Part 1: IN NORTHERN ENGLAND, GRAFFITI AND STREET ARTISTS EXHIBIT THEIR WORK TO RAISE FUNDS FOR MENTAL-HEALTH CARE
Part 2: IN A FORMER BLACKSMITH’S SHOP, A NEW GALLERY BECOMES AN IMPORTANT REGIONAL VENUE
[Scroll down to see Cathy Ward’s just-published report about the current summer group exhibition at The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery.]
Recently, Cathy Ward,brutjournal’s London-based artist-correspondent, made two trips to York, a city in northern England to the northeast Leeds. First, she took in Educated Vandals, an exhibition presented in a bland, unused office building in York’s downtown district.
Several days later, she returned to the region to see a new group exhibition at The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery in Bishop Wilton, a small town near York. Here is Cathy’s photo souvenir of Educated Vandals. Her report about the second exhibition appears below.
Part 1: EDUCATED VANDALS
Cathy Ward reports:
YORK, ENGLAND — Recently, looking away from the capital, I turned my gaze toward York, in the north, a place both beautiful and historic that is the second most-visited city in the United Kingdom after London. It’s such a prominent city, in which the ancient Romans established a fortress in the year 71 BCE, but I had not set foot in York since I traveled there back in 1994 to see What She Wants: Women Artists Look At Men, an exhibition at Impressions Gallery York that presented works by female artists examining the gendered gaze through photographs of the male nude. It was one of the first exhibitions of its kind in the U.K. looking at how the gendered gaze can influence power relations between women and men.
Looking back, it now seems hard to believe how much we pre-Internet women were still in the Dark Ages when it came to being able to express our views about desire. That was the kind of highly topical — if, at the time, underrepresented — exhibition subject matter I encountered when I made my last trip to York many years ago.
What would I find this time?
It turned out that I would find myself visiting two exhibitions, each of which touched upon the subject of mental health in different ways. Both were marked by a sense of generosity and understanding on the part of artists, and called attention to how artistic creativity can respond to the need to support and improve mental-health services and to how they may relate to certain mental-health-related issues.
The first exhibition I saw, Educated Vandals, was presented in an unused office building in York’s city center, on a bank of the River Ouse.
The second exhibition, also a group presentation featuring the work of several artists, had just opened at the Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery in Bishop Winton, a tiny village on the outskirts of York. Founded and operated by Mark Ibson (Instagram: @mark_ibson), as its name suggests, it’s housed in an authentic, old, former blacksmith’s workshop.
Educated Vandals, which just took place over three weekends in July, was an exhibition of works by local urban artists organized by Bombsquad, a group of experienced artists and collectors who focus on reseeding York’s creative community with a “grassroots and authentic approach.” Their aim: to inspire the next generation of graffiti artists.
The more well-known artists whose works were on view in the exhibition in the unconventional venue included RoWdY, Mighty Mo, Listen04, James Jessop, Mul, Prefab and Dan Cimmermann. Participating artists from the York area included Sharon McDonagh, Lincoln Lightfoot, BOXXHEAD, Steve Bottrill, SOLA, and Michael Dawson.
In the past, Bombsquad has organized other events that have brought together nationally well-known street artists and their local York counterparts, just as they did with Educated Vandals, for which the participating art-makers took over two large, top floors of an unused office building, filling them with colorful murals and mixed-media works. This kind of art project encourages the development of an artists’ network that can provide support and camaraderie among its members, many of whom are very aware that working in isolation can be depressing, and that their lives as art-makers can be difficult.
Educated Vandals functioned as a fundraising event, with donations from visitors to the exhibition and earnings from the sales of artists’ prints benefiting York Mind, a local mental-health charity. The works created on site at the exhibition were sold at auction as the event wound down, with proceeds from that event also marked for donation to York Mind.
[Scroll down to read Cathy Ward’s report about the summer exhibition at the Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery in Wilton Bishop]
Part 2: THE BLACKSMITH’S SHOP GALLERY
“Outsider art is humanitarian art. When you get all the right elements together, everything is brought into line, and a community is formed.” — Mark Ibson, owner and curator, The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery, Bishop Wilton
I heard about The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery last summer when it was recommended to me by someone who had seen its inaugural exhibition. Otherwise, I doubt that I would have been any much the wiser about it. That first show featured the work of the self-taught British artist Alan Gummerson (1928-2020), about whom, at the time, I knew nothing. Since then, though, from the gallery’s founder, Mark Ibson, I’ve learned a lot about Gummerson.
The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery is something of a rarity. The old, industrial building in which it is housed is filled with time-worn, patinated surfaces; they recall all the work that has taken place within it, surfaces that are valued and have been sensitively preserved. A few weeks ago, when I traveled from London to Bishop Wilton, a small town to the east of York, I was immediately taken by the gallery’s atmosphere, maybe because it reminded me of a small rural museum. It certainly did not feel austere like the contemporary-art galleries one finds even in rural settings, places that seem to exude a sense of their need to be cool.
Instead, Ibson’s gallery is naturally cool. Its vibe probably has a lot to do with the fact that the ownership and care of its building has been handed down through three generations of the same family. It’s a place imbued with the spirit of a village’s history. In its current incarnation, it serves as a reminder of an establishment that for many decades has employed and served members of its surrounding community.
Ibson and his business partner, Barry Parker, recently doubled the gallery’s exhibition space with a cavernous addition that provides generous room for displaying large-scale sculptures, paintings, or mixed-media assemblages. Beyond the new space, visitors pass through sliding doors into a walled-in sculpture garden.
During my recent stop by the gallery, Ibson showed me around. His passion for the place was obvious. In what was once the forge area, he said, “This is where my granddad worked. Here are his anvil and tools. These are the original floorboards. The bellows would’ve been here. [My grandfather] would heat iron here, then cool it down in a stone cattle trough that is hundreds of years old.”
When it came to inheriting his grandfather’s workshop, Ibson had more than thoughts of a blacksmith’s heavy metal in mind. A self-taught artist and abstract painter, he had long used The Blacksmith’s Shop as his own workspace, where he employed his ingenuity and skills, including his talents as a furniture restorer, to make a living. Then, not too long ago, Ibson and Parker’s friend Carol Douglas told the two business partners about an exhibition of the work of Gummerson, a prolific local artist who had recently died. A selection of his mixed-media assemblages was on view at the Dean Clough Gallery in Halifax, a town in West Yorkshire, which lies to the west of the cities of Leeds and Bradford.
After Ibson and Parker visited the Gummerson exhibition, they contacted the late artist’s daughter, Tracey, who had no idea about what to do with her father’s body of work. The businessmen decided to buy it all and, over time, to bring part of it to market. That plan served as an impetus for their renovation of The Blacksmith’s Shop building and its launch as a gallery showcasing works of art and design, including classic, 20th-century modernist furniture, about which Parker, who spent many years living in Amsterdam, is especially knowledgeable. He is an experienced collector in this field.
The summer exhibition at The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery, which is on view through the end of August (and, thereafter, will be open by appointment), features art made by Ibson, Gummerson, John Cutting, Lawrence Miami, Sally Taylor, Saffron Sunley, and Colin Simpson. Works by Jon Cove, Paul Bramley, and Jean Green are on display, too; these art-makers are associated with Henshaws Arts & Crafts Centre, a facility for disabled people that is located in a town to the north of Leeds. Also on view: pieces from Parker’s collection of furniture and lighting designs.
As I examined the art and objects on view, I noticed that many attractive tins that had once held Lyle’s Golden Syrup figured prominently in Gummerson’s mixed-media works. Tracey Gummerson recalled how that popular British brand of syrup had featured heavily in her family’s breakfast-time porridge-eating ritual. Who could ever throw away such tins?
Alan Gummerson’s art principally addresses an anti-war theme. One large drawing depicts the British Army at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, in which Prussian forces and a multinational coalition led by Britain’s Duke Wellington fought Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. At Waterloo, the British assumed a square formation so that their rivals’ cavalry could not break through their rear flank.
It was Parker who restored many of Gummerson’s works. Examining them with him felt as though we were poring over archaeological artifacts. Parker showed me Gummerson’s large ambulance sculpture. He said, “When we started, this looked in a terrible state. All these bits were shoved inside, and as I did the sticking-together, [I discovered a] figure with a gunner in the back. Gummerson used all sorts of things to make [this piece]. The wheels had disintegrated. It had been left in a corner in a warehouse with a leaking roof; [that building] was in an appalling state, full of birds.”
Elsewhere in the exhibition, one finds sculptures made by John Cutting, another artist whose work reflects his firsthand experience with conflict. Cutting was born in Catterick, North Yorkshire, and spent his early years in South Durham among industrial landscapes marked by coal-mining fields. In 1970, at the age of 17, he joined the Royal Engineers and, a year later, was stationed in Northern Ireland at the start of the long period of sectarian violence that became known as “The Troubles” (which lasted from around 1968 to 1998).
At the time, Cutting had little understanding of the nature of the conflict between Protestant unionists, who wanted the province of Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Roman Catholic nationalists (or republicans), who longed for the territory to become part of the Republic of Ireland. His assignment required him to patrol the streets of Londonderry at an incendiary time, when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was fighting British-government forces.
Cutting, who only started making art in 2017, has an enormous work, “Fall to Freedom,” on view in the summer exhibition. Dominating the gallery’s main room, it’s a broken, toppled column in three parts. Others sections of this same column are arranged outside in the sculpture garden.
Cutting told me, “When I was on the streets of Londonderry as an 18-year-old, everyone looked like me. They talked the same as me — but they wanted to kill you. I didn’t know why we had ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. We were never taught why. On the streets of ’Derry, you had to be vigilant. The subconscious took over. Your automatic reaction was to scan the area for danger.”
Today, Cutting explained, he still experiences flashbacks and anxiety related to the time he spent in Northern Ireland. Following his tours of duty there, he became isolated and felt suicidal, and his personal relationships disintegrated. He still interprets the meanings of objects in unexpected ways. Some time ago, Cutting received support from Style for Soldiers, a U.K.-based charity providing clothing for both male and female British veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — confidence-boosting, fine-quality shirts and suits they can wear to job interviews and on formal occasions.
Cutting sounds very emotional when he talks about his work and, often, he cries. Listening to him relate various stories from his life is a very intimate experience. It’s obvious that making art has served a meaningful, therapeutic purpose for him.
Cutting’s “Fall to Freedom,” which is made from used, corrugated iron, represents imperialistic repression and fortification — the IRA opposing British imperialism or everyday people challenging the status quo. The column itself symbolizes powerful elites.
The late Jon Cove’s “Canoe” (2013) is also on display in the sculpture garden. Cove, who was deaf, could not speak, and could hardly see, used cardboard and acrylic paint to create this brightly colored work. Other participants in the Henshaws art-studio program whose works are on view include the 87-year-old Jean Green, who has fashioned a pair of papier mâché heads, and an unnamed artist who offers a pair of painted, large, egg-like sculptures; they’re also crafted of papier mâché.
The artist Colin Simpson started making drawings during the lockdown periods of the recent pandemic period. He draws fish-and-chips shops and football grounds, subjects that he knows well. He also managed to get hold of a piece of scaffolding from York’s football stadium when it was being pulled down. He has transformed it into an artwork by covering it with stickers in the way football fans do when creating their territorial markers.
During my visit to the summer exhibition at The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery, I also spoke with the participating artist Lawrence Miami, whose spontaneous-feeling work is taking off in new directions. Miami, who has worked as a videographer, has been making life-size vases of flat, painted plywood covered with symbolic decorations resembling strips of film.
He leaves his unsigned vases in random locations around the countryside in a gesture that brings to mind the act of rewilding, or introducing vanished animal species to certain territories. He calls these works “Nomadic Murals” and says he prefers “to put the work out there” — out in the natural world beyond the confines of a gallery, that is.
I enjoyed fast-talking Mark Ibson’s banter and Barry Parker’s hearty chortling. The two business partners’ camaraderie was fun to see. Visiting their still-young gallery was well worth the time it took to travel from London to the York region to see firsthand a selection of artworks of the range and caliber they had brought together. Historic York and its environs regularly attract tourists and horse-racing enthusiasts, but this area is generally not a destination for art lovers.
Still, Bishop Wilton, where The Blacksmith’s Shop Gallery is located, is a small village in a beautiful rural area that is characterized by a strong sense of community spirit. Its general store, which is cooperatively run by volunteers, is a cherished focal point of the village’s life. How many places like that, featuring a distinctive venue for the presenting of works of art, does a traveler usually find?
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