Wednesday, 8 February 2012

OCA Yorkshire Group at Leeds Art Gallery

I came across the invitation to join the recently formed Yorkshire Group on the OCA student forums a few weeks ago.  Today was the group's second day out and I joined them at Leeds Art Gallery.  It was lovely to meet fellow students face to face, something I do miss with distance learning, and particularly interesting to have representatives from most of the OCA courses including drawing, sculpture, photography and illustration.  It was a great motivator and an opportunity to share our concerns, experiences and plans and to discuss good local resources (not least which galleries have the best cafes!) before going off to see the exhibits and do our own thing before meeting back for lunch.

The wonderful Victorian Tiled Hall Cafe.
Recently restored this was originally a library reading room

It's been many years since I visited so I wasn't familiar with the gallery.  There wasn't an obvious route to follow or much information at the entrance so I went off for a wander, starting with the Northern Art Prize, then the Gary Hume exhibition via a number of rooms with contemporary collections. Either I wasn't in the right frame of mind today or I should have done a bit of research about the exhibits before I arrived, as nothing immediately captured my imagination and sufficient information about what I was looking at wasn't there in front of me. During my wanderings, which included my mind, it occurred to me that I wanted to view the the exhibits right to left but they were set out right to left and I found this slightly irritating.  That handedness thing crops up again!

What I did find inspiring was the architecture of the building itself and I was glad I'd brought a camera as I didn't have much time to stop and sketch today, needing to rush back to pick the girls up from school.  Although the photographs are not individually great, I can see potential in some of these shots for exercises in the Jan Beaney & Jean Littlejohn 'Construction' booklet that I mentioned in my previous post.

Also very exciting was coming across the Art Library with it's vast collection of textile books, and most of all the Leeds Tapestry, a community project by artist Kate Russell who wanted to create a collaborative piece of artwork that had meaning and a sense of ownership for all involved.  She also wanted to and raise the profile of textile art which she felt was undervalued in a city whose "wealth and culture was built on a combination of textiles and engineering." (Russell & Walker, 2002, P4). Of course it was also an opportunity to keep traditional skills alive and a huge variety of techniques are included.  The result is an incredibly detailed snapshot of Leeds life and heritage at the turn of the 21st century.

Part of the 'Pins and Needles' panel, representing Leeds' textile and industrial heritage. This panel includes many modern and antique haberdashery items, all from the sewing boxes of the volunteers!
Detail from the Community Spirit Panel.
 The majority of the characters featured are ordinary people.  Many are self-portraits.

The tapestry comprises 16 panels, approx 8' x 4' each, of richly decorated textile art, with themes such as faith, health, transport, education and civic pride. It took hundreds of volunteers, some experienced embroiderers but many complete beginners, 10 years to complete.  I lived, studied and worked in Leeds for those exact 10 years from 1992, when I arrived as an 18-year old architecture student, until 2002 when my first child was born and I moved on.  Therefore, I instantly related to many of the images.  In the foreword of the book that tells the story of the tapestry, the director of Leeds Civic Trust imagines a guide book to Leeds in 2100 describing the tapestry as a 'must-see' attraction (Russell & Walker, 2002). Would the tourists of the future have any idea who the characters on the 'Local Faces' panel were, I wondered? Sir Jimmy Savile and Richard Whiteley are nostalgic local legends for me, anyhow!  

Looking at the financial panel, with it's bank logos, store cards and and share prices, I was struck by how much has changed in just ten years.  At the Millennium I was working for Halifax bank in Leeds city centre in a shiny corporate building.  The housing market was booming and I was about to buy my second house.  Getting a mortgage then was no problem at all. Most people I knew, like me, owned a few bank shares that we considered a fairly safe investment for the future.  Now those shares are virtually worthless and many of the business who are featured on the panel or sponsored the tapestry are seriously struggling, if not already gone. 

I enjoyed identifying the many different stitches and techniques on the panels.  One image I was particularly drawn to (with mark making in relation to emotions from Assignment 1 in mind) was on the legal panel.  It shows notorious nineteenth century criminal Charlie Peace in his prison cell in the vaults of Leeds Town Hall, hunched over with his head in his hands ready to stand trial for murder.  Charlie was to be hanged for shooting a neighbour and a policeman. It is the way the hand stitches convey the misery, despair and loneliness of the cell that impresses me.  The photo through glass does not do it justice but the combination and direction of different weights of dark thread in dynamic fly, herringbone and straight stitch with the black net overlay seem to perfectly convey the claustrophobia of the cell and feeling of gloom.  

Image from the Legal Sector Panel showing Charlie Peace in his cell.

Reading the story of the tapestry has been fascinating, from conception to the planning, practicalities, funding, setbacks and completion.  Quotes from the people involved regarding their participation are overwhelmingly positive and often moving.  It's clear that the collaborative experience was hugely beneficial for many and sometimes life-changing.  Some of the volunteers became so involved in the project they even gave up their careers to follow more creative pursuits.

"When I lost my husband after a long illness, the Tapestry became a great healer for me.  I needed incentive to keep going.  I not only got that, but I also gained a whole new circle of friends.  When my husband died I was left in an abyss.  The tapestry filled it again."
The late Audrey Pidgeon, Volunteer
(An image of Audrey herself is featured on the Community Spirit panel)

"The tapestry gave us a whole new insight into Leeds.  Take the architecture, for instance.  Usually you walk down the street and never bother to glance up at the buildings around you, but when you are working on a project like this it makes you take notice of the tiniest details and to really appreciate the city in which you live."
Freda Copley, Volunteer

Kate Russell herself said:
"Seeing another artist's work and discovering not only how it was produced but what led to that particular interpretation is a great way to learn.  To be with others making these discoveries, sharing the delight in mutual accomplishment, opens doors to more adventurous and innovative ways of working."

(Russell & Walker, 2002, P.6 & P.9)

I think the last quote summed up the day for me and the enjoyment and benefits of seeing and learning about this exhibit and meeting other like-minded OCA students.  There are times when I wonder what I'm doing about faffing about for hours with bits of thread and I sometimes feel I have to justify myself.  However I think today I recovered a sense of validity about creativity and learning and re-affirmed my understanding of why art matters. 

Reading List
Russell, Kate & Walker, Barbara (2002) The Leeds tapestry: we made it! Leeds: Leeds Civic Trust