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How to choose the right theme for your site specific artwork

Whether you want a mural for your school, a mosaic for your garden or and sculptural feature for your company entrance lobby, one of the first decisions you will need to make on commissioning a site specific artwork is – What will this work be about?

Make sure your project doesn't fall at the first hurdle!

Here Gary shares some tips and ideas for laying a good foundation for your own site-specific work of art.

If you are going to get the best from commissioning a piece of site specific artwork then it’s certainly worth investing some energy into setting out a theme. You can do this yourself or in collaboration with your chosen artist. Here are the main points to consider.

Gary designing in the studio

Draw up a written brief

It’s a good idea to draw up a written brief that will act as a basis and reference between yourself and your artist, this helps make sure you are both on the same page. It doesn’t have to be a long document, a paragraph will work. On the other hand your brief can plot out design intentions, give source materials and outline liaison and consultation procedures.  Just what you need to communicate the basis of your particular  project.

But what about theme ideas?

Be aware of your location

“Location, Location, Location” as the real estate agent will tell you. Well because we are thinking about ‘Site Specific Artwork’ then where the work is being placed is an important factor that can influence the artwork in a number of ways.

At the most basic level your artwork should recognise the surrounding space, the landscape and architecture of the area should influence the design, whether that’s to make the design harmonise or contrast with it’s surroundings.

Whether intentional or not a site specific artwork will engage with it’s surroundings. But more than this, the artwork can enhance or bring new meaning to an area. This might be an element of history, an aspect of the landscape, flora or fauna or perhaps a local story or legend. 

One aspect I am particularly fond of is creating a work that reveals a characteristic of the area that may have been previously hidden. Often these hidden elements can have a big impact on the perception of a specific site.

One example of this would be a work I created for a new housing development in south east London. The design drew on the fact that in the early medieval period the site was the scene of an important battle between the Cornish and the English. Using this theme enabled the entirely new development to anchor it’s identity within the long and rich history of the area. The effect of focusing in on this specific story gave it a much stronger local identity than if I had tried to portray a tabloid of many events over hundreds of years.

Fabric of our town floor mosaic
A floor mosaic reveals the historic site links with the Paisley pattern.
Aligning the floor mosaic with stairs and entrance kiosks
Memorial Sundial Mosaic Bench – London
An arrow in a celtic shield creates a sundial memorial of the Battle of Deptford Bridge.
The jungle at the bottom of your garden.

Avoid clichés

Too often it seems that little thought is put into setting a theme for the artwork, Cliché themes result in cliché and boring designs that end up not holding the attention your artwork deserves. You can avoid this mistake by spending a little time to think a bit more.

Ideas like ‘children of the world holding hands’ and ‘rainbows with peace symbols’ despite their good intentions create shallow artworks with little or no resonance with their audience. Worse still themes like ‘Jungles with Lions and Tigers’  are actually false stereotypes that can maintain ignorance and have no connection to truth and understanding. 

Create genuine connections

Themes should have meaning for the audience who are going to see the finished work. As an example, I was asked to paint a mural on a jungle theme for a housing estate in North London. Of course what they wanted was something to interest the children. Something which had elements of nature, plants, wildlife and perhaps excitement. 

Instead of a jungle I designed a mural which depicted the ‘jungle’ at the bottom of the garden. I imagined shrinking down a viewing the local wildlife, mammals, plants, insects and so on from the perspective of a few inches tall. The result was a mural that took the children on an adventure to a place that was literally in their own backyard.

Make room for innovation

If you are engaging an artist to undertake your commission then make the most of their experience and talents. Don’t create a brief that’s so tight there is no room for innovation. This is why it’s a good idea to compile the brief together, if not then make sure that there is room for the artist to respond in a creative way.

Murals that are centered on local history can often fall foul of this lack of innovation.

This is particularly true when the local history being referred to is post 1900’s. What happens is the historical sources for the theme tend to rely heavily on old photographs and before you know it the design turns into a collage of lifeless Victorian photos. 

A better approach is to find a story embedded in that history. Bring to life a small hidden story that reveals the past in some way. Don’t get hung up on reproducing photographs. This connects with my next tip…

Thamesmead mosaic completed
This mural used a poem by local poet Nii Ayikwe Parkes as the basis of the work about the local area and community.

Don't think visually

It might sound counter intuitive to create a brief for a visual artwork that is not visual but it is better. 

What do I mean by not thinking visually? 

Don’t try to imagine what your artwork will look like and then describe that as your brief.

It’s usually much better to write down what you want the artwork to achieve or the aspects it should reflect. That way you will use your artists creativity to the fullest.

This is why bringing out a connected story works well. Because it’s a written resource  rather than visual, the artist if free to be creative in the depiction. 

And if you don’t have a story?

Why not create a new one! 

Contemporary poems are a fantastic way to draw out new imagery and stories for an area. A local community can also provide a wealth of local stories that can inform the design of an artwork.

The Importance of community engagement

If you are commissioning an artwork that will be sited in a public space then an element of community consultation will pay dividends. A well engaged project will:–

  • Creating a connection with the local community, creating a work that reflects their vision and aspiration.
  • Help inform appreciation and understanding of the artwork among the local audience.
  • Engender a sense of community ownership, respect and care for the work.
  • Spark an involvement in creative activities that can have a lasting benefit.

 

Community engagement can take many forms from simple design consultations and exhibitions, to design workshops and school workshops, to full on community participation in the production of the work.

Myatts Children's Workshop
A community mosaic workshop helps build appreciation and understanding of the final work.

Do you want to get moving on your own project?

Contact me here and arrange your free 30 min consultation.

In this meeting you will speak directly to myself and benefit from immediate and expert advice on your specific project. From budgets and timetables to materials specifications and site preparation requirements.

Just complete the form below and I will get back to you to arrange a convenient time.

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