Cities as inspiration, a post by Lesley Hilling

Cities as inspiration

 Cities as inspiration for my art

‘Make me wanna holler’ is a line from Marvin Gaye’s seminal tune Inner City Blues – it’s as relevant today as it was in the late sixties, but for different reasons.  At that time our cities were suffering from decay and urban blight.  Today, issues of affordability and inequality have made it hard to sustain communities and every square foot is sought after by property developers.

 It’s nothing new – cities have always undergone a continuous process of change and modification.  Existing structures are repurposed, altered or demolished, and entire landscapes can disappear.  These historic and cultural changes and shifts are not new, they have happened throughout history, layers have been created and sedimented over time.  Homes have been displaced to make way for railways and roads, terraced houses have been cleared to build modernist estates, which in turn have been demolished to build new apartments for sale.  Human beings are constantly interacting with the dead stuff of buildings.

We are connected by bus routes, roads, tubes and train lines, water, electricity and gas are delivered to our homes by buried pipes and overhead cables and there are unseen systems and networks working day and night all around us. Although it often doesn’t feel like it, the planet is vast with huge amounts of open space and yet human beings cluster together in cities and have done so for millennia.  More than half the worlds population live in cities and it takes a lot of infrastructure to sustain them.

A lot of artists use our cities as inspiration, Mark Bradford, and Julie Mehretu to name two.

Today we are facing a key moment in the history of our cities – the huge scale of re-development means that we have to look again at planning and purpose, architecture and construction and how we live and how we could live.    The neighbourhoods where poorer people could once afford to live are being reinvented for a different class of people.  The words of garden city planner Ebenezer Howard are as relevant as ever: ‘the people, where will they go?’  In this ongoing conversation about the future of our cities we all have to be urban planners, accepting the past and investigating history, then looking forward to see what can be made with this knowledge. How can we keep neighbourhoods alive against a tide of blandness, when everywhere is being homogenised with the same shops and restaurants and expensive housing?  How can we use the remnants of the post war dream to build anew?

Cities as inspiration – High Density

I like to think my work explores these themes.  For decades I have collected the detritus left by previous generations.  As London undergoes a building boom I have saved the discarded wooden debris from demolished buildings and the waste from redevelopment and repurposed it.  Salvaged windows, doors, lengths of architrave and timber are broken down into smaller pieces and then reworked into new forms. Some of it will remain as it is, while other pieces will be passed through the thicknesser (a giant plane),  erasing it’s history and giving it a new life.  Some of the pieces I make, like High Density, are like an aerial view of a city.  I hope that the viewer is drawn to consider things we take for granted, doors, windows, walls and corners and how they are constructed.  I use the methods and tools that carpenters would use when erecting a building.  The  pieces are constructed using halving joints – the most used assembly joint in joinery and carpentry.


Artists Working With Wood Barbara Hepworth

Artists Working With Wood

Artists working with wood that have inspired me

Wood is our oldest natural resource. It has been fuel, food, shelter and made into tools for millennia – and it’s a staple that we can freely renew. Wood has a unique range of qualities – some woods are best for boat building while others are more suitable for furniture, other woods can be easily bent and twisted into complicated forms, as in the work of Italian sculptor Roberto Almagno and harder woods can be carved and polished like Barbara Hepworth’s solid round sculptures. From house building to delicate veneering wood is central to human creativity.

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