When a sea of scluptures came to town

A general view of some of the 40,000 clay figures from Antony Gormley's installation - Field for the British Isles
A general view of some of the 40,000 clay figures from Antony Gormley's installation - Field for the British Isles

A teacher has recalled the community effort to help one of Britain’s leading artists prepare a major work in St Helens.

Antony Gormley’s massive work Field of the British Isles, which comprises around 40,000 terracotta sculptures, was painstakingly put together by pupils and volunteers at a school in the town.

The work was created 21 years ago this month and won the celebrated artist the Turner Prize in 1994.

More than 100 people sculpted the figures, which were assembled in an annexe at Robins Lane Primary School, fashioning them out of brick clay and adding eyes using a pencil.

The sculpture was based on a similar project Gormley, who is also known for large-scale sculptures and installations including the Angel of the North and Another Place on Crosby beach, had put together in Mexico which brought different generations together to work on the project.

Gormley spent the week of the sculpture’s creation in St Helens and made a considerable impression on the volunteers.

Derek Boak, who was head of art at Sutton Community High School and helped put the work together, said: “I already knew a lot about Antony’s work so when I heard he wanted to put Field together I said yes straight away.

“The school had recently moved on to one site and the space was available, so we took over the science block, design and technology area and the PE department.

“We actually lost some of the figures because they had to be left out to dry so we had dehumidifiers in the school taking moisture out of the air but I had to go at lunchtime to empty them and we lost a few to overflowing.

“Working with Antony was excellent. He went round and ensured every maker was spoken to and comfortable with what they were doing. He’s an astonishing and very approachable bloke so all the kids got on with him very well.”

Derek says working on the project made a great impact on some of the volunteers, with those who worked on Field throughout the sculpting process making around 1,000 figures each.

He said: “Some people found it very spiritual and got into modern art, but it was also hard work, we had two people whose job was simply shovelling clay through to the sculptors.

“It was a fantastic experience for the whole community and there was a great buzz.”

Since Field was originally built it has toured extensively around the country, including a return to St Helens to be exhibited at the college.

Derek, who has given talks about Field around the country and is now head of art at Rainford High Technology College, still thinks extremely highly of the finished piece, saying the effect of the figures filling every nook and cranny of the rooms in which it is shown rarely fails to impress gallery visitors.

He said: “Every time you see Field it is different, it’s an amazing and very atmospheric piece. It’s great to watch people’s reactions when they see it and it brings out a lot of emotions in people.

“It’s always interesting to see how it’s laid out, Antony likes it to fill the room and go into every corner.

“Some people think it’s like being at a rock festival where you are on the stage and the figures are all looking at you,

“I’m very happy to have been involved and the other people I’ve kept in touch with also feel it was an incredibly positive experience. It was just a good opportunity to take part in a work by a major artists which helped bring people together.”