Things are heating up for Smartarts

A little while ago, I was invited to accompany a group of artists to an amazing foundry as part of a longer term project. Here is what happened on that day and in the following workshop, in the words of the poet, Philip Davenport…


Someone to watch over me

Artist Pete Flowers and poet Philip Davenport are currently working with the Smartarts Blackpool group, which are a charitable trust formed from Arts for Health group members wanting to carry on being creative. We are designing a plaque for the new mental health building, The Harbour.

Phil writes:

Seeing molten metal being cast is both wondrous and terrifying, like visiting a caged volcano. It’s become a rare vision in this country, so a chance to observe traditional casting is a gift, even if it’s a slightly scary one.

Today we visited the Hargreaves Foundry in Halifax where cast iron artefacts have been made since the 19th Century – and where Anthony Gormley’s sculptures are constructed in this 21st Century. Walking around the foundry on a research trip with the Smart Arts group and our guides was an amazement. A group member commented, in his languid way, “This may be the coolest thing I have ever seen.” Except of course it’s hot: molten metal like poured light, showering sparks (Al saw them as dying fairies) heat shattered moulds, sand burnt at temperatures so high that it becomes crude glass.

Aside from the eye-catching fireworks there’s something deeper at work. One group member put his finger on it best I think: “It’s almost religious, the feeling in here, going back to the ancient rituals. The mould is made and then broken. The sand is burnt away like old habits, the old life, old patterns. Then we cast the new.”

The word ‘cast’ can mean many things. Many of our Smart Arts group are recovering from difficult times and their art-making is about casting off the old skin and allowing renewal. We cast a spell, cast dice, cast runes, cast plaster, cast aside, fore-cast the future. There is a well-known kinship between making things in metal and casting ancient magic, which is among other things a sort of wish fulfilment. Art is also a form of making wishes come true. A group member picked up this thread: “What would I create? Happiness? What would that be? A smile, a touch, a feeling, who knows? A longing for the past, my past? A chance to start again. How far back would I have to go to start again? Perhaps as far as birth, a newborn.”

Art is often dismissed as an add-on to life, as opposed to the important things like money, career and efficiency. Actually, art-making predates all of those activities and I often wonder if that makes it higher up the scale of priorities than we realise. The necessities of life were invented first.

For all its ancient associations, Hargreaves foundry isn’t a museum, it is a thriving contemporary producer with a world-class reputation. Because the standard of making is so high, it attracts artists with very specialist requirements as well as corporate clients. The most notable artist customer is Gormley, who has worked with Hargreaves for a couple of decades. The site is dotted with Gormley pieces in various stages of completion. Over it all, hanging from the ceiling of the storage warehouse is a Gormley-size version (i.e. 6 foot 2 inches) of his iconic Angel of the North. A big chunk of rust-colour iron, it looks tough, yet gentle. A totem and a guardian.

Owen again: “Scrap is melted into liquid, it has power, energy you can feel. It’s poured into a cauldron where it bubbles, the smell of sulphur in the air, Hubble bubble. It’s held in a ladle, like golden sun… It does become, of course, hard as iron and cold, yet the coldness doesn’t detract from its beauty and tenderness… the feeling an angel watches on. I have a thought – it’d be nice if  somewhere, somehow an angel watches over all of us.”


Breaking the circle (workshop)

Phil writes:

The last session of this project, a big final push to make the best of the little time we’ve had. And yet stay relaxed.

Pete put the artworks/poems made thus far onto individual tables for the group to arrange in patterns, as they liked. It was astonishing to see how much they’d created in four short weeks. From little doodles and sketches to poems and collages. As they worked on the arrangements, our official photographer Claire snapped the bustle.

Then a drawing game, making improvisations on the theme of circles that’s been the core of this project. Pete wanted some wobbly circles for the designs, something (he explained) to dodge perfectionism and leave some oxygen for the imagination.

Circles can be relentless things. As well as symbols for renewal, eternity, life cycles, seasons and all that  profound stuff, they can also be a trap. A couple of people have commented that, for them, circles bring to mind cycles of destructive behaviour that go round and round, without end, imprisoning and oppressive. So our final exercise was about breaking circles. A simple little writing  exercise to pop the bubble and bring release for those who felt the need for it. I won’t share the exercise right now, but if you happen to be around in 50 years time when the time capsule is opened, you’ll know.



Photographs of the Smart Arts group visit to Hargreaves Foundry are by CJ Griffiths Photography. This article originally appeared on the Arts for Health blog in August 2014.  For more information about Hargreaves go to http://www.hargreavesfoundry.co.uk


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