Usually when a piece of public art is unveiled, amid the cutting of the ribbons and gentle applause there are a few inevitable questions. Most are along the lines of, was it worth the money, won’t it just be something else to vandalise and what’s it supposed to represent anyway?
Not at Castleford Academy. When head of art Diana Baker removes a blanket to give three pupils a sneak preview of a sculpture by contemporary artist Des Hughes, newly installed in the school’s grounds, there is no grumbling and no raising of eyebrows.
“I really like it, it says a lot about Castleford and I also think it says a lot about this school,” says year seven pupil Chris O’Toole about the figure which has a rugby ball for a head and slightly dirty sports socks for hands and feet. “It’s laidback, just like this place is, but we’re also good at sport and we work hard. Can I touch it?”
Hughes, who has been looking on in the background, nods. While he hasn’t done many public works of art before, he’s adamant that this is one work that demands to be touched.
“It’s a lot more robust than it looks,” he says. “And who knows, perhaps if you rub his head before a rugby match it will bring the school good luck.”
There will be soon be another of Hughes’s sculptures outside The Hepworth Wakefield and together they represent the culmination of a two-year project which began in the gallery’s archives on Castleford’s famous son. Moore has long been an inspiration to Birmingham-born Hughes, who studied sculpture in Bath, and when he came across a cachet of documents, letters, newspaper clippings and photographs relating to one particular work – Working Model of Draped Reclining Figure – he knew that there was the basis of a project.
Moore gifted the sculpture to his home town in 1980 and it stood for years outside the civic centre. However, in 2012 it was removed amid fears of vandalism. The decision was controversial, but with the authorities feeling unable to protect the work, it was also inevitable and the piece now sits instead in Castleford Forum Museum.
“The archive tells the whole story of this particular piece from its arrival in the town to its eventual removal when someone drew a pair of spectacles on its face,” says Hughes. “It tells us a story about sculpture, but it also tells us about Moore’s relationship with the people of Castleford.”
To mark the arrival of the sculpture Moore worked with schools on a complementary exhibition and having discovered a poster advertising the event within the archive, Hughes decided to follow in his footsteps. Throughout last year he worked with six primary schools in the area, holding a series of workshops with pupils who were destined for Castleford Academy.
“The Henry Moore and the Children of Castleford project was about making art more accessible, it was about demystifying sculpture,” says Hughes. “When you see something cast in bronze of course most people think ‘I can’t do that’, but this was an opportunity to show children that you can make works of art out of anything.
“My initial models tend to start of from bits of wood and cardboard and what’s great about working with children is that they have no preconceptions. Once you tell them there are no rules they have to obey, no predetermined shapes or colours they just get on and experiment.”
Creating their own small-scale reclining figures, as well as the two public sculptures, the pupils’ own homage to Henry Moore is now on display at The Hepworth Wakefield alongside a collection of work by Hughes.
Housed in what look like Ikea display cabinets, it is an eclectic mix. On one shelf there is a black brick sat on what looks suspiciously like a small bean bag and on an another there is paw-like hand straight out of The Gruffalo. In the middle of the gallery, a series of little animals which look they might have roamed the earth a few million years ago are lined up on a bench. Hughes’s work is sculpture with added wit.
“That’s my tribute to all those crisp packets you see stuffed in into the nooks and crannies of public artworks,” he says pointing to one of the flint series. It looks like a gold wrapper has been pushed into a hole in a stone.
“When they are placed outside, sculptures are where people meet, they are where students place traffic cones and I like the idea that something as basic as sweet wrapper can somehow become part of the work.”
As we speak, gallery staff are unpacking various boxes containing Hughes’s work, each piece carefully assembled to ensure it looks like the accompanying photograph.
“I don’t design these works as a collection,” he says, standing back to admire the first completed display cabinet. “They are all curated as individual pieces which sit in my workshop until they come together as an exhibition. I’ve been wanting to work with The Hepworth since it opened and it’s just fantastic to see it all in place.
“With the sculpture at the school and the gallery, the children’s work and my own exhibition, it does feel like all the ley lines have finally come together.”
• Des Hughes: Stretch Out and Wait runs at The Hepworth Wakefield until March 31. On September 20 and October 25 the gallery will hold at workshops to give visitors the chance to make their own work of art inspired by the collection. For more information call 01924 247360 or go to www.hepworthwakefield.org