Ginkgo Projects has been delivering an engaged public art programme for a major scheme of new housing in East Melksham. This project which has taken place over a number of years has resulted in a range of writing, film, youth theatre and a series of permanent public art pieces that link the new development to the existing town of Melksham.
The art programme was funded by a consortium of house builders developing the land to the East of Melksham. The provision of public art was requested through Wiltshire Council’s planning processes and policies and forms part of several requirements upon developers in order to achieve their planning permission. The consortium remained involved in the development of the work alongside guidance from local councils.
The Art Plan, which is a strategy document outlining the overall approach, was delivered in several phases, with each contributing to the development of the next. The first of these was a piece of engaged research by artist collective Wrights and Sites. Phil Smith, an artist, writer and inveterate explorer, spent time in Melksham, looking into the links between the town of Melksham and its surroundings, especially the land to the East which is the site of the proposed development. He uncovered a fascinating network of historical (and not so historical!) walking routes that tell their own stories of the town and how its geography and character has shifted and changed over time. The way that these historical walks link the old and the new parts of the town, and the fact that some would remain, and some would be rerouted, started to cement into a clear basis for the art plan and the subsequent commissioning.
Artist Verity Jane Keefe was then commissioned to develop permanent work and she took the historical routes and their development over time as a starting point. Verity developed a proposal for East Melksham through further work with the community, opening an “ideas shop” in the town, making a short film, meeting community members and local industry leaders. At the end of this she started to form a list of the things that Melksham identified with most. These would be plotted onto the walking routes that connected the old and new parts of Melksham, to create a new, way-marked town walk.
Verity explains this:
“This notion of “Celebrating the everyday” conceptually underpins the work: the idea of an everyday place with a remarkable history – some low self-esteem – an excellent sense of community – industrial heritage – humour, packaging up all of the things that make this place so remarkable and particular, what Melksham is good at.
Unanimous thoughts from residents both young and old, workers of the town and civic staff was that the future of the town is entirely dependent on how the new residents integrate with the old.
How can we get them to come into the town and us out there? The trail proved incredibly popular as a proposition to forge links, have something to do. There was a general feeling of pride … that someone wanted to make work that celebrates the everyday and Melksham in quite a “different way”.
The bronze sculptures would operate as the anti-icon, complementing the town, the everyday, the mundane, the surprising, taking into consideration both users and uses. The main audience will be people that walk the same route every day, all year – with an added element of discovery.
The work is: The sculptures, The experience, The route, Experiencing the route, Discovering the route, Taking joy in the everyday, The map as key as Geological strata of housing regeneration in line with industry (the bronze age, the rope age, the tarpaulin age, the dairy age)….”
The sculptural objects that were selected cover local industries such as tyre and rope manufacture, feather purifying and weaving. They also celebrate Milk, a valuable local industry and the original meaning of the town name Melksham, Mealc (milk) ham (town). Local celebrities such as Mr Christmas have been celebrated via a year round bauble and the very act of walking and way marking has been included via the casting of an original stile that punctuated a route in East Melksham now re-routed because of the expansion of the town.
The objects were all beautifully and sensitively cast into bronze at the Novacast foundry in Melksham, ensuring that the project remained a local one from its concept to its fabrication.
Alongside this commission and again responding to the historical routes and the theme of old and new, was a new performance devised and performed by pupils from Melksham Oak Secondary School.
This was developed by the drama department within the school, Pound Arts Centre and Bristol Old Vic Young Company. It included professional development activities for staff and trips and talks for the pupils. This piece was a joyful celebration of opening hearts and minds to new experiences and exploring what people can learn from coming together.
The art programme has been a lengthy but an engaged exploration of Melksham. The engagement with local industry, particularly the relationship developed with the local foundry, Novacast, has been very special and a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the industrial heritage and future of the town.
Housebuilding and the expansion of towns into surrounding farmland is a potentially controversial and complicated area to work within, however, the process of building communities and engaging new with existing ones is important and valuable. It is also an area where artists and cultural activity can take the lead and make a real difference. With the ever increasing demand for new housing and therefore the constant creation of fresh groups of strangers living side by side, it is essential that the role of culture and artists is seriously considered as a way of building cohesive and vibrant new communities.
Sophie Scott, Associate Director, Ginkgo Projects Ltd