When the Yorkshire Man of Steel finally sits in the sky, gazing down on the M1 and Meadowhall like a chilled-out Greek god, the man who created him says he will feel... exhausted.
It’s no wonder, for it has been quite a journey, in its way every bit as epic as the monumental stainless steel figure who will sit next to Junction 34 of the motorway, and who will surely become an iconic and profitable symbol for the region.
The Yorkshire Man of Steel, brought to life by artist and sculptor Steve Mehdi, will join the growing pantheon of landmark sculptures that bestride the country. Tyne and Wear has its Angel of the North, Falkirk has The Kelpies, Crosby in Liverpool has Another Place, a collection of 100 life-size figures gazing out to sea. Leeds doesn’t have one. In the ultimate case of coulda, woulda, shoulda it was offered the Brick Man by Antony Gormley, way back before iconic regional sculptures were a thing, but said no. I imagine Bette Davis felt much the same after she had turned down the part of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.
Back in the here and now, Rotherham, a city beset by considerable difficulties, did not say no to Steve Mehdi. So at the end of next year, the Man of Steel will begin to take shape.
That he will exist is testament to the determination of Steve, supported by his partner Jane, because this is a tale of an outsider battering his way in by sheer force of will. In the seven years since he decided to create the Man of Steel, Steve has battled bureaucracy and business on many fronts. He has been buffeted by storms he could never have imagined, like the child sex abuse scandal which put an end to the Rotherham council with which he had done such painstaking work. Before the Man of Steel was even a twinkle in his eye, Steve, 59, had, he says, “bumped around a bit” going from steel labourer, to making money hand over fist in New York, to bankruptcy, and back. “The Man of Steel is really an accumulation of weird life experiences,” he said.
His story begins a long way from the art world, in local authority care in Cirencester in Gloucestershire. Steve was taken into care aged eight and remained there until he was officially classed as an adult, and left to his own devices. “My parents were tenant farmers, we moved a lot, there were six children and they found it difficult to cope. Like everyone else in care, at 16 I found myself on my own. A lot of the others ended up either in the Army or in prison. I had always drawn and painted but it never occurred to me then that I could become an artist.”
Instead, Steve married, moved to Sheffield and became a labourer in the steel industry. He worked his way up to a job as a surface grinder, picking up skills that, though he did not realise it, would help him later create an iconic image for South Yorkshire. All the while he was painting anything from landscapes to portraits in his own time.
“It was the 80s and the steel industry was in decline. My wife wanted to move to London and so I went. But my marriage wasn’t in good shape and eventually I decided to go and live in New York.”
He began doing up the apartments of a group of wealthy Americans. “I met an American woman in her 70s and we became friends and I ended up working for her and all her friends. I knew nothing really but I learned as I went.
“I had so much money I didn’t know what to spend it on, but I was still the hired help, so I came back. In my 30s I believed I could do anything, though my confidence was misplaced. I ran a cafe in Sheffield, I took over a local authority swimming pool and ran that, I even started a business making luxury luggage. My mantra was ‘how hard can it be?’ But I ended up bankrupt and living in a bedsit with a shared toilet.
“I had also managed to alienate almost everyone I knew because of the way I behaved. I had always operated in the grey economy, I didn’t do things properly, I had never even been on the electoral register. I had to start again, and do it better this time.”
Steve went back to renovating properties, sometimes providing them with his own artwork, and it was through this work that, in 2005, he met Jane, an interior designer.
“We met over a set of taps in Jane’s shop and we got together six months later. Jane is like a mirror image of me, but in a more organised, stable way.”
Steve meanwhile was ready for another change of career, and began working in a friend’s art gallery, a place where he could display his own work and help with picture framing. It was there that the first Man of Steel was made – out of picture framing tape.
“I used to get bored with the framing and began sculpting figures out of the tape I used.”
After two years Steve, ever the businessman as well as the artist, bought the gallery and then moved into another where he and Jane continue to work together.
The tape sculptures had proved popular, and he carried on making them, building up a collection. “Usually I made them with my commercial head on, but one day I made one that was a memory of my past, it was an image that represented all the people I had worked with in the steel industry. It was an emotional piece and it just sort of emerged.
“People who saw it began to comment on it. One man said he could see that piece making my name. I had it cast in bronze and it sold really well. It just connected with people.”
The Man of Steel adventure had begun. Together, Jane and Steve began to imagine his work as a giant piece of public art.
Jane particularly saw the impact that huge artworks can have. “It says that place is worth something, it is about pride and prestige. And there is something awesome about a big piece of art, it is so monumental. It makes us feel insignificant.”
There was just one problem. No-one wanted it. Steve said: “The art world is a bit of a closed shop, and has become very elitist and orthodox. I was an outsider, I hadn’t been to art school and no-one had heard of me.”
Steve approached Sheffield Council, but without success, even though the Tinsley cooling towers had just been demolished and there was talk of putting a major piece of art in their place. “I tried to find out what was planned but I hit a brick wall, I even asked for information under the Freedom of Information Act. Eventually I has a meeting with them but I couldn’t convince them. I wasn’t a known artist, I had no other pieces of public art.”
Others might have been daunted, but not Steve. “I went for a walk around the area and saw there was an old landfill site nearby. I found out it was owned by FCC Environment, got in touch with the owner, met him, and he gave the land to me for the sculpture to stand on.
“So now I had a 100-ton sculpture and an old landfill site to put it on. I could see there might be problems.”
Steve then discovered that this site was actually on land just over the Rotherham border, so he began negotiations all over again with this council. Rotherham council was supportive but made it clear there was no public money, so Steve put his lifetime’s experience in making things happen to good use and began raising money from the private sector.
He was given planning permission by Rotherham Council in 2012 – but then the authority collapsed.
“The child sex inquiry broke and the leader of the council stepped down on the day we were meant to be launching a fundraiser for the Man of Steel. Then all the key councillors stood down. I thought that was that, they weren’t going to be thinking about sculptures given what had happened in the city – but to my surprise conversations with the officers continued.”
Now far from being sidelined, the sculpture has become part of the plan to regenerate Rotherham and restore its crushed self-esteem.
But not only Rotherham will benefit, the landmark sculpture should bring around £9m extra into the region every year in tourism and business investment, according to a study by Sheffield Hallam University Business School.
It will cost around £4m and the money is almost there. A raft of companies and experts, including architects, civil engineers and both of Sheffield’s universities, have got behind the project, becoming the Team of Steel and giving cash, materials or services.
The original twelve inch bronze sculpture has been scanned and turned into a computer program that will enable engineers to create it in sections.
But it is not just corporate involvement. A Heart of Steel, which will sit inside the Man of Steel, is now on display in central Rotherham and, in return for a minimum donation of £20, donors can have the name of a loved one inscribed on the heart. The response has been huge, with many donors sharing stories of lost loved ones whose names they want to live on inside the Man of Steel.
“Right from the start this sculpture has created an emotional response and the heart is continuing that.
“I am not being paid for any of this so we are supporting ourselves through our gallery. It has been exhausting, and the excitement ended a long time ago. Jane and I have both had moments when we have thought that we have got to stop this, it is all too much, but fortunately we have never had them at the same time.
“But in the end he will be a giant calling card of what we can do, and of what we can achieve in this region.”