A chance encounter with Meanwhile Gardens

DSC_0657In spare moments, I sometimes like to google the names of the artists represented in the Pictures for Schools exhibition catalogues I have (dating from 1967 and 1969) to get a sense of what type of artists were involved. While some of them are famous names, such as Elizabeth Frink et al, most are artists I have ever heard of. As you might expect, many seem to have little or no online presence, but others turn out to still be practising artists, some mentioning Pictures for Schools on their websites as an exhibition they took part in many decades ago at the start of their careers, as well as listing local authority collections in which their work is represented. There have been a few artists who seem to have had particularly interesting careers, or links with art education, who I might like to speak to if I get chance. Unfortunately, many of the artists involved in Pictures for Schools are long dead and one artist who really captured my imagination in particular, a sculptor named Jamie McCullough, died far too young at the age of 53, in 1998.

When I googled Jamie McCullough’s name, many of the results related to a project McCullough initiated in 1976 and completed in 1978, called Meanwhile Gardens. For two years, McCullough temporarily turned his back on sculpture in order to transform a patch of vacant land next to the Grand Union Canal in Paddington, London (overlooked by Erno Goldfinger’s infamous Trellick Tower) into a community garden, outdoor theatre, skatepark and bike facility, turning a site the council and planners seemed unable to think of a use for into a resource for the local community. McCullough worked with volunteers, along with labourers sourced from the Manpower Services Commission, begging and borrowing tools and assistance where he could. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation published McCullough’s experiences of the project in book form (the book is still available from the Foundation’s website, and although a price is quoted they seem happy to send it out for free), capturing all the frustration and long, hard, cold days of work on site, as well as eventual success. The book reads as a manual for communities hoping to achieve something similar elsewhere, setting out the processes, paperwork and easy-to-overlook bureaucratic considerations that need to be taken on before attempting such a project, from establishing land ownership, getting official approval via committee, obtaining insurance and winning financial support from charities to establishing the exact location of all the electricity cables under the area in question!

Although it’s not exactly related to Pictures for Schools, I’m glad to have come across Meanwhile Gardens. McCullough worked on Meanwhile Gardens in the expectation that it was just a temporary solution for the space, as the council was due to eventually redevelop it. Happily, the redevelopment never happened and Meanwhile Gardens still exists as a community garden and skatepark today: I’m hoping to visit one day.

One of the best online resources I have come across about public art in this period is the website of David Harding (town artist at Glenrothes New Town), and true to form he both knew and wrote about McCullough.

I like the sound of another of McCullough’s projects,  the Beginners Way down in the South West of England, even more, because of the way he transformed the existing natural resources of a forest into an experiential artwork, with its own, limited lifespan which saw the sculptures gradually decay in line with the natural lifecycle and renewal of the forest, yet refused to publicise it, leaving it as something to be stumbled across and discovered by accident (nevertheless, as this local BBC article explains, it managed to become very popular with the public!).

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