Can a relatively unknown Sheffield artist steer to fruition his plans for a giant sculpture next to the M1? Peter Kay reports on his progress
THE idea emerged after the Tinsley cooling towers were demolished in clouds of dust and controversy more then four years ago.
With one landmark having been lost on the Sheffield-Rotherham border, city artist Steve Mehdi suggested another, a 30 metre Man of Steel on a coal-like plinth, to celebrate South Yorkshire’s steel and coal heritage.
His plans have gathered pace over the past year, gaining the support of business and academic leaders and securing planning permission for a location, on a hillside overlooking the M1 and Meadowhall.
The vision is of a stainless steel signpost to the region - taller than the Angel of the North in Gateshead and one reflecting the past, but, above all, pointing to a future forged in the area’s specialist engineering and manufacturing skills.
Yet Mr Mehdi has yet to convince Sheffield City Council to throw its considerable weight behind his ambitions.
The proposed spot off Meadowhall Road in Kimberworth is within the Rotherham boundary. Moreover, he has so far been unable to persuade Sheffield to release the £500,000 that E.On, owners of the site of the cooling towers, have allocated for a piece of public art to compensate for the loss of the familiar structure.
Despite the daunting economic climate, Mr Mehdi is powering ahead with the project on the basis of it being largely privately financed, perhaps with a helping hand from the lottery.
He points to a list of companies and institutions who are giving their support, including Newburgh Engineering, which would work on construction, FFC Environment, which has provided the location, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership, both city universities, Tata Steel, Sheffield Forgemasters, civil engineers Mott MacDonald and Axis Architects.
When the Global Manufacturing Festival is held at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Catcliffe in April, a four metre version of the sculpture, created at the AMRC, will be on display.
One of the strengths of the project, says Mr Mehdi, is that it will be linked to the school curriculum, aiming to inspire a new generation of engineers. A visitor centre in the plinth is designed to underline the synergy between art, science and technology.
But can a relatively unknown Sheffield artist raise an estimated £2.7m so that the Man of Steel can rise majestically about the M1?
Instead of looking to a ‘celebrity artist’, the question should be “which is the best piece that represents the community?” he says.
“The credentials I possess are that the Man of Steel was a piece I made that was inspired by the people I worked with in engineering in Sheffield in the 1980s, and partly inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, The Thinker.
I have spent four years and a good deal of money developing the project and engaging the private sector and local authority experts. The project now has a scale that means some of this is now being undertaken by a team of business leaders determined to see its potential fulfilled. It has proof of concept, planning permission and widespread support. There were no raft of objections during the planning stage. In fact, there was none at all. This might be seen as apathy, but it also suggests that the sculpture as a concept chimes well with the community.”
Mr Mehdi met Sheffield council leader Julie Dore and her arts team recently and had “a very productive conversation”.
But the council has its own ideas on how to spend E.On’s £500,000, having referred previously to using public art to highlight the eastern gateway to the city. And it’s usual strategy is to invite artists to take part in a competition.
Coun Isobel Bowler, cabinet member for culture, sport and leisure, said: “The city council and E.On are in discussion about options for the £500,000 investment in Sheffield. The M1 Gateway project and the Man of Steel project are two different projects, on different sites and with different goals.”
Mr Mehdi has set a completion date of August 2015 for his Man of Steel.
There is a long way to go, especially in these austere times, but he believes there is no better time to make progress than during the centenary of Harry Brearley’s invention of stainless steel.
He intends to maintain his nerves of steel.