Confluence: Collaborative sculpture making with Meeting Point

Yorkshire Sculpture International is the UK’s largest festival of sculpture, taking place in four galleries — Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery, The Hepworth Wakefield, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park — and the city centres of Leeds and Wakefield. The communities’ strand of the YSI Engagement Programme saw five sculpture projects take place with refugees, asylum seekers and people new to the region. Engaging with this target audience involved working in a range of settings which presented some challenges, but also opportunities for interesting interactions.

Henry Moore Institute partnered with Meeting Point, a charity based in Christ Church in Armley, to deliver a project led by YSI engagement artist Bijan Amini-Alavijeh. Meeting Point delivers weekly drop in sessions for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, providing a free hot meal, social activities, a food and clothing bank, English classes and advocacy support. In early conversations, I was keen to ensure that our project could fit comfortably amongst the other vital services that Meeting Point provides, whilst still allowing for meaningful engagement with Bijan. Being adaptable and self-sufficient from the outset was crucial. The small team at Meeting Point are constantly at capacity, so I was mindful to ensure that our project didn’t create more work, whilst also keen to ensure they were invested in the process and had true co-ownership of it. The best opportunity for engagement was their Monday drop in, an open session attended by between 40–100 people. To ensure our activity was accessible to members who were keen to eat, chat and access other services, we decided to run drop-in sessions. This format, which can be challenging — particularly when introducing new materials and processes — along with the space available (a carpeted area in the main church space), steered our decisions around the type of activity we would run.

Bijan’s three dimensional work, which explores the origin and use of the grid in construction and architecture, is often formed from concrete or plaster — messy materials which involve quite complex and often hazardous processes. Translating his work into an engagement setting, particularly one in a small carpeted area with no sink, and where participants would come and go for varying lengths of time, took careful consideration. Although there wasn’t a strict requirement to create a physical outcome Bijan was keen to create a collaborative piece with participants, so he needed to consider the journey to this final outcome in his planning. Any activity with a new audience, in a new setting, requires flexibility and responsiveness, so we decided to plan a core activity then adapt and develop this as needed, allowing Bijan’s vision for the final piece to evolve in tandem.

Participants in a drop-in session at Meeting Point with artist Bijan Amini-Alavijeh. Photo by Nick Singleton.

Participants worked on clay tiles (some prepared in advance, some made by participants), drawing a design then carving it into the clay using basic tools. Some designs were traced from or inspired by traditional patterns found in architecture from across the world, some were completely improvised. We ran this activity at all five sessions at the drop in, with small variations in process, for example creating repeat patterns by drawing shapes on folded tracing paper. We had anticipated that this activity would become repetitive and more progression would be required, but found that this wasn’t the case. Although Meeting Point has hosted creative sessions in the past it was quite unusual to have a clay workshop in the corner of the church, so we were approached with varying levels of caution and curiosity, and running a similar activity each week seemed to build confidence in participants. Volunteers were crucial allies in getting people involved, encouraging those eating and chatting in the adjoining room to come and have a go. One session (during Ramadan) was quiet, but all other weeks saw a steady flow of participants — some one time visitors, some who came every week — and the relief tile activity continued to work well. It was simple enough to easily transcend the language barrier, needing no technical explanation (which can become very repetitive in a drop-in context, and hard to keep up with during a busy session), but had enough creative freedom to keep people engaged and coming back the next week to make another.

Before in my country I made things, little toys and things. It’s nice to make things with clay again.

Participant, on taking part in the sessions
Participant carving a clay tile during a session at Meeting Point. Photo by Nick Singleton.

Those with lots of ideas made multiple tiles and drew their own designs, while those with less confidence chose to carefully trace a pattern from the source material. One lady came to every session and carved two or three tiles at each one, covering them with intricate textures. She spoke little English, but made it very clear that she was pleased to see us and keen to make more tiles. Our target audience was adults, but most weeks we extended the session by 30 minutes to allow several keen teenagers who came after school to get involved. Repeating the activity with small variations also proved effective in realising the final piece, as Bijan had drafted a design for a small plinth covered in 60 tiles (plaster casts of the clay tiles carved at the sessions), and therefore needed lots of these to complete the sculpture. Bijan shared sketches for the final piece when introducing the activity, and brought in cast plaster tiles from previous weeks so new participants could see what they were working towards, and return visitors could see the results of their work. One man decided to challenge himself and make a relief carving of a Mesopotamian figure. This ambitious task required more time than the session allowed, so we boxed up his work to take home. The following week he presented us with a beautiful, intricate carving, explaining that he’d worked on it at home all week and was keen to make more. We gave him some clay and a board to take away and encouraged him to create more work.

I like any artistic thing, photography, printing, sculpture. It was like a flash, like somebody wake you or push you. It made me discover a new way to make artwork. I’ve bought more clay since and made more sculptures at home.

Participant, on taking inspiration from Bijan’s activity to make the Mesopotamian carving.
Carved tile featuring an ancient Mesopotamian design made by a participant at Meeting Point. Photo by Nick Singleton.

Alongside the weekly drop in’s, we ran one workshop with the women’s group, who meet weekly for lunch and an activity. This allowed Bijan to deliver a more technical 90 minute session, which involved teaching the 12 women to make a slab mould and cast plaster into it, creating a curved wedge with a relief pattern. Together, these would form the architrave of the plinth. The session was quite intensive due to time pressure, language barriers and varying pace across the group, but very successful. Bijan’s practical demonstration, some translation from volunteers or other members, and peer to peer support meant that all 12 ladies made a successful mould, and appeared to find the process insightful and rewarding.

In addition to the sessions at Meeting Point, members were invited to visit all four YSI venues, and to attend the Street Party during the launch weekend, which took place at the site of the newly commissioned sculpture, Receiver by Huma Bhabha in central Wakefield. These visits were a pleasure to host, and the group showed curiosity, interest and a keenness to engage. At Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Art Gallery, we punctuated the guided tours with activities, drawing in the Ayse Erkman installation and making miniature sculptures inspired by Phyllida Barlow in the Institute’s seminar room. These activities were both quite playful and the group got stuck in immediately, creating a series of beautiful, intricate structures from matchsticks and plasticine. In Leeds Art Gallery’s Woodwork: A Family Tree of Sculpture exhibition — a collection of British sculpture alongside wooden objects from across the world — two ladies were thrilled to recognise a carved figure from their home village in the Congo. Since the visit these ladies, and others from the group, have taken part in an artist-led project linked to this exhibition, exploring wood as an artistic medium.

I like the galleries, inside, a lot of things. I like the rice, the man putting mountains of rice…. And the big tree. We were given an exercise book and pencil and told to look at EVERYTHING.

Participant, on their visit to The Hepworth Wakefield and seeing work by Wolfgang Laib and Jimmie Durham.
Confluence, the sculpture created by members of Meeting Point and Bijan Amini-Alavijeh. Photo by Nick Singleton.

The project concluded at an unveiling of the finished piece at Meeting Point. The sculpture, entitled Confluence, is an assembly of the tiles and decorative forms made with participants, along with extra elements made by Bijan in his studio. The feet are cast from the eagle lectern in Christ Church, forming a direct connection to the location it was made in. The creation of these extra pieces and construction of the plinth required a lot of Bijan’s time, so having budget allocated to the fabrication of the piece was essential. The sculpture’s title highlights the collaborative nature of the artwork, the range of nationalities of the contributors, the influences it combines and the ethos of Meeting Point. The word means “a coming or flowing together, meeting, or gathering at one point”.

The team and members at Meeting Point were thrilled with the result. Participants hurried to the piece to identify the tiles they had made and take photos. Some members were surprised to see such a polished outcome – it seemed that the drop-in nature of the sessions meant that some weren’t aware of the plans for the final piece, and were hugely impressed and proud to see their work as part of it. Participants asked when we would be back. It was apparent that, like so many projects of this kind, we had built trust, confidence and ownership, but now had to bring the project to an end. As I plan my future engagement programme, I’ll look to build on this relationship and value ongoing partnerships, rather than take a scattergun approach to work in communities.

Members, staff and volunteers of Meeting Point, Bijan Amini-Alavijeh and Alison Smith (Engagement Curator at Henry Moore Institute) with the finished sculpture. Photo by Nick Singleton.

The unveiling of the piece took place last week, so the evaluation phase is very much ongoing, but initial feedback sought from participants was very positive and unearthed some interesting insights. As a delivery team, we’ll continue to reflect on the successes and challenges of the project, whilst feeling confident that the project had positive impact in many ways. Being adaptable, sensitive and keen to truly co-produce was key to successful engagement in this unique setting, which has such a crucial role to play in the community. Keeping things simple while allowing plenty of creative freedom, and having time and budget dedicated to producing the final sculpture enabled a participatory project to produce an outcome that sits comfortably and authentically within Bijan’s artistic portfolio.

Alison Smith
Engagement Curator, Henry Moore Institute