Michael Disley: The most popular Yorkshire-based artist you've probably never heard of

For more than 25 years Holmfirth-based sculptor Michael Disley has been making humorous public works of art from granite. Catherine Scott went along to meet him.

You my not have heard of Michael Disley but the likelihood is you will have seen or even sat on one of his humorous sculptures. Disley has created more than 100 works of public art, including the granite feet seat near the Trinity Leeds shopping centre and the Penistone Sheep Trail.

Disley became interested in stone carving – mainly sandstone – at Art College in Sunderland and when he graduated he got a job as a stone mason in his home town of Chester.

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"At art college I pretty much taught myself but working for the stone mason I learnt the proper technique of working with stone and worked on major buildings including Chester Cathedral,” says Disley.

Normanton’s Snap Time sculpture by artist Michael Disley
Picture: John CliftonNormanton’s Snap Time sculpture by artist Michael Disley
Picture: John Clifton
Normanton’s Snap Time sculpture by artist Michael Disley Picture: John Clifton

In the mid 1980s public art had just really started to take off, and a few commissions came his way, followed by a few more.

"I was still a jobbing stonemason at this point and had moved to Yorkshire, I even worked on York Minster.”

He had also started to move away from working in porous standstone and limestone for his sculptures to the much more hard wearing granite.

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"Granite is the second hardest mineral after diamond It doesn't change over time and keeps its polish. It is the best for outside sculptures as it doesn’t change with the weather or alter with age.

Sculptor Michael Disley with his dog Finn at the Sculpture Lounge Holmbridge Mill, Bank Lane, Holmbridge, Holmfirth.  Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon HulmeSculptor Michael Disley with his dog Finn at the Sculpture Lounge Holmbridge Mill, Bank Lane, Holmbridge, Holmfirth.  Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme
Sculptor Michael Disley with his dog Finn at the Sculpture Lounge Holmbridge Mill, Bank Lane, Holmbridge, Holmfirth. Picture taken by Yorkshire Post Photographer Simon Hulme

“I have used this beautiful material, sourced from around the world for public projects all across the UK and Ireland,” says Disley. But working in granite is challenging and need specialist diamond cutting tools.

"They key, particularly with public works, is to make sure every edge is smooth and rounded. I also think that public works of art in particular should be fun – they shouldn’t take themselves too seriously or be too cerebral, they are to be touched and sat on that is their purpose. I have never really enjoyed putting things in galleries as much as I have enjoyed putting them outside – the whole point of granite is that you need to touch it, it is so tactile.”

Disley says there is a cartoon style to his work which starts as drawing before he heads to Marshal’s Appleton Quarry to turn his drawings into massive – and heavy – works of art.

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"I love working in quarry – it is dusty dirty place but where else can I get the stone I need to work on? It has also enabled me to travel a lot.”

Fish Out Of Water at Scammonden ReservoirFish Out Of Water at Scammonden Reservoir
Fish Out Of Water at Scammonden Reservoir

In 1993 he went to Africa to live and work with the Shona carvers in Zimbabwe. “This gave me a taste for new horizons and since then I have travelled extensively to Japan, China, and India to discover new materials, techniques and cultures.

“Carving beautiful natural stones, marbles and granite has been a real joy throughout my career and continues to be both a challenge and a pleasure.”

Most of his work comes from commission from either private individuals or local councils.

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Although Disley says it is impossible to choose his favourite as “that would be like choosing a favourite child” he did single out three of his Yorkshire sculptures for mention.

Feet Seats Leeds City CentreFeet Seats Leeds City Centre
Feet Seats Leeds City Centre

‘Snap Time’ in Normanton pays tribute to the area’s mining history. “Mining memorials are in the habit of being a little depressing, understandably they are monuments to an industry which remains one of the most difficult, unhealthy and dangerous jobs on the planet,” he explains. “Both of my grandfathers were miners, and when offered the opportunity to make a sculpture that remembered the 10,000 miners who once crawled beneath the town of Normanton in West Yorkshire, I wanted to celebrate both the workers and the industry in a positive way.”

‘Snap Time’ depicts two miners enjoying a well earned break and sharing a joke. Hewn from granite the sculpture sits outside Greggs in the centre of town. The main sculpture is flanked by two snap tin benches which have the names of many of the jobs the miners did, now lost to time.

"The sculpture celebrates the camaraderie of the miners, and offers the chance for the local community to sit down with their own Snap and remember a time now long gone but never forgotten,” says Disley.

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At Scammonden Reservoir he was commissioned to create 12 carvings including sheep, hedgehogs, fish, and owl, two hares, a circle of mushrooms and a tree planter on a new 5k circular walk popular with families and dog walkers.

"I was commissioned by Yorkshire Water to make a series of carvings, to punctuate the new pathways and trees installed along the route. The installation proved difficult as the carvings are heavy and the sites remote, and as usual we waited for the worst weather to install them. However, they have been extremely well received and are popular with all the walkers, runners and picnickers.”

Penistone is famous for its friendliness and sheep farming, so when DIsley was approached by Barnsley council to make a trail around the town and on the Trans Pennine trail, which would attract footfall in to Penistone and celebrate the town, sheep seemed the obvious answer.

Hedgehog Seat Scammonden ReservoirHedgehog Seat Scammonden Reservoir
Hedgehog Seat Scammonden Reservoir

"I designed quite a number and those selected included a pop corn eating sheep for the Paramount Cinema, a sheep reading sheep related books, outside the library and a sheep on a bike for the Trans Pennine Trail. There are eleven sheep so far, and safe to say the townsfolk have now adopted them as there own."

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But doesn’t he worry about vandalism having his works of art displayed so publicly.

"Over Christmas some of the Penistone sheep were covered in spray paint but the great thing about granite is that because it isn’t porous the council was able to come along and jet wash it off and now you'd never know.”

Disley does a lot of work in Ireland where a per centage of all spending has to go on public art. "It is strange when a piece of public art is commissioned there is often an out cry. People want to know why and how much but then after a year people almost seem to forget its there and they don’t notice it any more. But then if you tried to have it removed there would be another outcry about that as people have taken ownership of it.”

As well as working out of the quarry Disley has a studio in the Sculpture Lounge in Holmfirth. It is from here that he also runs his ‘School of Rock’, where he teaches people how to carve stone. He also goes into schools to pass on his knowledge to young people.

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"It gives them the chance to create something out of a piece of stone that is 140 million years old.”

When not working the quarry or doing workshops, Disley likes to draw.

“Every sculpture starts with a drawing, some become large pieces of carved granite, stone or marble and others become prints, suggesting future sculptural projects waiting around for a possible move in to three dimensions. Mostly though, I just like making them.”

He says it also gives him the chance to add some colour to his work.

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"I love working with the natural shades of stones, but sometimes it is nice to work with something more colourful and the drawings and prints allow me to do that.”

At the moment he is working on a private commission of a tree for a client in the Scilly Isle “ I have no idea who we are going to get it there,” he laughs. And also a public work of art for an undisclosed location in North Yorkshire of some humerous badgers, including one doing yoga, that will be unveiled this Spring,

Disley adds: "My work is seen by millions of people although some may not even realise it is there – it is as if it is almost invisible but people would notice if it wasn’t there.”

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