by Julia McKinlay
It is quite difficult to identify why you might be drawn to a particular medium or group of materials over others as an artist. I have always had a gut feeling that my desire to make sculpture has something to do with my early experiences of living in North Yorkshire – the vast open space of the North York Moors and the gothic architecture of York Minster. These places made me feel acutely aware my own body while encountering these immense environments. Barbara Hepworth often referred to her upbringing in Wakefield as an important influence on her development as an artist:
Moving through & over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form. Above all there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fullnesses & concavities, through hollows & over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing, through mind & hand & eye.
This sensation has never left me.
I, the sculptor, am the landscape.
The concavities and contours that she described became a distinctive part of her sculptural language. For Hepworth, the activities of people were also an integral part of the Yorkshire landscape, and she frequently noted the contrast between industrial towns and areas of countryside like the Yorkshire Dales, which remained relatively ‘unspoiled’ by industrialisation.
Leeds, where Alice Chandler, Ian Jackson, James Thompson and Connor Shields are based, is an environment that is shaped by its dramatic geography, industrial past and the current rapid re-development of the city centre. Multiple new high-rise office tower blocks now characterise Leeds’s cityscape. The fast-moving property market and its negative impact on artists was the subject of James Thompson’s recent performance piece Sixty Skylines Walking Tours, 2021, which traced dozens of artist-led galleries and studios that have been obliterated by private student housing. At times, it feels as if there is a construction site on every street. Rebar, concrete and high visibility PPE are part of the tapestry of the city in its transformation. Artists in Leeds navigate the urban centre and surrounding landscape as they go about their lives, absorbing its scale and materiality, and sometimes this permeates into sculpture.
There are currently four art schools in Leeds alone, producing hundreds of fine art graduates, many of whom choose to stay in the area to participate in the active artist-led community. West Yorkshire particularly has an abundance of publicly and privately funded galleries that have a special interest in sculpture. For example, Leeds Museums and Galleries hosts the largest collection of modern sculpture outside of London.Yorkshire’s industrial legacy means that there are quarries, foundries, fabricators and timber yards here where materials and processes can be accessed. Things are still made here, by hand and by machine. I think that Yorkshire’s particular combination of rural and urban landscapes; artist-led activities and gallery organisations; and industrial fabricators, makes it a place where you want to make sculpture. The four artists exhibiting sculpture in Routes North all connect with the region in different ways. This is the present context for sculpture included in Routes North, which aims to bring light to the host of talented artists that are working in the north of England.
James Thompson’s Re-constructed Space: Plinths are cast from moulds informed by the plinths of the relocated Victorian statues on Woodhouse Moor in Leeds. His site-responsive approach to sculpture directly responds to historic civic sculpture in the city and challenges our perception of spatial situations that often go unnoticed. Alice Chandler’s practice is heavily informed by research into craft techniques and the material culture of her hometown of Leeds. Through using materials such as powder-coated steel, glass and patchwork, her sculptures abstract familiar objects such as a wardrobe or coffee table, to question our relationship with functional objects. A tiled floor flows over a framework of steel; Chandler peels up and looks under the layers of our domestic spaces to reveal hidden histories. For several years, Ian Jackson has been researching and responding to a particular vein of limestone that runs through the North of England and has shaped the development of related industries and architecture. The work exhibited in Routes North is the result of studying stone carving techniques used to conserve York Minster, adapting the drawing devices of stonemasons into meticulously hand-cut and etched zinc pieces that contain photographic fragments of these workspaces. Connor Shields draws upon the materiality of the building site, an everyday sight in Leeds, to interrogate male identity and gender binaries through combining steel and cement with rope and knitted fabric. There is a concise wit to how his work in sculpture and photography comments on presumptions around class and masculinity, by drawing our attention to the existing relationships between soft and hard materials in the construction industry.
This group of artists are embedded in the artist community in Yorkshire, and are each driving their practice forward while tapping into the industries and geographies and architectural spaces that are specific to this region. Like Barbara Hepworth, they may move on to other places in time, but for the moment they are part of the ever-changing practice of sculpture that characterises Yorkshire right now.
 James Thompson, ‘Sixty Skylines Walking Tours’, James Thompson, accessed 20 December 2021, http://www.jamesthompson.info/index.php/work/sixty-skylines-walking-tour/. This work was part of Thompson’s solo exhibition Spatial Drifts at Leeds Art Gallery, 2021. As spaces are bought and sold, artists in Leeds have become increasingly reliant on meanwhile spaces to host exhibitions and access studio space, the precarity of this can make fundraising and long-term planning very difficult for artists.
 Leeds Arts University, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds City College and University of Leeds each run Fine Art programmes. Assembly House, East Street Arts and Serf all provide studio space in Leeds ,while Basement Arts, Screw Gallery and Threshold programme regular exhibitions. In 2019, two festivals of visual art took place between Leeds and Wakefield: Yorkshire Sculpture International and its artist-led fringe festival Index Festival.