A Totem for Hull

In 2017, Wakefield born, Sleaford based Jason Wilsher-Mills‘ was Artlink Hull’s disabled artist in residence, part of its Square Peg programme for Hull 2017 UK City of Culture. Jason took a participatory approach to the residency, connecting in particular with other disabled people in Hull and delivering workshops with them which contributed to his exhibition at the end of the residency.

Photo: Jerome Whittingham.

After the residency finished, Jason was keen to return to Hull, reconnect with some of the people he had met during 2017 and work with more disabled people in the city. Jason had the ambition to realise his first permanent sculpture, one that would be an unabashed celebration of diversity and disability and a legacy of Hull being City of Culture. Jason sums up his practice as “I Daniel Blake meets the Beano.”

Jason wanted to work again with Artlink as project producers and together we built a partnership for A Totem for Hull and secured funding from Arts Council England, Hull City Council and the University of Hull. The University was also keen to be a major project partner as part of its Culture Campus programme and readily offered a permanent site for the sculpture — a prominent and accessible location in front of the Byrnmor Jones Library on campus. The University also helped Jason connect staff and students with the project.

Engagement workshops with Creative Day Care. Photo: Jerome Whittingham.

Jason then spent the first few months of 2019 engaging members of different disability organisations and groups with support from Artlink, especially Creative Producer Jemma Brown. Having previously worked in education for many years, engaging people in his work comes naturally to Jason. Originally trained as a painter, Jason switched to using tablets when painting became difficult due to his disability and digital is now his main creative medium. Tablets lend themselves to engagement workshops and Jason worked with participants in particular on creating animations that would be featured as part of the Augmented Reality experience built into the sculpture. Jason is keen to push the boundaries of technology and explore how it can aid accessibility. With A Totem for Hull, he wanted to have the most advanced Augmented Reality experience in one of his works yet, but also the easiest to access. Jason worked closely with digital specialists Hot Knife Media to make this a reality and through downloading a simple, free app, the animations triggered from the sculpture can be viewed using almost any smartphone or tablet. Jason worked with around 200 people in his workshops over several months, as he developed his sculpture design. In particular, he connected with members of the learning disabled community in the city, working with many organisations that Artlink already had links with.

Engagement workshops with 5 Senses Expressive Arts and Education Centre for Vulnerable Adults. Photo: Jerome Whittingham.

BBC Look North became interested in the project and followed it throughout, creating a feature on TV at the end of the project. After completing his design, Jason worked with Leeds-based specialist Kevin Harlow to realise the design as a large scale, durable fibreglass sculpture. Going through the process of moquette, polystyrene form, clay modelling, plaster moulding, the fiberglass moulding, sanding and painting. Jason then worked with the University on the final installation of the piece.

Sculpture modelling. Photo: fabricator Kevin Harlow.

Jason had long been inspired by the work of The League of Gentleman, who include Hull-born Reece Shearsmith. Through a family contact, Jason got in touch with Reece who agreed to unveil the sculpture on the University campus. The launch organised by the University, was a buzzing event on a sunny day attracting over 100 people, including many who had contributed to realising the project. A Totem for Hull: The Humber Powerhouse is now on permanent display on the University Campus.

Jason had realised his ambition to take his work to the next level and create a permanent piece, Artlink had furthered its work to support disabled artists and the disabled community in Hull, and the University realised its ambition to have more radical artworks on campus and develop its overall cultural offer. A Totem for Hull brought together many elements of Artlink’s work, including supporting disabled artists, working with communities on developing art projects and contributing to the development of the scale and ambition of visual arts in Hull.

What set this project apart was the collaboration between a disabled artist and disabled participants and the scale of its ambition. Not only was the process of developing the sculpture popular and engaging for those that took part, the final artwork is a significant, cutting edge piece now on permanent display at a prestigious venue. While the overall budget was tight for the scale of the project, we managed to achieve all our key goals in it. Key to success was all partners working together positively and openly and collaborating to achieve the ambition of making A Totem for Hull.

When  your 20 yr old son with #PMLD who talks with eye gaze does a workshop with artist @JASONWILSHERMIL and when asked what he  loves he says @duranduran and makes himself with help @SimonJCLeBON in Rio video and now is on the app with #AugmentedReality on #totemforhull mind blown!

Parent of participant on Twitter

The workshops you provided to our service users have had such a positive impact, for service users who have took part we have seen increased confidence and engagement as a result of the sessions which has been amazing to see.

Christine Marshall, Manager, Danny’s Dream
Jason Wilsher-Mills, A Totem for Hull, 2019. Jerome Whittingham

Kenn Taylor
Creative Director, Artlink Hull

Artlink Hull enables the creation and exploration of art with, in, and about communities. In particular, we work with individuals and communities experiencing disadvantage to increase the diversity of voices in the arts.

We do this through art commissions, projects, exhibitions, events, learning programmes, and forums, working with a range of communities.

Since our establishment in 1982, Artlink Hull has been continually involved in the development of community, participatory and socially-engaged art practices, and remains a key organisation in the Humber region within these fields.