David Alston is a former Deputy Director of Arts in Sheffield and ran the City Art Galleries in the 1980s and early 1990s before taking up a post as Keeper of Art at the National Museum of Wales. In 2000 he was involved in the setting up of The Lowry on Salford Quays. Over the last seven years he has been Arts Director with the Arts Council of Wales. The family home is still Sheffield where David lives with his partner Lesley Webster, one of the organisers of the Off the Shelf Festival. David Alston talks to artist Su Blackwell about her work and with writer Wendy Jones about their joint project, The Fairy Tale Princess, at The Showroom on Sunday, November 4 at 11am.
I AM on the move most of the time with the train as my mobile office. Returning to Sheffield, it’s important to feel that welcome. So first up for my favourite Sheffield things, would be the railway station forecourt: Sheaf Square.
This is not just because for me that’s the point where I feel “Lovely I’m back”, but I can confidently say, given my experience of tipping out of trains into towns all over the UK and abroad, Sheffield now has one of the most visually arresting arrival points of any city.
I like the Cutting Edge sculpture wall and the play of water, at night or on a gleaming or even a grey day. I like the fact that this came out of some of the leading creative lights of another of my favourite places, architecturally and for what it contains, Persistence Works - working home to 70 artists and crafts people at the heart of the city.
In Sheffield new build artists’ studios are still on the agenda as up at the Manor Oaks Studios built in collaboration with Green Estate on the Manor. Bank Street Arts has also given creative life to a hotchpotch gem of Georgian Sheffield.
I am only half way up the hill from the station and clocking up favourite places fast. My eye checks out the welcome of Andrew Motion’s poem for text in the city, another interesting development coming from having a public and environmental art practice in the texture of the townscape. Pleased, too, at this point, that I can also take in David Kemp’s inventive thistle peeping over the wall of the Science Park springing from the overgrown alchemical oven in the centre of his sculpture Heavy Plant.
Looking back on a dark night, I love the sliver of light and the alignment which picks out the poignant Cholera Monument up in Norfolk Park. That monument is a starting point for my on-going love affair and appreciation of Sheffield’s Round Walk in its contrasting sections and its whole. A couple of years back I tackled Norfolk Park to Endcliffe Park with my daughter. It took us longer than we had allowed but that could have something to do with getting lost in the vast Graves Park.
If you want to blow the cobwebs away, then there’s a point above the Bole Hill Plantation where the view is across Sheffield over to the east.
Dropping down past Whirlow Hall farm is a special place when azaleas and rhododendrons are in flower, Whinfell Quarry gardens.
Impossible for me to do part of the Round Walk and not feel and appreciate the generosity and foresight of benefactor JG Graves who put together and preserved this green ring around the city.
In the Graves Art Gallery, looking at Stanley Royle’s Morning on the Derbyshire Moors, I can be in two favourite places at once. The picture should be out more often and I should find more time to climb out of Sheffield (JG did it on his bike) and return through the Mayfield Valley. In the Graves there is a clever celebration of the 1930s mail order magnate.
Su Blackwell was commissioned to do one of her entrancing conjuring tricks with scissors and scalpels using the raw material of J.G. Graves’ mail order catalogue world to create an evocation of the man, his business and enthusiasms. In Off the Shelf, I’ll be having the privilege of talking to Su about her work and the lovely delicate fantastical leaves out of book sculptures that she creates.
A lot of my favourite places in Sheffield these days are around friends’ dining tables or if out, around a table in The Greystones pub. Thornbridge, like Henderson’s and Forced Entertainment, is now a global brand. It’s nice to find special gems you could only experience in Sheffield, like the miniature Lantern Theatre springing into new life as a niche venue.
All too quickly, I’ll find myself back at the station.