A rough guide to Sheffield

WARTS AND ALL: They may need some TLC, but Jo Peel tells why she finds beauty in the steel city’s over­looked build­ings.

Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine - - Front Page -

HE ti­tle of Jo Peel’s new ex­hi­bi­tion – Steel City, City on the Move – delves back into her own Sheffield child­hood. It’s a re­cur­ring line in a poem which her ju­nior school class penned for Chil­dren of Steel, a late 1980s an­thol­ogy of writ­ing about the city.

The poem con­trasted Sheffield’s in­dus­trial past with its post-in­dus­trial Eight­ies re­al­ity. And “City on the Move”? An ironic ref­er­ence to a cheery 1970s pro­mo­tional film that later found fame as the open­ing se­quence of box of­fice smash The Full Monty.

The poem, by the eight-year-old Jo and her class­mates at in­ner-city Shar­row Ju­nior School, pointed up the city’s con­trasts. On the one hand, there were such sup­pos­edly pos­i­tive ven­tures as new shop­ping cen­tres and the sports sta­dia be­ing built for the 1991 World Stu­dent Games. On the other, there was no short­age of neg­a­tive im­ages of re­ces­sion – dwin­dling jobs, clos­ing fac­to­ries, boarded-up flats.

The con­trasts are fur­ther ex­plored in the ex­hi­bi­tion at Sheffield’s Mil­len­nium Gallery. It com­pares the city’s postin­dus­trial ex­pe­ri­ence with that of Pittsburgh, its US coun­ter­part as a steel city – a term Jo wants to re­claim as pos­i­tive rather than as a melan­choly re­minder of faded glory or fail­ure.

“I wanted to see how much of a city’s iden­tity is founded on its history,” she says. “The sense of pride was some­thing I wanted to fo­cus on.”

We’re at Per­sis­tence Works, one of four sites across the city run by York­shire Artspace, which rents stu­dios to 150 artists and crafts­peo­ple. Jo’s stu­dio over­looks busy Su­per­tram lines and sleek mod­ern build­ings, but her work ex­plores an older city, in­fused with its in­dus­trial past.

Her Sheffield is an un­com­pro­mis­ingly ur­ban place of in­dus­trial pipes, traf­fic lights and tele­graph wires, brick-built for the most part, some­times run­down, never nos­tal­gic. These metic­u­lous, boldly out­lined ar­chi­tec­tural stud­ies make no at­tempt to dis­guise or glam­or­ise. If a shop is boarded-up, she paints it boarded-up. If half a hoard­ing on the side of a build­ing is miss­ing, she doesn’t fill it in. Wall plas­ter is left peel­ing.

“Peo­ple say ‘Why do you draw such ugly build­ings?’” Jo says. “But I don’t see them as ugly. I can’t just draw any old aban­doned build­ing; it’s got to have a history. I try to find the char­ac­ter of build­ings and a new build­ing hasn’t nec­es­sar­ily got that. I im­merse my­self in an en­vi­ron­ment.”

The im­mer­sion also took in Pittsburgh. Jo spent a fort­night there, film­ing in­ter­views with res­i­dents about their at­ti­tudes to their city. She has in­ter­wo­ven them with sim­i­lar in­ter­views with Sh­effield­ers to cre­ate an 80-minute doc­u­men­tary that forms part of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

Both groups talked a great deal about the work ethic, the changes caused by the de­cline of the in­dus­try that tra­di­tion­ally de­fined them, their pride in that in­dus­try, and the friend­li­ness of the lo­cal com­mu­nity. But there was a dif­fer­ence in tone. Pitts­burghi­ans were char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally out­go­ing, whereas, says Jo, “peo­ple in Sheffield were self-deprecating and afraid to blow their own trum­pets. This is of­ten de­scribed as an in­ward-look­ing city. Peo­ple think that’s its down­fall, but to me that gives it its char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity.

“It’s a friendly, strong com­mu­nity. And if some­one crit­i­cises Sheffield, it’s like slag­ging off your mum.”


STEEL YOUR­SELF: Main pic­ture right, artist Jo Peel at work in her stu­dio in Sheffield; above, Jo’s take on the Hun­gry Wolf cafe and sand­wich shop on In­fir­mary Road.

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