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

Western Morning News (Saturday) - - In Conversation -

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)

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