“I don’t make art for the top of people’s tellies,” Stephen smiled and recited the words of his early mentor, Arthur Dooley. He went on to say, “I use art to make space liveable and distinctive.” This is the reason people work with Stephen; the reason they look to him when figuring out how people will move through a space, how they will occupy it, how they will use it.
We sit with him at the top of his home office, a long converted barn near Chester. We are surrounded by green fields, panoramic views and woods meandering up the hillside; the sun is bursting through the glass and illuminating a number of smaller statues dotted around the space.
Stephen runs an award-winning studio of artists, designers and makers who specialise in installation art for places and people. The philosophy of the studio is grounded in a belief that art should help develop the character of a place and grow out of the existing fabric, rather than simply being added as an afterthought. Stephen said, “The art is always informed by the space it’s dropping into. We always look for the stories a place has to tell.”
One great example of a story-led project is Leopold Square in Sheffield, a former playground between existing Victorian school buildings. The first visit with Stephen was shortly after the school had closed but it was obvious there were generations of stories housed in this great space. The focus was on making Leopold Square a ‘green oasis’ for city dwellers and workers to escape the cut and thrust of urban life, but importantly, not forget its past. Stephen reached for the iPad to show us some pictures of the project. He said, “The sense of what has gone on in a place should always be felt, so we met with the old pupils of the school and they wrote down stories they could remember.” Stephen took these stories and cast them into the bronze seats. He smiled as he recalled, “One of them was the mark of the smitten rear, if you had this mark on your homework you knew you were getting the cane next time.”
Every Planit project is grounded in public engagement; what Stephen did with this one, was cleverly capture everything that was heard and turn it into place specific art. The installation is then not only grounded in its location but it playfully includes everyone spoken to. That is the magic, it allows them to own and feel part of it.
As well as looking to the past and truly understanding the space, there has to be a focus on how people will use it going forward. Having art to help create the best possible journey and flow is extremely important, and something with the help of Stephen, can be achieved again and again.
Linear Park at Daresbury is a fine example of looking at the flow of a space. Stephen said, “We created a gateway to the park, a rabbit hole of opportunity, a ‘pathway of progress’ as you walk through five feature gardens to the heart of the science park.” The Science and Innovation Campus’s new Linear Park is home to over 100 high-tech companies. Stephen’s intricate installations crafted in glass, stone and steel are integrated into the shaped landscape; they cleverly pull on all the senses leading to a total immersive experience. This installation shows how careful planning, use of story, and materials can successfully help craft a space and influence the flow of the people passing through it.
Crafting a space is a real art and it is so important to get it right. Stephen helps to bring stories alive, to engage all the senses, and importantly, bring people and place together in a seamless, organic immersive way.
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