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Four Shores

Location: The Isle of Sheppey, UK

Artists: Stephen Turner (lead artist), Ros Barber (poet), Simon Barker (architect) and Abbe Leigh Fletcher (filmmaker)

Overview

Four Shores was conceived by lead artist Stephen Turner for a sequence of walks on the Isle of Sheppey linking Sheerness, Warden Point, Leysdown and Harty. The project was developed by the Medway Swale Estuary Partnership (MSEP) and the project team included poet Ros Barber, architect Simon Barker and film-maker Abbe Leigh Fletcher, with project manager, Frances Lord.

Each artist contributed to a series of works that explore 'the distinctive and changing features of a unique cultural landscape' and the accumulated layers of meaning that texture the surface of the land across the generations' (www.msep.org.uk, Four Shores catalogue and leaflet). Artworks include sculptures and installations incorporating words and poems, way-marking sculptures and a bench. The project began in 2003 and the artworks were launched in 2005, with a catalogue, DVD and book of poetry.

Background/context

Four Shores took place on the Isle of Sheppey. Situated at the mouth of the Thames, this small, flat island accommodates an uneasy mixture of heavy industry, holiday resorts, work-a-day towns, a prison and a vast and beautiful nature reserve.

A high proportion of the population of the Sheppey suffers from high unemployment, poor health and below average educational performance. The island tends also to be associated with a poor self-image and low expectations.

Four Shores was conceived as a way of encouraging people who live on Sheppey to enjoy and identify with their environs. It is also hoped that the project will help attract greater numbers of visitors to the island.

Medway Swale Estuary Partnership (MSEP), a forum comprising private, statutory and voluntary organisations, wanted to promote awareness of four public rights of way on the island. Having already secured European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) monies, they submitted an application to Arts Council England (ACE) for matching funding for sculptures for the four routes. This was unsuccessful: MSEP was told 'it was too similar to many other schemes', and was offered a grant to develop the idea.

Artist Stephen Turner was appointed in spring 2003 as advisor to the project. After spending stretches of time on Sheppey, he persuaded MSEP that the artworks should be realised in a variety of ways, and that the project would benefit from the distinct approaches of different kinds of creative practitioners. He and Sarah Draper, manager of MSEP, wrote a new application that was submitted to ACE in August that year and funding of £49,000 was confirmed in December. Kent County Council contributed £1,500; Architecture Week funding from ACE brought in a further £3,000; £50,500 from the ERDF provided match funding, and the total budget came to £104,500.

Project Process

Stephen Turner was quickly confirmed as lead artist, Frances Lord was appointed project manager (by direct invitation), and a steering committee was formed, comprising a councillor and representatives from Swale Borough Council and Sheppey College.

In January 2004, appointments were made of architect Simon Barker (by direct invitation), filmmaker Abbe Leigh Fletcher (also by direct invitation) and Ros Barber (following a short-listing and interview process).

The artist, poet and architect were briefed to create artwork that 'draws attention to existing views, creates new distinctive landmarks, or feeds on traditions and histories passed down through time'. They interpreted this as an opportunity to create works emerging from their own sensitivities to the island and each other as a team, without necessarily involving local people. This is not to say that they did not have interesting and inspiring encounters with individuals living on Sheppey, however.

The creative team spent a week living in a caravan in March 2004 and walked the island together from end to end. Stephen Turner writes: 'Between us we amassed a wide range of material [photographs, drawings, flotsam and jetsam], which really stimulated our imaginations'. A collaborative way of working evolved, with the team freely exchanging ideas with each other.

The team felt that the island was already cluttered, especially with notices and signs and myriad concrete structures, and so proposed creating several of the artworks in the style of these pre-existing features, rather than introducing additional types of objects.

The steering committee looked at the creative team's proposals in May 2004, and, with guidance from Stephen Turner and Frances Lord, selected those that were realisable and affordable. This was followed by consultation with the general public during a 'Walk and Talk' event that took place during Architecture Week in June. In October, at an Open Day and exhibition at Sheppey College, proposals for the artworks were presented to residents and visitors and feedback was invited. It was at this stage and through these fairly standard mechanisms that the public was given the opportunity to inform the final designs for the artworks.

Frances Lord then sought permissions from the Environment Agency and Swale Borough Council's planning department, a process that proved complicated and time-consuming.

The commissions were realised over the following twelve months: poems were printed onto the steps of a sea wall; words were incised into a few of the broken concrete slabs that litter the beaches; way-marking sculptures and a bench were sited in the nature reserve; a book of poems was published; posters were distributed to schools and surgeries on the island. A shelter was designed but this has not yet been constructed due to costs.

While individual team members took the lead on specific artworks, there was creative cross-fertilisation. The presence of a poet is perhaps particularly evident in several projects that include poems, phrases and words.

The creative team wanted the permanently sited elements of the project to have a subtle impact, and the sculptures in particular have been devised for people who walk the four routes regularly, rather than for visitors seeking an instant 'hit'. Indeed, some of the inscribed concrete slabs can be viewed at low tide only, and, even then, only by the keen-eyed. Stephen Turner says, 'I wanted to work with nature, not fight it - and algae is growing in the incised areas and making them stand out.' He estimates that in about four or five years the algae will completely obscure the lettering: 'It is about time and change, and meant to resonate with the changing face of the shoreline - that it is eroding and that nothing is forever. Absolutely no maintenance is ever to be attempted.'

Filmmaker Abbe Leigh Fletcher's original brief was to make a film featuring local people. Instead she decided to document the development of the projects and the unusually open manner in which the artist, poet and architect worked with each other. Her DVD is a component of a gallery-style catalogue that was produced; there is also a pack of postcards about the project.

Two of the artworks were vandalised soon after installation. However, they were immediately restored and no further damage has been suffered since. Responses from local people and the local press have mostly been very positive. In September 2005, a launch was held in a church in Sheerness.

The artist, architect, poet and filmmaker were each commissioned to develop and realise proposals, and Stephen Turner acted as lead artist. The cost of realising the commissions (DVD production, site preparation, surveys and fabrication) was £30,000; artists' and project manager's fees totalled £37,000: design and print of the poetry book, catalogue, postcards and leaflet cost £11,000; £5,000 has been allocated for maintenance and decommissioning. Four Shores, with all its many components, represents extremely good value for money.

The Commissions

Poems printed onto concrete sea defences:

Two poems by Ros Barber have been applied onto the risers and treads of the steps of some massive concrete structures on the beach. One poem faces out and reflects on the fact that a ship carrying explosives was sunk just out to sea: the other poem faces towards the land and is concerned with the risk of flooding. The poems are written in heavy-duty epoxy paint, in the style of notices nearby that prohibit dogs on the beach, for example. This project was led by Simon Barker.

Six sculptures created using materials strewn on the beach:

Stephen Turner transformed several of the large concrete slabs that have fallen on to the shingle due to erosion. He selected six and arranged for these to be polished and inscribed with the words 'cracked', 'exposed', 'left', 'wear', 'fallen' and 'settle', by artist Steven Mace and stoneworker James Honeywood. These words were chosen because they 'explore the theme of erosion and resonate with the form and location of a particular fragment'.

Five sculptures and a bench sited in a nature reserve:

Stephen Turner created a series of simple forms using a mixture of white cement and crushed oyster shells from local beaches. These sculptures are inspired by war-time pillbox defences and the movement and erosion of shells along the foreshore: pairs of shapes progress from being spherical to almost flat. An elegant concrete bench is based on the shape of a razor shell and its polished surface reveals that razor shells have been used in the mix.

A book of poetry:

Not the Usual Grasses Singing: a journey around the Isle of Sheppey is an anthology of poems written by Ros Barber. Compelling to read, the poems describe the people she encountered and the harsh built environment of the island. She has been party to local intrigue and recounts many of the quite extraordinary events that have taken place on Sheppey over the centuries.

Posters:

Simon Barker compiled four 'colour charts', Colours of Sheppey, using details of photographs of the island he had taken, and he gave these details evocative names. The charts were made into posters and distributed to public places on Sheppey, including schools and surgeries.

Simon Barker has produced designs for a shelter, inspired by various utilitarian structures including shipping containers and caravans. It is hoped that the shelter will be constructed when additional funds have been raised.

DVD:

Abbe Leigh Fletcher created a DVD that documents the way the creative team worked together and the progress of commissions.

Although individual team members took the lead on different commissions, they all contributed ideas to each of the commissions.

Key issues

  • Impact of artworks

    The creative team was concerned not to add to the clutter of objects on the Isle of Sheppey, and so their approach has been to create artworks that imitate or appropriate pre-existing objects and therefore blend in with the environment.

  • Timescale

    The MSEP manager, who is accustomed to commercial timescales, was surprised by the long response times of funders and the long periods of development required for commissions. The project took more than two years to realise, more than double the time she anticipated.

  • Local Involvement

    The involvement of local people in the creative process tended not to be pursued, and financial and time constraints have been cited as reasons for this. In the case of Ros Barber, meetings with local people did have an evident impact and her poetry results from an exciting mix of personal observation and local story gathering. However, the claim that the project as a whole 'investigat[ed] issues that define the relationship of people with place' (www.medway-swale.org.uk, Four Shores catalogue and leaflet) is questionable. These other artworks give the impression of an intense engagement with the physical nature of Sheppey, and with the project itself, but it is difficult to detect the influence of the people of the island. A greater clarity in terms of the expectations of the project could perhaps have been beneficial.

  • Marketing

    While the project did feature in the local press, Four Shores took an 'artworld' approach to marketing in terms of the style of publications and the placing of advertisements: therefore any wider awareness of the project will tend to be in this sector. Copies of the publication were given to libraries and schools on the island and a free leaflet was produced and distributed widely across Sheppey and to local and national contacts. The multi-purpose information and marketing leaflet summarised the project process and included images of some of the works, details of the publications and CD, and a small schematic map. Whilst it does make very general information about the project available, an argument could be made for a leaflet in straightforward, 'non arts' language giving more information about the works themselves and their specific locations, aimed at a local population with possibly little previous experience of the visual arts.

  • Planning Consent

    This was a lengthy procedure, partly because Swale Borough Council were unused to advising on a project of this nature, and partly because of the number of individual landowners and agencies that needed to be consulted.

Publications

Four Shores: artworks for the Isle of Sheppey (2005) (catalogue with DVD)

Texts by Sarah Draper, Frances Lord, Stephen Turner, Nicola Barker.

DVD by Abbe Leigh-Fletcher.

ISBN 095504678. Published by Four Shores

Not the Usual Grasses Singing: a journey around the Isle of Sheppey (2005)

Poems by Ros Barber.

ISBN 095504670X. Published by Four Shores.

Both publications, a project leaflet and eight postcards are available from Medway Swale Estuary Partnership, 1st Floor, The Alexander Centre,

15 - 17 Preston Street, Faversham, ME13 8NY. Tel: 01795 590112. www.msep.org.uk

Contact details

Stephen Turner stpturner@blueyonder.co.uk

Simon Barker simon@barkershorten.com www.barkershorten.com

Abbe Leigh Fletcher abbeleigh@gmail.com

Ros Barber rosbarber@airtight.demon.co.uk
www.rosbarber.com

Frances Lord franceslord@btopenworld.com

Medway Swale Estuary Partnership www.msep.org.uk (please note that Sarah Draper is leaving MSEP in September 2006).

Four Shores was shortlisted for the 2006 Rowse Kent Public Art Award.

© Copyright Angela Kingston 2006