Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?
Andrew McKeown: I grew up in a working class area of Middlesbrough, Teesside. U.K. as the youngest in a family of four children. It was a very creative upbringing and we had a large garden where my father a lifelong steelworker grew an abundance of fruit and veg, my mother was a primary school teacher and we were always building, making, cooking and exploring. A couple of miles away were the shipyards, coke ovens, blast furnaces and rolling mills of British Steel and a bit further was the chemical plants of ICI. If we were feeling energetic, we could walk or cycle to Redcar beach or Eston Hills where iron ore was mined to fuel the industrial revolution. Art was always my favourite subject at school, and this inspired me to attend art college and then a degree Fine Art (sculpture) at Coventry University (or polytechnic as it was then). My degree work was quite large and heavy made mostly form cast concrete and found elements, I had already taken my work outside to exhibit and this was a natural progression when opportunities arose.
Following graduation, I started to work more as a community artist delivering school and community-based workshops and small community art projects. These were low budget projects such as one-off workshop days and artist in residence projects. Gradually larger projects became available and I was able to create my own artwork with the involvement of local communities, rather than solely community generated art.
RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?
AM: The iron and steel making industry of Teesside and its heritage has always had a strong influence on my artwork and this comes through especially in sculptures I have created on Teesside but also in other work such as ‘Breaking the Mould’. I think it no coincidence that I grew up surrounded by iron and steel works the son of a steelworker and now I create sculptures using these industrial processes. Sculptures which I send across the UK and internationally like my forefathers did on a massive scale bringing the world together with their bridges, railways and ships.
I am also heavily influenced by nature and these themes often merge, overlap and contrast within different artworks. Other artists and designers and movements in art influence my work such as Claus Oldenburg, Eduardo Chillida, Arte Povera, Richard Deacon, Rachel Whiteread and Anslem Kiefer to name a few but it is difficult to say how exactly, or within which pieces these influences can be seen. I would acknowledge Oldenburg greatly as he has inspired many artists to play with the scale of familiar objects often enlarging them. I have taken this into natural form and the invisible world of bacteria and plankton.
RB: What is the underlying focus of your work?
AM: Recurring themes within my work are those of growth, change and renewal, reflecting life, ecology, health and regeneration. These natural or organic themes are often combined with site specific and historical references which can be both literal and/or metaphorical. I often create multiple cast sculptures in iron, steel, bronze, aluminium and stone.
On numerous previous projects I have created families of artworks, repeated shapes and forms and built individual sculptures from repeating forms. Repeated forms recur in my work for a number of reasons such as to provide continuity, to create links and lead people to main sculptures, to develop themes, to reference the industrial processes by which they are made, to highlight natural reproduction and growth and to utilise economies of scale. One small sculpted pattern can be cast many times to create a much larger sculpture or family of sculptures. The resulting sculptures can look organic and natural yet also may have an industrial feel due to the repeated shapes and the material they are cast from.
RB: Can you say something about your work Saxon Molecules?
AM: This particular sculpture illustrates this fusion of old and new very well and I created it in 2015 is an entrance feature to a revamped residential street in Billingham called Quenby Road and I called this ‘Saxon Molecules’. This is a sculpture made from cast aluminium and stone that stands 1.8 metres tall and the design is inspired by the molecular structure of Ammonia, first synthesized in this country in Billingham, leading to Billingham’s growth as a town and chemical manufacturing site.
The individual molecules feature a design derived from Saxon knot work designs, acknowledging the Saxon Billa people who founded Billingham and from which the name ‘Quenby’ comes. The Scandinavian word ‘Quenby’ also means ‘Womanly and this knot work design is derived from Saxon brooches, probably female decorative artefacts. The Billingham Ammonia plant was known locally as ‘The Synthetic’ and it is visible from the site of the sculpture. The Saxon ‘Billa’ people settled in what became Billingham circa 650AD and built the original Church. The sculpture is therefore a fusion of the ancient and modern development of Billingham. I see it as a positive reflection on Billingham’s interesting heritage and future.
RB: Your sculptures Organism and Jewels of the Sea were inspired by microscopic organisms called diatoms. Can you say more about these works?
AM: ‘The Jewels of the Sea’ sculptures were designed and created for Yuill, Miller and Haslam Homes at the newly created ‘East Shore Village’ on the cliff top at Seaham in County Durham. Six hundred new houses were built along with a shop and a family pub over the four years I was involved in the project. The thirty-five cast iron sculptures I created at the entrance site were inspired by the hidden world of microscopic plankton and how single cell organisms called Diatoms reproduce and grow, maintaining the health of the oceans and the earth itself. Diatoms are a type of plankton and they form the basis of almost all the food chains in the oceans. The sculptures aim to symbolize the start of new life at the East Shore Village where once stood the Vane Tempest coal mine. Ernst Haeckel described Diatoms as the ‘Jewels of the Sea’ and I have appropriated this term to title this project.
These sculptures are randomly encountered within the entrance site and they punctuate the landscaped entrance to the new village, providing interest, context, identity and visual focal points, small and large throughout the large public space. The way the pieces are spread over the large landscaped space encourages people to explore the site and experience each sculpture or cluster of sculptures. I deliberately chose iron as the material for these sculptures to refer to the industrial heritage of the site and local area.
I sculpted the patterns for these sculptures myself and the project uses multiple iron castings from these patterns which are repeated across the entrance space. Sculptures are formed into clusters, stacked and built up to form the larger sculptures or scattered randomly to punctuate the environment and lead people through the space. Repetition is key to this work as it refers to single cell organisms and how they use cell division to reproduce and multiply but it also refers to the industrial process of pattern making, mould making and casting sculpture. Sculptures that are natural yet industrial, about the past but also the future and the ecology of the planet.
The main sculpture ‘Helisira’ is 3 metres tall. It has become part of the identity of Seaham and has featured in numerous promotional magazines and websites advertising the regeneration of Seaham. It has also featured in many visitor and local peoples photographs over the fifteen years it has been in place. I think ‘Helisira’ and the other ‘Jewels of the Sea’ sculptures present Seaham as a strong and positive place, a place which is proud of its past but is forward looking and understands the importance of its natural environment.
‘Organism’ is a sculpture which was also inspired by diatoms that live in the oceans. Diatoms are a type of single cell algae which inhabit virtually all of the world’s aquatic environments. They are considered the most important of all the plankton as they form the basis of almost all the food chains in the oceans. Organism is a sculpture that has been created in the same way that colonies of chain forming diatoms reproduce. Duplicate casts have been formed from the mother pattern and joined together in a chain to reflect the regenerative properties of the oceanic food chains. This sculpture makes the microscopic iconic and it highlights the key role algae has in the health of this planet. Again, it uses multiple casts of one unit or pattern which is cast seven times and assembled to create the final sculpture. An economical way to create sculptures and one which reflects cell division and single cell organism reproduction as well as casting and mould making.
RB: How important was conveying a sense of scale in these works?
AM: Scale is very important within the artworks. I am often selected for a project with a set budget. I then visit the site and consider what sort of scale of piece I think will work within the space available. I decide if one large sculpture or several smaller pieces or a combination will work best what sort of size piece/s will suit the place the most. This also depends on the project brief and the available budget. A number of different designs and approaches may be created before the final works are manufactured.
RB: A number of your works take the form of sycamore seeds as their inspiration. What is it about this particular form that interests you?
AM: I suppose in some ways this piece has unintentionally become a signature piece. The sycamore seed has a very elegant and dynamic form. It is also economical in how it occupies space. It is mostly quite thin but from the front or back it assumes a large area. It also looks interesting from the side. I have used it on several occasions to symbolise new life, growth and regeneration. It has been repeated in different sizes and shapes as editions and when I have been asked to by a client. These versions are variations on these themes re-modelled for a new spaces.
My original sycamore sculpture ‘Seed’ was created for a commission I was selected for in Salford, Greater Manchester and it takes the form of a sycamore seed, which has been enlarged one hundred times.
Cast in iron the sculpture represents new life and growth emerging from the decline of the traditional engineering and manufacturing industries. It symbolises the future and the potential this area of Salford has to grow and prosper from the seeds that were planted by the 2002 Regeneration Strategy.
Interestingly Bees wings feature on Salford’s Armorial Bearings of the City, referring to the textiles and engineering industries that thrived in the City. Seed could be taken to look similar to a giant pair of bee’s wings and this visual relationship also links the sculpture with traditional imagery and symbols used to identify the City of Salford.
RB: Can you say something about your working process when making your sculptures?
AM: The industrial processes of casting and mould making inform and influence my work in both a practical and conceptual way and I often create multiple cast sculptures in iron, steel, bronze, aluminium and stone.
I like to work within the environment and this often means I have to build identity and add character to a space that has very little. Often I am working in empty fields or urban parks, pocket parks that only have paths and a few shrubs or I am working off landscape plans while looking at building sites and piles or earth.
Rather than creating one giant sculpture I often use the available budget to create a series or family of related sculptures that activate space, link to each other and draw you eye around the environment they are in. Other times I create entrance features that hope to draw people into a space. I prefer that people can engage with my sculptures becoming almost part of them for a brief moment.
A good example of this approach is the sculpture ‘Breaking the Mould’. This piece takes the form of a giant seed, which has emerged, from an industrial mould. The mould is old and has been broken and the last cast is a natural one (cast in industrial iron). The sculpture represents new life and growth emerging from industrial decline. These six-piece cast stone and iron sculpture were installed on each of the 21 Changing Places regeneration sites across England and Wales.
The sculpture celebrates and marks the £60 million Changing Places programme which transformed 1,000 hectares of post-industrial derelict land into parks and open spaces. The 21 copies have been arranged in different formations depending on the wishes of local people and the geography of each site.
Alongside the developing community work I make regular site visits which inform and develop my visual and physical response to the proposed site/s, the landscape and its future, its changing flora and fauna, physical appearance and surrounding environment. While at each site I consider and think about the scale, materials, concept, form and texture of my initial ideas and try to envisage what could be possible, what might work and how this would integrate with the site context and landscape. The resulting themes and designs are then discussed with feedback from the project teams before being developed and finalised.
RB: How important is community engagement and consultation in the creation of your public sculptures?
AM: Involving local communities is an essential part of my working practice and local communities have been involved in all my public commissions. I have over 25 years of experience and knowledge in this area. For previous projects I have devised and implemented a wide range of community consultation programmes involving local people and schoolchildren, from presentations through to hands on practical sculpture workshops and longer artist in residence programmes.
This work helps me refine ideas, think of new ideas and sometimes new ideas are formed which develop into the final sculptures. I think it also equally important that local people have an opportunity to work together and create something positive for their community, to gain a sense of pride and ownership in the process and the final artwork. The processes involved in the engagement work is also as important as the resulting artwork.
The idea for the sculpture ‘Breaking the Mould’ came from workshops with each of the 21 different communities. During dialogue with East Manchester Ladies knitting group the inspiration for this sculpture developed and I distinctly remember writing some of the things they were saying to me, like ‘turning over a new leaf’, and ‘Breaking the Mould’ as we discussed their desire to move on and leave behind the scarred industrial landscape changing it into a urban park and community facility through the Changing Places project.
RB: What projects are you currently working on or have coming up in the future?
AM: I am currently finalising designs for at Teesside Retail Park called ‘Rolled into One’. For this project I am engaging the local community to provide colloquial job or occupation names from the local iron and steel industry. Up to one hundred of these names will be applied to the outsides of the steel box section arms of the sculpture. There are many unique and interesting names such as Welder, Plater, Catcher, Striker, Roller, Breaker, Burner that will be used and many more that I am currently consulting the local community (including my family and friends) over.
I am also working on a few other projects, one called ‘Crossing Points’ for the Groundwork North East’s River Tees Rediscovered project. Another project is for South Tyneside Council a landmark sculpture which is part of the restoration of North Marine Park in South Shields. Another project is for Middlesbrough Council as one project within its Creative Factory artistic interventions project. My pieces are called ‘Endless Convenience’.
It is somewhat challenging to engage the local communities for these projects during the current Coronavirus lockdown, however I have designed Powerpoint presentations and related worksheets which will be sent out to community groups and schools with key worker children attending.
All images copyright and courtesy of Andrew McKeown
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