon, by a Basildon artist, is now rotting in an anonymous yard.

£38 million can be spent furthering the sporting interests of the district, but the Council is not even prepared to spend the few thousand necessary to restore “The Woodsman” to the space it was made for (and made in).

And whilst “The Woodsman” lies open to the elements, but closed to the public, what of Condron’s “Progression”? This piece, a work that was designed to “withstand climbing, swinging, vandalism or the elements”, is also in Wat Tyler Country Park, fenced off from the public like some museum piece.

This tale of two sculptures is also the story of the diminution of Wat Tyler Country Park. Wat Tyler has its own identity, its own story to tell of struggles ancient and modern.  It shouldn’t become the repository of Basildon District Council’s public art – where you have to make a visit to see it and admire it from afar.

The more I think about it, the more Friday’s symbolic funeral wreath, which could have been mocked for its mawkishness and sentimentality, captures a vital idea – the sad passing away of public art in Basildon.

I would challenge those who are “not against the art” to say otherwise.

For those who are interested in Condron’s work, I have pulled together a gallery on Flickr from publicly available pictures. It is predominantly made up of shots of his three-piece “War of the Worlds” installation in Woking – you can find examples of his other work on the links above.

If you want to find out more about public art in general, Wikipedia has a very good entry which should serve as a useful starting point. Public art online is a leading UK website which covers information from across the country as well as internationally. Artquest has a very interesting section entitled Government Policies and the Arts which looks at the statutory framework regarding public art in different countries. It also contains a free library of legal information for artists on its Artlaw subsite. There is also a directory of public art which contains news of new installations as well as a growing collection of public art from around the globe.

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The Woodsman Facebook Group: the significance of public art

There is now a Facebook Group Save The Woodsman that has been set up by members of Basildon’s artistic community. If you are a Facebook user, please take the opportunity to have a look. Attitudes to public art – and the conduct of local authorities – is not just a local issue. The precedents set by councils in different local areas helps shape and define national policy and guidance. Public art makes a valuable contribution to the health and well-being of our communities.

Your support for The Woodsman will help send a message to local government about the communities we all live in.

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“The Woodsman” – Dissembling officialdom and a Council’s municipal vandalism

Waking this morning I didn’t expect to open my inbox to discover something to make me literally shake with rage.

In recent days I have blogged on “The Woodsman”, Dave Chapple’s carved sculpture that he gave to the people of Basildon. Yesterday, members of Basildon’s arts community celebrated his work – and mourned the Council’s decision to remove “The Woodsman”.

Back in 2008, Basildon District Council decided to consult on the future of “The Woodsman”. In the original press release , unattributed assertions are made that “it was never meant to be outside for long periods” and that “to keep it outside will require extensive treatment and could cost thousands of pounds”. No officer or councillor puts their name to the quote – it stands there as a nugget of wisdom dispensed on high from people who clearly want to give the impression that they know what they are doing and that they understand how to care for such fragile works of art (the press release later makes clear that treatment would mean it could stand for a further ten years before more treatment).

Cllr Stephen Horgan reinforces that understanding when he states that “the “woodsman” sculpture is in need of repair, or removal to an indoor location.”

Notice: the implication of repair is that it could stay outside. Otherwise – “or” – it needed putting inside. So it remaining on display was a possibility. (If it were removed, there was even the prospect of a new piece of art for the square, suggesting that King Edgar’s Head by Dave Chapple might be a possibility.)

In October 2008 a further press release was issued which requested design ideas for the lighting column to replace “The Woodsman”. Cllr Kevin Blake is quoted saying: “We asked the public whether they wanted to see the woodsman replaced, and it seems only right that we now give people the opportunity to send in their ideas of what they think a new lighting column should look like.”

It is an interestingly constructed sentence – a PR professional’s top piece of spin.

See how the second part of the sentence implies the result of the first, but without saying what the response to the survey actually showed? The survey probably did show the result they reported. However, details of it are nowhere to be found on either Basildon District Council’s website or Basildon Renaissance  Partnership’s website. I have written to the Council and requested a copy just so we can see how many people took part and exactly what it showed. I will of course share it here when it is forthcoming.

As you can see, public art is out the window now. Lighting columns are in. (Later still, in April 2009, I voted at Cabinet to accept the new money from the Government for new lighting in the Town Centre and St Martin’s Square. The Government wanting to invest in Basildon seemed a good thing. Seeing the insensitivity of the design in relation to the views of the Bell Tower, I regret how it is turning out. I wish I had also made the connection between the competition for new lighting columns, the future of “The Woodsman” and this money. I didn’t.)

Finally, in Basildon District Council’s most recent press release on “The Woodsman”, Cllr Horgan describes “The Woodsman” as “a well loved piece of public art.”

And the lighting column is now the Town Clock.

I hope the pictures below shock you as much as they shocked me when I found them waiting in my inbox.

They were taken yesterday afternoon.

They show how Basildon District Council stores “The Woodsman”, that “well loved piece of public art” which Cllr Horgan believes will be appreciated by “hundreds of thousands” in Wat Tyler Country Park – a piece of art that in the Council’s own words “was never meant to be outside for long periods” and needed “extensive treatment”:

It is nothing short of vandalism.  Cllr Michael Mowe is a Conservative councillor who condemns “brainless vandalism” – and very rightly so. I wonder what questions he will now be asking of his own Conservative administration? (Incidentally, vandalism can be reported to Basildon District Council on its website and even by mobile phone. Perhaps the Council’s own acts of vandalism should be reported?)

To my mind, though, questions and emails and letters are useless. This Conservative administration has determined its priorities – and this is how it treats a “well loved piece of public art”.

Contrast that with £38 million for a Sporting Village.

Pathetic.

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“The Woodsman” – the Chapple family’s bitterness at Council decision #fb

The Echo today reports on the bitterness of the Chapple family at the way the Council has handled the relocation of “The Woodsman”. What is so desperately sad is that this is a local Basildon artist, who created this sculpture for the town, from materials originating in the town. In that sense it was truly a piece for local people and, as I’ve written previously, made important connections between the present day, the past and Basildon’s natural environment.

For local Tory politicians to have moved so quickly to get rid of this landmark carving smacks of an indifference to our local heritage – and a callous disregard for the feelings of Dave Chapple’s family.

Read the full story in the Echo.

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The beautifully different faces of South Essex

Looking over Ellie’s art, and writing about the decision of the Council to remove “The Woodsman”, reminded me how beautiful this part of Essex is – in very different ways. Ellie’s art, as she explains in her words in my post below, is heavily influenced by the landscape of her childhood. We grew up nestled in a rural area that was an idyll for children raised on Enid Blyton. Dry Street in Langdon Hills is isolated from the New Town in terms of development and social culture (you might find my very early post on the new town interesting). However, we often took trips to the Estuary coastline, to Coal House Fort, from where we could see the effects of industrialisation very clearly.

With that in mind, I decided to create two galleries on my Flickr page to show off the very different beautiful aspects of the area we live in (both of which are linked in earlier posts but are easy to miss).

The first is of Langdon Hills and is a stunning display of the natural beauty that is available to us in Basildon. The second is of the industrialised Thames Estuary and presents a very different, but equally beautiful view of the same area. Both galleries show pictures of the landscapes to be found in the constituency of South Basildon and East Thurrock.

Some of the scenes are barely a mile apart. Enjoy – and marvel at this diverse and beautiful place.

It is something to celebrate.

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“The Woodsman” – Then and Now

Then…

“The Woodsman” - Eddie Gunn

And now…

The empty plinth - Steve Waters

The empty plinth speaks for itself. Please give us “The Woodsman” back.

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“The Woodsman”, The Town and The Politicians #basildon #toryfail

“The Woodsman” by Dave Chapple - unattributed

Yesterday, on my email, I received an email from Conservative-controlled Basildon District Council, linking to a press release on the future of Dave Chapple’s “Woodsman” sculpture. The Council has decided to remove the statue permanently (it is currently in storage) and replace it with the original town clock. As you can see, it says:

“A location for the statue is currently being found within the Park, and the woodsman will remain in storage until then.

Cllr Stephen Horgan, deputy leader of the Council, says: “The woodsman is a well loved piece of public art, and we believe that a new home at Wat Tyler Country Park is more suitable and appropriate, where he will be appreciated by the hundreds of thousands of people that visit the park each year.””

I am all for putting the clock back on display (where it can be properly seen from all four sides!). I am also for ensuring that hundreds of thousands of people get the opportunity to enjoy the unique and other-worldly charm of “The Woodsman”. However, in an act tantamount to municipal vandalism, Conservative councillors intend to remove the sculpture from the urban space for which it was created and place it in a country park – changing its context, function and form entirely.

There is no explanation as to why it is to be moved. We are left to speculate why Cllr Horgan advises that Wat Tyler Country Park will be “more suitable and appropriate”. Perhaps reinstating it so close to the Council’s offices would be a potent reminder of how  successive administrations – including the current Conservative administration – have failed to take care of this significant contribution to Basildon’s artistic heritage?

For me, “The Woodsman” isn’t just a quirky carving. Wood is a unique medium to work with. Unlike sculpting in bronze, from a cast, every single wooden carving, even if it appears the same, is very different. Each piece of wood has a different grain. Each piece of wood will have different knots to tax the skills of the carver. Hewn from local timber, from a tree felled in the Great Storm of 1987, “The Woodsman” is a unique piece of art designed to provoke thought and comment in the centre of a busy urban environment. In its original position, it broke up the concrete lines of the town and prompted a pause for thought, even if only a few seconds, to reflect on something that somehow managed to be both incongruous and perfectly situated at the same time.

“The Woodsman” was also a reminder of Basildon’s past. We’ve recently celebrated 60 years as a town. Prior to its construction, much of the area was fields and woodlands. Even now, Basildon is a place that contains areas of incredible natural beauty. It’s not without reason that Arthur Young, in his A Six Weeks’ Tour through the Southern Counties of England and Wales, wrote the following about Langdon Hills:

“I forgot to tell you, that near Horndon, on the summit of a vast hill, the most astonishing prospect that ever was beheld by human eyes, breaks almost at once upon one of the dark lanes. Such a prodigious valley, every where painted with the finest verdure, and intersected with numberless hedges and woods, appears beneath you, that it is past description; the Thames winding through it, full of ships, and bounded by the hills of Kent. Nothing can exceed this amazing prospect, unless it be that which Hannibal exhibited to his disconsolate troops, where he bade them behold the glories of the Italian plains! If ever a turnpike should lead through this country, I beg you will go and view this enchanting prospect, though a journey of 40 miles is necessary for it. I never beheld any thing equal to it in the West of England, that region of landscape.”

24 June 1767, King’s-Head, Tilbury

“The Woodsman” provided a connection to our history and that natural environment right in the middle of our town, where it could be enjoyed by those shopping, working, visiting the Council or passing through. We didn’t have to make a special trip to see it.

Finally, it also stood as a testament to the talents of Dave Chapple, who passed away on Friday 6th November 2009. Dave had even proposed a sculpture for the Millennium Dome when the Government was seeking ideas for what to put inside. To my mind it was a stunning challenge to the material assumptions that have overtaken us, putting Christ at the centre of the building commissioned to mark the new millennium.

Dave Chapple with “The Woodsman” - Picture Esk, Flickr

Beautiful detail at the base of “The Woodsman” - Vin Harrop

“The Woodsman” in its rightful place - Vin Harrop

To my mind, we have lost something as a community when politicians are prepared to spend £38 million on a sporting complex, but those same politicians are not prepared to find the money, time or motivation to ensure that “The Woodsman” – created in Basildon, for Basildon – can be enjoyed by thousands in the space it was created for.

“The Woodsman” is a thing of beauty that tells a story far greater than many imagine.

The Town needs to remember its roots – and the people of the town want to know its history and be reminded how beautiful parts of our district truly are.

And The Politicians need to remember who they represent. They also need to remember the heritage – cultural and natural – that is entrusted to them.

If you are interested in seeing some of Dave Chapple’s other work, please see this online gallery.

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