Creating Opportunity, Serendipity and Contemporary Public Sculpture with Peter Newman

Lucy: Today on the podcast, I have the greatest pleasure in speaking to Peter Newman about contemporary sculpture. I have undertaken some conservation work on his beautiful aluminium bronze version of his iconic sculpture “Skystation,” which greets people who pour out of the new cross-rail station at Canary Wharf.

Peter is a very unassuming character, very down to earth, but he’s been hugely successful in his career. His work can be found all over the world, and he’s exhibited at Trafalgar Square, the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery, the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and the Guggenheim Museum in Venice.

Although Peter has done many great works of contemporary sculpture, you’ll hear that the success of “Skystation” has taken even him by surprise, which just goes to show that you can’t always plan for success. It’s a great story. I began our conversation today by asking if he’d always been creative?

Peter: I think, from a fairly young age – certainly from round about the age of nine or ten – I started to draw and really enjoyed it. And it was something that was noticed by a teacher of mine at the time, and so certainly from about that kind of age. Before that, it’s probably not for me to say. But I can remember that because it was something that was mentioned to my mother, and she reminds me of that occasionally, and so, yes, I started pretty young.

Lucy: Fairly early. And so was there someone in school that encouraged you, or a figure at home?

Peter: Well, that was certainly an encouragement, and then when I went to my next school, there was a real encouragement, actually. There were two teachers there who I am eternally grateful to for their enthusiasm. There was a kind of a key thing that happened that led into that, which was my father took a job in Paris when I was about nine years old, and so my mum and dad moved to Paris. And they had this interesting decision about whether I should stay at school, and I had friends at the school, and I wanted to stay. So I stayed in the UK, and that meant I had a lot of time on the weekends and things like that. And these two teachers did this wonderfully generous thing because they could see that I was interested in art, and they, I think, maybe had a sense that I had these weekends with not a lot to do. And they gave me the keys to the art school.

Lucy: Oh, wow.

Peter: And so I could go let myself in on the weekend and amuse myself with the print-making machine, do etching plates and do things like that. But, of course, you know, when you’re young and someone trusts you like that, it’s a wonderful thing. And so you respond to that, so I would go in and make things, and then on Monday or whenever the next art class was, I would be keen to show what I’d been doing with my time there. And that kind of set up this very… I think you’ve got a positive feedback loop. And it was a godsend that I could do that and have that time.

Lucy: I don’t know if you read that book, Bounce, which is by Matthew Syed about high-achieving people. And one of the things that he did talk about was a study about why certain people do well in things. And one of the key things was opportunity, which other people may not have. And they looked at table tennis players, and this one street in this area that had the most incredible number of brilliant table tennis players. And one of the things that they’d done is the coach had given these kids the keys to the area at school, or it might have been outside, but there was a table tennis table there. And so the fact that they had access to this above anyone else meant they put the hours in.

Peter: Yes.

Lucy: And so, they were saying, “Well, but how on earth are all these kids so brilliant? They can’t be just born table tennis players in this one street.” But it turned out that that was it, that was the fundamental part.

Peter: Fantastic, yes. I think we all respond so well to trust and encouragement across, really, all things, to table tennis as much as…yeah.

Lucy: Yeah. And so was it more traditional paintings and prints that you were doing there?

Peter: Yes, at that stage, it was very much drawing and painting, and yeah, it was this print-making machine. So that was interesting, and I was interested in that as a process, because there were all these stages to making an etching plate. And you’d pull the plate off the print and you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. So that was a slightly unusual thing, perhaps, beyond the painting and drawing. But yes, it was quite early on. So it’s fairly traditional media, at that stage.

But there was a flip side to this thing of my folks being in Paris, which was that I’d then go there on the holidays and I had a lot time there, but not necessarily so many friends to see. So I would take myself to galleries and see stuff, and so that was sort of the other side of it. Paris was wonderful for the fact that you can walk everywhere. So, as a young boy, you could take yourself anywhere on your own speed. And I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would get the magazine, which was called “Pariscope”. I think it still is. It’s a sort of “Time Out” equivalent back then. And I would look up the galleries that had somebody I’d heard of, which weren’t many people at that time.

But I would see, “Oh, there’s a Picasso show, I’ve heard of him. I’ll go and see that.” And I’d go and visit the galleries, and what I didn’t realise, actually, was that in a magazine like that, you’ve got a listing of everything that’s on. So some of them were private dealers in their apartments, and I would go and ring on the bell and ask to be let in, and they were quite surprised to see a young English boy turning up to see their Picasso prints. But they were very nice to me. They actually thought it was quite charming.

Lucy: I bet they loved it. I bet they thought, “Fantastic.”

Peter: I think so, because they were very nice to me. And I think had this slightly romantic idea of “The art world is so nice! You go around to people’s homes and you look at drawings,” and then, you know, it is a nice world. But it was a very unusual type.

Lucy: I’m slightly worried now about this whole ticket system that all the galleries seem to have. I went to Paris a short while ago, and you had to be organised and book your slot to go in. And I just think that that probably would put a whole host of people off if they were like me, you know. I won’t be organised enough to book everything in advance and do it. I would turn up and just spend time in galleries when I used to have more access to them. But, I mean, now the whole regimented system would not suit my temperament at all, so I’d probably miss out.

Peter: No, and especially not when you’re young as well. The idea of standing in the queue for more than five minutes is so the last thing you want.

Lucy: Mind you, that’s why public art is the answer, isn’t it?

Peter: Public art is the answer to many things, Lucy, yes.

Skystation at St. Mary Axe by Peter Newman ©

Lucy: And so did you think about any other career other than art? Was it just, “No, that’s going to be for me”?

Peter: Actually, pretty much that’s the case. I think I decided I was going to be an artist when I was about fifteen, which is very young, I think.

Lucy: Yeah, very young.

Peter: To make quite such a big decision. And, as I say, maybe, you know, a little naively, or I didn’t really understand what I was getting into. But I’d had such a great experience with these teachers at school who kind of showed me about art and, really, art as a way of approaching the world, and looking at things, and thinking about things as much as making things. And that just seemed to be really compelling, and that was sort of like a lifestyle to which I wanted to live like that, I wanted to approach things like that, and then…

Lucy: Now, you’d found your people, and you just wanted to join them?

Peter: Yes, I’d found my people, and fascinated by this alternate way of looking at the world. And, I mean, to give you an example, the teachers — their version of art teaching was very eccentric, you know. Sometimes, the double art class, we’d be watching a Luis Buñuel film, or we’d would be listening to the Velvet Underground. Or it wasn’t tied to the making of images, per se. It was about the activity, and it presented an exciting world to me. And so, yes, chose it very young, and then followed through with that in that I was very impatient to get to London. I’d been at school in Dorset and kind of very sleepy, and I’d liked this experience of Paris, but that was over. And then I had this choice of, should I do a foundation course which would have been more local in the countryside. But I wanted to go to college, and I applied to Goldsmiths. And I didn’t actually know that much about Goldsmiths at the time.

Lucy: So it couldn’t be less like a sleepy college in Dorset, could it? The environment at Goldsmith is just something else.

Peter: Very, very different, and again, I think that I sort of I went in there…well, I knew it was a good college, but the key thing was they accepted me without the foundation course, which would have taken a year. And I was very excited by that. But it meant that I was very young. I was only eighteen when I started at college. And then as soon as I got there, suddenly I realised that this Goldsmiths College in 1987 was a very intellectual environment. The first few lectures about post-modern theory…

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: I was so out of my depth. This was not the kind of romantic artist vision that my teachers had sold me on. This was a very different version. I mean, very, very interesting, but…

Lucy: Challenging environment, though.

Peter: Very challenging, I think at that age, to just try and get your head around conceptual art. Well, again, I was very lucky, because it was a really great time to be there. There was lots happening. I think in my second year, we all went off to see this show in a warehouse that had been put on by one of the students, with the other students’ work. And so to see artists taking initiative and putting in the work and putting themselves out into the world was a very bold thing to do, and very impressive.

Lucy: Did it change the way you saw things, or do you feel like there’s still that part of you from being fifteen and creating at that stage?

Peter: Well, I think I’m always going to be me. And there are very different influences at different times. I think the younger me, perhaps, that made the life choice about being an artist was probably, you know, very significant. Although the experience of being an artist has gone through lots of different twists and turns, there haven’t been that many times when I’ve thought, you know, “I’ve got to be doing something different”.

Lucy: “I’ve made the wrong decision!”

Peter: There were some. I don’t think any artist hadn’t had those moments. But, you know, I think remarkably few.

Lucy: But when I look at your work in contemporary sculpture, you’ve got a big range of mediums, and there’s a lot of variety within it, so tell me a little bit about what it’s about for you, what inspires you?

Peter: Well, that’s a very diverse span across various media, and to me it all makes sense in terms of what holds it all together. And there are certain themes and interests that connect it all. I think I’m particularly interested in how we as humans relate to the space around us.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: And so that has a relationship to architecture and how we relate to space like that. There’s also a theme about the sky in my work. So I think how we relate to space around us and above us, and also how we relate to modernity. I’m very interested in how we navigate that and how that interacts with history, and, to me, some of the most interesting work is about a dialogue with those two things, about where we are right now and how we connect to a history that’s gone before. Those, I think, are elements that exist across lots of different works. So there’s the “Skystation” project, which we’ll probably get to. And there’s a parallel photography project, which has been going for many years, in which I’m taking photographs, looking upwards in different cities around the world, in different locations around the world.

There was a number of years where I was making this series of paintings that were paintings of aeroplane trails in the sky. And so there’s obviously a bit of sky in there that connects those two. And, actually, when I first showed the “Skystation,” I remember a friend of mine turning up to the preview and asking me, “What’s this? How does this connect to your aeroplane trail paintings?” And he sat down on it, lay down on it, and right on cue, there was an aeroplane trail.

Lucy: Which you had organised earlier!

Peter: I had to do a lot of negotiation.

Lucy: With the RAF.

Peter: With the RAF, yeah, over Trafalgar Square, just at the right moment.

Lucy: Well, that just shows you, though, how much is that supposed to be, I mean…

Peter: It was good fun, I must say, yeah.

Skystation at Canary Wharf by Peter Newman ©

Lucy: But, I mean, we met through the “Skystation” obviously, the one in Canary Wharf, not at Trafalgar Square. But tell me a little bit more about that, because I can see why it’s so appealing in all its different forms. I can see why people just love it, and even though that’s not all you do, I can see that that may have propelled you forwards, because it’s just so iconic a sculpture and yet it’s also humble enough because people are allowed…you know, how many sculptures are people encouraged to sit on? Not many.

Peter: Not many, no.

Lucy: And so I think you cracked it with that one.

Peter: Well, thank you so much, for those kind words. I mean, it has been a real journey as a piece of art for me. And I think, well, it’s certainly a very long-term project. It may even be a lifetime project for me.

Lucy: Yeah, I can see it being, yeah.

Peter: Yeah. And it came about through a modest proposal, initially, in that I was asked by Tim Marlow, in fact, who was organising an exhibition of models for sculptures at the Guggenheim in Venice, and it had been 2001, I think it was, and he just said to me, he said, “Do you have any ideas for anything, any big sculptures?” because that was the show. It was called “Thinking Big,” and it’s all about models for big things, you know, many of which would be realised. But it was about the thought process, and anyway, I had this idea, and I said “Well, I’ve got this idea. Here’s a model.” And then from that, I became more convinced this was something I should realise.

And then I was very fortunate to be approached by some curators at the time when I was applying to the Arts Council, because there was an opportunity to show. And that just seemed like, “I’m never going to get a better chance to launch this piece than there.” And the people in Trafalgar Square were fabulously generous as well because when I went to meet them, they said, “So we’ve got an idea of where it should go,” and I said, “Okay, where do you think it should go?” And I wasn’t really sure where they had in mind, tucked away somewhere, and they said, “Well we think you should go right in the middle.” And, okay. “Yeah, I’m okay with that.”

Lucy: You weren’t cheeky enough to suggest it. I think I might have said, “Well, of course it should be right in the middle. Where else should it be?”

Peter: Good symmetry. I can’t argue with the logic, yeah. And then, of course, that was a great place to start, because, as a place, it’s got…you know, the concept is very, very… the history, the sense of history around these government buildings, in different periods of time. And then for a week, there was this sculpture that, as you say, had this unusual invitation to lie back and look upwards, and I’d looked above all that history, which is a kind of theme for me with the piece. I had this idea that looking upwards and stuff was so similar to thinking about the future, and that sort of relates to gravity. Gravity gives us a part in the universe, and if that’s true, and we live on the surface, then above must be the future. And so to show the piece surrounded by that history was a great starting point, although a complicated place to show, as I think you probably know.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: Because the logistics are… So, in the city you have to install at four in the morning. And we had to do it before the routine of the pigeons happens. They feed them so generously, so they do their business, and everything gets hosed down at six, and then everyone starts to commute to work across it. So that was… complex. But that project then moved. It just appeared there unannounced beforehand, it then appeared in the city of London for a week, and then moved to Grenoble, for what was going to be a week, but because that was the last of the three, they actually said, “Well, it’s proven popular, so why don’t we keep it?” And so it stayed there until the wintertime, or until it got cold. But that was in 2005, the one at Canary Wharf that’s there now, is obviously a completely different thing.

But from there, yes, after Canary Wharf, it went to the New Art Centre, which you may know. It’s this wonderful sculpture park in Wiltshire. And there is, in fact, one there to this day. There’s been one consistently there since 2006, I think, very popular with the kids. They do a lot of school groups there. And because it has this social function, it’s a great place for people to get together at the end of the course.

Lucy: It really seems to me like there’s been a momentum to it. It’s wanted, it’s enjoyed, and there’s been a serendipity to how it came about. Or is that actually all hard work that has made all that happen? Is it all the foundations and the bricks that you put in beforehand that’s kind of tipped it over the…

Peter: Well, I’d like to say it’s all hard work. But I think you’re right in that there is serendipity in this, there is good luck. But it was very much one thing that took to the other, in the invitation to make the model and then a place to show it. Once I had one location, I was able to sort of push to get others involved. And it has sort of snowballed from there. But what’s been, I think, very gratifying is that, actually, I think the piece has been supported by quite a few institutions that recognise it as something that is an ongoing thing, in that having shown it in those places, it hasn’t been declined as an option. In fact, it has been shown at the Hayward Gallery for one summer in 2009, I think, and it’s recently been included in this exhibition in Salisbury Cathedral, and there are various permanent versions in the country. Which I think is also an interesting question. I was perhaps a little concerned that once there was one then maybe other people wouldn’t want one too. But I think people understand, people have responded to the fact that it has a function and it’s used. It is as much about the experience of people interacting with it, and what they get from it. And it’s less important that it’s been shown for the first time, because it’s always going to be a different experience.

Lucy: And I think that people do understand that sculpture is not painting. Sculpture, editions of things, and that’s part of the characteristics of what it is. It’s not necessarily just one unique thing, and there is only ever one of them and that’s what we value. It’s an entirely different animal, sculpture. So that’s part of its history, so I couldn’t see why they wouldn’t want more than one.

Skystation at The Hayward Gallery by Peter Newman ©

Peter: Also, just to follow from your question, but the unexpected quality of art in public has been a huge discovery for me, and a wonderful one. I mean, one thing I never imagined with the piece was that children would respond to it in the way that they do. I’d never even really thought about it when I was designing it, because the piece, as you probably know, is inspired by this famous modernist piece of furniture by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand‘s Chaise Longue, and that’s the sort of inspiration. And that’s very much an adult-sized thing.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: And when I was making the prototypes for “Skystation,” I was getting all the adults in my studio buildings to come and try it out, because I wanted it to be comfortable for as many different shapes and sizes of people as I could manage. And so I’d get people in, get them to try out different things, and that was all kind of good rational work about how to get it to function. And then there was also the work as a sculptural object, it had to look…you know, it had to have its own integrity as a form, as well as being art, you know? But then I did have this big worry when I first showed it, would people know what it was for, because normally a sculpture is something you look at. You’re not meant to touch it.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: And so when they showed it in Trafalgar Square, I was quite nervous. And we installed it very early and went off to breakfast, because we were starving by then, and then came back, sort of tip-toeing into the square, and I was so relieved to see people lying on it and enjoying it. And this thing as well with the kids…I think because it begins at a kind of quite low height on the outside, and it’s very curvaceous, there’s no sharp edges on it anywhere, and so it’s at their level.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: They know they’re not going to really hurt themselves; they’d really struggled to hurt themselves from the form. And that was a joy. I’ve seen kids running towards it, like it almost seems to be their kind of thing, which I absolutely hadn’t expected.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: But it’s really nice, and this thing of showing art in the public space where you haven’t made the decision to go and see it, you haven’t gone in through a gallery door because you’re in the mood for art, you’re suddenly coming across it. And that’s really special, and that’s really exciting because you get a very honest reaction, yeah. People don’t have to like it, and they have every right to their opinion. I mean, the public space really belongs to everyone. So all the debates about public sculpture that are going on are very valid. Because it has a meaning, but this is the world in which we walk through, and if you come across something, you’ve got every right to your opinion.

Lucy: There’s this idea that sculpture’s static, you’re only going to find it in that one place, and it’s going to stay there forever and ever. And I love the fact that, actually, sculpture can move, and we do not have to have these things in residence forever and ever. They can change location. I think they should! Things that are not relevant should be moved and taken down and other things replace it, and there being a replenishing and a curation of public sculpture, which I don’t think there is at the moment. Particularly men on plinths, there’s a lot of just, “Right, that’s where they are, and we’re never moving them.” But I hope that the idea that big sculpture can move becomes a thing.

Peter: I think it’s a great opportunity, and that the possibility for sculpture in public space, it doesn’t necessarily have to be permanent, is enormous, yes.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: And I think you’re right, it’s very associated with this idea of permanence, which is a thing in itself, and I don’t want to…that may be a conversation for another day.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: I think that, yes, as you say, a more relaxed approach to things appearing and moving and temporary projects in public space has to be a good thing. And, certainly, I enjoy the ability to do that, and that’s why the first “Skystation” being in fibreglass is really great because it could travel easily. And it was very easy to disassemble and reassemble in different contexts, and that gives it a freedom to move. And, absolutely, context is such a feature with sculpture.

Lucy: And so has it been a good career for you? You just said there are days when you think maybe you could have done something easier.

Peter: Yes. I mean, I think if I wasn’t an artist, I would have been an architect. I think I’ve always been fascinated with that. Has it been a good career? That’s not for me to say. It’s been interesting.

Lucy: Is it all creation and deep thought, or is there a lot of business that goes into contemporary sculpture as well?

Peter: I think there’s a lot of work that artists do in the background to make things happen. You know, I would love to spend all my days in the studio creating or working, you know, with other people to create things. But there’s a lot of practical stuff that has to go on to make those things happen.

Skystation at Trafalgar Square by Peter Newman ©

Lucy: And are you working with a team?

Peter: It really varies from project to project. I very often work with other people, certainly with the “Skystation” at Canary Wharf, which is how we met. That was, I think…it was a three-year-long project?

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: From the first thing. And it was really wonderful in that having had the piece in 2005, they came back to me, I think, twelve years later, and said, “We’d like to commission a permanent one.” And from that conversation to the actual arriving was, I think, two years. And it was quite a large casting in aluminium bronze. And that was actually, in fact, done in Spain, in various different foundries. There was the main foundry that did the big pieces, and then there was a smaller foundry that kind of did the detailed work. So there was quite a long chain of people involved in that. It changes. I mean, there’s other work that I make that’s purely my own, purely just me working away in the studio on small-scale things.

Lucy: So tell people, Peter, where they can find out more about you and your contemporary sculpture?

Peter: Well, there is some online. I have a website, which is peternewman.net. Quite out of date, I think. It’s overdue for an upgrade, but there is information there. And I have fairly recently dipped my toe into the Instagram world, and so I have a handle of peterjnewman on Instagram. And, yeah, I’m not a huge fan of social media, but Instagram I like.

Lucy: I think it seems to be the artists’ favourite space, doesn’t it?

Peter: Is that what you find, yes?

Lucy: Yeah, and I don’t know, it seems to be a good place to sell work, too. A lot of social media is just a lot of rubbish, isn’t it, really? But, actually, it does seem to sell work.

Peter: Interesting, yeah. I mean, what I love about it is the simplicity of an image speaking for itself, for the most part.

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: I don’t know, it seems to be more generally celebratory on Instagram. You know, there’s less commentary.

Lucy: Oh, Peter, thank you ever so much for taking the time today and talking to us. Much appreciated.

Peter: Not at all, not at all. You’re very welcome. I mean, I’m enormously grateful to you, Lucy. I think what you do is incredibly important. I was very aware, making the piece that we worked together on. You put things out in the world, and you don’t know what’s going to happen, entirely. You know, there’s known unknowns with people and how they’ll behave. But the environment

Lucy: Yeah.

Peter: And the work you do to kind of keep these pieces looking great, and as close to the intended experiences, is fantastically important.

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