Simon Parker visits a Plymouth gallery hosting an exhibition of Joseph Hillier’s sculptures and chats to the artist about creating a mighty statement for the city centre
In the window of Artmill Gallery, a small but influential venue just off Plymouth’s Mutley Plain, stands a figure whose big sister will soon become synonymous with the city. Messenger, which was previously named Bianca, is the work of Cornwall-born Joseph Hillier. It was commissioned by the Theatre Royal and is expected to be hoisted into place on Royal Parade early next year. To get a sense of the sculpture’s scale, take a glance at the facing page.
“You only really get an idea of how spectacular it will look when you see this one and imagine yourself standing next to her foot,” said Artmill founder and director Isabell Peirson, looking at the scaled-down maquette. “It’s very exciting, and we are privileged to be showing a selection of Joseph’s work in the run-up to the installation.”
Joseph’s association with Plymouth and the Theatre Royal came as a result of a nice bit of serendipity. The artist’s mother, Zaida, who lives in Totnes, happened upon Artmill five years ago. Isabell takes up the story.
“His mum came in to the gallery one day – she’d never been in before – and we got chatting,” she said. “It was just one mum to another and Zaida suggested I take a look at his work. So I did and was immediately impressed by what I saw.”
At that stage, Joseph – who was born near Helston and attended Parc Eglos and Wendron primary schools, before moving on to
Truro and Taunton – had no connection with Plymouth. And it’s fair to say that had those mums not met, the city would not soon be home to the UK’s largest bronze sculpture.
Joseph confirmed that “it’s where this piece all started”, adding: “Mum was in the gallery and happened to mention that her son was a sculptor... perhaps I should send her out on my behalf more often.”
Things moved relatively quickly after that. Isabell offered Joseph a solo exhibition at Artmill, and, because of the work’s theatrical subject matter, invited Theatre Royal chief executive Adrian Vinken to take a look.
“I knew Adrian would like the big bronze theatrical mask we in the window,” said Isabell.
Adrian then contacted Joseph, suggesting he worked with theatre company Frantic Assembly as they prepared for a production of Othello. It was this collaboration with TRP which led to the Messenger commission.
“That’s how the process began,” said Isabell, running her hand over Virtual Mortal, one of a dozen bronzes on show at Artmill. “If Joe’s mum hadn’t come in to see us, Plymouth wouldn’t be getting this magnificent sculpture.”
Standing 23ft tall, 30ft wide, and weighing in at nine and a half tonnes, Messenger will be the largest “lost wax bronze” sculpture to be cast in the UK and by far the country’s largest bronze sculpture by volume. It is expected to be put in place at the entrance to the Theatre Royal next spring.
Talking about the process, Joseph said: “As an artist who works with the body I find watching dance inspirational but frustrating, because as soon as it happens it is gone. In these works I am trying to preserve those moments when action takes over conscious thought. By various digital and metallurgical arts I attempt to accrue these fleeting, mortal moments and examine them as solid perpetual form.”
Born in Cornwall in 1974, Joseph studied at Falmouth College of Art and Newcastle University. After graduation he held a research post at Newcastle University for a number of years.
In 2000 he received the Year of the Artist Award from the Arts Council of England and completed his first public projects. The following year he won a scholarship and teaching role at Tulane University in New
Orleans. It was there he made a group of works entitled Being Human, which were sold to a single corporate collection.
Elected associate member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors in 2004, Joseph has been widely exhibited in galleries and sculpture parks, and has seventeen large-scale permanent installations nationally and internationally. In 2013 he was selected as a finalist for the national sculpture prize at Broomhill and for the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy.
He lives with his wife and three children in a village near Newcastle, but was in Plymouth for the opening of the Artmill show.
“Messenger celebrates the potential of creativity as a dynamic catalyst for change,” he said. “It is a young and powerful woman, a potent force about to transform the world by her actions.”
Hillier’s inspiration for the sculpture came from a split-second pose struck by an actor during rehearsals for Othello, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s award-winning co-production with Frantic Assembly in 2014.
“When I saw that moment, I was highly aware of the actor’s poise in that fleeting pause in her movement,” he said. “In that tentative moment something powerful is about to happen. That was the essence of the idea, capturing a creative person in the moment they are about to make an impact; of imminent power.”
Messenger is being created at Castle Fine Art Foundry in the Welsh village of Llanrhaeadr Ym Mochnant, using the ancient technique of lost wax casting. More than 200 bronze panels have been individually cast and are in the process of being welded together by master craftsmen and women to create the giant figure.
Referring specifically to Messenger, Joseph said; “Making work for a public space offers me the opportunity to surprise people. If you’re in a gallery, you’re expecting something, but when you come across art by chance in a public space it can be a surprise. With Messenger there will be that first fleeting glimpse as you come down Royal Parade and see this huge sculpture between two buildings, and amongst the trees. I hope it will be a really good experience for the people of Plymouth and visitors to the city.”
A dozen of Joseph’s sculptures will remain on show at Artmill until early next year, when the exhibition will transfer to the Theatre Royal.
“We do feel quite chuffed to have the work here and would encourage everyone to come along and have a look,” said Isabell. “Joseph is so lovely and I really feel he will soon be recognised as the next Antony Gormley.”
For more details visit artmillgalleries.co.uk
There will be a first fleeting glimpse as you come down Royal Parade
Various views of the Messenger maquette on show at Artmill gallery (above), Joseph Hillier with a tiny version of his sculpture (right) and how the artwork might look in position at Theatre Royal Plymouth (top)