The Leverhulme Trust - Artist in Residence
The Artist in Residence was Mr Rodney Harris, a sculptor and print-maker based at Spike Island Studios in Bristol. The residency was timed to coincide with the bicentenary of the first geological map of England, by canal engineer and surveyor William Smith, who spent much of his working life designing and building the Somersetshire Coal Canal, near Bath. In the course of building the canals Smith observed successions of rocks types, or strata, that he could correlate from one area to another using fossils and so create a map of the underground distribution of the rocks. Smith’s geological map, one copy of which is held in Earth Sciences, heralded a sea-change in our understanding of Earth structure and our ability to explore for natural resources.
Rodney’s work at Bristol began with an exploration of the kinds of work that geologists undertake. Rodney was interested especially to learn how Smith had set about making his map and what kinds of rocks he recorded. To this end we took Rodney on a number of fieldtrips to sites of local geological interest. Rodney sampled the rock types at each locality to explore the potential for using powdered rock as a pigment. By grinding the rocks up and mixing the powder with linseed oil binder he discovered that he could use the rocks themselves to create printing inks to make a version of Smith’s geological map. To our knowledge this was the first time such a thing had been attempted.
Rodney completed his version of Smith’s map in October, when it was unveiled by the Vice-Chancellor of the university at a small reception. The map is remarkable on many fronts. Not least, at the same size as Smith’s original (2 x 1 m), it is impressive in scale, but also it shows the British landscape, stripped of its surface soils and other paraphernalia, in its true colour, from the dark grey of the coalfield to the pastels of the Home Counties. The map hangs in Earth Sciences Common Room where the original once hung.
It is perhaps too early to comment on Rodney’s legacy as Artist in Residence. However, several consequences are already apparent. Rodney remains a frequent visitor to the School and has encouraged other Bristol-based artists to do likewise, including sculptor, Jo Lathwood, and printmaker, Emma Stibbon RA. Rodney has secured a permanent display space in the foyer to the School, close to Smith’s restored map, where his and other artists’ work will be shown. Perhaps most exciting of all are plans to have a regular Artist in Residence in the School, perhaps in alternate years, to include not just the visual arts, but also music, writing and drama. In all of these regards last year’s Artist in Residence a memorable, timely and lasting success for all.
Professor Jon Blundy, Bristol University, 2016.
Writer Julie McCalden's article for the European Ceramic Magazine - Neue-Keramic, May 2014.
"Washing dirty linen in public"
Best known as the landing site of the 2003 finale of Concorde, Filton is a town otherwise unremarkable in its suburbia. Situated in South Gloucestershire on the edge of Bristol, somewhere amongst its 12th century church and sprawling 1930’s semi’s lies the Shield Retail Centre: A 1990’s shopping precinct built on the site of a long-forgotten history; the Shield Laundry.
Established in 1869 this Victorian laundry quickly became a large employer of women, notable in this for its time. The laundry was a place of work that served a social function in fostering a community amongst the local women workers.
By contrast, The Shield Retail Centre is a conglomeration of characterless, purpose-built warehouses for fast food outlets and superstores, offering the type of homogenous shopping experience that is familiar throughout the country. It is a fast-paced space for consumerism whose only concession to community is the small library nestled incongruously between the estate agents and the motorbike repair shop.
This is the context of two site-specific art works by Rodney Harris.
Marking the edges or gateways to the site lay Washing Machines and Washing Line. Washing Machines, the older and bolder of the two works borders a pedestrian entrance. The labour intensive hand-made process is at odds with the image painstakingly depicted and the labour-saving convenience that the representation evokes. This opposition is mirrored through other binaries in the works; the domestic vs the commercial, the decorative vs the functional, and community vs the individual. These idiosyncrasies are not jarring; they invite a slow, gentle and peculiarly British humour that is augmented through the familiarity of the image and its charming execution.
The more recent and more subtle of the two works depicts a washing line replete with clothes modelled on the artists own, carefully and flawlessly camouflaged into the brickwork of Home Bargains. The works simultaneous in/visibility operates this time on the boundary of binary oppositions, oscillating between public and private in relation to the domestic space and what we’re not supposed to do with our dirty laundry. Embedded here, within a space that sells a sanitised, commercialised notion of home, Harris makes visible the disjunction between looking and perceiving and restores to the surface what is historically repressed: the dirty linen is on display.
Both works are rendered in clay, a material so visceral and loaded with history that it seems the opposite to the relentless nature of the contemporary consumerism that the retail centre brings to mind. There is something so simple in its materiality that we forget that it is all around us, in the paving stones and brick facades of the retail centre itself. But the use is different: The retail centres use of clay is purely functional. There is no decoration, no fancy brickwork or pride in appearance. It is cheap and practical and this is made ever more evident by the presence of Harris’ works and their comment on the versatility and potential of the material.
Harris reminds us what clay can be. The works’ presence is as much a comment on the efficiency of the retail centre’s dreary aesthetic as they are an acknowledgement of the hidden history that lies beneath. Through a quirky humour that surprises, engages and amuses passers-by, the works pay homage to the Shield Laundry, recognising the importance of remembering the historical significance of the laundry to the Filton community. They invite a spirit of curiosity as local inhabitants attempt to make sense of this strange juxtaposition, promoting a renewed sense of community through conversation, enquiry and pride in what can be considered as two new landmarks for Filton.
Axisweb Artist of the Month September 2013 on the Axis website see:
"From Brick To Slip"
"There's no such thing as an average day for sculptor Rod Harris. He is as likely to be found standing on a busy roadside discussing plans with a structural engineer for his latest public commission as he is digging clay with a bunch of schoolchildren and the odd rat. He might be in the studio constructing a sculpture or working on his intricate linocuts, but then again - on rarer occasions - it's possible to catch him performing in a contemporary art gallery stretched out in a bath of liquid clay."
"Public Sculpture, Education, Print and Performance: its quite a range for one artist, one career. And yet these activities are not as disparate as they might seem. Clay, of course, is the common factor - even in his linocuts Rod mixes it with oil to create his own unique printing medium - but there's a deeper interrelationship at play, one that depends on contrast and balance, and is the very lifeblood of his practice."
Extract from an article written by Emma Maiden for Ceramic Review, Sept/Oct 2011.
The first book I have published is about a residency I am working on at Knowle West Childrens Centre in Bristol in a collaboration with teacher Robin Taylor. We aimed to describe what happened during the first year of the residency in a simple, straightforward manner, so the book can be quickly read by staff who do not have much time. It is also intended to capture the essence of an artist residency in a School.
Click on the following link to view it as a pdf.
BBC News Item.