Laurie Harpum is an artist living on the Isle of Sheppey. Here she tells us why she loves the island, how it’s influenced much of her work and how art can help people to see things differently.
I have lived on on the Isle of Sheppey since the age of four and although I wasn’t born here, I consider myself an islander, otherwise known as a ‘Swampy’. I could not imagine living anywhere else and truly love Sheppey, all its oddities and quirks, both environment and people, areas of great natural beauty and wildlife, the isolated areas and those that sit alongside it’s maritime, industrial and wartime history.
I studied spacial design at Medway College of Art and Design from 1986 until 1988 and then went on to study ceramics and glass at Buckinghamshire College from 1988 until 1991.
After graduation, I spent a brief time at a stained glass company but found that modern techniques had removed much, if not all of the craft and I was unhappy in that field. I then took a temporary position teaching ceramics, arts and crafts in a prison and stayed in that environment until 2010, gaining my Certificate in Education along the way, a total of 18 years. How life takes over and time flies!
From 2010 until 2012, I focused on developing my work and created a range of ‘Cliff Creatures’ which are made from Sheppey beach found objects that have been thrown up by the sea, tumbled out of the cliffs, cast out or lost by their previous owners, combining these found objects with ceramics.
I was selling my work in Whitstable and Polperro (in Cornwall), but wanted to show and sell my work in the environment that influenced and inspired it, that had even supplied lots of the parts on it’s coast. I was looking for a shop or gallery on or close to Sheppey to show my work, but found that there were no professional quality outlets here.
With this realisation in mind, in 2013 I organised a one day event at Barton’s Point Coastal Park called ‘Love Sheppey X’. I had to find exhibitors as I didn’t know any other artists on Sheppey, testament to their being no facilities geared up to creative endeavors in this area, no natural place for us to meet each other. When I started to look, I was amazed at how many creatives live and work on Sheppey, but take their work elsewhere to show and sell. So I invited professional quality artists and crafts people, along with natural and cultural heritage organisations that related to Sheppey to exhibit and in total 35 came.
As I had no money to advertise the event, I wrote ‘Love Sheppey X’ on over 2000 stones and over the course of six weeks put them out all over Sheppey, on the cliffs and in the parks, outside the clubs and churches, along the footpaths to schools etc. I usually put them out under the cover of night and was always careful not to get noticed. Within a week the inhabitants of Sheppey had noticed the stones and written to the local paper and were asking questions on social media. I set up a Facebook page and created a stone hunt with numbered stones and the local paper agreed to run a weekly feature which helped promote the day. It proved a good way to get people out and engaged with their surroundings.
The event was well received and attended, so with the help of a small Ideas Test grant, I reran the event in 2014, with 45 exhibitors and had 1276 visitors.
Love Sheppey X proved there are many professional quality artists and crafts people living and making on Sheppey, even more creatives visit Sheppey and take its influence with them. It is a beautiful and inspiring place.
Those of us that have truly engaged with Sheppey, see its natural and cultural heritage assets and are amazed that a large percentage of visitors (and indeed residents), are unaware of the unique wonders that Sheppey has to offer. Many don’t know they can readily find fossilised shark’s teeth, crabs and fish etc on its beaches, that we have birds only a few miles from our suburban environment with a wing span up to 1.4m wide that people come from far and wide to see, or that Eastchurch played a major part in aviation history, when the first controlled flight by a British pilot on British soil took place, amongst many other aviation firsts.
My love of Sheppey and the time I spend exploring all the riches it has to offer mean that naturally my work draws inspiration from my surroundings. By using found objects, both natural and manmade in my work, I draw upon the rich textures and patinas that build up on metals, the wear and erosion that affects wood, the way an object is marked and worn by its journey through time. For me, using these found objects and being creatively fed by my surroundings, means that my work carries a little of Sheppey with it.
I try to use the frailty and erosion of the found objects, the narrative that they bring, alongside newly constructed elements, to relate a concept or emotion in my work. Whilst my formal training is in ceramics and glass, I enjoy the challenge that working with new materials brings, most recently working with wire, concrete, metal and found bird remains.
In 2015 I was invited to take part in an exhibition, ‘A Handful of Dust’, reflecting on children caught up in wars across the world. Eight Kent artists made works and exhibited at The Pie Factory in Margate. I feel the sculptures I made are the most meaningful pieces I have made to date and felt our combined efforts made for a moving and poignant exhibition.
After the exhibition I wanted to do more to highlight the plight of the tens of thousands of refugees displaced by war. Through Whitstable-Calais Solidarity Group, who raise funds and regularly visit Calais to clothe and feed some of the refugees in the camps. The group asked me to find a creative way to draw attention to Refugee Week and their fund raising event. As a result, I made 1600 small, ceramic life jackets, accompanied by luggage labels and hung them around Whitstable and Margate.
They were installed overnight, to create a greater impact and reports are that they did cause people to stop and engage. I hope that those people now think about the refugees in a more humane way than they are often portrayed by the media.
I plan to continue making work, to present both in the gallery format and the wider, public environment, trying to encourage community engagement. My aspiration is to make work that will act as a catalyst to make the viewer consider issues anew whether it’s related to where they live or something much broader.
You can see a collection of my ‘Cliff Creatures’ in Studio Fusion at The Oxo Tower until 28th August.
A Handful of Dust is running from 28th July until 5th August at Nucleus Arts in Chatham.
FaceBook: Laurie Harpum