Escape Arts reveal new sculpture

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Gill Sutherland met with artist Rachel Higgins to talk her sculpture created for Escape Arts, which is a now a permanent fixture, as it was revealed late last month. See below for your chance to name that steer

NEVER mind about the apparent big cat on the loose in Great Alne, sightings of a huge beast in Stratford this week can be confirmed as definite by Herald arts. In fact we were among a small group gathered outside The Old Slaughterhouse in Sheep Street — home to community organisation Escape Arts — to greet the aforementioned beast last week with cake and fizz.

In reality the ‘beast’ is a metal sculpture created by renowned local artist, Rachel Higgins, and features a life-size steer with two capons (castrated cockerels) on its back. The work was commissioned by Escape Arts, and funded by Arts Council England, to mark the first year of Escape Arts’ latest creative programme, Changing Landscapes, and to celebrate nearly 20 years of community arts.

The Old Slaughterhouse is a Grade II-Listed building and was for many years home to the family-run Hensons the butcher. So, of course, the beefy beast conjures the history of the venue and the people who worked there.

Rachel told us about how she created this fine majestic animal, which is yet to be named.

Your steer (a castrated bull) is a great muscular beast, wonderfully imposing: how did you go about getting it anatomically correct?

“I was brought up on a farm in Long Marston, so have always been surrounded by cows and sheep, so I do know animals inside out! Doing a steer tied in beautifully with the story of the slaughterhouse, and I’m pretty sure my family would taken animals to be slaughtered here.

“I still live on the farm and have a studio there. It’s mainly a dairy farm, which my brother runs.”

So you just had to look out the window for life models!

“I did, and I also got photos to work from, all different angles — you need to know what the bottom, feet and eyes look like. I tend to focus on the eyes and the details of the heads, and once I’ve got that right the character of the beast comes out.

“I did go and take measurements of actual cows, which wasn’t easy, but actually I think I’ve made this a bit bigger. But then it has to have impact as you come round the corner [from sheep Street into the Slaughterhouse courtyard].

“I started work on the project about a year ago, gathering research and listening to the stories of some of the groups at Escape Arts and the people who remembered or worked at Hensons.”

I know the sculpture hasn’t got an official name, but did you have a working title for it?

“I call it the cow, which is wrong sex! But it’s affectionate.”

Your steer is wonderfully tactile, what’s he made from, and what are the logistics of making something this big?

“He’s made from old pipes and heating tanks, someone heard I was making a copper sculpture and they were having their bathroom refitted, so got all their pipes. While at art school I started using metal mesh that is used in filters in old machines, it just looked right. I couldn’t find enough to salvage but found a supplier in West Bromwich. It’s really for industrial use, but since they featured my work in their catalogue they now sell it as art material to schools and colleges!

“When I’m working on a piece I start with a smaller model as a guide. I usually begin with the feet and I was going to make it outside, but it was really cold, so I thought if I make it with the head first in the warm, then when spring comes take it outside and work with it so that’s what I did.”

Have you done similar projects before?

“I haven’t done such big pieces for a long time. I studied at Nottingham Trent University and they have some big pieces, including flying geese in the student library, suspended from the ceiling. I also did the herons in Warwick town square and the bear and ragged staff at the Lord Leycester Hospital, after that one I swore I wouldn’t do another!”

I like the cheeky freeloaders sitting on the back of the steer. Do you see your animals as having personalities?

“Definitely. Living on a farm you see that they have all got different personalities and individual features.

“I’ve also watched a lot of Disney films with my sons, Ned and Stan, aged 12 and ten, and all those wonderfully characterful animals. I’m quite interested in all that anthropomorphic stuff, I like to show the personalities.”

Name that steer!

Escape Arts is running a competition to name Rachel’s sculpture. Find out about how to enter, and the range of art and heritage workshops available for all ages across the area at www.escapearts.org.uk The Old Slaughterhouse is open to visitors every Thursday to Saturday, from 10am to 5pm, also serving great coffee and cake!