Sarah Freeman

in Sheffield in South Yorkshire

First a fact (well, sort of). Sheffield is home to more artists than anywhere else in England outside London. No one seems entirely sure when the count was done or even if there has been an official census. Nevertheless it’s a claim often repeated and one backed up by much persuasive evidence.

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For a start, Sheffield Hallam University is one of the oldest established art and design institutions in the UK, there’s a gallery on pretty much every street corner and thanks to Yorkshire Artspace a number of redundant buildings have also been turned into affordable studios.

One of the most well established is Persistence Works. It may not look much from the outside, but if you get a chance to step over the threshold and through the shop selling work by local designers then do. Inside is an artistic menagerie where illustrators work next to silversmiths and jewellery makers and where traditional crafts sit alongside more experimental designs.

It’s been this way ever since Persistence Works opened in 2001 and with room for up to 70 artists it is one of the city’s most creative hubs. For much of the time the artists keep themselves to themselves, but each year an open studios weekend brings them and their designs face to face with the public. Needless to say, it’s an event preceded by a lot of last minute tidying as floors are swept and work benches cleared.

“It does feel slightly odd to suddenly have people walking around your studio,” says ceramic artist Emilie Taylor who began her career five years ago in the Work’s starter studio. It’s designed to give young artists their first step up, offering affordable studio space alongside business mentoring and exhibition opportunities. Crucially it also allowed Emilie the time and space to develop her style, which turns the idea of ceramic decoration on its head. In her studio a couple are pointing and laughing at the vases lined up on the worktop. It’s the kind of reaction which would send some artists into a terminal decline. Not Emilie. She is used to her work, which combines design elements of the arts and crafts movement with images of pigeon fanciers and Sheffield council estates, raising a smile.

“My family have lived in this area for hundreds of years, 
so I guess it was always going to inspire my work,” she says. “My dad has pigeons, my grandma grew up on a council estate and I just liked the idea of subverting traditional design. I want to create work which makes people do a double take.”

While some artists spend their entire careers searching for recognition, Emilie sold one of her very first works to the Duke of Devonshire and in so doing fulfilled a long held ambition.

“I always fantasised about having one of my vases sat on an antique sideboard in some stately home and before I knew it, it had actually happened. I think it’s just fantastic that a little piece of a Sheffield council estate has ended up in Chatsworth. My work has always been about two worlds colliding and it really doesn’t get better than that.”

Thanks to its steel industry, Made in Sheffield became a trademark known the world over, so we probably shouldn’t be too surprised that those creative talents have been joined by more contemporary artists like silversmith Rebecca Joselyn. While some of the methods and equipment are the same as those used by generations of craftspeople, it’s her designs which make people stop and stare, creating bowls which look like empty crisp packets, condiment pots in the shape of sardine tins and desk tidies in homage to old tin cans. It’s about taking the 21st century throwaway culture and recasting it in silver.

“I’ve been here eight years now and it’s always been a really supportive environment and that’s vital as an artist. Most of us work alone so knowing there is someone down the corridor or on the next floor who you can ask advice and pick their brains is brilliant. I guess I’ve come a long way in the last eight years and now I’m acting as a mentor for some of the younger artists, it’s my way of giving something back.”

Part of Yorkshire Artspace’s philosophy has always been to take art to overlooked corners of Sheffield, but until recently the organisation which began life in 1977 had focused just on the city centre. However, in 2010 it decided that it was time to look further afield.

The fruits of those labours can be seen just a mile and a half away from the city. Developed in partnership with the Green Estate, if Persistence Works is a rabbit warren, then the Manor Oaks studios are altogether more bijou, puncturing any preconceived ideas of the artist suffering for their art in freezing, draughty attic spaces.

“The central heating was a big draw and it’s so beautifully quiet,” laughs Susan Disley, a ceramic artist who occupies one half of one of the four large studios. She’s not wrong. Step outside the studio door and it feels like you’re bang in the middle of the countryside; look the other way and across the road is a typical interwar housing estate.

“It’s probably not the kind of place most people expect to find artist’s working, but that’s one of the things I like about it,” says Susan, whose work gives a nod to both abstract painting and the sculptures of Henry Moore. “Over the last few years we have become a small community of artists and it feels like the kind of place where we can do really good work. I graduated in the 1970s and I know how hard it can be when you are first starting out. It’s notoriously difficult to make a living out of art and you do question whether you are doing the right thing.”

Susan shares a kiln with Anne Laycock who has a similarly left-field approach to ceramics. On a bench are various large vessels which look like they have been sculpted out of heavy metal chains. In fact every piece is a ceramic work of art and the one question each of the steady stream of visitors asks is just how on earth she manages to get the soft clay sculptures into a kiln before they collapse.

“That is the six million dollar question,” she admits. “It has taken a lot of trial and error and I build each piece from several smaller pieces. It’s a slow process, but then creating art is never about speed.”

Like many of the artists who have gravitated towards Sheffield, Susan’s work doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a feeling shared by furniture maker Finbarr Lucas. Specialising in wood, over the last few years he has made deliberately sloping shelves, a giant wooden flower to help children learn about the different parts of plants and a toilet seat which once installed looked as though some rare type of fungi had taken up residence in the bathroom.

He’s now well established at Manor Oaks and it’s that kind of security the artists currently moving into Yorkshire Artspace’s newest studios want. We’re back in the heart of the city at the six storey office block once occupied by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. At the end of last year (2013) the first artists were just moving in to the then rather tired and unloved office block. However, with jewellery designers, conceptual artists and painters having already signed leases on many of the studios, life is definitely being breathed back into 
the iconic Art Deco building.

“It’s a really exciting part of the city,” says Yorkshire Artspace’s Anita Lloyd. “With the market having moved to a new site and plans to demolish the old building it should really open the whole area up. Exchange Place is brilliant for artists, the light is incredible and the fact it overlooks the canal at Victoria Quays gives it a really special feel.”

Anita admits it’s a bit of a blank canvas at the moment, 
but when you’re dealing with artists who like to put their own imprint on their studios that’s a bonus. At the most recent open studios event a handful of artists were already making themselves at home, including a man who went only by the name of Mr Raygun.

Looking like an extra from a B-movie he was in town to deliver a short lecture on the perils of owning a bit of kit which he insists could take out the entire universe. Rayguns might look like they’ve been cobbled together from old car parts and bits of kitchen blenders, but mess with them at your peril.

“If you got shot by this one here you are guaranteed to die at some point in the future,” he says, tongue firmly in cheek. “Press the trigger of this one and the whole of reality will collapse.”

Should Mr Raygun’s collection not fall into the wrong hands any time soon and should the world still be turning come November, then this year’s Yorkshire Artspace Open Studio is definitely a date for the diary.

Discover More: Sheffield & South Yorkshire.

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