Shape Shifters

The county is on countdown to Yorkshire Sculpture International and Stephen McClarence finds out more about the creative celebration.

As Yorkshire gears up to stage the UK’s biggest sculpture festival over 100 days this summer, Clare Lilley reflects on the art form’s powerful potential impact. “Some people get very involved with particular sculptures,” she says and as Director of Programme at the award-winning Yorkshire Sculpture Park, she’s well placed to know. “Sometimes when we move a sculpture, people can get very upset. And we have one lady who comes every day.”

She and colleagues at the sweepingly landscaped park, between Wakefield and Barnsley, have been working with The Hepworth Wakefield (2017 Art Fund Museum of the Year), Leeds Art Gallery and the Henry Moore Institute to create Yorkshire Sculpture International, which will run from 22 June to 29 September.

This £1.4 million event, backed by a £750,000 Arts Council grant, will bring world-class sculptors and their work to the county, including two new public commissions for Leeds and Wakefield city centres. Together, the four venues make up the Yorkshire Sculpture Triangle (the Henry Moore Institute shares a site with Leeds Art Gallery), but this is the first time they have worked together on a project. “It’s a unique consortium,” says Jane Bhoyroo, the International’s producer. “All the organisations are well-known nationally for sculpture; we want to make them known internationally. We want new audiences to come.”

Between them, the venues already attract more than a million visitors a year to an area often described as “the birthplace of modern British sculpture”. West Yorkshire was quite literally, in fact, the birthplace of the nation’s two most famous sculptors – Henry Moore (born in Castleford) and Barbara Hepworth (born in Wakefield).

Both trained at Leeds School of Art and were inspired by Yorkshire landscapes, sometimes in unexpected ways. In later life, Moore looked back, apparently fondly, to “the slag heaps of the Yorkshire mining villages... which for me as a boy were like mountains. They had the scale of the Pyramids.”

In the Sixties and early Seventies, Yorkshire perhaps underplayed this sculptural heritage. The opening of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1977, however, changed all that. It was the brainchild of Peter Murray, an art education lecturer, who organised a sculpture exhibition in the grounds of Bretton Hall College, where he worked.

He gradually evolved the idea of a sculpture park that would reflect his aim of trying “to make art accessible – but not by dumbing it down”. He has watched the park grow in both size and scope. “We started with 50 acres and now we manage 500,” he told me last year. “People who first came in the 1970s, now bring their grandchildren.”

Today, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park has almost 500,000 visitors a year. During the festival, it will show work by the abstract American sculptor David Smith, who died in a car crash in 1965 at the age of 59. The aim is to reflect the festival’s exploration of, as Clare Lilley says, “the way artists have used material since the Ice Age, creating objects that don’t have any practical function”.

New work by another American artist, Rashid Johnson, will be exhibited at the Henry Moore Institute, while the Hepworth, the UK’s biggest purpose-built gallery outside London, will feature an installation by the German sculptor Wolfgang Laib. The stylishly refurbished Leeds Art Gallery will display both new work (including pieces by Nobuko Tsuchiya) and its own impressive sculpture collection.

The festival – which organisers hope to repeat every few years - will also, as Jane Bhoyroo says, “bring sculpture out on the street” with three new temporary outdoor commissions. The Pakistani-American artist Huma Bhabha, celebrated for her monumental figures on the roof of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, will create a
large-scale work for Wakefield city centre, while Leeds will host a piece by the Turkish artist Ayşe Erkmen. In addition, five Yorkshire-based artists will each be given £7,500 grants to develop their work and a further ten will collaborate with schools and local communities.

Back at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, its landscape dotted with grazing sheep and Highland cattle as well as sculptures, Clare Lilley enthuses about seeing exhibits in different seasons.

“The journeys through the landscape between the exhibits are very important,” she says. “When people are walking with the wind in their faces, it can create energy in their bodies. It can be a sensory and a sensual experience.”

Perhaps the exhibit that embodies open-airness most simply and magically is Skyscape by the American sculptor James Turrell. Created in a former deer shelter, it’s an observation chamber where visitors lie on benches to watch clouds drifting past. “It pulls people in from all over the world – to see it and to be in it,” says Clare.

Former Yorkshire Sculpture Park programme assistant Freya Stockford encapsulates the open-air experience eloquently. “I’ve been coming here since I was born,” she says. “I feel really free when I’m here. I always think of the park with its trees as a sculpture in itself – at its most beautiful when it snows. And I’ve been caught in thunderstorms. It can feel so... wild.”

This article was taken from This is Y 2019.